jazz and improvised music

Reviews - Visions Festival - Review 1
John Clare

Thursday 26 August 2010

The Jazz Visions Festival opened at the Church venue in Glebe with a screening of Emma Franz’s film Simon Barker: Intangible Asset No 82, in which drummer Simon seeks the elusive shaman and grand master musician whose music, on a rare recording, inspired his ever-deepening interest in certain traditional Korean music forms and their connection with spiritual belief. The shaman in several cultures represents, through masks, dancing, mime and music, a bridge between this life and the spirit world. In some filmed rituals here – particularly a ceremony in which Barker’s master is seen near death – the belief is palpable, moving and even somewhat unnerving.

This screening was an overwhelming success, and for me it produced a resonating thrill as we were plunged into the vivid greens of mountain country quite like the area where I lived for six months in Japan. I was not the only one, however, to be affected by both the visual and musical aspects of the film. Some of us have also been lucky enough the hear, in a concert organised by Simon at the Opera House Studio, some of the musicians in the film along with such locals as Phil Slater and Carl Dewhurst. This ensemble has also been recorded on Kimnara. Simon’s is one of the voices heard throughout the film, and his narration is moving and articulate.

Perhaps I was a little taken aback when Simon said that the influences in jazz are from America and that he was seeking to express his own regional experience (in South Korea!). He might have acknowledged some the local jazz musicians who have found their own original, personal expressions. But this is to cavil. Trumpeter Phil Slater can be seen and heard playing some of the most beautiful and distinctive sounds. My only other cavil is that Simon is not quite so handsome or as elegantly suited as he is in his starring role in The Mentalist TV series. Eh? Well, it’s true. Have I said something wrong? Am I confused?

The film ends, as it began, with the sound of Mark Simmonds’s Spotted Dog, whose rhythm Simon used as the starting point in his superb drum solo, which immediately followed the film.

Jim Denley playing flutes and alto saxophone and Mike Majkowski (bass and other devices) were heard in duet after an interval, during which quite a number of the audience had left. Perhaps they were there as a result of publicity for the film and, never having heard of Denley and Majkowski, decided to give them a miss. This was disappointing, and yet the intimacy suited the music, which started literally at whisper level. At the level of whispering, whistling and tapping, which was soon joined by a sustained murmur as Majkowski bowed slowly with one hand while the other hand and his mouth became hyperactive. As Denley deployed a piccolo flute, Mike joined the conversation with an odd flat circular whistle that he sometimes uses. This was music of the undergrowth and night. A music of mystery also. It is hard to imagine that anyone who had contemplate leaving would not have changed their mind at this point. It was music like thought, intricate, minute, but growing slowly in volume and intensity.

There were quite loud and even startling peaks rising from the intimacy, including some thrillingly pure high sounds from Jim’s alto saxophone, and also patterns of forced and partially impeded harmonics that sounded somewhat like radio static; certainly they sounded electronic.

Some of the things Majkowski did on the bass will be discussed in the second of our profiles on younger musicians, which will be up here soon after a couple more reviews of this festival have been entered. This was pure improvisation that could succeed only if the players found inspiration. Indeed they did. A brilliant and complete opening to this festival.