Thoughts on the Way

Writings by composer and pianist Mark Isaacs

Category: Reviews

Echoes of Harlem

Artist/s: Mat Jodrell with Frank Kimbrough, Jay Anderson & Lewis Nash
Label: Nicholas Records
Reviewed by Mark Isaacs

Mat Jodrell gave his new album the title Echoes of Harlem without being guilty of a shred of what might otherwise perhaps have been a kind of appropriative hubris. After all, Mat saw fit to make his home in that signal Manhattan neighbourhood for five years, and Duke Ellington’s composition of that name begins the major artistic statement that comprises this album. Mat Jodrell describes Harlem in his liner notes as “addictive, relentless, unabashed, and welcoming” and these would all serve as apt descriptors for the music he has given us here.

Mat is an Australian jazz trumpeter, hailing from Perth and still in his thirties, who made a significant splash during his 8 years in New York City. He was appointed as lecturer at the Julliard School of Music, and he played with a roll call of major American jazz talents. He now lectures at the James Morrison Academy of Music in Mount Gambier, South Australia.

I’ve tilted my awareness toward the artform of jazz for half a century now, and moved within its circles. There’s one particular change that I notice in looking over that period which I think is worth remarking upon in the context of this recording.

So often, now – but, rarely then – there is an immersion in, and celebration of, the tradition as a whole, rather than the default recruitment of an aspiring musician to the cutting edge of the artform’s vogue stylistic point of evolution.

In 1968 I was hearing in the jazz of the day – by say Miles Davis or Bill Evans – an artistic life force undergoing its latest transmutation right there in that historical moment. And so would not any musician sign up to play under the sway of an organism that was then vibrating so monumentally in the air? And in 1978 it was Weather Report or the seminal works of Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett. I was playing by then, and I and my compatriots wanted to play like that. Rarely did we look back.

Things have changed, and I celebrate the new classicism in jazz. Without there being any clearly defined single “cutting edge” any more, it is natural that many young jazz musicians curate a broad sweep of the artform with real authority, just as their classical colleagues do. The more recent past can sound corny until some extra distance is had. We tended not to listen to Louis Armstrong in 1978.

And so Mat curates – brings into the now – many echoes of the sound of the great Louis Armstrong and Cootie Williams, amongst others (and not eschewing more modern threads). A certain kind of jazz diehard might protest “But we already have the Armstrong records!”. This always seems to me to be a strange manifestation of the cult of personality harnessed to an exaggerated and stubborn obeisance to the second-hand documents that comprise historical recordings. The music of a genius like Louis Armstrong transcends the man himself: its evocation warrants being heard pummelling right through the bones and breath of today’s living, pulsing human beings. Were there to be recordings of Chopin playing his music, should none of we pianists today play his gems? Jazz rhetoric needs to grow up on just this kind of point.

The most striking thing about Mat’s playing is its utter authenticity in respect of that imbued historical jazz tradition (and how he has assimilated it; what authority!) as well as the acute emotional range of what he has in store for us. And so it swings, it shuffles and it swaggers as hard as it gets, yet at next turn melts us into puddles with its shameless and heartfelt tenderness, such as on his exquisite composition For My Folks. Mat is a grown up.

Speaking of authenticity and authority – surely themselves the key touchstones of this album – recording in New York with the band of American heroes he has assembled here is like essaying Mozart with the Vienna Philharmonic.

In the piano of Frank Kimbrough, the double bass of Jay Anderson and the drums of Lewis Nash we find consummate artistry at every turn, harnessed to that same kind of wide stylistic perspicacity. It can be done in other cities, but here you do feel the soil under foot. There is deep history within this music that is rekindled from so much of the spectrum of jazz’s oeuvre, but just as a classical player’s inspired curatorial choices in a historically-inclined recital may make for an original statement when taken as a whole, here the resulting brew of influences is indeed singular. And so tumble down the artificial, flimsy and transparent walls seemingly erected by blinkered rhetoricians between artistic creation, and re-creation. Celebrate that.

This article was first published here.


Close to the Flame: The life of Stuart Challender

Author: Richard Davis
Wakefield Press, 2017. 229pp.
ISBN 978 174305 456 7 (hardback)
Reviewed by Mark Isaacs

The great Australian conductor Stuart Challender died in 1991, and as the author of this first fully-detailed account of his life writes in the biography’s Prelude, there was at the time of writing “the apparent danger of Stuart ‘slipping off the radar’ if his story was not soon told; of him being consigned to a footnote in history, remembered only by a few grey-haired concert- and opera-goers for whom he had once been a beacon, by a handful of aging colleagues and friends who shared his successes and his trials, and by the Australian gay community for whom he became, briefly, a reluctant hero.”

Indeed, we live in interesting times, when memories (like attention spans) are palpably truncated and there exists something of an endemic tendency in our educational and other institutions to be insufficiently comprehensive in surveying the deep legacy of Australian artists (a “cultural amnesia” in the words of Walkley Award-winning arts journalist John Shand). Therefore, this book is long overdue as a contributing antidote to the general malaise on that score, and is written with polish and flair by an internationally-acclaimed Australian writer specialising in biographies of musicians.

One of the most remarkable insights gained from the book is that Challender truly was born to conduct. Most conductors turn to the discipline seriously in their undergraduate years at the earliest. Child and teenage musical prodigies almost always reveal themselves with a primary focus as instrumentalists, vocalists or, more rarely, composers. Even Leonard Bernstein saw himself primarily as a pianist and composer in his teenage and early undergraduate years at Harvard, and it was not until a legendary mentor informed him imperiously that he was to be a conductor – a suggestion initially met with incredulity – that he took to the podium.

In Challender’s case, he determined his path to be that of a conductor at the tender age of fourteen while attending a concert by the (then) Tasmanian Orchestra conducted by the Hungarian-born Tibor Paul. By age fifteen he had assembled a “scratch orchestra” for his own public conducting debut at Wesley Hall, Hobart; a singularly precocious feat by any account. He maintained an interest in composition for some years (though none of his scores survive) and was an accomplished clarinettist and pianist.

