“Traditional jazz legend John Scurry’s debut album is full of subtle skills and surprise, an elegant reminder of the beauty of everyday things.”
It’s a still life of a kind, a delicate set piece of shapes on a table. They seem like everyday objects: a crumpled ball of paper, a vase, a narrow rectangular box, (maybe once home to a fancy pen?), a toilet-paper roll, a yellow block. At first, the quiet geometry of the painting seems simple, until it dawns that each object is unique, with few surfaces shared by its neighbours – even the square-edged shapes are set at different angles. You now see the light play differently across the field. Then comes the interaction between the objects, how they affect each other with shadows or reflections. Then the intriguing texture of the grey background. The stillness invites study, as the immediate gives way to the fascinating, and everyday objects are given beauty by the care of their rendering.
The oil painting is Landscape, guitarist John Scurry’s own work, the cover art for his recent recording Post Matinée. The painting seems a poignant metaphor for the music. At first blush, these tunes carry all the formal and ensemble hallmarks of trad jazz, and are securely within the familiar frame of the early 20th century style. The tunes are simple and direct, operating with archetypal functional chord progressions and swinging feels. The melodies too have a classic air, arriving like old acquaintances even on first listen. But like the painting, though these familiar jazz conventions appear first as everyday objects, the true fascination of the music is revealed in how lovingly Scurry renders the details. Soon the sense of proportion in the writing, the elegance of the musicianship and ensemble and the gentle surprises of the harmony become the most charming features.
In the story of Australian jazz, the so-called traditional forms have been major characters. Since The Red Onions emerged as larrikin youths in the 60s, John Scurry’s classy, propulsive swing has been the engine for many celebrated trad groups, Allan Browne’s New Orleans Rascals and Virus among them. Despite being a major figure in this scene for nearly five decades, Post Matinée is Scurry’s debut release as leader.
Though stepping out as an eloquent melodic soloist from time to time on the disc, it is Scurry’s compositions and unerring sense of rhythm that most showcase the leader here. Just as Scurry’s visual art rewards careful looking, headphones uncover the sparkle of Scurry’s guitar playing (presented in-kind by Phil Noy’s clear and warm recorded sound). While Scurry’s chordal left hand paints from a life spent absorbing jazz harmony (a language with which he is nimble and witty), his strumming right hand is the subtle stroke-maker. The exact weight he applies to the strum, the exact balance of percussiveness and sonority, the exact push of the tempo, the exact lean on the 2 and 4, the exact blend of placement with the bass and drums, all natural and perfectly embodied. If such a thing earned prizes, Scurry’s quarter-note time could pick up a Grammy. His guitar throughout the album is a joy.
A prolific songwriter, Scurry compiled a generous program of original compositions for Post Matinée (17 items, including three bonus tracks with Lionsharecords high-quality download), several songs having been part of the Rascals or Virus books over the years. Long at 20 tunes, the listener enjoys the passing impressions of the compositions, more than a fixation on individual tracks. The experience is of traveling along with the suite, maybe wandering as though through a garden, or a gallery.
Scurry seems to have had this design, describing the tunes featured here as “an exhibition of paintings wherein there is no articulated concept or theme at play, rather a gathering of works that hopefully co-habit together and make sense musically.” The tunes do indeed make musical sense, each one adopting a staple feel from the traditional jazz literature, while being perfectly original characters in their own right. Likewise, each of the musicians Scurry chose for the date is both well-versed in traditional forms and a unique, instantly recognisable voice.
A traditional core quintet of clarinet, piano, bass and trumpet join Scurry’s guitar for around half the program. Michael McQuaid’s clarinet conjures much of the trad jazz climate of this record. Steeped in traditional forms, McQuaid is a gem, with a seemingly limitless stream of slippery obligati for melody lines and a fine sense of action for his foreground turns. Tasmanian pianist Matt Boden is a delightful foil for the leader’s guitar. The special (though often fraught) piano-guitar relationship is storied in jazz, though Boden displays an uncommon sensitivity to the pairing. His left hand stride is light and bouncy without ever crowding Scurry’s strumming, while his soloing is crisp and swinging. Even with a light touch, Boden is able to bite into a robust, nicely pointed attack in his melodies: always in great time, always wonderfully balanced between warm phraseology from the tradition and personal point-of-view. Bassist Howard Cairns is also first-rate throughout, notably stepping into the foreground with a solo on the lovely waltz A Blackbird Skipped Quivering Between Things. Cairns’ bass nestles into the decorous feel, creating a melody that sweetly serves the changes (in particular the charming interrupted cadence at the end of the form).
