H[igh] Curious

Eugene Ball 4tet. Eugene Ball, trumpet; James Macaulay, trombone; James McLean, drums; Mick Meagher, electric bass
Jazz
Opening Gambit Music
Reviewed by , February 1st, 2016

What is this? It is one of the most startling jazz records, unified yet diverse, that I have heard for some time.

Where to start? Well, it begins with a roaring gravelly charge on trumpet, trombone and electric bass, over a crashing back beat, followed by brilliant, passionate trumpet and trombone solos… A transparent electric pang floats by. Cymbals and bass drum, tom and snare, create a sensational interplay: one man having an agitated conversation with himself, both motoric and textural. Then sudden cuts in volume couch unison harmony lines that weave and sway sweetly and with a resonance of melancholy. Melancholy recurs more than once on this disc, and wild celebratory excitement. We will leave the first track and generalise.

Eugene Ball

Eugene Ball

There are memorial marches, one in which every other bar has a pause so that you can practically see soldiers’ feet sliding forward then freezing, sliding, freezing. Blues marches also. By odd coincidence the Edinburgh Tattoo is heading for Melbourne as I write. Oblique recollections of the habanera and the pavan are also in here, without a Latin feeling being established; just a hint. Some way along the bass and trombone sustain a deep ominous hum, almost subliminal yet powerful enough. Trumpet and trombone come forward to engage in a staccato argumentative chatter. The fastest forward motion on the disc is a hurtling line of ticking from the drums: shickatickashickaticka. Some sections are underpinned by eight to the bar exuberance.

Sometimes the trumpet rises into a region that holds grief and even fear, like the Spanish trumpets before a siege; before they attack the Alamo, if you are old enough to have seen that movie. On the second track trumpet, trombone and bass tumble and roll. There is an effective play of both jazz and R&B.

Something lost is being mourned and celebrated here, surely. Let us go to the dedication: “Dedicated to the mentor without peer, jetty, or breakwater” it says.

With a joke like that this could only be in memory of the great Melbourne drummer Allan Browne, who died last year, just – it seems –as I began to review his new record (on which Eugene Ball, his writing and his trumpet, can be heard). This is very odd. I noted the title – Ithaca Bound – noted a sound like ship’s timbers creaking, began writing about Ulysses, for Ithaca was his home, picked up the phone and heard that Allan had just died.

The important issue here, though, is that I have for some time considered Eugene one of the prime trumpet soloists in Australia, and this is the first recording under his own name and leadership. Most of the compositions are his own. Having been part of Allan Browne’s musical family, his dedication to both the jazz tradition and its contemporary directions is clear. This means of course both a range of talking techniques and tonal distortions and a command of the majestic and clear. On one track a frightening thin trumpet scream cuts the air. I won’t tell you where. You can be as startled as I was when you hear it. I’m not sure that I’d heard him play that high. There are also a couple of spine shivering wails not unlike some figures presented by Miles Davis on Sketches of Spain. There are also passages of cleanly articulated brilliance, of geometrical precision and lyrical form; of climbing majesty.

There is a bite and there are squeezed-valve notes that are choked and snuffling like the language of creatures of the undergrowth. And one note so deliciously squeezed and soured on one of the standards (you’ll hear it) that your face will screw up with pleasure.

Note the beautiful trumpet/trombone unison passages. Also the lovely playing on Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You. I don’t think I’ve ever heard this one before.

The feeling here has the passion and strength of Lloyd Swanton’s recent Ambon.

This is the sort of thing that is being done these days, here in distant Australia.

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