Challender knew he had to get out of Hobart, and his undergraduate musical studies were in Melbourne (where he was appointed musical director of the Victorian Opera Company) followed by postgraduate studies at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Hamburg. He went on to conduct professionally in Europe, though not at the higher echelons of distinction. Returning to Australia in 1980, high-level appointments followed such as to the Australian Opera and, most notably, as Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

One of the distinct themes that emerges from the book is how much Challender’s great promise was cut short by his premature death at the age of forty-four. It details his very successful debuts, in the last two years of his life, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and we are well-justified in speculating as to what he might have achieved on the world stage had he lived longer. At the very least, his international reputation could have ended up comparable to those of Sir Charles Mackerras before him and Simone Young after him.

However, Challender was indeed a star in Australia. Aside from Sir Charles Mackerras, he is the only Australian Chief Conductor that the Sydney Symphony Orchestra has had in its history, and he shepherded the orchestra through some landmark times, including its 1988 Australian Bicentenary tour of the United States. At the end of his life Challender also became something of a household name in Australia due to his battle with AIDS – the illness that took him – by virtue of his great courage in persisting on the podium in the face of acute and debilitating infirmity and his candour (largely by implication) about his homosexuality in an era when this was still far from common.

The biography is successful in giving us a distinct feeling for a most complex and rich life. It is assuredly not hagiographic, and goes some way to revealing Challender’s faults. We learn of his social awkwardness, his “troubled, confused and fragile psyche” and these neurotic tendencies are understandably linked in part to his having grown up gay in Tasmania, by far the most regressive State on that issue at that time.

There are throughout frequent oblique references to Challender being at many times terribly difficult to work with; indeed it is implied that he could be singularly obnoxious. However, scant examples of this type of behaviour are actually given. This may imply some reticence on the part of interviewees for the book to speak in any way ill of him, or reluctance of the author to persist in his enquiries or reveal what might have been imparted, and it is overall perhaps the only weakness of the biography. Strangely, the author cites, as an example of Challender’s arrogance, a letter he wrote home to his parents while studying and conducting in Europe as a young man, in which Challender gives himself an unashamedly good review of his work at one of his concerts. This is hardly a good example: a young person privately recounting career achievements enthusiastically to parents in a letter from afar is surely not unusual enough to be deemed particularly boastful; it is commonplace and eminently understandable.

On the other hand, there are frequent and welcome accounts of Challender’s generosity of spirit and the deep affection in which he was held by friends and colleagues, though we are told that the friends often had to exercise forbearance to achieve this (again, what underpinned this forbearance is rarely revealed). There are insights into Challender’s interests, which included Zen Buddhism and gastronomy. He lived alone all his adult life and as well as male friends and lovers, enjoyed very close friendships with women, most notably his agent Virginia Braden and with Mary Vallentine, then Managing Director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. There was also an early romantic relationship with a woman, the American soprano Marilyn Zschau, a connection which persisted throughout his life when she became ultimately a very close friend and something of a mentor for him.

The biography is thoroughly researched and its sources are comprehensive and distinguished. As well as those mentioned earlier, they include composer Carl Vine (who writes the foreword), Anthony Fogg (distinguished music administrator in Australia and now the USA) and, notably, author and journalist David Marr who presented an ABC TV Four Corners program devoted to Challender and his end-of-life health travails which carried the candid and edgy double entendre of a title The Big Finish. It was a remark of Sydney Symphony Orchestra Concertmaster Donald Hazelwood in that program – that working with Challender was like being “close to the flame” – which gave the biography its title.

Challender’s commitment to Australian composers, and to contemporary classical music, emerges strongly. He championed, indeed encouraged, the symphonies of the young Carl Vine, as well as works by Sculthorpe, Meale, Edwards and others. He also found time to be for a while Artistic Director of the Seymour Group in Sydney, which specialised in contemporary music.

The biography is aimed at a more general readership, and though we learn much about the repertoire Challender conducted and his overall stage presence and style, there are few insights into the core musical and technical aspects of his conducting and interpretations beyond the fact that he was highly passionate, charismatic and supremely committed on the podium. We do learn that he had a musical blind spot in that he was not adept at conducting complex rhythms such as those found in Stravinsky’s Petrushka.

Having myself not seen Challender conduct for nearly thirty years, I naturally turned to YouTube in the course of writing this review. Watching him conduct the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in Shotakovich Symphony No. 5, while being struck by all the qualities noted by the author, it was supremely evident to me how clear his direction itself was. There was never any doubt about what he meant, and where he intended events to start and finish. Everything was comprehensively prepared in his body language, which the players needed to only read like a book. This quality can be occasionally lacking even in the most famous of conductors, and it is easy to see why he was adored and so very well respected by the players of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

Challender’s conducting was a treat for both audiences and musicians, and it engendered some extraordinarily deep music-making that without a doubt should not be forgotten, and that forms a proud part of Australia’s cultural legacy. This biography should go a very long way toward assuring and cementing into our psyches the vitality and power of Stuart Challender’s monumental body of work.

This article was first published here.

1000 Years of Classical Music: Mozart Opera Arias

Artist/s: Various singers with Australian orchestras
Label: ABC Classics ABC 481 5570
Reviewed by Mark Isaacs

This is a very worthy volume from ABC Classics’ well-promoted CD set which in its entirety overviews 1000 years of “classical” music in 100 tracks.

Though the cover’s art and graphical style are rather tacky, the notes in the 28-page booklet are very informative. Each excerpted opera receives a plot summary within which each of the arias selected are given their particular dramatic contexts. There is a page of “Fast Facts” where some key terms (Opera seria, Opera buffa, Singspiel) are defined and a few snippets of information about Mozart and his operas are offered. In a somewhat tawdry mint-green box, key historical events of the year 1787 are presented – including that of Captain Arthur Philip setting off from Portsmouth with the First Fleet – this being the year Mozart completed his opera Don Giovanni four years before his death. All libretti excerpts are presented in their original Italian or German as well as with English translation, and the singers, orchestras, conductors and recording dates and locations are all meticulously credited. All in all, the listener is well provisioned for the sonic journey at hand.

Eight operas are excerpted: Don Giovanni, Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio), Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), Idomeneo, La clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus), Zaide, Cosi fan tutte (All Women Are Like That) and Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute).

