by Mark Isaacs

waiting for it
Newmarket (NEW3110.2)

ishish represents something unique in the Australian jazz output. In assembling its most original sound it mines a seam of jazz history that is a far less common source of inspiration than other more obvious antecedents.

In thinking about what makes the music of ishish so different from more conventional jazz, the word “collectivism” comes to mind. Collectivism is commonly found in the Baroque/early Classical period (especially in the concerto grosso form) and in early “traditional” jazz. For a while collectivism tended to disappear from both classical and jazz history: bebop championed the soloist as did the rise of the virtuoso in classical music.

In the twentieth century, a figure like Stravinsky revived a quasi-Baroque (or otherwise neo-classical) collectivism (such as in the Symphonies of Wind Instruments). In jazz, it was Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus whose music, while ferociously “modern” as was Stravinsky’s, simultaneously hearkened back to the days of traditional jazz in its small ensemble collectivism.

The musicians of ishish function according to paradigms that transcend the Head-Solos + Comping-Head-Coda structure strictly assigned in more conventional jazz. Drummer Ronny Ferella, trumpeter Eugene Ball, trombonist Jordan Murray, tenor saxophonist Julien Wilson and acoustic bassist Mark Shepherd (the lack of a chordal instrument like the piano, guitar or organ is also a key feature of the music’s barrier-breaking ethos) create their music in a different way: is it a melody, is it a riff, is it a fill, is it a solo? The answers cannot always be easily made, indeed the very asking of these questions mitigates against the open-mindedness that a true appreciation of the music requires, although the formal tension created needs an instinctive understanding and appreciation of conventional structures in order to fully taste its delicious subversion

To give an example one need only analyse in detail the structure of the opening track, I’ll Take That.

The piece begins with a short unaccompanied octave-unison motif in the horns that sounds like the introduction to a standard gospel-jazz romp. The drums and bass enter and a groove starts, with the trombone doubling the lithe bass riff. So far, so good – for the listener who listens with conventional ears. That was an intro, now comes “the tune”.

However, the sax and trumpet don’t start a tune at all, they simply add another layer to the bass/trombone riff for a cycle or two and then drop out briefly. Following this “breath” they re-introduce their layer to the riff again but suddenly their riffing breaks into some “filling”, the sax launching into cascading filigree while the trumpet and trombone develop the riff further. Then we return to a couple of cycles of the basic riff.

Already the expectations of conventional ears have been subverted. Awfully long intro! Where’s the tune? And yet, the deeper musical references (those outside the issue of form) are in no way employed to subvert convention. The feel is groovy and infectious, danceable really. And the melodic motifs are bluesy and appealing in a very direct way.

But, hello, here’s the tune! A distinct opening gambit from the horns leads our somewhat naive listener to expect that we have heard the first phrase (consisting of a few smaller sub-phrases) of a larger-scale melody. However, no extended melodic arch ensues: instead the saxophone and trombone “break down” into fills once again and this time the sound is more like a short collective solo.

Then the 1st-phrase (not) of the melody-that-wasn’t comes back (by now we know it’s just another riff) but what is this that follows? A trombone solo? So that was the “head”? Just a series of riffs?

Suddenly (and very early in the piece for a standard post-bop solo) the trumpet and saxophone start to “riff” behind the trombone solo. What is this, a big band? Let the guy finish his solo!  Not on your Nellie. This is ishish.

The trombone solo is completely “subverted” by the recalcitrant riffers as he throws his hat in the ring and joins them in a new and highly repetitious series of percussive riffs. Next a lone trumpet voice breaks out. Aha, trumpet solo! That makes sense! Except that the saxophone immediately interjects with some very “weird” cries as does the trombone with some farts and glisses.

However, the trumpet does re-assert his supremacy, shakes off the “rude” interlopers and continues with his solo, waving some post-bop figures around and then seemingly crying out himself for something more abstract such as his partners provided, before petering out very quickly (some solo, it was only a few seconds!) The trombone and sax “rescue” the trumpet after his truncated solo with yet another riff, which he is agreeable enough to answer in quasi-canon. Then the trombone and sax assert a further development of this latest riff (which the trumpet joins) and a series of ensuing repetitions of the new riff prove unexpectedly to actually be closing figures in a coda that was never signalled. The music ends suddenly and with a punch.

Of course the proper way to listen to the piece is as a unique formal construct in itself, a short gospel groove upon which a series of riffs are built and torn down, with quasi-soloistic interludes. There is no head, there are no solos in the conventional sense. But ishish plays with convention and teases our expectations by lying close enough to the more conventional structural gestures of jazz to lead us up the proverbial garden path. It is this interplay between convention/expectation and iconoclasm that has informed much new music. Some music completely breaks the mould and asks us to forget that there ever was such a thing. Other music warps the mould and in order to appreciate the warping we must remember that there was a mould to begin with and also retain the memory of its shape in order to calibrate the distortions. Sibelius achieved something similar in his approach to symphonic form.

Drummer Ronny Ferella is credited as composer of most of the music and so one assumes that the more obvious pre-determined structures in the pieces came from his pen. However one also suspects that some of the improvisation extends to actually improvising the form, although it is impossible to tell precisely when and if this occurs.

Despite its formal iconoclasm, the emotional content of ishish is largely accessible and highly visceral. Indeed, one expects that a less-informed listener would not notice the formal tension in I’ll take that and simply hear something groovy. This reminds me of the way The Simpsons works. The adults get all the cheeky, sly pokes at convention while the kids just enjoy it on the level of a romp and a good yarn. Ishish achieves something akin to this. Their music is highly accessible on one level, yet intellectually fascinating on the other. One can appreciate both levels or focus on one or the other to whatever degree.

There is great emotional and gestural range to ishish’s music, though I personally feel that more passages in which the drums layed out would offer a greater variety of texture. The second track Welcome to the Free World is a kind of warped march that turns into some jumpy riffs that gradually morph into something nobly ruminative before closing lithely with a medium swing section which quickens and ultimately breaks back down to the ponderous. Untitled One keeps pondering, but with more aching yearning. Do Don’t Ask is a brief vaudevillian march that is “scribbled” over (think Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale). Hulio’s Hideaway is dark and brooding in a way that achieves sublimity and boasts an ending that is one of the most viscerally beautiful musical explorations of the lachrymose I have ever heard. Roman Holiday – Old is based around a stealthy but kinetic riff-based feel. Fromage a Trois is a beautifully scored dark ballad of heightened and deeply touching resignation. Waiting for It consists of a very brief and quite neutral interlude, something like a film underscore cue that sets a scene and nothing more. Charlestown (based on the classic Charleston rhythm) swaggers along then loses its footing to enter a world that is quasi-choral before an ecstatic drum solo brings the Charleston back to town. Roman Holiday – New is again stealthy, before doing its own chorale thing that is followed by a jumpy, funky dance groove that ends delightfully slickly. MAP keeps the rather upbeat funk vibe in the air as does Trepidation that follows it like a variation on the theme, so short as to seem like a coda to the previous track. Cake Treats closes the CD with what seems an almost Requiem-like processional.

ishish are an Australian musical phenomenon. Their conception is at once unashamedly accessible and highly challenging, while each individual player is a true virtuoso. While transcendental looseness and abandon abounds, impeccably tight ensemble and intonation is available when this too is required. Precious few groups can do both these things and produce music so simultaneously fascinating and moving. It is music for the head, heart and feet aptly summed up in the brief (uncredited) poem that appears on the CD insert:

are you comfortable?

 do you feel safe?

 has it happened?

 is it happening?

 or are you waiting for it?