Ambon, by Lloyd Swanton

Ensemble, comprising Lloyd Swanton – double bass, Paul Cutlan - bass clarinet, saxophones, recorder, James Eccles - playing Lloyd’s uncle’s viola for its first public performance since the 1930s, Sandy Evans - tenor and soprano saxophones, James Greening - trombone, cornet, pocket trumpet, tuba, Fabian Hevia - cajon, percussion, Chuck Morgan - ukulele, Jon Pease - guitar, Ron Reeves - kendang, percussion, Michel Rose - pedal steel guitar, Alex Silver - trombone, Hamish Stuart - drums
2 CDs, Bugle Records. 36-page booklet
Reviewed by , December 1st, 2015

The question hanging over the Ambon interlude of WWII (for those who have actually heard of it) – is this: why send a cursory force to defend a small island against the Japanese when that island had little strategic value, being closer to Indonesia than to Australia (indeed it is now part of Indonesia)? Well, Gull Force as it was called, was sent and soon ordered by its own command to surrender. Facing greatly superior numbers, this ignominious ending was pretty much inevitable. Given the less than human status accorded by the Bushido cult to anyone who surrendered, their lives would be fairly miserable.

The ensemble for the Ambon project

The ensemble for the Ambon project

Double bassist, composer and band leader Lloyd Swanton’s uncle Stuart Mill Swanton was one of the largely forgotten contingent who spent the rest of his war as a prisoner. Indeed the rest of his life: few survived Ambon. Until now Swanton has not often – perhaps ever – talked or written about this in any detail. Well, he has been quite busy building a very signifigant career in jazz, classical music (in London orchestras), various popular forms and world music. Fortunately for us.

An important element on these two discs is Swanton’s reading, to great effect, from his uncle’s diary, which was written largely in a code, and the playing of three moving hymn tunes by that deeply religious man.

The two discs here are worth the money for this striking evocation, which is expanded and enhanced by a booklet containing Swanton’s detailed notes of the events and the world currents surrounding them – including activities of now obscure local ultra-patriotic militias who were paradoxically pro-Japanese (like the pro-Nazis at one point), such as were described in D.H. Lawrence’s Kangaroo. This before we even get to the original music.

The period in which the two world wars unfolded has a deep and disturbing resonance for so many of us – even though we might seem from this distance to have been so far away from the conflict. Not so far as younger citizens might think. Quite recently the resonance of Gallipoli, for instance, began to disturb me so much that I claimed it had become a death cult. Perhaps a silly thing to say, but Tony Abbott soon began using the phrase for his own purposes, wittingly or not. In so many ways Gallipoli still touches us all. And these wars are still among the largest and most terrible events even for those who were a long way away from conflict. One more thing along these lines. It sometimes seemed that everyone knew someone with a rarely or never seen relative who had been horribly gassed or hideously burnt.

This can all be felt in Swanton’s words and music, but it looms no larger than the humour, the touching human co-operations and bonds, the depth of longing for home, for the taste of a good egg. The music is more soulful than frightening. Sometimes overwhelmingly so.

Lloyd Swanton recording the Ambon Suite

Lloyd Swanton recording the Ambon Suite

This is not a symphony or even a tone poem – yet it is in some ways. It is a transformation into his own idiom of his uncle’s memories. Executing it are many players from the kind of musical family that Lloyd has nurtured over a number of years. There are two main ensembles. One is a group of brass players who deliver the hymns movingly with a deliberate absence of polish. They also essay jazz solos of enormous authority and accomplishment that carry a feeling equal in weight to the passion of the hymns. Also a curious, quite avant-garde interlude that evokes the music created by some of the prisoners on largely broken instruments. The other ensemble is largely of different kinds of guitars, mostly electric. This ensemble also sings like a choir, with the addition of Lloyd’s double bass. The “singing” is beautiful, but thronged with droning, drizzling, panging sine waves from the electric pedal steel guitar and air-slicing high and lyrical blues guitar lines. I should add that the pedal steel sound is intriguing and also moving for me.

Here are the musicians: Sandy Evans, James Greening, Paul Cutlan, Michelle Rose, Fabian Hevia, Jon Pease, Hamish Stewart, James Eccles, Chuck Morgan, Ron Reeves, Michael Rose, Alex Silver. Some exotic drums – not necessarily from Ambon – are deployed to suggest the impressions received by young men, some of whom had never been outside their home state.

That’s it for me. This project is already groaning under the weight of praise heaped on its live performances.

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