Self-release, available for free digital download
Reviewed by Eugene Ball, November 1st, 2015
While the Abbreviations Orchestra is not (by definition) a ‘big band’, its debut album Melodious Thunk is certainly situated more in the realm of highly composed music than the world of improvisation. Though improvisation is a significant component, it is the execution of the notated material that takes precedence here. Happily, the notated material is as excellent as the accuracy with which it is performed.
Saxophonist and bandleader Andrew Garton has crafted all of the arrangements and composed three of the seven pieces that appear on Melodious Thunk. Despite the fact that the writing stems from a single individual there is real breadth and variety on this recording. Garton’s writing is highly refined, and while not always innovative, it is at least adventurous and spirited, and often quirky.
The opening track, Scrapple from the Apple exemplifies Garton’s writing skills and wit: its interwoven fragments of bent bop lines and timely, controlled dissonances tease toward the well-known bebop head, but (pleasingly) never explicitly state it. K491, Garton’s response to the first movement Mozart’s 24th piano concerto, in its humour and wit is reminiscent of Sugar Rum Cherry, Duke Ellington’s response to Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy” from the Nutcracker. In its transparency and sophisticated simplicity, Sun Ra’s Hexagonal House harkens to the boisterous elegance of the compositions of Australian jazz pioneer, John Sangster.
On the whole, the ensemble playing (intonation, blend, balance, articulation) on this album is excellent. In fact, the few and minor instances of errant tuning, timing or sound production add a welcome patina to what could otherwise come across as too highly polished. The clean and unaffected production also adds to the album’s unpretentious character.
For all of its good qualities, there are some distracting elements of this recording. There are many occasions in which the time-feel is a little forced and a little pushy. This is a significant concern given that this ensemble draws so heavily on the legacy of the American West Coast ensembles of the 1950s, which epitomised a swing feel which was deliberate, controlled and not at all pushy. Somewhat lacking too is any significant depth of engagement with improvisation. While the solos and group improvisation here are competent, they generally lack clear, strong, purposeful statements, rigorous development and considered structure. Enter guest saxophonist Zac Hurren, whose playing on the title track is a veritable bounty of these qualities, and a welcome contribution to the album.
Overall, Melodious Thunk from the Abbreviations Orchestra is a strong display of great writing and ensemble playing. While the improvisation may not thrill, the album is very approachable and is likely to have broad appeal. It is rumoured that Andrew and the crew will be recording again before the close of 2015; it can’t hurt to download Melodious Thunk to see if you might be interested in their new offering.