Big Band, Improvisation, Jazz, Music
Reviewed by Chris Cody, September 1st, 2014
The Monash Art Ensemble is the fruit of the collaboration between members of the Australian Art Orchestra and the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music, playing the music of Paul Grabowsky.
The composer’s liner notes describe the bringing together of two worlds of improvisation and notation. There are two works on the recording: Variations (d’un gout étranger) on a theme of Marin Marais, and Tall Tales. The variations, based on a melody by Marais, are inspired by different musicians several centuries later who have inspired Grabowsky: Ennio Morricone, Lennie Tristano, Cecil Taylor, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, JS Bach, Olivier Messiaen. They are largely notated with solo or group improvisations occurring between them.
After an atmospheric beginning of shimmering strings and trumpet with a slight hint of Gil Evan’s re-working of Concierto de Aranjuez, the music unfolds fairly simply rhythmically and harmonically and the chief interest resides in the textures created with different instruments coming forward into the light. Melodic phrases and solo improvisations are passed around like a torch. Instruments are used at the extremes of their range, and different combinations of instruments and techniques of bowing and blowing enhance the colour and identity of each variation.
The Morricone variation features bells and bass, Cecil Taylor’s the piano, and the Miles variation has Harmon-muted trumpet over vibraphone and harpsichord that gradually grows into some Bitches Brew-like swirling harmonies. The music grows in complexity and intensity through Variation 5 with tutti descending phrases that break out like peels of mad laughter until Variation 6 (inspired by Ornette Coleman), which has an unexpected swinging guitar solo over walking bass and swinging drums.
Variation 7, inspired by JS Bach, features some fugal writing over New Orleans marching band drums while the final variation takes us off into the spiritual mysticism of Messiaen. The piece is unusual in its contours and shape, alternating quiet contemplative passages and frenetic climaxes, different styles of writing and orchestration. While certain variations and ideas might have been developed further, one is left like Marin Marais himself, deep in musing over time and space.
Tall Tales is a work of three movements with three different styles of language. The first is inspired by manikay song forms of the Yolngu people of Northern Australia, with good ensemble writing, a fine Joe O’ Connor piano solo, and exciting calls from the horns. It is followed by a section inspired by pre-serial Schoenberg, with the final section an energetic blowing session for Tony Hicks (tenor sax), Lachlan Davidson (alto), and James Macaulay (trombone).
The Monash Art Ensemble features excellent musicians exploring the world between improvisation and written music and hopefully this is the beginning of many more recordings and concerts.