Freedman Jazz Fellowship
The Studio, Sydney Opera House
19 June, 2006
The final of the sixth Freedman Jazz Fellowships, in which the four candidates selected by the judges from 16 nominees perform with their bands at the Opera House Studio, was marked by contrasts, high excellence, and hidden drama. Unknown to most outside the band, Adrian Klumpes – who plays piano, Rhodes piano and laptop with Sydney’s Triosk – had been suffering with one of his intermittent migraine attacks throughout the day. This is the real migraine, complete with splitting headache, vomiting, tunnel vision and intense nausea and pain in the solar plexus (I had it myself a long time ago over a two-year period); and most of the symptoms were there as he performed. Later he told me that he had looked at his prescription drugs and put them aside. “I’d rather play in pain than all drugged up,” he said. Not because he feared the Freedman swab, but because he wanted to play “as myself”.
There is a lot of intensity in this music.
Triosk, who began the recital, are drummer Laurence Pike (the candidate), the suffering but real Klumpes, and electric and double bassist Ben Waples. While they use the repeating and gradually metamorphosing patterns (some set up on laptop) common in several areas of electronic music, they trouble these with a high level of improvisational freedom, particularly in the drums – which bring elements of free jazz polyrhythms and arhythmic momentum to a virtuosic and sometimes fiercely exciting pitch.
A characteristic Triosk mood is ethereal, euphoric, trancelike and sometimes tinged with a faint melancholy – or perhaps simply a remoteness – as of empty streets or pelting night traffic filmed from high above – all spiked with sharp, subtle detailing which sometimes grows in volume and aggression until it stings and sensitizes the listener’s very skin. Sometimes they rise to a sustained orchestral rush: roaring, smashing, stinging, yet still curiously ambrosial. Then suddenly they stop. Then the applause rises. It is a very enveloping experience throughout their dynamic range, stimulating the senses on several levels and, within all that, inducing reflection.
The influence of the Necks is clear, but the electronic input alone draws them into many differences of application and concept. Already Triosk are celebrated in Europe, where they have toured successfully – sometimes in collaboration with renowned figures of electronica (to use the term as a broad designation). I don’t think they played quite so well as they had when I heard them a few days earlier in the ABC’s Pyrmont studios, performing to a smaller invited audience; but they sounded like winners. Laurence Pike’s drumming was devastating.
The Freedman is not of course won in these live performances, which are weighed by the judges against recorded submissions and statements of intent, including aesthetic goals and practical plans for the feature with particular regard to use of the Freedman prize money. And of course stiff competition waited in the wings.
And marked contrasts.
Melbourne candidate Eugene Ball’s band played next, and they were in the acoustic tradition of trumpet-led quartets – Ball, trumpet, pianist Marc Hannaford, bassist Des White and drummer Sam Bates on this occasion – which can be traced back to early Miles Davis classics such as Weirdo, Take Off and When Lights Are Low, up through ECM recordings by Kenny Wheeler, Tomasz Stanko et al. It is an idiom that requires fine integration and balance if the trumpet is to have its full dynamic and expressive freedom without outweighing the other instruments.
This quartet’s first tune, a waltz, raised fears that they might sound a bit old fashioned after Triosk.
Those fears were dispelled by the second composition, in which Ball’s trumpet floated and sang out over a sequence of rhythmic patterns, drawing the audience into a chamber music aura full of subtle tensions and gliding releases. Ball has a lovely clear singing sound which can sometimes remind you of a certain kind of Spanish trumpet. I mean that quality of transparent flame that the defenders must have heard at the Alamo as the no prisoners wail was sounded on the trumpets. On their one fast, precisely scrambling piece, the quartet achieved an intense swing release on the solos, where the polyrythms, almost contra-directional, seemed to open the music like a fan across the acoustic space.
Ball played on this with a light, fluent momentum, propelled by little syncopated “catches” recalling the feeling of early Miles or Chet Baker; but it was contemporary in style, lifted by high flares, long arcs and arabesques. Pianist Hannaford impressed with his beautiful time feel and melodic invention. His final solo at slow tempo was very fine, despite the piano’s having been sent a little out of tune by the gallant Klumpes. Another roar went up at the end. Compere Andrew Robson, an earlier Freedman Fellowship recipient remarked, as many of us have in previous years, how much more like a concert than a competition this
Perhaps the greatest contrast of all then unfolded: candidate Julien Wilson’s trio. Having their second try for the prize. When they played in the final of the Fourth Freedman, I wrote “I think we all have some subtle and potent association with the piano accordion … if only through films in which French sidewalk cafe music sets the scene”. And it was the same trio this time with Wilson playing tenor saxophone, Stephen Magnusson guitar and Stephen Grant the accordion, which is certainly not unknown in jazz. It’s unusual enough these days, however, and with the absence of drums set a tone that could seem far removed from jazz concerns.
