CD Review: Mace Francis New York Nonet – Land Speed Record

We all love big band jazz. We all love small group jazz. But I also have a very soft spot for those little-big bands in between – those eight, nine, ten piece outfits (which go by the beautifully alien appellations of octet, nonet, decet).

In many ways the smaller ensembles produce a more ‘jazz’ sound than the big bands. The contrasts between solo and ensemble passages is not as jarring as in a big band – the whole thing seems cut from the same cloth. Just by dint of pure logistics, the medium sized group is going to breathe better as a unit and allow for more telepathy and magic to happen. (Look at Birth of The Cool for a place where the medium is the message).

There is a lot of magic on Mace Francis’ recent album Land Speed Record recorded with his New York Nonet – named for the NY natives and Oz ex-pats that make up the nine.

In his liner notes, alto player Jon Gordon mentions that the group only had a short time to rehearse prior to recording in New York. In one way, you can’t tell (it is as tight as you would want). in another, you can; each piece leaps from the speakers with an immediacy and life that shows all players had their antennae right out. Gordon also writes of the ‘depth and searching quality’ in Francis’ music – and he is right-on there.

Opener ‘Rosé’ sets up an impressionistic veil of horn textures over a languid ostinato groove. Tenor player Dan Pratt solos in and out of horn groupings (or are they moving in and out of his solo?) The whole thing lattices and meshes beautifully – this is smart horn writing, and the transparency in sound of the smaller group allows all the voices to stand out in high relief.

The organic nature – the ‘breathing’ of the group – is evident on the title piece, ‘Land Speed Record’. A suspended Mat Jodrell trumpet intro leads into a thicket of time-signatures, the band accelerating and moving as one until a free-blown section opens up into a typically inventive and astringent Sean Wayland solo. It sounds like a lot is going on, but Francis’ writing never spends too much time gazing at its own navel. It flows instinctively because the writing and the playing have a lot of humanity – a lot of soul.

The moody ‘Pandora’s Mood’, the gorgeous brass choir intro to ‘Samsara’, the driving mutant bossa of ‘Orla’ all show the heart in this music, which extends to the soloists; Alan Ferber’s joyous trombone solo on ‘Orla’, Jon Gordon’s bopalicious alto fun on ‘Samsara’ (big kudos to the rhythm of Matt Clohesy on bass and drummer Mark Ferber, too!), the surreal bass clarinet of Doug Yates on the resigned ‘Well… Maybe Someday’.

The track that leaped out to me was ‘Why A?’ which features guitarist Nate Radley. (I am guessing the title is a question from the Bb and Eb horn guys, the answer being that A is guitar friendly, dudes). Over an A pedal, descending guitar chords are soon reflected by the horns before a snap, crackle and popping swinging solo from Radley. He is one to watch.

Mace Francis is one to watch too. On the strength of Land Speed Record, I will be watching (and listening) – I cannot wait to see what he comes up with next.

Prior to posting this review I asked Mace Francis a few short questions. Here are his responses:

1. Your new CD Land Speed Record is recorded with a nonet – what was your thinking behind choosing this particular format?

I have pretty much only worked with big bands – as my creative vehicle – since 2003. I love big bands and will continue to work with them. The nonet idea came from working with alto player Jon Gordon here in Perth a few years ago. He gave me a couple of CDs of his which featured a nonet he had worked with and while it still had a large ensemble feel, it allowed the individual musicians to feature more predominantly like in a small group ensemble. The nonet line-up seemed to have the best of both worlds. When Jon and I were talking about the recording I asked about that nonet and the recording studio they used and suggested that I would like to do a similar thing. Jon helped me get a group of musicians together that he trusted and we went from there.

2. Your nonet includes bass clarinet and guitar – they seem a unique choice for such a limited grouping of instruments (they sound great by the way). Why did you include these instruments?

I am a guitarist and have always had a guitarist in my big bands instead of a piano player. I just prefer the sound of a guitar blending with saxes and brass – more so than piano, but having them both was very cool as it meant I could use the guitar to voice with the horns and still have a comping instrument. As for the bass clarinet it was just because Doug Yates is so awesome. Jon suggested him because he can double but when I checked him out I decided that having him on bass clarinet would sound great. His sound is enormous and his solo on the last track ‘Well, Maybe Someday’ is just awesome.

3. Of course the nonet format brings to mind Birth of The Cool and the Gerry Mulligan little-big (big-little?) bands. Did these recordings influence the sound of Land Speed Record or did you start with a clean slate?

I have listened to Birth of the Cool and Mulligan’s bands a lot so it may have influenced the music a bit but most of the pieces were written to feature different members of the ensemble. Having fewer instruments (compared to a big band) was a real challenge as you need to be more specific in terms of orchestration.

4. You are based in Perth. Perth is known in rock circles as a place from where some quite unique sounds emanate. Is it the same for jazz?

I was born and raised in Geelong in Victoria and moved to Perth in 2000 when I was accepted into WAAPA (West Australian Academy of Performing Arts) on jazz guitar. My focus went from performance to composition in 2nd year. Perth has a great scene with WAAPA pumping out great musicians every year; WA Youth Jazz Orchestra has a great annual program featuring three big bands and we have The Ellington Jazz Club putting music on seven nights a week, Perth Jazz Society etc. We just get on with business over here in the West.

5. What is your view of jazz today and the place of large-group composition/arrangement in it?

Jazz is strange and it is usually only people who love it, love it. I love that now jazz is pretty much anything you want it to be, it is always evolving. It is a shame that so many people – including musicians – think that it needs to sound like something that happened 60 or 70 years ago (or more). I think jazz is as strong as it has been. We have to enjoy what is happening now, get excited what will happen and stop reminiscing about the ‘Golden Era’ or the ‘Good Ol’ Days’.

Large jazz ensembles seems to be coming back into popularity, especially with younger musicians/composers (while we are young and stupid). Most bands being started now are by people who want to present their own music, which is great. There are a few here in Perth that have popped up recently and quite a lot in Sydney and Melbourne. There is something really special about creating music with a large group of people. It is great to see and I take my hat off to anyone who can organise that many people for a gig and rehearsals. My hair is a lot greyer than it was seven years ago.

6. What is your view of music in general today? (You are allowed to swear) [Ed’s note. I did not give Hardaker licence to say this].

I love most music and especially music with craft, groove, humour and heart – the Idol/x factor phenomenon shits me. The public are getting bombarded with watered-down rubbish on these shows that eat up these useless singers and then spit them out when they stop making them money. If you are fed only white bread your whole life and then try something else, like a ripe (real) tomato off the vine, it will taste crap to you because your body is used to no goodness, nutrients or flavour. I will stop now.

Conductor/Composer – Mace Francis
Jon Gordon – alto saxophone
Dan Pratt – tenor saxophone
Douglas Yates – bass clarinet
Mat Jodrell – trumpet
Alan Ferber – trombone
Nate Radley – guitar
Sean Wayland – piano
Matt Clohesy – bass
Mark Ferber – drums


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