Three of the operas are “Singspiel”: The Magic Flute, The Abduction from Seraglio and Zaide (which Mozart did not complete). A Singspiel had a libretto in German rather than Italian, with spoken (rather than sung) dialogue and was generally comic or romantic in nature.

In many ways Singspiel could be seen as the 18th century German equivalent of 20th century musical theatre (a play with songs). Though The Magic Flute is the only popular Mozartean Singspiel (he wrote six), and Mozart’s Italian language operas by far dominate the repertoire, I must confess I love hearing Mozart sung in German. The opening of the famous “Queen of the Night Aria” from The Magic Flute seems to foreshadow Wagner with its frighteningly declamatory “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen” (“The rage of Hell is boiling in my heart”). How Mozart manages in this aria to seamlessly juxtapose that soundworld – including its also rather Wagnerian “Hört, hört, hört” (“Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye”) – with the aria’s very famous coquettish coloratura passages is a marvel to behold. Devotees of Cosi, Figaro, Don Giovanni et al may well disagree, but The Magic Flute has most of the best tunes too.

The singers featured are in several cases stars of Australian opera like Joan Carden, Teddy Tahu Rhodes and Emma Matthews and they don’t disappoint. The most beguiling voice on the disk is that of soprano Sara Macliver: limpid, always telling and boasting exquisite intonation and phrasing. In Porgi amor (Love, give me some comfort) from The Marriage of Figaro she seems to unshakably inhabit a level of vocal sublimity not often found elsewhere on the disk. The only quibble about her singing – and also that of mezzo-soprano Sally-Anne Russell – is a tendency to elide consonants and let them become subsumed too inaudibly into the stunning tone that carries them.

Most of the orchestral work is done by the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and it, like the Opera Australia Orchestra, sounds superb accompanying opera. The Queensland Symphony Orchestra and Adelaide Symphony Orchestra sound somewhat lumpier in this context. The conductors include some international heavyweights like Christopher Hogwood, György Fischer, Ola Rudner, Sebastian Lang-Lessing and Richard Bonynge as well as the more home-grown but highly-regarded Dobbs Franks, Nicholas Milton and Antony Walker.

This is mostly an exemplary disk. However the one excerpt featured from Idomeneo – also the only live recording on the disk – does jar a little with some intonation and other issues from tenor Mark Tucker, and some internal balance problems from the period instruments of the Orchestra of the Antipodes conducted by Antony Walker, which is otherwise pleasantly transparent and drivingly kinetic.

Every Mozart opera lover would probably shed a little tear for their favourites left out from the compilation, but it really is a shame that we don’t hear perhaps Mozart’s most beautiful aria of all time, Tamino’s Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön (This image is enchantingly beautiful) from The Magic Flute. Another sad oversight is the non-inclusion of any of the great sextets, some of which are surely amongst Mozart’s most ingenious creations.

One interesting fact is that this selection contains both the highest and lowest vocal notes of the standard opera repertoire: the Queen of the Night’s high F’s in her aforementioned famous aria Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen from The Magic Flute, and the two low D’s called for from the bass in O, wie will ich triumphieren from The Abduction from the Seraglio.

Returning in closing to the analogy made between Singpiel and our own more contemporaneous musical theatre, it is worth remarking that the disk’s opening track Madamina, il catalogo è questo (Little lady, this is the catalogue) from Don Giovanni – where Don Giovanni’s servant Leporello gives a successive rundown of his master’s sexual conquests – is a “Catalogue Aria”, and that this particular form foreshadowed the 20th century’s “List Song” from the musical theatre and hit parade genres, the most famous example of the latter being Paul Simon’s 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover (which perhaps itself may have entitled a great Mozart comic opera: Cinquanta Modi per Lasciare L’Amante, anyone?).

This article was first published here.

Bach Beethoven Fugue: Richard Tognetti – Australian Chamber Orchestra – Live in Concert

Label: ABC Classics ABC 481 4960
Reviewed by Mark Isaacs

This exquisite coupling made by Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra in bringing Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven together in a colloquy upon the subject of Fugue has a deep historical authenticity.

Bach’s music marries its outpourings of spiritual devotion with an unsurpassed intellectual rigour and a joyous revelry in the sheer sensuousness of tones. It now enters its fourth century of stopping people in their tracks to marvel again and again at its remarkable wonders. Representing both the climax of one musical era and the beginning of another, Bach brought Renaissance counterpoint to its apotheosis while opening the door to real freedom of musical modulation; he was the Founding Conjurer, the Wizard-in-Chief, harbinger of the delicious magical trick of passing through tonal wormholes to even the most remote of keys, setting the stage for Wagner and beyond.

In Beethoven we sense the titanic wounded hero, the iridescent genius struggling with valour against the forces that oppose him. Riding roughshod over musical conventions, stretching and distorting the containers into which the prevailing classical forms insisted music be poured, he wrenches from his aristocratic patrons any intimation of his artistic servitude. In his late works he confronts both immortality and a cruel mortality, his deafness an almost ecclesiastical martyrdom that, while silencing his world, sets him on a musical journey that attempts to point the way to the “Ground of Being” of existential philosophy, the “Quantum Vacuum” of particle physics.

Bach proves at every turn that Fugue is a gestalt within his creative imagination, while Beethoven’s life becomes in part a representation of his tortured wrestling toward this idealised form of musical expression, a quest that features noticeably within the tapestry of his later works.

In the world of Fugue, Bach is the master and Beethoven his most worthy disciple. It is interesting that the subjects of Beethoven’s Op. 133 Grosse Fugue essayed on this disk, and of his great fugue that is the first movement of the Op. 131 C# minor quartet, and even the quasi-fugal imitative opening of his Op. 132 A minor quartet, all display a series of semitone steps of two notes, separated by a wider interval. This is the same kind of patterning found in the B-A-C-H motto that Bach employed to spell out his own name in German musical nomenclature, and it is surely a striking signal of reverent hommage from one great master to another. Beethoven’s late works seem in part to be a reckoning with Bach on the matter of Fugue.

