Thoughts on the Way

Writings by composer and pianist Mark Isaacs

Category: Reviews

Valley of Rocks – Piano music composed and performed by Miriam Hyde, Wirripang Wirr 085

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, ABC Classics ABC 481 5564

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?


The legend of Charlie Parker
The Forecourt, Sydney Opera House
Friday December 6, 2002

It was an unseasonably cold night that fired the imagination and warmed the heart.

The new venue had been in the news: the subject of considerable controversy, including that emanating from residents of the nearby “Toaster” $X,000,000 apartments (ironically themselves subject to earlier similar controversy) in whose backyard the performances, set-ups, sound checks and bump outs would take place. (Others simply found the whole structure unsightly).

In the stolen light of Eastern Summertime the ticket-holders filed through the outdoor security gates, encountering without protest long wooden tables where bags would be searched – a sad and, most would agree, necessary manifestation of an Australia on alert as several thousand people were spectacularly assembled in front of one of the world’s most recognisable icons.

For a start, Sydney has gained a brilliant and unique new venue.

A large outdoor stage on the Opera House Forecourt, with level seating that extended back to the point where the Opera House steps themselves took over and became the tiered stalls. A transcendental setting for a show: floodlit trees, the salty smell of the Harbour and the surreal experience of having this unique monument, the Sydney Opera House, behind you during the performance as if it were the world’s most lavish backdrop (I could not resist momentarily swinging around once or twice during the show to remind myself of this wonderfully bizarre configuration, noting that the performers had the opportunity to look directly at it should this prove to be inspiring).

All this as a foundation to this singular presentation for the venue’s opening.

Testimony, a work which began life as a radio project and changed its spots into a work of multi-media music-theatre, by its sheer brilliance and power last Friday not only gave the bequest of its own luminous soul but also enthusiastically pressed into the slightly nervous hands of Sydney-siders the surely welcome gift of this visionary performance space.

Testimony is a modern example of the Wagnerian concept of Gesamtkunstwerke (total artwork), although its ethos could not be less Wagnerian: a fundamentally unpretentious and heartfelt tribute to a tragic artist of unprecedented genius.

  • The midwifes: the Sydney Opera House, the Sydney and Melbourne Festivals, the Australian Art Orchestra, the ABC and the Australia Council.
  • The presenter: the Sydney Opera House itself.
  • The subject: the life and legacy of Charlie “Bird” Parker.
  • The music: composed by Sandy Evans, arranged by Sandy Evans (and in one instance Paul Grabowsky) with the soloists of the Australian Art Orchestra adding their individual voices as improvising co-composers.
  • The texts: sonnets by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa.
  • The orchestra: the Australian Art Orchestra.
  • The cast: eleven of Australia’s leading vocalists plus narrators Franklyn Ajaye and Bobby C, the latter’s “virtual” presence being achieved by means of video projection.
  • The musical directors:  Paul Grabowsky and Sandy Evans.
  • The set, lighting & multi-media projection: internationally-renowned director Nigel Jamieson and his team.

And of course replacing Bayreuth (the remarkable venue in which Wagner’s operas were staged) was the Sydney Opera House Forecourt, something of a 21st century Bayreuth on this particular night

It could indeed be argued that Testimony is a modern form of opera. Certainly it is contemporary music-theatre, with a set that included video projection and what appeared to be computer graphics making a huge contribution to the overall impact. And yet, there was an endearingly traditional operatic element in the juxtaposition of recitative (to advance the plot) and aria to (reflect upon it). In this case the recitative occurred through narration and multi-media.

A remarkable feature of the music was the way it refused to function as a raw historic/biographical backdrop, which is a path a less creative composer than Sandy Evans may have taken. It was not by any means a purely bebop score, though there was a strong bebop influence and the inclusion of some arrangements of Parker compositions. Furthermore, the improvising soloists did not attempt to blow exclusively in period style, though their playing was clearly influenced by it. They played what they played.

In effect, a historical continuum of jazz was telescoped into one exquisite elongated moment. We heard the music from which Bird was born (the blues, swing etc), and heard how this music gave birth to the language of Charlie Parker. But we also heard where the music went after Bird (free/abstract etc) and heard how this music would have been impossible without the legacy of Charlie Parker.

The result was an overwhelming testimony to this man’s centrality in the evolution of jazz in the twentieth century, by means of the remarkable palette that Sandy Evans’ composing, the improvisations from members of the Australian Art Orchestra brought and the multimedia set brought.

As in film music, the abstract/free elements in some of the improvisations and scoring found a far broader and more receptive audience when functioning as underscore than can reasonably be achieved when they are presented as “pure” music. They were the sounds of deep despair and the cries of joy.

The songs, always touching, were like oases on the story’s often-harrowing journey through some of the most odious challenges a human being could face: drug addiction, racism, the death of a child. Their beauty, and the majesty of the work as a whole did not allow these latter elements to dominate: Testimony is not a “tragedy” (though Bird’s life and death were undoubtedly tragic), it is a celebration.

There were so many unique musical contributions made that it would be onerous to try and cover them all. I am just going to mention four that stood out for me personally.

Paul Grabowsky, whose conducting was free and joyous, always functional and never histrionical and who contributed two outstanding pieces of pianism: one inspired by Art Tatum, the other by Thelonious Monk. Yet both were pure Grabowsky.

Jackie Orszaczky, whose seductive soul-groove on voice and bass calmly entreated that this man Bird can speak to all generations through all forms.

Scott Tinkler, who stands at the very apex of improvising talent in this country or anywhere else, who astounded with his fluidity, individuality and lack of adherence to any “school” or “fashion” upon what must be the most sectarian of instruments in jazz.

And finally, the night’s diva of divas, composer Sandy Evans, who for most of the work sat humbly in the saxophone section on the top tier of the orchestra scaffold, a fetching red ribbon in her hair being the only minimalist talisman of her driving force within the work.

She had a brief stint as conductor, her metronomic pulse holding together an abstract piece, later cueing what appeared to be numbered modular sections and resolutely disagreeing with every conductor on the planet as to which direction the second beat goes.

At the end of the work she ascended one more level (in more senses than one) and blew an extended solo cadenza in tribute to the man himself. It was an extremely courageous move that could have failed or been embarrassing: saxophonist-composer stops proceedings at the climax to “do” Charlie Parker.

Of course it was nothing of the sort. Sandy played her music, playing her heart out in a brilliant personal tribute to the man who had given her such “exhilaration” (in her own words).

Sandy said in the program notes that Bird represents “an artistic pinnacle that I will never come close to reaching”. Sandy, in that amazing cadenza, on that night, in those surroundings, in that work: you came close. And you were among the angels.

Testimony is not only a brilliant work, it is an important work.

It demonstrates that as much as Australia’s improvising artists will continue to accept engagements to take their quartets and quintets into jazz clubs and jazz festivals, they are also capable of creating and developing, at their own initiative, elaborate collaborative works and to, largely without the assistance of managers or administrative staff, themselves directly network with the top tier of our arts apparatchiks to have these works presented in the most elevated (yet accessible) stages in the country.

Works like Testimony represent the very finest manifestation of the artistic culture of Australia. Testimony also demonstrates that we can tell “our” stories without them being overtly “about” Australians.