Reviewed by John Clare, February 1st, 2016
Since I began listening to the contemporary end of jazz, or what was the contemporary end then – in the early 1950s that was – I have heard many breakaways from forms and styles that had in themselves been breakaways. Sometimes the breakaway movement was sonically more violent, dissonant (even than thoroughgoing pre-serial atonality) and rhythmically less predictable, or more complicated, than its predecessors; sometimes less, as in the case of “cool jazz” which was really an understated development of bebop (or “modern jazz”) far back when I began listening. Or indeed (as in the case of certain trios (notably The Necks) – they have been the progenitors of something more euphoric, of a system more flowing in feeling than calibrated in structure. Yet complicated rhythmic patterns, sometimes of exotic ethnic origin, moved through it. And it was also free in another sense, though opposed to some jazz that was wildly, violently free; and opposed on the other hand to formal chord sequences as a basis of improvisation.
While all the above could be read into it, its exponents – or some of them, for there were factions within factions – were against intellectualism.
And it was. It was nothing if not rich in alternatives. Some of the more extreme revolutionary attitudes created extremes of deep pleasure and/or high excitement. Before we forget them, we have here three of the most important musicians who have been involved in all of this. In some of the most important bands. The Necks for a start (Swanton was a founding member and still performs with them world wide). Swanton, Spence and Hall were in the brilliantly compositional yet free Clarion Fracture Zone. And Swanton and Spence have each led important bands of their own.
This is one in which the leadership and prime concepts radiate from Alister Spence. It is beautifully listenable in case you are worried. This trio has performed together for twenty years, but this is their first live professional recording. It was made at the Sound Lounge in Sydney in March 2015. While excessive methodology and/or freedom are largely avoided, there is always a definite form or concept or both.
For instance, an ostinato might be held at the piano with one hand while the other hand takes less predictable paths, creating free patterns or commenting minimally. Thus free playing and repetition move simultaneously. Boogie piano lies far back along a comparable path. This engaging, hypnotic effect is progressively expanded with delicate percussive textures and shifting double bass figures. In this directional and textural path the ancient music box, owned and programmed by Spence, repeats a couple of patterns with mechanical precision. Later the glockenspiel, played by drummer Hall, makes precise points of light and tiny patterns. But repetition and development play into each other. The ostinato actually undulates, weaving up and down to be held at near and far tonal centres. It also changes and returns to its original form as the free flowing tumbles and boils of the loose hand drift and cohere magnetically.
The third and longest track is underpinned for a time by a deep repeating left hand pattern which ultimately launches a highly rhythmic bass solo while Hall awakens his drums and cymbals in a high breathless shuffle, and so it changes and develops, with a fast six four and an implied waltz manoeuvring, ultimately to an aggressive propulsion, a rampage. Shouts rise from the audience.
Elsewhere, by contrast, the music scintillates in rhythmic stasis or resolves into a limpid field on which serene circles and ellipses of sound drop like rain on a still surface. You may find this diversion slightly ma, but it is brief. Elliptical forms, such as are suggested to me at any rate, can be seen on the 20 cent piece with the platypus and it might be worth mentioning that I gave some of the copper coins of our new currency to one of the first modernist Japanese artists – old Mr Innoue – who lived near us by a Shingon temple in Kyoto. He was much impressed and is now sadly departed. At a great age I should add.
Australia is capable of these things. And much of that ability, imagination and creative talent can be found in the music from which this disc has sprung. I wish Mr Innoue had heard it.
In some contrast to the other tracks is Mullet Run. I know exactly what this is about. It happens that Alister and myself both surf at Sydney’s Maroubra beach, but never see each other. I go out to surf or dive in the sharky late afternoon. I don’t know when Alister goes. Since I was a little boy, swimming out I would see the mullet migrating at certain times. They would race around the headlands for safety and then swiftly join the lines of breaking waves and swim within them parallel to the beach. In these rising green walls is where I would see them travelling, right in front of me. Quite magic.
In Alister’s evocation everything slips smoothly along, sometimes over humorous rhythm constantly resequenced as to length of bars. But at times it all breaks into blazes of dissonance, notes like silver fish leaping out to dissonant intervals, for in truth almost no one can create such a glittering free frenzy at the piano here in Sydney. Clearly there is an influence from Cecil Taylor, but it is different. One thing should be made clear at this point. At my age and wildly fluctuating health under the pressure of deaths of family and friends, I no longer write about anything I don’t admire considerably. Who cares what I don’t like?
I certainly like both the singing tranquility and the radiant energy of this music.