The disk begins with the first four of the Contrapunctus pieces from Bach’s The Art of Fugue. These are sometimes known as the “Simple Fugues”, “simple” being very much a relative term here, meaning only that they do not use the more complex fugal devices found in the later pieces. The Art of Fugue is the Bible of Fugue and these opening fugues are perhaps its Genesis story. Like the presence of the one God in the Bible, The Art of Fugue has just one musical subject (a short and in many ways unremarkable motif that is the DNA code for all the pieces). While clearly a didactic work, the music of The Art of Fugue is full of sensual beauty, glorious to the ears. Again, this is Bach’s genius at play; it is both unashamedly learned and unabashedly demotic. The ACO give us all this, and more.

The second work on the disk is Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-flat major, Op. 130 in its “restoration mode”. The final movement that Beethoven originally wrote, which after its premiere was considered highly unsuitable and hived off to become the Grosse Fugue with its own opus number 133 while being replaced by a new finale, is now restored (as is often now the case) to its original place.

The quartet is in six movements, itself a revolutionary structure at the time and all the more so that two of the movements are uncompromisingly short. After the more conventional first movement (that still contains some rebellious irregularities of structure) the Presto lasts only two minutes, a folkish scherzo that contains a couple of deliberately vulgar moments (and, indeed, near the end Tognetti cheekily directs a few notes to be played pizzicato that were not so marked in the string quartet version, cleverly anticipating the urtext pizzicati soon to come in the opening of the next movement).

The third Andante movement is distinguished by a stately but yearning poise, charmingly realised by the ACO, as are the interrupting elements of controlled disintegration that can be a feature of Beethoven’s late style.

The following dance movement is a gently rustic romp, with some cross-rhythms that almost anticipate Brahms, and an ending that peters out before it finishes.

Then comes the glorious Cavatina, one of Beethoven’s most lyrical utterances and almost Schubertian in its feeling. The ACO is at its lyrical best here, even including one sweet portamento (slide), though it is not the only time I’ve regretted the ignoring of two instances of subito pianos (sudden drops to quiet) that Beethoven marks in order to snatch from under our feet the expected climax of the preceding crescendi.

The Grosse Fugue finale is around sixteen minutes and is a bewildering creation that unsurprisingly shocked so many at the time, and still can. It is more than a fugue, but rather a sectionally-layered structure that gives birth to, and shrouds, its fugues. In some ways, the Grosse Fugue is a symphonic structure all by itself, in the manner of Sibelius’ great seventh symphony where the movements are run seamlessly together. Aesthetically and in its formal design, it could be linked with Beethoven’s other giant fugue-based movement, the finale of the Hammerklavier piano sonata.

Technically, the Grosse Fugue is a tour de force in its unrelenting energy – even the passages of repose that interrupt present their own structural problems – and it is often a thicket of displaced and conflicting rhythms and accents. Add to that the constant crossing of parts and other roadblocks and you have a performer’s nightmare of a masterpiece, which is completely and utterly nailed here.

Indeed, Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra have touched monumental greatness in realising these supreme masterworks for string orchestra and releasing this disk of their live performances.

A string orchestra is not the original medium of either work, but in the case of The Art of the Fugue there are no instrumental forces specified. Fittingly for a musical treatise on fugue – and perhaps to some extent redolent of all of Bach’s music – the core of the musical argument is in the juxtaposition of the notes rather than the textures, the “what” rather than the “how”.

One of the major achievements of the ACO in these works is that it never sounds like a string orchestra. Other than the presence of the double bass (more on that later) the orchestra sounds like a master string quartet that has been zoomed in upon. The sound is larger than a string quartet, but not thicker or juicier.

The lushness and density of a conventional string orchestra (or the string section in a symphony orchestra) come from a subtle but distinct lack of unanimity. Multiple players on a single note are not perfectly in tune with each other and this produces a pitch effect known as “beating”, whereby overlapping sound waves of different frequency create interesting perturbations in the sonic texture. Individual vibratos are also not exactly aligned in speed and pitch latitude, bringing more perturbations still. It is a ”chorus effect” that is justly loved in choirs and string sections, even sometimes in wind bands.

Remarkably, the ACO manages to sound like there’s one giant player on each note or multiple-stopped chord. Of course the smaller numbers of sectional participants in chamber, rather than symphony, strings is a distinct aid in this, but it is nonetheless striking just how superbly it is done here. The accuracy of sectional intonation is frightening, ensuring we don’t hear those perturbations (except very occasionally up high where they creep in quite innocuously when absolute unanimity of pitch becomes humanly impossible due to diminishing fingerboard tolerances).

The other aspect at play is that vibrato is eschewed, appearing only once in a blue moon, and very briefly, on the most lyrical of lines. Playing without vibrato is now standard practice for authentic Bach performance, but not so in late Beethoven. But whereas a single player’s vibrato in a string quartet does not take away from the feeling of one player, its invariably variegated (pardon the expression!) individual manifestations within a string section will quickly signal that there are ranks of players at hand. Leaving vibrato out of the Beethoven was likely part of a strategy to keep the work sounding like a quartet.

Imagine one of the great string quartets of the world: full of deft, powerful and sweetly limpid playing plus a razor-sharp musical intelligence. Then put it under a magnifying glass, and watch it grow larger without losing a skerrick of those qualities, the finer proportions remaining fully intact with no extraneous intercessions. Finally, give it “big boots” in the form of a double bass, and now you’ll get the idea. It bespeaks a marvel of discipline to hear the ACO achieve this.

Acknowledgment must be made of the mechanics of transliteration. Richard Tognetti skilfully arranged the Beethoven quartet for string orchestra. In the case of The Art of Fugue an arranger is not really needed, and none is credited. The work often appears printed in “open score” rather than a keyboard “grand staff”, meaning each voice has its own stave and can be read off by the appropriate instrument or section.

However, even in The Art of Fugue there is a small arranging point in regard to the double bass, which sounds an octave lower than written. A decision must be made whether to have the bassist read the notes an octave higher, so that they sound where Bach or Beethoven wrote them, or to allow displacement down the octave (or possibly two octaves).

There is plenty of justification for the notes to sound in lower octave transposition, as this is a staple of organ music (with its 16’ and 32’ couplings) and also is a standard technique in string orchestration, where the basses often double the celli at the octave. The “lower octave” forays of the bass on this disk often include using the “extension” notes, a refinement that expands the range of the double bass down from low E to C, either by an extended fingerboard or a fifth string.

