jazz and improvised music

Reviews - COFFIN BROTHERS 20th Birthday
John Clare

Thursday 23 June 2011

Sound Lounge May 7

I had the feeling that tenor saxophonist Sean Coffin and pianist brother Greg had begun to get a little sick of my calling them Coffin Ed and grave Digger after the two Harlem detectives in the classic books by black American writer Chester Himes. If so, not surprising. I have been doing it for 20 years. But then, perhaps they have grown a little tired of bursting out of coffins like Screaming Jay Hawkins at the beginning of their shows! There’s another joke they’ll be a little tired of in twenty years time, in the event that I am still here to tell it.

The brothers have bands of their own and appear in a number of others, but they have kept this initially very good, now superb co-operative together for two decades. In my review of last year’s Wangaratta Festival Of Jazz I nudged artistic director Adrian Jackson and strongly suggested that he put them on at this year’s festival. We’ll see. Drummer Simon Barker has been in there with the Coffins from the beginning and bassist Brett Hirst for the past ten years. Brett was preceded by Andy Attwood and Ashley Turner.

Once they were on stage at the Sound lounge, Sean repeated a lower mid-range note in a series of murmuring surges, with that glorious tone – so compact and full, so immaculately modulated – and Hirst played a little behind him; and for a moment I thought they were tuning up, although they sounded perfectly in tune already. The tenor notes were repeated again and Hirst played a powerful, dramatic figure, and I realised that they were under way. This was the leaping from the coffin opening in reverse (sorry, can’t help myself), and it was wonderfully effective. An atmosphere had suddenly sprung up and everyone fell silent. Of course those notes were the beginning of This Much from their 2007 album Living in Apocalyptic Times. Greg and Barker joined the bass and tenor with a delicate rustle of textures and a flower-spray treble arppegio, and then they played a widely spaced chord and drum punctuation like a giant walking, and over this Sean unfolded sometimes grave and even mournful murmuring lines which rose to restrained peaks of passion replete with beautifully controlled overblowing, high burbles and rasps, and one clear high sustained hoot of such presence that all other sonic details disappeared for a moment. It was not loud, but magnetic, pure and thrilling.

The drum clattering, booming, hissing and gonging which rose and fell as the slow punctuation dropped away could only have been produced by the unique Simon Barker. His arms rarely rise high. He seems to press the sound beneath him, and it rises up around him.

Then it all stopped on a point of stillness. On the record it goes for six and a half minutes. This night it seemed to be there and gone. Perfect. This is a band.

The night before this performance I had heard an extraordinary set by the Mike Nock Trio with guest tenor saxophonist Karl Laskowski just after Nock had won the Bell Award and I had thought that anything would be an anti-climax after that. The Coffin Brothers set which ensued was a long way from that. The tunes were all distinctive in themselves and are also brilliant vehicles for improvisation. The dynamics of each piece and of the overall set were exemplary.

I noticed that on some tunes Sean seemed to have finished his solo and Greg to have begun, but Sean’s lines continued softly behind the piano, which turned out to be a brilliant interlude within Sean’s solo.When Greg finally took off in a full blown piano solo it was a rushing torrent, many layered, brilliantly articulated (he is one of Australia’s leading pianists), stretching the great rhythm section out tight until it humjed and finally inspiring them to break up the time with crashing accents across the rhythm.

When the Bros played the title piece of their latest album – Living In Apocalyptic Times, to jog your memory – the angularity and force reminded me of all the natural and political upheavals and catastrophes that have since occured. Well, there are always upheavals and catastrophes, but this has been a remarkable run, and I am not surprised that, as I write, someone has predicted the end of the world (noon tomorrow). Still, there is also in this piece the curious blithe detachment that you often hear in the most intense, racing bop.

It has been fascinating to follow the development, as a band and as individuals in many contexts, of these brilliant musicians. I hope to hear them at Wangaratta if we are still here. Incidentally, the world will end – possibly next week and possibly in five billion years when the sun explodes. Who will be saying ‘nya nya nya’ then eh?