jazz and improvised music

Reviews - John Hollenbeck
John Clare

Saturday 15 May 2010

The Basement
May 11

This most unusual concert began with American drummer and composer John Hollenbeck and vocalist Theo Blechmann performing with the Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra; but, with the orchestra ranged before us, the first sounds we heard were surprising to put it mildly: a range of bird song whistled, quite remarkably, by Blechmann (most people when they whistle, including me, sound as if they are trying to sing while their voice is breaking), joined soon by small burbles and murmurs from the orchestra, with a rising hiss of cymbals.

This certainly claimed our attention.

The orchestra slowly filled out in a wall of chattering, gonging, pinging sound through which some of the winds held moaning, crooning sonorities that were scarcely heard at first. Blechmann whistled more and more remarkably and inserted some device that held his mouth open to full stretch – to the point it seemed of dislocation – which presumably aided in the production of barks, carks and rattles like the sounds of tropical birds. Amazingly, none of this seemed remotely like novelty. It did in fact remind me of an album – Penderecki – Don Cherry: The New Eternal Rhythm Orchestra – on which Cherry played, among other instruments, the Chinese Shuan flute and the Mayan bird flute. Hunt it down. It was recorded on Phillips.

Back to The Basement and the piece I have interrupted. By now my hair was beginning to stand up. This opening had a slow pulse, or indeed many pulses over a generalised vibration that must have required some concerted counting by the orchestra musicians. Aaron Flower slashed through with a scorching, lacerating guitar solo. Now Blechmann broke into poetry. I recognized the poet – Wallace Stevens – but not the poem. It was about parrots. A parrot kingdom. But I can’t find it. Some readers may recall that I quoted a Wallace Stevens poem that included a green cockatoo at the beginning of my Discontinuous Diary 3 on this site. Blechmann read this beautifully. He also improvised sounds and patterns with startling virtuosity, at one point (sorry about these digressions: the coincidences began to seem quite odd to me) using a technique I had stumbled on in the days when I used to improvise with Roger Frampton. This involves singing a note and then dragging it backward over the vocal chords. If you hold it until it breaks you fly up to notes far above those you can produce by singing outward, and it can be very loud – oddly enough. Well, Blechmann has developed a control over this that I had never imagined. Nor did he need to start with a projected note. He just opened his mouth and, ah, sucked it up, and out flew a beautiful note such as would startle any countertenor. The man sang like a bird!

Everything was powerfully loud by now, though the musicians told me later that they were playing as softly as they could. The extraordinary Basement system was turned up and this later became a distinct problem, but for now it was all quite transfiguring. A slow plangent and somewhat oriental whole tone melody emerged that was reminiscent of some by Don Cherry on his other Eternal Rhythm recordings.

And that’s just what I remembered and/or noted down.

The next three pieces comprised a suite based on William Blake’s poem The Garden Of Love. This is Blake at his darkest and most heretically Christian. Blechmann read it powerfully and musically, and indeed toward the end he sang it to fantastic effect. Massive unisons – just huge rather than loud (if we discount the amplification) – moved through simple rising and falling whole tone scalar figures, then these progressively accelerated, and then the band broke suddenly into high speed space age jazz to exhilarating effect. Afro-Cuban rhythms broke out, and a great deal more, all propelled by Hollenbech’s drumming, which was both clever and earthy. Trumpeter Phil Slater played a magnificent solo. But towards the end the volume began to wear me down. When Brendan Clarke’s bass came to the fore it was surely meant to be a dynamic contrast against the massed forces, but its volume was gargantuan, which is not at all like Brendan. By now gigantisms was general. Also the piano was ridiculously loud and trebly, though superbly played by Steven Barry. A sensational alto solo by David (Disco) Theak had also been given such a trebly amplification his sound lost its customary body.

I regretfully lay the blame at the feet of the sound man, who seemed to think he was amplifying a rock band. It is a very different thing. Not necessarily a better or a worse thing, but A DIFFERENT THING! The volume was exacerbated by the sustained repetitions with which a couple of the pieces ended. At this volume repetition seemed ultimately grandiose and, er, repetitive.

Still, this was overall an extraordinary, often powerful and beautiful recital.

Alas, the sound problem was perhaps more persistently troubling in the performance by the Claudia Quintet: Hollenbeck, bassist Drew Gress, Chris Speed on clarinet and tenor saxophone, Ted Reichman, accordion and Matt Mitchell piano. Hollenbeck must have heard some complaints about the sound because he asked the audience to voice their opinion. “It’s fine for us up here. Is it okay for you?” Some called out “Yeah.” Those who had been calling too loud were now silent. Resigned I suppose. But one called, “Turn off the sub woofers!” Exactly. This was in many ways a chamber group!

And this was music of great charm and intrigue, moving through intricate and engaging time signatures, sometimes employing classical devices, including a kind of canon, and a mesmerising indefinable polyphony in which the diverse sounds popped up individually in unexpected places like a field of antic bouncing figures, all in a magic dance. It was in some ways like serial music, but syncopated. It all sounded best when it was relatively soft, for at that level the massive amplification had little garbling effect; but even down there the huge cloud of reverberation hovered, so that you silently begged the music not to get any louder and trigger it. The whole field of amplification was so hot and ultra-responsive that as soon as the piano or the accordion rose above a certain level they no longer sounded like those instruments. Chris Speed’s tenor was particularly beautiful tonally and sometimes brilliantly complex and even convoluted in a highly engaging way with superb and beautiful control of harmonics. Mitchell’s piano playing was highly original and Gress, fast as he played at times, somehow remained articulate throughout.

Some blamed the shape of the Basement and its low concrete ceiling for you know what. I don’t go there often enough to say anything definitive on that score, but I have heard jazz there that has sounded good (perhaps the larger crowds on those occasions helped dispel the black shadow of reverberation lurking in those huge black speakers). Look, I can’t quarrel – shouldn’t quarrel – too much with a night that made jaws drop at various points and triggered thrills, and which introduced a remarkable vocalist who was like no other I have heard. I believe Blechmann also acted as a bat-eared musical director at the rehearsals. All brought to us by SIMA, by way of the Melbourne Jazz Festival.

P.S. There is no excuse for my not having been to the new 505 yet. I did ride over there once to look at the programme in the window, but it was last week’s. Though I have given them my email address they have never sent me the programme. I am a very old, and at the moment very busy man. Nevertheless, I can tell you that the wonderful vibraphonist/percussionist Darryl Pratt will be leading his new band there on May 26. I can tell you because Darryl was at this performance at the Basement. I will be there to hear that. And we’ll write about it here.