Perhaps Scurry’s most adroit move was the contracting of trumpeter Eugene Ball. Growing up with traditional jazz, Ball is the founder of the equal-measure acclaimed-and-infamous Hoodangers trad/punk jazz band. (His father, too, is renowned trad clarinettist Dennis Ball). Since his spiky blue-haired days with the Hoodangers, Ball has matured into one of the most essential and skilled musicians in Australian jazz, and – in a country with more than its fair share of world-class trumpet players – a towering instrumental virtuoso who can be at once larrikin and intellectual, sophisticate and rake. A long time colleague of Scurry with the Rascals and others, Ball’s ensemble arrangements of the leader’s melodies on Post Matinée flesh out the tunes to lovely effect, the horn voicings giving the illusion of a much bigger band. As a melody player and soloist, Ball is sublime. The trumpeter’s deep training in traditional jazz has baked-in a certain perfection of stylistic phrasing – Ball’s melodic lines never fail to consummate their rhythmic and cadential destinies with elegance. Beyond this trad fluency, Ball is able to make the form bend to his will, enriching his impeccable lines with layers of emotion, rhythmic whimsy and harmonic erudition that contemporise the music without undermining its swing and stylistic world view.
The guest artists on the album too are deftly chosen and soon feel as vital as the core band. Rising star of the trombone James Macauley adds a satisfyingly potent voice to obligato roles and soloing. Macauley is a remarkable young player, whose voice in traditional jazz is as original and vital as within more extended forms of the music. Appearing variously throughout is drummer Danny Fischer. An exciting and vibrant player, capable of most any form of improvised music, Fischer is an encyclopaedia of jazz drumming; perhaps more than any other drummer of his generation, Fischer has done his homework on the history and deep mechanics of jazz drumming. As such, he seamlessly inhabits the traditional feels on Post Matinée, while bringing a very personal brio and creativity. His unaccompanied chorus on Otis the Cat is as classically melodic as any pitched instrument in the style. In addition to his recording and mixing roles, Phil Noy adds his lithe, inventive alto saxophone on a couple of cuts. The feeling is of an extended community of friends; all excellent, all bringing grace and spirit to the occasion.
Appearing on several tracks, singer Shelley Scown is a welcome voice here. A major figure on the Australian jazz scene throughout the 90s and early 2000s, Scown had the originality and cool to be both the vocalist of choice for Paul Grabowsky, among others, and an unmistakeable individual artist in her own right. While Scurry’s long-time friend and colleague Allan Browne worked with Scown for many years, it was not until a recent tribute concert for the late drummer did Scurry hear the vocalist live – leading to an invitation to sing on Post Matinée. Scown, like Scurry, conceals huge craft within a relaxed, fully integrated delivery. Her easy, legato phrasing gracefully disguises an ingenuity of placement; her perfect enunciation tells the stories so clearly you forget the lovely control and expression at play. She has an effortless consistency across her range, and a naturalness of diction that is authentically jazz without ever affecting any Americanisms of accent. Scown is a unique and important voice in Australian jazz, and one hopes this record might mean we hear her more often from now on.
Julien Wilson’s Lionsharecords has thoughtfully dressed the release with fine packaging and heartfelt commentary. Considering Scurry’s abundant personal book of original compositions, his instrumental mastery, instincts for band leading and the quality of this recording; this album may be an opening salvo in a body of original work from this legitimately celebrated contributor to Australian traditional jazz. Post Matinée is a delightful album, and a sweet reminder of the beauty of everyday things.