CJP Review: Legend and Wunderkind – Bern McGann and Andy Butler


This review was commissioned by the Street Theatre as part of the Conversations on Jazz event at the 2012 Capital Jazz Project. Participating students were briefed and their reviews were edited by a professional editor. Thanks to Mike Price from the ANU School of Music for facilitating the student involvement.

Review by Joe McEvilly
Photos by Brian Stewart

Andy Butler Large Ensemble | Photo by Brian Stewart

Every generation of Australian jazz was on show on August 7 when two very different groups took to the Street Theatre stage. From 21-year-old wunderkind Andy Butler to 75-year-old jazz legend Bernie McGann, the Capital Jazz Project served up a fascinating feast of Australian jazz.

First up was Butler’s Large Ensemble, a big band featuring some of Canberra’s most talented improvisers. They played five of Butler’s original compositions and arrangements, developed with the guidance of Australian composer Steve Newcomb under the JUMP Mentorship Program.

Butler’s arrangements were unashamedly complex, often propelled by driving ostinatos from his piano, and the band sparked with the energy and concentration of each player. The epic ‘Ode to Skype,’ which won him the Sprogis Woods competition earlier in the year, featured polyrhythms and angular melodies that seemed as restless and precise as his movements behind the piano. Good ensemble work from the band and the support of Mark Sutton’s drums made the unconventional melodies seem natural.

‘Pogo’ started with a powerful solo from the tenor saxophone of John Mackey over an irregular groove, then settled into a surging feel interrupted by call-and-response statements from the horns. There was an exhilarating instability to the tune that made it seem constantly on the edge of falling over – until you surrendered your trust to the band and the composer. Butler’s piano solo was perfectly judged, his angular playing style finding its home in the momentum of the music.

The audience returned after the interval to a much less crowded stage, set up for Bernie McGann’s eminent quartet. The band may have been smaller but it was big on talent. The internationally renowned McGann, who has played and recorded with the likes of Freddie Hubbard, Sonny Stitt and Dewey Redman and is spoken of with reverence by jazz-lovers all across the country, was backed by Warwick Alder on trumpet, Andrew Dickeson on drums, and Brendan Clarke on double bass.

Where Butler’s music was deliberately modern, this quartet had its roots in bebop; where Butler’s set was driven by complex harmonies, by vamps and irregularities, this quartet focused on the simplicity of voice against voice. In fact, with no chordal instrument at all, the fast-moving chord changes of tunes like tunes like McGann’s original ‘Salaam’ were carried entirely by Clarke and the horn players, who negotiated them with breathtaking ease.

Bernie McGann Quartet | Photo by Brian Stewart

Both McGann and Alder took long solos on most tunes, giving them time to build and explore. Warwick’s solos were pure jazz language, acknowledging the greats and adding his own fire. Drummer Dickeson was right at home at the highest of tempos, whether keeping the pulse going behind the soloists or trading blazing fours with the band. ‘Local boy’ Brendan Clarke, another ANU School of Music graduate, was rock-steady in support and shone in inventive solos.

Standing before the microphone like a granite monolith, McGann made the alto saxophone look small in his hands – but the sound was big, breathy and unique. His unpredictable lines were here, ducking and diving in search of the perfect note; and so was a haunting lyricism on ballads like ‘Sweet and Lovely.’ When he wasn’t playing he sat at the edge of the spotlight, arms folded, listening intently and occasionally letting out a low chuckle at something his band played.

The old standard ‘The Breeze and I’,  which opened with a bass riff from which the horns took off on flights of fancy, was the first tune of the night. Another highlight was ‘Wendy’, a beautiful Paul Desmond song arranged with a lovely simplicity to showcase the two horns in harmony. By the second half of the set the band was absolutely burning, and they closed out the night with a fast swinger that gave each band member a final chance to show their skills at up-tempo playing.

This exhilarating finale ended a night of contrasts at the Street Theatre: a combination of vastly different bands, from different generations, playing very different kinds of jazz. The unique voices of Andy Butler and Bernie McGann meant that none of these differences mattered. The two of them, and the great players that surrounded them, came together to create something special: a night that was a celebration of the talent, the vitality and the diversity that Australian jazz has to offer.

Andy Butler Large Ensemble features John Mackey, Neils Rosendahl, Matt Handel, Tom Fell, Miroslav Bukovsky, Alex Raupach, Ax Long, Scott Temby, Rob Lee, Valdis Thomann, Patrick Langdon, Mark Sutton, Peter McGovern, Max Alduca, Andy Butler.

Bern McGann Quartet features Bern on alto saxophone, Warwick Alder on trumpet, Brendan Clarke on bass and Andrew Dickeson on drums.

Photos by Brian Stewart