Keynetic Records KR0022013
Reviewed by Joseph Cummins, July 1st, 2014
With pianist Sam Keevers, acoustic bassist Brett Hirst, and two percussionists, Simon Barker on drum kit and Changgo drum, and Javier Fredes on congas, bata, darabuka, shakers and hand percussion, the second release from Red Fish Blue combines a laid-back Cuban impulse with controlled, often understated compositions. Keevers’ playing, which is measured, engaging, and often meditative, sets the mood for the whole album. The slightly unusual move (at least in an Australian jazz context) of having two percussionists only emphasises the overall approach of the quartet: Baker and Fredes never clash with each other, balancing with their counterparts.
A sense of energy and space is infused in every track, a product both of the unhurried melodic interplay of Keevers and Hirst and the complementary rhythmic sensibilities of Barker and Fredes. The compositions of Keevers and Hirst (who contribute five and two pieces respectively) are allowed to take centre stage. The set also includes several standards, the most memorable being Weeping in the Forest by Archie Roach and Black and Blue by Fats Waller, the latter here uniquely imagined with a static Cuban percussion feel, accompanied by a fusion of vintage and more modern-jazz flourishes from Keevers. Barker injects himself sparingly with cymbals and only in the moments when Keevers gains most momentum with his solo. The combined effect is one that creates a unique sense of time and improvisatory tension, with the restraint of the rhythm section forming a union with the bluesy harmony of Waller’s tune. The listener does not notice that the track clocks in at over ten minutes.
The Cuban influence is subtle but present through most of the ten tracks, manifesting in the percussive timbres and rhythms of Fredes, and the strong rhythmic thrust of Keevers’ piano. The first two tracks, Umi No Irowoshita Bara and Sangria Y La Luna, both by Keevers, are the most celebratory of the Cuban spirit running across most of The Sword and the Brush. Both tracks are characterised by static-but-groovy Cuban inspired chord progressions, with scant melodic improvisation. The emphasis is on the percussion section, Barker’s booming changgo drum and Fredes’ shells adding colour and excitement.
The whole album moves on smooth trajectories of energy, with only a hint of the drama and restlessness often heard emanating from a modern jazz piano trio. Colin McCahon is a ballad, showcasing Keevers’ harmonic tastes: despite the groove heard elsewhere on the album, the pianist reminds the listener of the wide palette of influences that comprise the contemporary jazz musician. Hackensack features an angularity reminiscent of Theolonious Monk, and Ballad of the Cranes, the final original from Keevers, contains moments of his most impassioned improvising of the set, leaping through the chord changes with urgency. Unrequited is perhaps the most un-Cuban sounding track of the album, more akin to the elegiac moments of contemporaries like Alister Spence, whose chordal touch at times echoes in Keevers’ more minimalistic playing. The Hirst composition Chill is built around a sinewy bass-line and relies on a funky snare drum, briefly unsettling the calm equilibrium by transforming into one of the more aggressive left-hand and bass riffs of the album.
The Sword and the Brush is a unified set of compositions, precisely executed, showcasing some of the finest players in Australia.