Mark Isaacs Quintet
(ABC Jazz/Universal)

By C. Michael Bailey

Australian pianist and composer Mark Isaacs has done more than most any other jazz musician to seal the fault line between serious modern jazz improvisation and “contemporary jazz” or “adult oriented jazz.” I tend to classify the former as the jazz father’s and earlier genre traditionalists (bebop, hard bop, modal) and the latter as well-behaved, unobtrusive music made by nameless popular performers, selling millions of copies.

Isaacs, with every release, has refined his systematic approach to post-modernity jazz to the point that his sound defines what jazz should sound like at the advent of the 21st Century in the same way Joe King Oliver, Satch, and Bix defined New Orleans/Chicago, Basie and Ellington defined the swing era, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie defined be bop and Miles Davis defined everything else.

Read the full review on All About Jazz.

Mark Isaacs Quintet
(ABC Jazz/Universal)

By John Kelman

After two albums exploring jazz standards and popular contemporary music—Keeping the Standards (Vorticity, 2004) and —Visions (Vorticity, 2006)—Australian pianist Mark Isaacs returns to original composition on Resurgence. A fixture on the Sydney scene, Isaacs has recruited his dream band for a strong program of contemporary mainstream jazz..

Isaac’s American compatriots—bassist Jay Anderson, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and, on select tracks, woodwind multi-instrumentalists Bob Sheppard and Steve Tavaglione—have often intersected, but not all together in one room at the same time. Isaacs’ inclusion of one fellow Aussie is significant—guitarist James Muller, a musical chameleon as capable of the Scofield/Metheny-esque on his own Kaboom (Birdland, 2006), as he is pedal-to-the-metal fusion on drummer Chad Wackerman’s Legs Eleven (Self-Published, 2004). Muller played on Isaacs’ wonderful Closer (Naxos Jazz, 2000), but a lot has changed since then. Muller’s voice has emerged more distinctly and, while he’s still the amalgamation of a great many parts, the whole is now clearly greater than its sum.

Isaacs’ primary strengths lie in strong melodism and a harmonic underpinning that’s rich and complex without sacrificing accessibility. For those who feel that jazz is inherently difficult to fathom, tracks like the elegant ballad ”Pentimento” and Latin-esque “Three Days of Rain” are as listenable as they come, despite multifaceted solos from Isaacs and Tavaglione filled with color and depth.

Read the full review on All About Jazz.

Mark Isaacs Quintet
(ABC Jazz/Universal)

By John McBeath

Rating: ***1/2

Resurgence is an apt title for the latest all-original recording from prolific Sydney pianist/composer Mark Isaacs.

Seven of the eight tracks are stylistically very like a 1977 album My Song, by pianist Keith Jarrett and saxophonist Jan Garbarek.

That landmark recording contained some of Jarrett’s most beautiful, and romantic compositions played with intense lyricism.

Although Isaacs has expanded the Jarrett quartet format with the brilliant guitar of James Muller, the overall feel here is still very much a Jarrett/Garbarek nostalgia trip.

Three Days of Rain opens with a melodic line and mood that immediately resembles Jarrett’s piece, Country with saxophonist Steve Tavaglione playing Garbarek’s role.

The one cut that departs from their ballad-country-soul approach is the title track, Resurgence with post-bop lines, strong percussive intertwining, and powerful solos from Muller and Isaacs.

These are all talented players: precise rhythmic power by Herbie Hancock’s drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, and typically impressive piano work from Isaacs are particularly notable.

This review first appeared in The Weekend Australian and is republished with permission of the author.


[Following the publication of the review, Mark Isaacs submitted an open letter to John McBeath, which is published below. A brief response from John follows. – Editor]

Dear John,

I read your review of Resurgence in The Weekend Australian.

At the start of the review you make the bald statement “Seven out of the eight tracks are stylistically reminiscent of a 1977 album My Song, by pianist Keith Jarrett and saxophonist Jan Garbarek” That statement is plain wrong. Only one of the tracks is stylistically reminiscent of My Song. This supposed imitation on my part is a theme that dominates the review, including you obliquely asserting that the title is “apt” because the CD is in your view a “resurgence” of a pre-existing CD as well as your comment that the work is a “Jarrett-Garbarek nostalgia trip”. To go as far as to suggest that Resurgence is a virtual clone of My Song with your astounding “seven out of eight tunes” claim is a radically incorrect assertion that cannot go unchallenged. (At the website Ozjazzforum I discuss each track in turn to demonstrate the scale of your error).

I agree with you that the players joining me on the CD are “talented” (to say the very least!), I also agree with your statement that Jarrett’s My Song “contained some of Jarrett’s most beautiful and romantic compositions”. One wonders though which CD you are reviewing here, since while citing these qualities in Jarrett’s tunes you inexplicably offer no comment at all about the emotional effect of my own compositions. You merely say [wrongly] that they are all – except one – stylistically the same as the tunes on My Song. But even they were all modelled in style on Jarrett’s My Song, that’s only style. Are they affecting, well-crafted or telling compositions in their own right? You don’t deign to tell your readers at all.

I am concerned with all the above because the clear subtext of your review is that my CD – apart from the inclusion of electric guitar – is a slavish imitation of a single Keith Jarrett disk. That’s really all you say about it in the entire review, beyond briefly acknowledging some instrumental prowess and strong soloing. For all your readers would know, the compositions are devoid of any originality, vision and message of their own. If that’s what you really think about my compositions, you should say so directly not just duck the issue.

Your colleague John Shand recently spoke publicly about “thin-skinned” artists. Maybe I am one of those, but I don’t see why the work of critics should not be subject to close scrutiny as the work of artists is. Such scrutiny will never be published in such august journals as The Australian or The Sydney Morning Herald but I will publish this letter in available forums. There is a tendency to make ill-informed and demonstrably false comment amongst some jazz critics that would not I think be tolerated from similarly high-profile classical music, literature, theatre or visual arts critics. When I read some of this stuff – not just from you – I question the qualities of musicianship that underpin the writing. But more so in the case of your review I question the lack of any critique at all of my compositions. These pieces are created and recorded with love, care and whatever vision I can bring to them. This doesn’t mean you have to like them, not at all. But they should be assessed on their merits. Offering only a clumsy and grossly exaggerated account of stylistic antecedents completely abdicates any appraisal of the worth of the compositions themselves.

Kind regards
Mark [Isaacs]

John McBeath writes:

I’ve read Mark Isaacs’ critique of my review of his CD Resurgence and also a longer, ‘unabridged’ version which he sent me directly. I have no intention of becoming immersed in what would inevitably devolve into theoretical disagreements about comparisons between Jarrett’s My Song and Isaacs’ Resurgence. I stand by my opinions in the review. Anyone wishing to judge for themselves has only to listen to tracks from each CD. My Song is available from the ECM catalogue. It seems Isaacs’ opinion of my abilities has altered since December 2005 when he wrote to me: “I’ve been enjoying your jazz writing in The Australian and elsewhere and thought I’d make contact to say hello. Congratulations on the win at the Wangaratta competition!”

Read another review of Resurgence on the US-based website Jazz Review.

Hash Varsani is the owner of The Jazz Directory, a network of sites related to jazz, travel and everything else he loves. He also runs a selection of jazz related sites including Jazz Club Jury, a jazz club and festival review site. Check out his Google+ Profile, to see what else he's up to...probably setting up another website from one of his many passions.