Commissioned for ABC Jazz Digital Radio
Reviewed by John Clare, April 1st, 2016
The mystical span of the electric guitar; the funk and dance of the electric acoustic.
It is no news that the modern electric guitar is capable of textural blitzes of feedback and a whole range of distortion effects. It is also true that it is capable of pure, thin, finely articulated notes that link it to folk and classical areas. Jeremy Sawkins sometimes blends both approaches in a fantasia of line and colour, storm clouds and lancing rain.
It may seem odd, however, that we should begin with a disquisition on electric guitar when viewing a disc announcing itself as an organ quartet. Further, Sawkins plays both electric and acoustic guitar here. Well, in jazz and rhythm and blues the term organ quartet is used in relation to a band that is literally what it says but not necessarily led by an organist – more often in fact by a tenor saxophonist, sometimes by a guitarist. Jimmy Smith is an organist and sometime leader who comes to mind.He seems like an exception now.
Clearing another matter: Acoustic guitar in this general area differs from electric guitar in that reverberation is produced within the hull of the boat so to speak – or the body of the guitar if you prefer, while on electric guitar it involves strings and amplifiers almost exclusively. (Give or take a wa wa pedal). Usually it is amplified nevertheless, in which case it is often called an electric acoustic guitar. Insane? Oh yes.
The second track here is a traditional air (She Moved Through the Fair) on which the mystical effects possible on the electric guitar are used to great effect. The apparent meditative stasis and airborne drift of the beginning of an Indian raga is used in conjunction with a European modal basis detached from the rules of conventional harmony. Sawkins is superb here. He and organist Heinrich create an atmosphere that is sometimes imminent, sometimes on the aural horizon, sometimes swamping in scope yet not violently loud. Here the electric guitar has something of the soft intimate largeness of a trumpet played softly and breathily into a wide open mike. The feeling has an echo in both European and Oriental folk forms.
This is the blending that began perhaps with early electrical Miles Davis and with the more mystical rock bands of the hippy era. But not entirely. In both jazz and rock moves in this direction existed a long way back..
If it comes to that we might go all the way back to Claude Debussy, who was influenced by gamelan music among other things. All are different however and this track is a singular and powerful contribution. Sawkins is one of several in Sydney and Melbourne who can move freely in in this tonal world. Having both Lebanese and Irish origins could help. His guitar and Spike Mason’s saxophone achieve a high level of pure melodic play. And of course the saxophone can sound somewhat like a double reeded eastern instrument, specially the soprano or sopranino saxes.
The other tracks are quite different. Quite.
Composed by various band members, these are blithely swinging and jumping tunes full of the happy and funky regions of jazz and rhythm and blues. They have a particular attractiveness and, while straightforward in essence, incorporate some inventive twists and turns. The improvised solos are as thoughtful, logical and sometimes tricky as the written parts. It is hard to think of anything troubling, mundane or stressful while this music is playing. It is not derogative by any means to see this as functional, lubricating music to accompany tasks or even creative projects. I am listening to it now as I write. Neither medium interferes with the other. They complement rather.
Incidentally, soon after listening to this disc, I heard the music played by this band in possibly the best intimate listening room in Sydney, known as Colbourne Avenue, though it is in fact in St John’s Road, Glebe. Colbourne through-way runs beside it. There is usually something very worthwhile on here of a Thursday night For instance, the week before that a recital by Paul Cutlan, clarinet and bass clarinet, Oliver Miller, cello, and Gary Daly piano and accordion. Watch this space.