Assemblers Records (assemblers001)
Reviewed by Joseph Cummins, February 1st, 2015
On Paper Tiger, three Australian jazz stalwarts combine in the slightly unusual bassless format. Such a move gives a lightness to the sound that suits the improvisations and song choices of tenorist Jamie Oehlers, guitarist Stephen Magnusson and drummer Ben Vanderwal. Of the fifteen tracks, all but four are originals, and the playing and compositional styles presented are rooted in jazz. The limited instrumentation is never a problem, giving a strong unity to the collection of tracks. The rhythmic mastery of all three players means that at no point does the music feel unmoored: no matter how far afield Magnusson and Oehlers traverse in their musical extemporisations – and this is at times quite far – Vanderwal is there to keep the foundations strong. Not that one ever gets the impression that the soloist is about to fall on his face, as the playing is always assured and executed with intent.
So It Goes, by Magnusson, brings us straight into Oehlers’ tenor solo, such is the directness of the approach to improvisation and comping taken by the trio. The short length of most of the tracks (between two and four minutes) reminds me of a by-gone era of recording, when short takes were a necessity, but I felt like this time-frame worked particularly well on Paper Tiger because it put the emphasis on the different improvisatory situations created by each new composition, rather than on long-form displays of prowess. Of course, on longer tracks, the players have no trouble keeping the sonic terrain interesting and following each other down engaging and sometimes unexpected musical side-alleys. But shorter tracks like the trio of mid-album songs A Rocking Horse On A Carousel On A Cruise Liner In Choppy Sea, Together Alone and Thought had a charm matched only by their brevity. Such musical sketches are not visited enough in contemporary jazz.
The way African-inspired rhythmic studies like Thought butt up against delicate ballads like Lament kept me guessing, creating a varied listening experience. The energies accumulated elsewhere on the album are released on the latter tune, which recalls some of the American tenor player Bill McHenry’s albums featuring drummer Paul Motian..
I really liked the way Magnusson would subtly manipulate his sound and mode of accompaniment to morph Oehlers’ solo, like on the title track, where the heaviness of his playing darkened the road of the tenor improvisation. This composition recalled the music of Ornette Coleman, particularly the impressionistically smeared combination of guitar and tenor on the melody. Later in the album the trio tackle a Coleman composition, Word From Bird, a track that features moments of the most energetic and fluid group improvisation on display. The interaction of all three players is at the forefront of this recording, but the highlight was the way Oehlers and Magnusson play off each other, both in their sharing of melody, in their comping for each other, and in sections of simultaneous improvisation.. This versatility is a testament to their skill and listening abilities.
Oehlers’s shift to soprano saxophone for A Song To Parallel Park To complemented the picking pattern of Magnusson, who also used some slightly time-bending reverse delay effects to beautiful atmospheric effect in the middle of the tune. Multi-tracked tenor and soprano sax give this track a fullness, which, in combination with Vanderwal’s more propulsive drumming, recall Brad Mehldau’s memorable Highway Rider album. The melodic contour, guitar patterns and forward momentum of the drumming on the Oehlers composition Walk With Me also recall the folk and indie rock leanings of that Mehldau album, a point that underscores the stylistic diversity of Paper Tiger.
Perhaps the highlight of the album comes on the last track, the melancholy parlor song Hard Times Come No More by Stephen Foster. Here Magnusson’s delay pedal enables him to create a subtle soundscape that twinkles away in the background to the sensitive playing of the trio. The song is a soft landing after the rewarding adventures of the previous hour of music.