jazz and improvised music

Reviews - A Performance & A Disc
John Clare

Wednesday 20 October 2010

I am not usually in a hurry to hear performances of standards and jazz instrumentals with added words. Jazz singing is difficult, perhaps more difficult to do convincingly now than in the days of Sarah Vaughan, Hellen Merrill, Ella Fitzgerald, Anita O’Day, June Christy and so on. Mannerism is a trap. Sure, pop and rock singing is every bit as mannered, but these are mannerisms of today. Projection of personality is also problematic. Often couched in “I’m a slightly scatty but hip jazz chick or guy” terms, it can be corny and dated. It is the jazz equivalent of rock’s dissolute bad boy cliches. There are very few anywhere who can make it work today. Very few indeed in Australia.

Jane Irving is one of the few.

Sure she has plenty of personality, but it is expressed as genuine wit. And pure musical enthusiasm. Her over-riding quality is a highly musical combination of relaxed energy and thrilling release. Music comes out her ears. She is full of rhythm. Her voice is unforced and shiny, with the emphasis shifting from the soft edge of a note to its high overtones. It is efforlessy projected, sometimes a phrase is pursued with increasing pressure until the notes glisten, and when suddenly released in a whippig ribbon can give you the shivers. A Bonnieby Raitt Song I had not heard before was fantastic and showed that she can move convincingly into another idiom, but chose not to go so far as to sound like a parody.

As I recall – I did not think of writing about it at the time, having written about her previously in one of my Discontinuous Diary entries – the first song she sang at the Sound Lounge on October 8 was The Night has A Thousand Eyes, a never-fading favourite of mine. Irving is one of those singers who can make you realise all over againjust how deeply beautiful many of these melodies are. The rhythm section of pianist Hugh Barrett, piano, bassist Kevin Haley and drummer Cameron Reid was magic. A fine rhythm section can be with a great singer. Irving also sang, as I remember, Oliver Nelson’s Stolen Moments with added words by Mark Murphy, Horace Silver’s Senor Blues with words possibly by Murphy and Kenny Barron’s Sunshower with beautiful words by Janice Jarrett. Irving’s Mexican accent in the appropriate sections of Senor Blues was brilliantly funny.

You can hear this superb singer at 505 on October 23, and on her disc Beams (soul key).

The Effects Of Weather is the most recent in a magnificent triumvirate of discs by Melbourne band Way Out West. Mixing genres in art is now so common that one can get tired of hearing eclecticism breathlessly praised as a virtue on ABC arts programs (by presenters who would do well to leave their personalities at home). Well, it is a virtue in a multi-racial society, but not necessarily a value – it does not mean that the music is necessarily really good. This music is.

The personnel is of considerable interest. The unusual instrumentation is too of course, but these are people – known to many but I’m sure not all of you – who can play them idiomatically, flexibly, at a high level: Peter Knight, trumpet,, prepared trumpet, flugel horn, jaws harp, found objects, Dung Nguyen, dan tranh, dan nguyet, modified electric guitar, Paul Williamson, saxophones, flute, Ray Pereira, percusson, found objects, Howard Cairns, double bass, found objects, Rajiv Jayaweera, drum kit, found objects.

One of the strengths of this band, and of Peter Knight’s writing, is the combination of highly rhythmic motion with the best qualities of ambient music. It is always infectious, often jubilant, and always evocative, colouristic, atmospheric, with a deep sense of vista , place and texture. On Music For Six Friends, Knight plays a beautiful singing, running trumpet solo, accompanied by many elements, including points, threads and cascades of what sometimes sound like electric sound, but are, I imagine, issuing from a koto-like Vietnamese instrument. These accumulate and recede around the trumpet’s bright peaks, like the glints and spectres you see advancing and receding from a heat miasma.

Hypnotic repetitions are used, and so are unison horn lines, in jazz or jazz-like harmony but playing oriental-sounding melodies. The effect is quite surprising and very satisfying. The rhythm section is really perfect. Paul Williams’s playing in the ensembles and expressive solos is quite timeless. Cairns’s Blues For A Jungster (whatever a jungster may be) is indeed a slow sinister blues with tenor saxophone murmuring ominously through it and with Delta blues guitar evocations stretched into Orientalisms. A oriental blues. Well, those Delta guitarists always sounded somewhat Oriental to me.

The band joins the old Clarion Fracture Zone, the more recent Gest8 and a few others from Melbourne and Sydney in the creation of brilliant, highly coloured, pleasing and adventurous music that is international and somehow Australian in feeling. Ten stars.

This makes me nostalgic for Melbourne while heightening my pleasure in where I happen to be, which is Sydney. The light in Melbourne is different. On sunny summer days it is soft and even, like a balmy day in England, with details and colours printed into it as if you could touch them. Stand on the bridge over the Yarra beside Flinders Street Station on such a day.