The Exquisite Corpse of Beethoven – The Johannes Luebbers Dectet
Released by Listen / Hear Collective
CD Review by Peter Kenneally
Johannes Luebbers is quite the wunderkind. His biography is awash with awards – in 2009, for example, Youth Arts WA Citizen of the Year and APRA ‘Best Australian Jazz Song of the Year’- and he has established himself in a very short time as a remarkably talented composer and arranger.
The Exquisite Corpse of Beethoven is the second album from his dectet, and comes with the promise that it ‘walks the line between jazz, contemporary classical and popular music’, creating an exciting hybrid of the three. There’s always the danger, though, that if you walk the line between several things you’ll end up being none of them, or lurching from one to the other. It’s a kind of quantum effect: if you observe a piece of music being jazz, you can’t at the same time observe it being classical or pop, or whatever.
This may sound flippant, and Luebbers doesn’t fall into no man’s land very often: but when you’re there it seems as if a long time passes before you emerge. The title track, which opens the album, is a case in point, with some amiably motile piano, bass and drum driving along, but unable to escape, most of the time, from an over-polite, blanketing arrangement.
The second track ‘Just ripe’ feels a little the same, a little too much with the film score, until the trumpet of Callum G’Froerer breaks out. His playing immediately adds piquancy and space to the music, and everything lifts and shifts around it, and from then on the album is off and away, from the sweeping grace of ‘Everything for Brod’ where Chris Foster’s piano appears like dew on the Dectet’s early ground, to the delightfully militaristic ‘Rumour has it’ with its lovely, tense, Charlie Haden-ish introduction before the main song sweeps everything before it, like weather. The trumpet playing here is again quite delightful, ascendant, and the band follow it, like starlings, turning darkly in the sky: lovely.
But then things come to something of a crashing halt with a version of ‘Hallelulia’. For some reason the idea has got around that this song is a standard, and that singers are free to bash the living daylights out of it: in this case Aaron Malone gives it an unbearable going over. But this is a song whose words refuse to be mangled, that always fights back, and the result in this case is a grim stalemate: no man’s land indeed. Underneath the singing there’s what might have been an interesting instrumental meditation on the idea of ‘Halleluia’, but the ear is already in flight, so it’s never given its chance.
However, things soon come aright. ‘Without Fear of Wind or Vertigo’ is the track on the album where the hybrid really comes to life: and a beautifully lithe and subtly hued creature it is. There are all kinds of things going on here if you care to look: hints of Eno/Bowie, of Lennon-McCartneyisms, of Spanish sketches, but all merely suggested by a unified, principled arrangement rather than ‘referenced’ in some callow postmodern way. And in the final track, ‘Ashes to Ashes’ after a meditative beginning the drumming of Ben Falle takes over and unassumingly but unmistakably carries the tune through, slightly at first, and exuberantly at the end, to give the album a fantastic feeling of issuing forth, as if it’s a launch rather than a landing. It feels as if Falle is doing this quite autonomously: but of course he isn’t, and that’s when you see the music forming itself around the shape of Johannes Luebbers. It’s still a slightly indistinct shape, but there are moments in this album when you see it clearly, and they make you want to stare at the space waiting for the next illumination. There will be more and more of them, and closer and closer together, I have no doubt. But no more Leonard Cohen songs, please: they really fog things up.
Composer/Conductor: Johannes Luebbers
Flute: Emily Thomas
Oboe: Steph Nicholls
Alto Sax/Clarinet: Ben Collins
Tenor Sax: Sean Little
Trumpet: Callum G’Froerer
French Horn: Doree Dixon
Trombone: Tilman Robinson
Piano: Chris Foster
Bass: Nick Abbey
Drums: Ben Falle
Vocals: Aaron Malone (track 6)
Guitar: Simon Jeans (track 6)