The only standard tune of the night – Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust, opened their set. Wilson played the cadenza-like introduction with ravishing tone and phrasing, guitar and accordion swelling the harmonies. It was full of haunting nostalgia, and recalled perhaps a time in Paris when Rex Stewart and Barney Bigard from the Duke Ellington band played with Django Reinhardt and other French musicians. Having, whether intentionally or not, evoked a tradition that was certainly part of jazz, the trio then moved through a series of gorgeous originals, often with an underlying Latin lilt, which were developed in a way that was not only contemporary but quite timeless.
Having written about this trio before, I’ll simply say that the interactions, solos and glorious melody statements cast a spell. Nobody could not like this music! Wilson, who is involved in many and various projects, intends to take this trio on a tour of Scandinavia and then travel to New York to record an album with US drummer Jim Black – just for something completely and totally absolutely different! Many readers remember Black when he performed in The Studio at last year’s Jazz Now Festival. By now most readers will know that Julien Wilson is this year’s Freedman Fellow.
We did not know that when bassist/composer Sam Anning from Western Australia led his quartet out onto the floor. Trumpeter Mat Jodrell and saxophonist Carl Mackey were also from the West. Sydney drummer Felix Bloxom was the only member who was not part of a longstanding ensemble. That the others were immediately showed. That the brilliantly adaptive Bloxsom was not did not. Another quartet with trumpet, but with no piano. Closer in idiom to Eugene Ball’s quartet than any other band on show, it still provided an intriguing and marked contrast to all the others.
The strength of Anning’s sound, technique, deep groove and propulsion was immediately apparent. This was very powerful bass playing and it drove the ensemble through controlled blares of unison horn lines that had a mysterious and even slightly menacing quality, sometimes splitting into intriguing counterpoint and two-part harmony. I was not the only one to hear some affinity with certain bands led by drummer Max Roach. On slower pieces the groove was just as strong and the sustained horn lines showed just how Mackey and Jodrell had profited from playing so much together. They blazed out, swelling in power or gliding with a strange ethereal yet dark quality. They blended so beautifully and their dynamics were so coordinated the lines seemed to have no endings; no stops. Rather, they smoothly diminished in volume and just sort of vanished on the air.
Each member soloed brilliantly, excitingly. Jodrell’s connection with the brilliant rhythm section particularly impressed me. In slower pieces he played the flugelhorn with much of the mystery, introspection and drama that Miles Davis brought to the instrument. At tempo, Joddrell – now on trumpet – and Mackey played with high brilliance and intensity. If anything the applause for this rousing, moody, thoughtful and dramatic band was the loudest of the night.
Anning’s writing and playing established him immediately, for those who had not already heard him, as an important figure in Australian jazz. At 24 he has had a great deal of success overseas and locally, playing with such contrasting figures as Greg Osby and Don Burrows. His proposition included a tour of Canada.
I must say that the consistency of these Fellowship nights has more than surprised me. This year’s was at least as good as any before it. We left the wonderful wood-fitted venue with the feeling that glorious music was still ringing in the air behind us as we pondered who might have won this time, before meeting the chill air off the harbour, where coloured lights that were like the music itself trembled on the black water. If anyone ever asked me to demonstrate in a single night why I was interested in this kind of music, I think I would bring them to the Freedman awards.
It would also have occurred to some us, as the cold air penetrated, that here in Sydney with its ridiculous licensing laws, high rents, and the tendency of some upwardly mobiles to move into an “interesting” area and immediately hire expensive lawyers to kill off the pesky sounds of music in the air, that an institution such as the Freedman Fellowship provides an invaluable assistance for musicians to tour and record in Australia and internationally. Also an annual forum that might inspire people to seek out some of these exceptional artists in the few existing venues.
Melbourne and Perth are much healthier in this regard. I did say Perth. I will take the opportunity here to mention two Sydney organisations that manage to present music like this weekly: Sydney Improvised Music Association and Jazzgroove Association (www.jazzgroove.com).