In one sense it might seem jarringly anachronistic to hear these lowest bass notes – commonly thought to be a development of the twentieth century – included in the music of Bach and Beethoven. However, in Beethoven’s case, the double basses in Vienna had a fifth string in classical times, enabling them to go down to the C, a note Schubert uses in the Unfinished Symphony. In any case, the tessitura is employed with such telling effect here that any squeamishness must be cast aside. It is an unalloyed joy to hear Maxime Bibeau’s gently tolling low Eb on the first chord of Beethoven’s Cavatina, and the low D heard in some of the cadences in the Bach evoke a 16’ or even 32’ organ stop. However, the bass octave doubling in the third fugal subject statement in the exposition of Contrapunctus I is less effective, taking away some of the clean austereness of the initial fugal entries, and there are a few other times in the Bach – for example in the lead up to cadences – where the lower octave bass doubling device seems overused and could be held back a little longer for all the better effect when it finally does arrive.

The more off-the-string giocoso style of playing given to the dotted rhythms in Contrapunctus II is not to my taste, and a heavier, more connected portato style of playing – such as used by Glenn Gould on the piano in this movement – would bring out a more apposite mood of austere grandeur.

In a very contemporary masterstroke of bold arranging, in Contrapunctus IV the strings seem to play pizzicato throughout (actually my ears tell me the bass is playing detached, short arco notes, but the actual effect is all pizz.), and players also sing along! At first, as the latter crept in, I thought it was inadvertent, as musicians will sometimes unconsciously sing quietly as they play. But as things coalesced toward the final sung-and-played chord it soon became apparent it was deliberate. I was surprised however that the trill in this movement was not played. The sustaining sound of a few players’ pizz would have surely allowed the trill to be carried by the left hand alone without employing any mandolin-like techniques in the right.

A disk like this should show yet again to the world stage that the Australian Chamber Orchestra is not only at the peak of instrumental accomplishment, but has a breadth of vision that allows it to make revelatory, fresh and intertextual statements about the most supreme masterworks of the Western musical canon, whilst also famously pioneering so much of what is new and bold in twenty-first century music-making.

This article was first published here

Valley of Rocks – Piano music composed and performed by Miriam Hyde

Label: Wirripang Wirr 085
Reviewed by Mark Isaacs

First, I’ll declare some interests. I knew, and adored, Miriam Hyde. She came to my home once, and we often exchanged letters – the old-fashioned way – hers in beautiful handwriting and flowery language; I have treasured them. I was the winner of the first (and only) Miriam Hyde Composer-Pianist Award, and one of my short piano pieces was published in a folio of piano works by various Australian composers intended as a tribute to her, following her death.

Miriam went into the studio and recorded this CD comprising selections from her solo piano works in 1993, which was her 80th year. It has just been re-released, and that is a very good thing indeed.

Miriam was a truly consummate musician.

The decades of High Modernism were not kind to composers of her style, but it is surely time to take off such blinkers. Now that composers once again set out to write boldly lyrical, playful, grand or tender music that has its roots, however extrapolated, in traditional tonal harmony, it would be instructive for them to compare their own craftsmanship and emotional range to that of Miriam Hyde’s.

As to her pianism, its shows absolutely no sign at all of any burred edges that might have been expected given her advanced age at the time of recording. It’s bold and brassy where needed (which is much of the time!) and warm and singing elsewhere (although qualities of lyrical warmth tend not be heightened in her touch albeit written indelibly into her music; pianistically she is more in her element as a pugilist). Her technique carries the assured confidence of the supreme virtuoso – for that she undoubtedly was – and many of her pieces are demanding virtuosic concert works, or otherwise contain passages of such a nature.

The disk proceeds roughly chronologically through her compositions, covering works composed between 1934 and 1987.

In early pieces like Fantasia on Waltzing Matilda, Rhapsody No. 1 in F sharp minor and Concert Study No. 3 in C# minor which were written around the age of 22, one is not surprised to find a highly derivative quality (especially of the composer-pianist Rachmaninov, who was still alive at the time of their writing, and whom Miriam told me she had heard perform in concert on several occasions). However, what is startling in someone so young is the unerring assurance of craft, the powerful compositional facility. Harmony, form, counterpoint, melodic shape and instrumental figuration were completely under her control in a spectacularly accomplished way that was truly precocious for someone who was still an undergraduate student at the time.

In Magpies at Sunrise (a typically bucolic title) written in 1946, one starts to hear a bolder and more experimental harmonic language, with elements of late Impressionism (like early Dutilleux), and of harmonic dissidents like Scriabin. There is even something of the musical ornithology of a Messiaen in its pianistic “bird calls” (Messiaen himself didn’t hear and transcribe the calls of Australian birds until his 1988 visit to Australia). The antic tonal shifts are now more sudden and the scales more unusual, including the Lydian mode with flattened 7th (known in jazz circles as the “Lydian Dominant” mode, a scale featured in the theme from TV’s The Simpsons).

In the virtuosic Brownhill Creek in Spring (1942) one senses perhaps an influence of another pastoral Australian composer, the great Percy Grainger who was 31 years her senior. The Ring of New Bells from this same period features some unusual tintinnabulations achieved by struck chord blocks that evoke the overtones of bells. It was composed to celebrate the acquisition of a set of bells for St. Paul’s Church in Burwood, the inner-west Sydney suburb in which Miriam lived.

Unsurprisingly, the Sonata in G minor is the meatiest work on the disk, and we now hear elements of a Hindemithean austerity alongside the warmly lyrical forays, as well as some hints of a Prokoviev-like bitter steeliness. This is a wild and masterly sonata, an imposing and unusual structure and an exhausting but rewarding journey to the depths and heights of human emotion.

The disk concludes with tracks featuring virtuoso fireworks (Scherzo Fantastico and Concert Study No. 3 in G# minor), an Iberian foray (Evening in Cordoba), and some pastoral gems that still brim with mercurial virtuosity (Reflected Reeds, Valley of Rocks and Water Nymph).

This disk contains more than one hour of extremely – sometimes impossibly – difficult piano music performed, at the age of 80, impeccably, energetically and with unfettered élan by the woman who composed it. I am racking my brains to think of anyone on the planet who has done something similar, in any generation. There have of course been a few other 80-year-olds still able to record a disk of solo virtuoso repertoire to perfection, but one consisting entirely of their own compositions? No-one else comes to mind from my travels through the international record catalogues. Performer-composers are an extremely rare breed in classical music in any case, and few manage to maintain both disciplines at a high level even into middle, let alone old, age.

