This Narrow Isthmus

Julien Wilson Quartet. With Wilson, tenor sax and clarinet; Barney McAll, piano; Allan Browne, drums; Jonathan Zwartz, double bass
Lionsharecords LSR20154
Reviewed by , December 1st, 2015

Here is a band at the heart of Melbourne jazz – with a Sydney man who was once a new Zealander on double bass. Julien Wilson has another band with two Sydney players. They are all part of the underground of collaborators who rejoice in the fact that we have two major cities that are wonderfully contrasting and complementary. This album was recorded in Sydney at the Sound Lounge. The Thomas Moore quote from which the album’s title is drawn might also apply to the players’ musical attitudes to the past, present and future: ‘This narrow isthmus ‘twixt two boundless seas, the past, the future – two eternities’.

Julian Wilson Quartet

Julian Wilson Quartet: McAll, Browne, Zwartz, Wilson

This is the more pointed in that drummer Allan Browne was a part of the Melbourne traditional jazz revival, yet later contributed significantly to contemporary and even avant garde jazz. And it is the more poignant for being, I think, the last record on which Allan played – except his own last album, Ithaca Bound.

One more thing. I began listening and making notes toward reviewing that when the phone rang and I learned that Allan had died, having played with a lung transplant for some time. The review turned into a eulogy which can be found on my blog under Alan Browne June 17, which tells you some more about the man and artist. And poet.

A tune here is also dedicated to another great departed aristocrat of Australian jazz, Bernie McGann. While there are indeed sad stories of the death of kings about at present, this album’s brilliant players, except Browne, are fairly young and with us still.

The compositions are all by Wilson. All are interpreted with deep knowledge of the idiom and of each other’s improvisational reflexes. A traditional feeling is to the fore here, though the forms are often fresh. Wilson’s tenor partakes of the profound well of tenor saxophone sounds and styles while emerging as Wilson’s own language. His leaning is toward the thick, dark notes – thick yet supple, like a python.Thick and dark notes enhanced and spiked by overblown and growling notes, high or low, associated with both the jazz avant garde and facets of the tradition, such as rhythm and blues.

Browne’s drumming is adaptable to all contexts. A notable feature here is the solemn beat of open, deep and dramatic mallet patterns combined with precise tight cymbal touches and hissing splashes and spreads. The dark buoyancy of Zwartz’s pizzicato bass is the perfect platform. It is as effective on slow bluesy constructions as it is propulsive at speed

The first and title track is a most satisfying exposition of the leader’s sculptural forms, which though slowly advancing are spaced apart by arpeggios of slithering speed and sensuality.

Julien Wilson

Julien Wilson

Pianist Barney McAll has spent successful periods in New York, and is currently living for a period in Sydney, where his appearances with bands both futuristic and traditional are unfailingly impressive and affecting, whether on piano or electric keyboards. Here he stays with the grand piano, while elsewhere, sometimes in company with Julien he is equally inventive in electronic idioms. There is very little music here that is hectic or fierce. Rather it is a deep and majestic swell of dark sound with McAll’s treble often scattered like stars, randomly yet precise. Of course they are not random, but stars of course are yet don’t seem so. That is what I am talking about. It is one of my favourite effects. Yet McCall’s voicings and touch give the piano a unique sound full of controlled bright crashes and chimes and tiny points of light.

There are a couple of fast swing pieces that move with the precision and grace of a race horse and there is a kind of funky waltz (based partly on the harmonies of Ann Ronnel’s Willow Weep for Me, strangely enough) and on the final tune Wilson switches to clarinet. When I was in England two British trad jazz clarinetists had hits on pop radio. I think these tunes were called Stranger On The Shore and Petite Fleur. Brief allusions to these occur to nice effect, then Wilson squeezes and bends notes and produces some startling squeals which remind me , and others, I’m sure, of New Orleans. This was received in Sydney with high excitement, I’m proud to note.

I may have mentioned before that some music makes me walk in contemplation and draws me to the glass doors at the front of my flat where I can see a park on land recovered from an obscure reach of the harbour, which itself is not visible beyond the viaduct.The edge of the the city is. This is to me music of the night.

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