My Goodness McGuiness
The Basement – 13 July 2009
By Greg Levine

The Argentinian theorist, Nestor Garcia Canclini, asked the question, “How can we understand the presence of indigenous crafts and vanguard art catalogues on the same coffee table?” The answer may be that we make no attempt to understand, we simply accept it and move on. The cultural landscape through which we now travel has become a coffee table: we pick things up and browse through them without giving them our full attention, then put them down on the table surface so we can flick through them again next time we have an un-filled minute.

By contrast, David Bowie wrote:

“What are we coming to
No room for me, no fun for you
I think about a world to come
Where the books were found by the golden ones
Written in pain, written in awe
By a puzzled man who questioned
What we were here for
All the strangers came today
And it looks as though they’re here to stay”

which seems to indicate a more conventional attitude to the divisions between the traditional and the modern, the cultured and the popular. But that was 1971 and things must have seemed different then. Now we accept the “hybridization” of cultural life and we don’t always know what to do with it.

The Basement – Monday 13 July: My Goodness McGuiness seemed to propose an answer to Garcia Canclini’s question. Embrace the hybrid and re-arrange it, as has been done many times, but without the postmodern irony. While the group is clearly founded in the jazz tradition, their eclectic choice of material is a more honest reflection of the cultural coffee table. Aside from two McGuiness originals (stylistically eclectic in their own right), they moved from Bartók’s “Lakodalmas” through the old jazz standard “Ghost of a Chance” to Crowded House and Leonard Cohen, ending with David Bowie’s “Oh, You Pretty Things” (see above): a cultural mélange typical of our times.

Yet they played these tunes without the Damien Hirst/Madonna/et al-style sly wink. Eschewing postmodern tricks and shallowness, they came closer to what Garcia Canclini calls the “economic and symbolic ‘reconversion’ with which migrant farm workers adapt their knowledge to live in the city, and their crafts to interest urban consumers”. They are connected to an older tradition, of which Bartók himself was enthusiastically a part, and which was best expressed in the jazz idiom by Gil Evans. It is the artist as ethnographer, equipped with education and knowledge but wanting to learn something new, opening their ears to the world and letting it sing to them. The McGuiness arrangements live up to this attitude in every way, from their openness and light melodic touch to the chosen instrumentation.

Using Fabian Hevia’s simple percussion (one conga, a cajon and a shaker) instead of the more bombastic sounds of the full kit allowed more room for the soloists to develop their ideas and play with the full dynamic range. Boneham and Flower, rhythm section, responded likewise. It was most evident on the McGuiness original “Pigis” which has a long, flowing melody, a little reminiscent of Rachmaninov’s long, stretched out tunes, as well as “Nefertiti”. Dynamic and chiaroscuro. Both horn players, in particular, used the extra space to great effect. Dan Junor’s alto always has a heavy dose of tension and release as he builds his solos but it was nice to hear every sonority of the instrument. And McGuiness trombone solos are such models of lyricism and balance that it sounded like the drum kit had never been invented; the human race had skipped hitting and gone straight to sliding. That’s obviously hyperbole, but you know what I mean. He has his own voice on his instrument.

How did they manage to play this eclectic range of tunes in a stronghold of the postmodern – a venue that trades on its jazz heritage but purveys the dullest pop rubbish most days of the year – without getting sucked into irony and lip service? Easy; McGuiness positioned these tunes as something that he grew up with – the raw material out of which he built his craft. It’s not an empty, clever appropriation; it’s something essential within his musicianship. This band, in its first gig no less, achieved “reconversion” by putting something essentially humanistic into Garcia Canclini’s cultural confusion: like having sex on the coffee table. They are a band to watch.

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.