Australia is remarkable, given what we know of the gender strictures of the era, in having produced four highly-lauded female composers whose year of birth was around the time that the nineteenth century became the twentieth. They are Miriam Hyde (born 1913), Dulcie Holland (also 1913), Margaret Sutherland (1897) and Peggy Glanville-Hicks (1912). To my mind Miriam Hyde is the very finest of them all, and moreover she easily equalled in her razor-sharp craft that of her male contemporaries like Raymond Hanson (1913) and John Antill (1904). Considering her additional brilliant pianistic accomplishments and her remarkable dedication to music education, Miriam Hyde was surely the most formidable and important Australian composer of her generation.

This article was first published here

Jayson Gillham – Music by Medtner & Rachmaninoff

Artist/s: Jason Gillham, piano / Melbourne Symphony Orchestra conducted by Benjamin Northey / Music by Medtner & Rachmaninoff
Label: ABC Classics ABC 481 5564
Reviewed by Mark Isaacs

This album both inspires and frustrates.

Jayson Gillham is a young Australian pianist, raised in rural Queensland, who only quite recently turned 30, and has seen considerable success on the international stage. That is something to celebrate wholeheartedly with an unfettered spirit of congratulation.

Gillham’s playing on this disc displays the assured technical pianism one might expect in a prize-winner at international competitions who has launched a significant worldwide career, as well as offering a quite mature approach to musical phrasing and the finely-balanced layering of textures – often occurring near-simultaneously in most registers of the piano – that is stock-in-trade of late Romantic piano literature.

This is no more evident than in Medtner’s Prologue ‘The Angel’, Op. 1 No. 1, one of two solo piano works that frame this CD of two concerti. This early work of Medtner’s (he composed it at age 17) is a tour-de-force of stratified musical ideas, producing a gripping orchestral-like texture. Gillham brings it off magisterially, taking care of all the layers at all times and drawing the listener into Medtner’s potent and telling soundworld.

The Medtner legacy is the other cause for celebration, in its connection to the great Australian pianist Geoffrey Tozer, who led a mercurial and ultimately rather tragic life. Tozer was a devotee of Medtner’s music, and was indeed the first pianist to record all of this little-known Russian composer’s piano music. I already have in my collection Tozer’s disc of Medtner’s piano concerti Nos. 2 & 3, recorded with the London Philharmonic under Neeme Järvi for the Chandos label (it is known that former Prime Minister Paul Keating championed Tozer to this prestigious international label and otherwise was an ardent supporter of the pianist).

Gillham explains in the CD booklet that he was involved in the documentary film about Tozer The Eulogy, and from there his connection to Medtner followed, and thus came his recording for this disc of Medtner’s Piano Concerto No. 1.

So this is something else that inspires. A strong and now ongoing Australian component (with the involvement of ABC Classics) bringing greater visibility to the music of this relatively unknown Russian master (and including in the historical process some Prime Ministerial oversight no less!).

Medtner and Rachmaninoff were born three years apart, and there are strong connections between their styles. Indeed they were good friends for most of their lives and shared their musical ideas in a kind of dialogue. Medtner’s music is not as ravishingly beautiful as his great friend’s, but often has a stronger intellectual fibre. In Rachmaninoff, the Apollonian and Dionysian instincts were balanced very much in favour of the latter (though he was no wallflower intellectually, as evidenced by his stunning contrapuntal inner textures, unexpected modulations and thoughtful orchestrations). In Medtner these twin instincts seem more in balance, equally weighted. Probably it is the imbalance itself – that unashamed leaning toward the sensual and devotional – which gives Rachmaninoff’s music the much more enduring canonic edge, and indeed its strong popularity with audiences.

Medtner’s more questing spirit can be seen in the formal structure of his Piano Concerto No. 1, a single continuous movement with internal seams that only suggest the more traditional multi-movement concerto structure. Boldly iconoclastic too is the concerto’s end: three single-note unaccompanied thumps at the very bottom end of the piano, like the proverbial tolling bells. The rhythms, too, in Medtner are more adventurous than Rachmaninoff’s mostly more square-cut phraseology. But though melodic, in Medtner there are few truly great tunes such as Rachmaninoff gives us at almost every turn.

Gillham surmounts all the challenges of this very difficult concerto without a hitch.

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra under their Associate Conductor Benjamin Northey does little to truly inspire on this recording. Northey is a very fine technician, whose amiable and unintrusive approach means an orchestra can get on with the job while trusting that the ever-sure direction emanating from the podium will keep things together and balanced. That is certainly no mean feat in itself! However this kind of dispassionate and non-demanding style, that tends to avoid real exhortation, means that the music is not often on the edge of its seat emotionally-speaking. Solos, whether from wind or brass individual players, or from the string sections, are rarely shaped sufficiently, or bear enough emotional fortitude, to be viscerally moving. An international-standard orchestra should not sound as competently workmanlike as the MSO does on this recording. This is not helped by some questionable mixing. Both the Medtner and Rachmaninov concerti open with piano figurations that are mere accompaniment for melodies in the strings, but the piano is mixed too much in the foreground and swamps the tunes.

The decision to pair Medtner’s first piano concerto with Rachmaninoff’s warhorse second concerto could be either a cynical record company marketing move, or a genuine desire by the artists to make a fresh reading of what remains still a great, though hackneyed, work. In the disk notes Gillham says he and Northey were intent on “casting off our habits and expectations of how this piece should be played” but the result is dismal. What is “cast off” is the work’s deep and telling well of lyricism, its strongest suit after all! This is a lacklustre and bland reading.

Pairing a Medtner concerto with a Rachmaninoff makes complete sense, but why not Rachmaninoff’s neglected fourth concerto? It is, after all, dedicated to Medtner, and indeed, only a few weeks before this disk was recorded, Northey did a fine job conducting it with another stellar young Australian pianist Simon Tedeschi and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

Also disappointing is Gillham’s reading of Rachmaninoff’s great Prelude in D major, Op. 23 No. 4 which is cantered through insouciantly, with little sense of the exquisitely poised lingering and deeply tender searching with which it is surely redolent, such that the normally shattering climax, when it eventually arrives, seems enervatingly matter-of-fact.

