by John Clare
13th Freedman Jazz Concert. July 20, The Studio: Sydney Opera House.
These nights, which cap a period of assessing recorded submissions by nominees along with their proposals as to what projects they will undertake should they win, are many things. Unfailingly they are thrilling concerts and informed cross sections of the diverse fields of current Australian jazz. This remains the case. All in a wonderful acoustic space at ground level in a unique building in a glorious harbourside setting – with the Sydney Harbour Bridge looming just right of centre ahead and the complex of city lights to the left.
I experienced the intensity of the background process when I was a judge one year, with Mike Nock and David Theak, with Dick Letts acting as Speaker of the House, convenor and moderator in his own harbourside apartment where we interviewed nominees, thrashed out our differences, reached compromises or, as it happened on the occasion, reached a unanimous decision. The winner then was Melbourne bass guitarist Chris Hale, who was here at the Opera House on this 15th year. I was hailed by Chris, whom I had not seen for a while, and he told me how much the Freedman award had helped him realise his plans (we will hear more about that soon). The Freedmans had a very real and significant effect on his life.
Now that we have raised the spectre of the humble critic, I personally note that occasions when this lowly creature can feel that he or she has made some useful contribution to society are rare. This happened to be one of them and it was enhanced by the fact that two of the finalists in the 15th Freedmans – Gian Slater and Peter Farrar – plus Finn Ryan who was playing drums in Farrar’s band – were artists whom I had written about first in profiles and reviews.
Tenor saxophonist, electric keyboardist/percussionist and composer Mike Rivett led his band (Cameron Undy, bass, James Waples, drums and percussionist Georgio Rojas) into a free form collective cadenza which soon jumped into a highly percussive, rhythmically complex tight theme in which most notes on all instruments including the saxophone were clipped and hard. This was a most exhilarating battery. As it progressed softer levels were explored, and here Rivett’s saxophone, always handsome in tone, displayed a gentler lyricism with effortless sustained notes in angular but soft-cornered and legato lines that gave rise to mysterious memories. By this I mean that they reminded me of something which I could not immediately place. Aha, it was like a contemporary version of the tone and phrasing of “cool” players like Stan Getz, Warne Marsh, Bill Perkins et al in their most lyrical explorations. In the lower register the tenor had some intimations of the sound of a bassoon. All in all it was highly distinctive.
The second piece had a kind of zombie walk effect that was both catchy and humorous. Unconsciously funny was the brief spectacle of Rivett programming his keyboard with one foot while effortlessly negotiating virtuoso lines with his hands – or for a moment or two with one hand as the other dropped to the keyboard while a foot continued manipulating on the floor. The final piece was as like a climax in reverse. Sudden softness instead of a sudden blaze of volume and energy. The ending was in fact still, meditative and thoughtful. The crowd supplied the energy of a traditional climax with loud cheers and clapping.
Next nominee was vocalist/composer Gian Slater, seated just forward and to the right of centre stage, flanked by pianist Barney McAll and drummer Simon Barker. McAll began with a chiming fall on the apparently electrified strings of his piano. (He also had a small electric keyboard, I noticed). They gave a very high, somewhat piercing sound that was also sweet to the ear. And so was Slater’s voice as she softly began. The two wove immediately gripping yet ethereal lines up in a soft snowy register that drew the listener into that inhabited space. The rest of the stage ceased to exist. In a while one noticed that Barker had joined with lightly brushed drums. I stopped taking notes to listen more intently. (Later I could not read what I had written in the dark anyway.) This was a hypnotic intertwining, from which at one point McAll unwound like lightning an upward treble run or flourish of triumph or exultation. Gosh. There were brief songs that may have been improvised, maybe pre-written – what did this matter? – on which they improvised, Slater wordlessly. Sometimes she wove lovely lines without consonants and sometimes suddenly flew like a bird in a series of chromatic modern jazz or bop-like lines. This was magic. There were things one might say about the innocence, naivety, or even affectation of the occasional verbal phrase, but there was really no affectation here. This is sincere. It is her, and it soon casts its spell.
For a time Barker played largely with mallets producing some wonderful timbral felicities. Then he treated us to a virtual solo on full kit against the continued playing of the other two. Here were uncanny moments where one shook the head in disbelief. The lowly critic could not help but speculate as to how sensationally good The Mentalist (for surely it was he – a little less good looking than one had expected) would be if he gave up his TV gig and concentrated on the drums. Those who warmed to this joke should get in touch. Counselling will be arranged.
After interval a most peculiar straggle of people came out on stage, drifting and peering as if lost. They were all masked and wore costumes that constricted their arms in a curious way. One had white balloons for eyes which also looked like light bulbs.
Leader and nominee Peter Farrar soon identified himself by lofting an alto saxophone and playing a powerful cadenza that, for all its technical astonishments was full of fierce passion and whiplash turns that seemed to draw blood. Winner, I speculatively concluded. We were then treated to a kaleidoscope of humorous and infectious dances influenced no doubt by the Ethiopean band in which Farrar plays, and improvisations, in which Altman played successively a pair of flutes simultaneously and likewise a pair of clarinets. Dale Gorfinkel and another masked being not listed in the program played home-made instruments that each consisted of a long pipe with what looked like a trumpet mute on the end. The range, pitchwise, and variety of sounds produced by these rudimentary devices was puzzling to say the least.
Most fascinating, indeed haunting, were two or three drifts and washes of ensemble sound, seemingly weightless and sourceless, like something you might hear along an alley in some heat-paralysed place blazing with sunlight.
Oh, and Laura Altman sang brilliantly a couple of songs with hilarious gestures, like a cross between a star from the era of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire and an ethnic folk diva from…well, somewhere.
And now THE WINNER :
You know already that this was pianist Tal Cohen, and I am exhausted, so I will leave the ending to the judges. “Tal showed a maturity beyond his years, a virtuosity that he does not flaunt but places at the service of the music. He demonstrated an ability to integrate various influences to produce a well structured set that maintained audience interest. He will spend his prize money on a most ambitious recording project with one of the world’s greats, Terrence Blanchard, and his performance displayed a level of musicianship that will make this a success.”
Band members Jamie Oehlers, saxophone, bassist Cameron Undy and drummer Tim Firth should also be congratulated on a dynamic and stirring performance. If anything united this diverse recital it was perhaps the desire to revive some of the humorous, surreal and entertaining aspects of some earlier jazz, such as Cab Calloway and Louis Jordan. The Freedmans aspirants had all that yet were somewhat avant at the same time.