jazz and improvised music

Reviews - Paul grabowsky & Bernie McGann QUARTET @ the sound lounge
Review by:
John Clare

November 2011

Paul Grabowsky & Bernie McGann Quartet at The Sound Lounge
November 18 &19
It has been said that alto saxophonist Bernie McGann - certainly one of the most distinctive voices in Australian jazz - is at his very best when there is no piano in the band. By and large I would agree, but there is a certain class and kind of pianist who can also bring out McGann's best. American Kirk Lightsey is one, and SIMA has presented those two twice - both great occasions, though separated by decades. Paul Grabowsky is another, and many years ago the pair combined at the old Harbourside Brasserie. The late Jackie Orszazky, who was, on occasion, quite obsessively anti-jazz (though he hired a number of jazz musicians), turned to me and said, "This is great! They suit each other." And they certainly do, though given their backgrounds and temperaments it might seem unlikely. It has been years since they played together with a rhythm section in Sydney (I've not found their duo-performances so successful). The last Sydney occasion was at the Sound Lounge on November 18 &19, 2011. Jonathan Zwartz was on bass, and Tim Firth, this year's National Jazz Award winner at Wangaratta, was on drums. The SIMA program was printed well ahead of Firth's victory, which gave the event an added frisson.

Let's get straight down to business. I did not hear the starter's gun, but Grabowsky plus bass and drums were straight out the gate, improvising on an unidentified blues whose theme would only emerge at the end. When Grabowsky feels like being plain brilliant, and swinging like crazy, there are few to touch him. It was not loud, but a thousand small creatures seemed to be racing toward me from a fire. When jazz takes off like this a power surge rolls out through the audience and a flashing machine seems to be mowing down the crops. Grass halms and furious insects rose in clouds. Well, in fact most of this imagined activity sprang from under the piano lid. Grabowsky's lines ran with flying intricacy, yet with the directionality of a Bach organ prelude. The onrush was sometimes braked by tight powerful tremelos in the left hand, but this choking effect merely emphasised the momentum, like a runaway train whose brakes were having no effect. Jonathan Zwartz leaned into that with a humming, tromping thrum that is all his own. The drums produced a hiss of scarcely calibrated speed, then banged and crashed sensationally as Grabowsky lifted the volume and produced quite astounding two-handed chordal figures that skipped all over the keyboard. McGann sat watching.

Then he rose. The volume was now up and he floated his pure sound (he has several tones, light, hard, pure, growling) across the jumping chaos. Then that McGann dance began, revolving and bouncing like some folk dervish, turning and returning, spinning and prancing, a softly touched high note rising unexpectedly like the palm of a hand thrown at the ceiling to catch the light, or a dancer's floating scarf. His sound hardened and those terse barking complexes of double time crammed the beat, and out of this emerged a repeated, long, barbaric, roaring tone. Grabowsky and Zwartz grinned at each other in high glee. Oh yes, the man is on! Finally, the theme with its pause and repetition of the end phrase: Take The Coltrane by Duke Ellington, from the great Impulse album Duke Ellington and John Coltrane.

One reason why Grabowsky and McGann love playing together is that they are both scholars of the music. For instance, the next tune was Ellington's What Am I Here For? In McGann's approach you could hear awareness of  Ben Webster's solo on the tune in the 1942 Ellington band recording, But McGann had his own way of playing it. The sumptuous surges were there, but the phrases often ended with the McGann touch of  staccato. At this point I decided to stay in my seat, though I had intended to take my heavy flu home after a couple of tunes. I knew that I would feel much better here than I would have in bed. I did, however, think it wise to go home in the break, but next night I stayed for both sets, my flu higher when I arrived but temporarily gone by the end.

Good Morning Heartache was played again on the second night. McGann had not done this for years. It is on his first trio album, with Lloyd Swanton and John Pochee, on  British label Emanem. This was not so dramatic as that bravura performance, but though McGann played softly almost throughout, it had its own drama, set up by the spare, delicate and ultra slow piano vamp that Grabowsky created on the spot. Take The Coltrane was also played again, and this time it reached a kind of delirium. Grabowsky's superb touch was evident - even, or perhaps more so at this speed. Big percussive figures suddenly dropped away in soft breathtakingly fast spills in which every note was finely articulated, right down to vanishing point. McGann plays behind the beat, yet a foreward pressure is exerted that seems to press on the heart, exerting G forces and creating a deep emotion. McGann's lines at speed were also fantastically detailed and articulate. When on the other hand, he played God Bless The Child at the speed of honey oozing, his low notes were as large and rich as a tenor saxophone's. The opening evoked Sonny Rollins's version on the album The Bridge. Firth was as at home at these tempi as he was when they were all flying. Zwartz played an extraordinary solo in which his bowed tone went down to a deep murmur in a passage that invoked the blues and also the profound folk Americana of Stephen Foster. He even quoted, perhaps unconsciously, a Ray Charles phrase from Don't Let The Sun Catch You Cryin'/ Cryin' At My Front Door (where he sings "Your daddy done turn salty now). Grabowsky played a range of blues phrases that seemed to draw from every blues-oriented pianist you could think of. This was not so much an exercise in erudition as a saturation in the pleasures of tradition. 

A surprise was Paul Desmond's Wendy, a ballad based on For All We Know, (which cropped up in McGann's solo). Desmond was McGann's first influence, and somehow Desmond's limpid tone lives within the subsequent growth of earthier tonal manipulations, the crust and bark, the bending cries.Thelonious Monk's In Walked Bud was a highlight. McGann and Grabowsky understand Monk. Rather than having read the tunes during a course - often run by teachers who do not understand that Monk is more important than they can grasp - they know what Monk sounds like. I think it was on this tune that McGann signalled for everyone to drop out except Firth. This duet, wherever it occurred, was one of the highlights. No piano. Now, why do the two sound so good together. It is not because Grabowsky lays out (he does occasionally) or plays very little behind Bernie. He is often quite busy; but he does not comp chordally ahead of McGann as if Bernie did not know the chords. Everything he plays is part of a conversation, whether he echoes a McGann phrase or answers with variations, or plays independant lines that create a brief counterpoint. They talk to each other.

The night ended with a breakneck version of Strike Up The Band, in which the tune was not patronised. I think I have only two versions of this Gershwin classic of Americana. One, a variation by Ellington called The Giddybug Gallop, and the other buy Ray Charles and big band on the album Genius + Soul = Jazz. Needless to say, Grabowsky knew both. great arrangement," he said of the Ray Charles one. By Quincey Jones, incidentally.

Afterward Tim Firth said that playing with this band was like a dream, and Grabowsky said he was in heaven. In fact he felt the band should continue as an irregular project. Whether this happens or not, we were given a night of music that will be remembered.