A Dove, A Lion, A Coast, A Pirate

Luke Howard Trio. Luke Howard, piano; Daniel Farrugia, drums; Jonathan Zion, double bass
Which Way Music WWM018
Reviewed by , August 1st, 2015

This album is one of several recent Australian jazz albums to have been recorded at Rainbow Studio in Oslo that raises the question: why are Australian musicians going to Norway? The two countries have some similarities – both are middle size economies with a sparsely populated hinterland, enormous natural resources, an educated, fairly wealthy and mobile population, and a pioneer-like background featuring struggle and survival in a harsh landscape and climate. Leaving Australia to record in a faraway Nordic country is a good way of escaping ordinary daily distractions, to find focus and concentration for the at times challenging task of recording a satisfying album of original music, while hopefully the musicians also enjoyed the café scene, culture and nightlife during their breaks!

Luke Howard Trio: Farrugia, Howard, Zion

Luke Howard Trio: Farrugia, Howard, Zion

Rainbow Studio attracts musicians for even better pragmatic reasons – the large rooms and booths, instruments and equipment are really good, the engineers are sensitive to the music and the musicians’ needs and also highly experienced in recording jazz. In Europe, unlike Australia, it’s not uncommon to find engineers who specialize in recording jazz and have been doing so for decades. There are more specialist jazz musicians, labels, festivals, listeners, magazines, radio programs and government financial support compared to Australia, where recording engineers and musicians alike tend to diversify in order to survive. For musicians, to have the flexibility and ability to diversify and play many styles of music might arguably be a good thing for their music, giving it greater scope and richness, but I’m yet to be convinced the argument works as well with recording engineers.

The best engineers hone their ears and craft by years of experience and experimentation in placing different microphones, trying out different machines, pre-amps, reverb units, compressors to edge ever closer to capturing sound perfectly. In the case of acoustic jazz, the goal is to place the listener as if they were in the room or concert hall. To change musical style with every recording session, meaning different drums and bass sounds, set-up and recording techniques is challenging and testing, but the bulk of work for most engineers here is of a more commercial nature, so that is what they get good at, and Australia has a long history of producing great sounding rock and pop records. That is not to say that there are not some good sounding Australian jazz records, but they tend to be the exception rather than the rule.

It hopefully goes without saying that the first thing you notice when you put on a track of music, whatever the format, style or quality, is the sound. With ever changing music audio formats, the sound quality is sadly often sacrificed for ease and speed of access and transferability. So it’s good to see that some musicians are fighting the trend, even using vinyl, in an attempt to put sound and concept back at the forefront of music production.

Suffice to say this album features superb sound – legendary recording engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug please take a bow! Kongshaug, a former musician himself and longtime collaborator with ECM’s Manfred Eicher, has recorded Corea, Jarrett, (including his classic albums “Facing You” and “Personal Mountains”), Gabarek, Towner, Burton, Metheny, Frisell and many others. He is also renowned for knowing exactly what sound he is after, and getting it quickly, freeing up the musicians to concentrate on the music. He is also known for his reverbs, the real ones like the Lexicon 960, the TC and others to create the ‘room’ the artist wants.

On this album, the drums, bass, and piano sound are simply beautiful: you can hear the close whisper of the brushes on the snare, the gold brightness of the cymbals, the full range and tone of a well-tuned piano, and the sound of fingers on double bass strings, as if they were all playing right in front of you. The sound is equally well served by the style of the music, which is fairly sparse, the musicians through their compositions and playing allowing notes to ring lengthily against silence with a wide variety of tone and dynamics.

It all combines to conjure beautiful melancholic, grey winter mornings, wide landscapes with leafless trees, or distant horizons where water meets land. The compositions by pianist Luke Howard, and bassist Jonathan Zion, are deceptively simple, using ostinati, or subtle tempo changes, as in Cibi.

This is contemporary jazz trio music with various pop influences, hymn-like harmonies and progressions, unison melodies, and occasional odd meter sections. The playing as mentioned is mostly restrained and sparse, sober in keeping with the cool, beautiful Nordic style.

Nearly all the pieces are quite short at around 3 to 4 minutes long, each like a poem emphasizing mood ahead of narrative. 060808 features a more impassioned piano solo while Young and Lost is a catching joyous song in the style of classic American standards, treated with a light almost funk-soul groove and works well as contrast to the other material. The band can groove but drummer Daniel Farrugia shows tasteful restraint, content to maintain the rhythm and not go for too many fills, allowing for genuine dialogue with the pianist and bassist.

The final piece Understood returns to the single repeated notes ostinato idea of the first track, with the harmony slowly shifting underneath the single water drops of the melody. Mature restraint is showed by all three musicians who, leaving lots of space, allow the music to breathe, capturing that Scandinavian sound and mood, closing out the meditative dialogue, and leaving us dreaming of far-off lands.

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