This review was first published here

Michelle Nicole

Michelle Nicole
Keep Your Heart Right
Newmarket NEW 3108.2

Jazz instrumentalists often have unkind words to say about so-called “girl singers”. I do not believe this is underpinned by sexism from their mostly male ranks. For a start I have heard accomplished female jazz instrumentalists make similar remarks!

There is no doubt there is an epidemic of cabaret/show singers masquerading as jazz singers. And though one occasionally encounters a male version of the species, overwhelmingly it is the female variety that makes it presence felt.

So what distinguishes the genuine jazz singer from the impostor, given that they frequently tackle the same material from the Great American Songbook?

Quite simply real jazz singers are also jazz musicians. They have the subtlety and fluidity of (poly)rhythmic phrasing that enables them to swing with masterful assurance. They fully understand the harmonic structure of the piece that they are singing and so are able to improvise variations on the melody, whether by way of ornamentation to the actual melody or in the form of an actual improvised “scat” solo.

They don’t simply stand in front of a backing band, they are an integral member of the ensemble itself, aware of the subtleties of what the instrumentalists are doing and reacting spontaneously to the gift of the moment.

They often compose their own material. And while they take pride in their appearance on stage as their male colleagues (hopefully!) also do, overtly forced and superficially self-conscious “glamour” is not really an integral part of the equation.

On all of the above counts is Melbourne-based Michelle Nicole not only a jazz singer, but a jazz singer par excellence. She is very comfortable to anchor herself to the “core” tradition of jazz singing and it is precisely in this area that she shines. She is without question at the very forefront of jazz singing in this country, a mature artist who has clearly worked hard for (and has realised) very high standards of real musicianship as well as the ability to communicate with an audience.

There is a grace and ease about all that she does that is extremely endearing. It is impossible not to like this woman’s singing, as one basks in the coolness of her phrasing and her warm and affecting sound (that only very occasionally becomes a little strained and harsh in the higher register).

She is full of surprises, whether it be as subtle as an unusually placed note or as overt as the up-tempo arrangement of Jimmy van Heusen’s Darn That Dream, which I have never heard done at other than a ballad tempo. There are three Michelle Nicole originals on the CD – all have music by Nicole, and two have her lyrics too. They are all strong, interesting songs.

Nicole is at one with her excellent band, such that one hears a true quartet in action. Geoff Hughes’ brilliantly understated yet masterful guitar provides unwavering support and brilliant solos, Ronny Ferella’s drums are tasteful and deft (though occasionally in a slightly more urgent place than the other performers) and Howard Cairns is a very accomplished double bassist who would do well to inject himself into the overall brew with even more presence.

It did trouble me that the first three tracks on the CD all had brooding openings in G minor – while not disastrous, this is without a doubt careless programming.

Nicole refers in the liner notes to this album as a “‘warts and all’ dream” – obviously alluding to the minor glitches that must be a part of any live recording. In fact it is a credit to Nicole and her colleagues that there are precious few of these. By and large this album pulls off the remarkable feat of combining the sort of polish one finds in a studio production with the spontaneity of live recording. They are aided by an excellent recorded sound from engineer Mal Stanley. I would have liked to know where the recording was made. The combination of what is obviously a smallish crowd with the absence of jazz venue noise suggest it was made in a studio with an invited audience.

By the end of the CD, I had a certain hunger for a broader range of colours from Nicole. The warm and endearing quality in her voice can be its own worst enemy if not offset by a sufficient proportion of contrasting colours. Her sound walks up to you and gives you a big hug. What is missing from her voice are the colours of pathos and edge, of trouble and strife. To my mind, Nicole’s voice “smiles” too much of the time. This is especially noticeable when the lyric is going in another direction entirely, for example the first few lines of Irving Berlin’s Be Careful, It’s My Heart:

Be careful, it’s my heart
It’s not my watch you’re holding, it’s my heart
It’s not the note I sent you that you quickly burned
It’s not the book I lent you, that you never returned

The tone of these lines is open to interpretation, but the possibilities lie on a spectrum between the pathos of a tormented plea and the confronting assertion of a final warning. Yet Nicole’s rendition lacks the “edge” that something on this spectrum would inevitably have – she tends to smile and coo her way through it as if she wasn’t really mindful of the meaning of what she was singing.

There is no question that Nicole is a great singer. She would break through to levels approaching the transcendental if as well as charming her audience, she sometimes confronted her listeners with a raw emotion that would pick them up and shake the living daylights out of them.

Fiona Burnett

Fiona Burnett
Soaring at Dawn
Suite for jazz trio and string quartet
ABC Jazz 067 199-2

This is a CD that really does ravish you straight away.

That Fiona Burnett is in all respects a virtuoso soprano saxophonist is evident from her extended unaccompanied playing that comprises Solitude, the first movement of this six-part suite. Burnett manages to evoke a transcendental mood of awe and reverence, leavened by some simply stunning filigree work that is in no way gratuitous. All is knitted together by a magnificent sound and impeccable intonation on an instrument which poses a major challenge in these vexed areas to even the finest players.

Burnett possesses an unfailing sense of line, her improvisations following an inner logic in which there is almost no rhetoric but pure invention and despite the deep emotionality of what she plays there is always present an unswerving sense of real control in her playing.

In the third movement Flight and the final movement Daylight Burnett shows that hard-edged, boisterous angularity also comes easily to her as the music takes off like a startled flock of birds. She also shows that she can use the tortured extremities of the instrument’s range to powerful and controlled effect.

Joining Burnett in the jazz trio part of the configuration is bassist Ben Robertson and drummer David Jones.

Robertson is a deft and lyrical soloist and a reliable ensemble stalwart who adds a very telling and human dimension to any group of which he is a part, although there are times where a more robust, earthy approach to his instrument would seem to be desirable.

Jones is an unsurpassed virtuoso and an original thinker on his instrument, whose ability to make his extraordinarily fleet figurations appear and disappear in an instant sometimes punctures the more reverent moods with just a hint of the flippancy of a stage magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

The string quartet is the Silo String Quartet, and it is apparent from the liner notes that at least the cellist Caerwen Martin is a capable improviser, providing an accomplished quasi-Indian solo in the fifth movement Raga. It appears that the rest of the music for the quartet is notated.

The quartet plays very well though they are mixed rather far back in the otherwise excellent sound production by Mal Stanley, making it difficult to fully assess their tone and ensemble. However it is clear that they are not fazed by the rhythmic problems of hooking up with a rhythm section in full flight (presumably without a conductor since none is credited).

About Fiona Burnett the composer I have a few reservations. Certainly the suite is a pleasing concept and architecture presenting a nicely balanced variety of very telling moods. But on the whole, I would say the playing far surpasses the writing. The actual writing is more of a vehicle that catalyses some powerful material from the players without being particularly memorable in and of itself. What Burnett has written certainly doesn’t leave a comparable impression to that which her playing does, though what Burnett and her colleagues play in response to her writing makes for a very strong musical statement indeed.

Unfortunately this deficiency is amplified by the fact that Burnett’s string quartet scoring is rather unimaginative, consisting of far too many long notes in rhythmic unison (with the exception of Raga, where this effect is clearly used as a deliberate and admirable device to evoke an Indian droned instrument). The string quartet tradition is distinguished by its propensity for real counterpoint and true independence of line. It seems a shame when this is watered-down to “pads” in rhythmic unison. I am sure that if Burnett stretched herself she would be capable of far more than this and if she hasn’t already done so should study the Debussy or Ravel string quartets to see what is possible from a string quartet in a deeply impressionistic context such as hers.

However, despite this the overall impact of the work (and particularly Burnett’s actual playing) is quite profound and is likely to deeply touch many listeners across both the jazz and classical genres to whom the critical points I have raised may not be much of an issue.

Malcolm Williamson

Malcolm Williamson
Complete Works for Piano
Antony Gray, piano
ABC 472 902-2

During my high school and University years in the 1970s when I began to mix within the Sydney “new music” scene as a budding composer I recall that the name of Australian composer Malcolm Williamson was invariably invoked with a snigger of derision by most of those whom I looked up to for guidance.

In retrospect this can surely be viewed through the prism of the much-vaunted “Tall Poppy Syndrome” welded not only to the then stifling artistic “correctness” imposed by an all-pervasive and stringently ideological interpretation of the idea of  “Modernism” but also to general political correctness itself.

It seems to me that Williamson’s “sins” were as follows.

Firstly, he was too successful and this success manifested in a highly politically inappropriate way. In 1975 he was appointed to the position of Master of the Queen’s music, the first non-British composer to hold the post. In Australia he was viewed as a kind of traitor in accepting such a prestigious position in another country and given that it was a royal appointment he betrayed in the most spectacular way possible the “anti-establishment” ethos thought proper for artists in the late twentieth century, in particular grating against the basic republicanism that naturally informed such polemical forces within Australia.

Secondly, his music was too eclectic for its time and largely too accessible. Williamson approached composition in a way that is accepted as the norm now but at the time was highly suspect. Musical means were not an end in themselves – he used whatever techniques were appropriate to extract the core of the particular piece he was writing. Some of his music was astringently non-tonal, such as in the Sonata No. 2 where he used serial techniques. In other works, particularly those intended as teaching works (such as the various “Travel Diaries”), the harmonic language is often tonal and highly accessible. His music also contains within its reach moods and colours firmly rejected in the new concert music of the time: humour, charm, elegance and flippancy for example. This music always has “line” in a way that was not often part of the armoury of the largely University-based composers of the period: it can almost always be listened to within the rubric of a conventional music syntax of some kind. Most unforgivably, audiences liked it.

This 3-CD set contains four sonatas, a set of five Preludes, the teaching pieces that consist of the five Travel Diaries (Sydney, Naples, London, Paris and New York) as well as Haifa Watercolours and The Bridge that van Gogh painted and the French Camargue, the Variations for Piano, Ritual of Admiration and Hymna Titu.

Pianist Antony Gray has worked directly with Williamson and has written the excellent liner notes and the candid biography containing many first-hand personal insights that appear in the CD booklet. He is in all respects a staunch advocate for Williamson’s work.

Gray has great cleanliness and heightened surety of touch that serve to make the composer’s textures refreshingly transparent – nothing is swallowed or muffled as the music’s lines and layers are starkly etched within the listener’s ear. His technique is prodigious: crisp and biting where needed while filigree passages are woven with a sense of abandonment to their intricacy. At the same time I find the sound-world overall could reveal a wider depth of colour: the piano rarely sings in a deeply affecting and telling cantabile, pianissimos do not melt into a reverent yet lithe hush and the pedalling is not often strategically atmospheric. Nonetheless, while eschewing this degree of emotional engagement with the material Gray’s is honed and extremely robust playing that articulately advocates every detail of the text. It is clearly also a massive achievement to sustain such an impeccably high level of performance quality as one finds here across nearly three hours of music.

This release is highly important and one to be firmly celebrated, coming as it does in the year of the composer’s death and at a time when according to Gray “there is barely a note of [Williamson’s] music in the CD catalogues”. Gray and ABC music should be firmly congratulated for single-handedly providing a powerful redress to this unfortunate situation and it is very fitting that this has been done in Australia – clearly one of our most important and successful composers has been grossly neglected both here and internationally.

In closing I would like to reflect on Gray’s assessment of Williamson as “one of the great composers of the 20th century”. Having listened to all three CDs I have been left with the impression of a composer who demonstrated a prolific facility, impeccable craftsmanship and a brilliantly wide variety of vocabulary and means. However I was not struck with an over-arching vision or a driving need to reveal a deeply personal engagement with the universe, rather more a sense that he is toying with his ideas from a distance, that they are in some way “specimens” that he has found along the way which he astutely and industriously collates in variegated ways for our pleasure (and there is considerable pleasure here).

Williamson seems generously charming, a great and articulate musical conversationalist on a wide range of topics, clever and engaging even when saying the more difficult things. Nonetheless I want to ask this formidable man what made his soul cry or sing with joy in the long dark nights because I have not yet found the answers here as I have so clearly found them when encountering work that seems to indisputably carry that ineffable aroma of “greatness”.


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?