Five 2010 highlights

by Mark Isaacs

This article is also published at

  1. This year I got to know some more of the music of Australian pianist/composer/improviser Tim Stevens a little better through some disks that he sent me, including a preview hot off the press of his soon-to-be-released album Scare Quotes. I think Tim’s music is special in a singular way; he has a deep gift for real substance and integrity and creates magical, beautiful shapes in his writing. It’s often all so devotional in its content and feeling. When the trio does free improvisations they’re remarkable essays in economy and integrity. I like that Scare Quotes brings both Tim’s tunes and the trio’s extemporisations together in the one document.
  2. I attended two concerts by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and these made the world look a very different colour. Sometimes you’re just hearing the very best on all levels that human beings are capable of, such as their reading of Mahler Symphony No. 1. Simon Rattle is an extraordinary conductor; often he stops beating overtly for a bit and just lets them play giving the odd linking gesture. I understand that performances of the same piece are significantly different from night to night and from second to second with that band. It’s a myth that classical players don’t improvise just because the notes are the same every time! Whoever imagined music was just about notes? In jazz there’s often pretence toward improvisation, where in reality generic licks or templates are being strung together. It’s a rare ensemble or individual – whether it’s in classical or jazz – that does truly improvise.
  3. I got to know more of the music of William Walton this year, like his Five Bagatelles for guitar solo and his First Symphony (I’ve been into the Second Symphony since I was a kid). It’s part of an ongoing love affair with British composers. I don’t have “favourite composers” but Walton is someone with whom I identify probably more than any other (it kills me that he died as late as 1983 and that in theory I could have met him when I was a young adult). I love the deep, unceasing craft of it all (not least the stunning orchestration) and its melodicism and lyricism that burrows deeply into your soul. It’s so obvious that he enjoyed jazz, even though you don’t hear “jazz” elements so much as just great added-note harmony and suave rhythms. He was/is definitely under-appreciated and any artist who sometimes feels the same (and who doesn’t sometimes?) can take solace that one so mighty was not valued as he might have been even by his own countrymen.
  4. The music of guitarist Allan Holdsworth is an absolute treasure trove. I’ve been listening more to him and discussing the intimate details of his voicings and lines with James Muller. James truly believes Holdsworth is a musician of the stature of Coltrane, and I think there’s a pretty sound case for that. The sheer exhilaration of his inventive sweeps and the bitter-sweet, dark poignancy with which he leavens it all makes me soar above the clouds, as does Muller himself.
  5. Speaking of James Muller, an obvious highlight was being in the studio for two days with James, Matt Keegan, Brett Hirst and Tim Firth recording the new Resurgence band album Aurora. What a band to write for and play in! The sessions were so relaxed and chilled even as we tacked the most intense and difficult music. Recording at Studios 301 is the way recording should be and engineer Richard Lush made it all sound beautiful despite having to be in a wheelchair – he was only just out of rehab after a mysterious spinal illness. I got to live at the studio apartment during the recording and mixing, we brought in a Steinway concert grand and I ended up being the one taking the project through to its release in early December on my own label.