by Samuel Cottell, images courtesy Aaron Blakey

Band:  Adrian Cunningham Quartet
Venue: Venue 505, Sydney
Date:    9 April 2015

Multi woodwind player, Adrian Cunningham (one of our finest jazz exports), is now based in New York. Originally from Sydney, Cunningham has popped into his home town for a visit to Venue 505 – a rare treat for Sydney siders to hear these consummate musicians together. Before the gig the audience started filling in and the room was packed out within a very short time. The stage was set with Cunningham’s Tenor Sax, Clarinet and Flute on their stands. As I sat in the dark corner a young couple sat across from me and proceeded to play footsie with each other, (it was my foot, but I didn’t have the heart to tell them).

The set opened with a piece called ‘Homecoming’ – by Wycliffe Gordon. Cunningham’s tenor sax sound finely floated over the ensemble (who provided some neat support in the form of the up tempo gospel-esque vibe).

Bill Risby provided a smooth piano solo on this number and explored some hip harmony based on the harmony of the straight ahead groove.

For the second number Cunningham switched to the clarinet ‘the liquorice stick’  to perform ‘Scoot’ (a piece by Neal Hefti- most known for his television theme compositions, such as ‘Batman’ and arranging and composing for Count Basie). Cunningham’s clarinet play was mellow and smooth as he navigated the instrument exploring its wide range of colours and textures. The rhythm section provided some beautiful support (alla Basie) with Risby’s piano textures reminiscent of Basie himself, particularly with the little two note call and responses between Ribsy and Cunningham throughout.

Still holding the clarinet, Cunningham told the audience the story of how ‘Petite Fleur’ (by Sidney Bechet) was composed on the toilet. The arrangement was a new one by Cunningham and explored each nook and cranny of the piece. Cunningham sure knows how to make the clarinet sing and groove with his dexterous finger work on the instrument providing hip melodic lines in his improvisations. Following this was a tune called ‘Ferante’ (by Cunningham) dedicated to Russell Ferante of the Yellow Jackets. This was a melodious and bright tune. Exploring the upper registers of the instrument with long notes Cunningham soared over some driving beats by Rytmeister with Risby and Pudney laying down the groove. Cunningham demonstrated his command of the clarinet and inflected an array of delicately considered solo work.

‘Keeping Fit with Ken’ (composed by Cunningham) recounts the story of how he shared a cabin with Ken Sparkes at the Thredbo Jazz Festival a few years ago, and woke up to find Ken performing his calisthenics. This up tempo chart created a great image of Ken exercising (Bill Risby even joined in, giving his arms a stretch between chords). Pudney’s bass solo set up a little conversation between himself and Cunningham that was rather tasty.

Concluding the first set was a samba infused number. Cunningham started the piece with an extended solo flute before Gordon Rytmeister started up the drums to lead the ensemble in. This was a top notch tune that allowed the group to ‘bust out a montuno’ (I have always wanted to write that term in a review).

The second set opened with some tight ensemble work on an up tempo tune. Pudney and Rytmeister set up the feel and Cunningham entered with a funky tenor sax groove extending over the range of the whole instrument. Rytmeister showed his versatility in his solos here with rolls and crashes, getting many different colours out of the kit, all the while keeping the groove he initially set up. This tune was followed by a reflective ballad, a request from the audience. ‘Zambezi’ (from the first album) commenced with some lush chords by Risby

In Melbourne last week, Cunningham recounts a story of how he was crafting a tune called ‘D7’ in his hotel room before a gig on Good Friday and he broke his head joint (he let us rest assured that his homemade fix job of plastic and masking tape was doing wonders for his sound). The piece, entitled ‘Emergency Sax Repair’ was a high energy up tempo piece with blues influences that extended beyond the harmonic palette that had been presented for most of the evening.

The set conclude with a special guest performance from James Power, a young Sydney based trumpeter studying at the Conservatorium of Music. Harking back to some trad jazz (tale about Bill Risby being Adrian’s piano teacher) they performed a very New Orleans infused rendition of ‘St. James Infirmary’. The interweaving musical lines between the trumpet and the clarinet were clear, tasteful and as smooth as a swing in a hammock.

A stand out feature of the gig were the piano solo’s of Bill Risby, considered, crafted lines emanating at the top end of the piano and working their way to the bottom, Risby knows how to bring colour out of every octave of the piano in all of his solos. His compin’ behind Cunningham is sparse and subtlety considered. This tight ensemble sounded as though they had played together every week for the past five years. A group of masters, who Cunningham referred to as ‘like an old shoe that you find in the cupboard, you put it on and think ah that is so comfortable’. Fine solos by Sydney drummer, Gordon Rytmeister were tasteful and perfectly crafted, a master of the kit. Dave Pudney’s effective bass lines created a strong foundation on which the ensemble worked. As well as playing tenor sax, clarinet and flute (he even sang on one number), Cunningham is an outstanding story teller. Providing a back story behind each of the pieces, he instantly formed a rapport with the audience. His stories and banter with the band provided seamless transitions between each chart.

It was pleasing to see a packed house of audience members who weren’t largely musicians (for a change), but rather jazz fans and aficionados (the couple playing footsie even escalated their engagement in the form of rhythmic footsy). This was a happening event and a world class performance from the quartet, that explored what is at the core of jazz – swingin’ tunes and grooves. Any group of musicians who can get to people to footise with rhythmic panache are always welcome in this town.

Adrian Cunningham – Tenor Sax, Clarinet, Flute
Bill Risby- Piano
Gordon Rytmeister- Drums
Dave Pudney- Double Bass

For more information visit: