The Berlin Session (label: Kel-CD)
The Andy Sugg Group
CD review by John Hardaker
I love this album. I unequivocally stone motherless love it. It is the best jazz album I have heard this year. I could end this review right there, but I will expand.
Free Jazz has long divided even the most pearl-eared listeners. And with good reason – since its development in the early-1960s, its searching nature and fearless deep-end leaping has come up with mixed results. In the hands of magicians such as Pharoah Sanders and Cecil Taylor, Free Jazz can take you out to interstellar space and back; in the hands of band-wagon jumpers who shall remain nameless, the form is a turgid meander in the mire, never really getting anywhere, despite all the steam, noise and sounding brass.
Negative critics often cite the ‘fact’ that Free Jazz has abandoned all melody, harmony and rhythm – the holy trinity of western music. But none of these have been abandoned at all; the best players are just working way out on the outer rim of these elements – sure, melody, harmony and rhythm are stretched to cracking point but they are most definitely there. And the music that the Free Jazz astronauts bring back from the edge is arguably the most ‘jazz’ Jazz you will ever hear – precisely because a big part of the Jazz mission statement has always been to stretch the music into new and wonderful shapes.
Melbourne saxophonist Andy Sugg’s latest album The Berlin Session was recorded in, inspired by and used musos based in the German arts-Mecca, but the music here takes you to many places. Places of the heart, places of the mind, place of the soul.
US sax giant Dave Liebman called Sugg ‘a dedicated warrior’ and throughout the album his tone and lines (restricted here to only soprano sax) are heroic as he leads his band through the music. Fearless, sensitive, strong.
‘Vignette’ is a cool piece of Coltrane-spiritual worship before the rock and roil of ‘Freedom 2’ – this piece riding on the dense intensity of Berliner drummer Jan Leipnitz and bassist Sean Pentland. It is an intensity that never cloys or clogs – their playing truly swings, despite the elasticity of the pulse.
Both bass and drums shine on the pair of duets, ‘Berlin’ and ‘Teddie’s Blues’ – Pentland on the late night urban ‘Berlin’ rolls like a city subway beneath saxophonist Sugg’s sketch-etched skyline lines. On ‘Teddie’s Blues’, Suggs and drummer Leipnitz converse parti-coloured and party-hearty, full of energy but never overloading into Coltrane-Elvin Jones drumkit-demolition territory. Again, it swings.
A special mention needs to go to pianist Kate Kelsey-Sugg (Andy’s daughter) who makes this already astounding album a truly landmark one. Her comping (is there actually such a thing as prosaic as comping in this music?) is coolly considered when it needs to be – as on ‘Freedom 2’ where, towards the end, she sets up a tessellated repeat pattern that turns the whole performance into something else – and spiky and spitting where fireworks are called for, as on the Cecil Taylor hat-tip ‘Cecil T’. Kelsey-Sugg’s chord textures across the lovely ‘Pastoral’ seem to call from another age (past? future?) and give the piece a new beauty, a beauty we have never felt before.
Andy Sugg’s soprano cannot help but conjure Coltrane, and the last piece ‘For Leib’ (a hi to Dave) is full of the trills and howls that made Coltrane’s last work so rivetting. In the love and joy of the band’s interplay I am reminded of ‘Sunship’, one of the first Coltrane Quartet’s last albums, before Elvin and McCoy left John to his star sailing. ‘Sunship’ is free yet flowing, unfettered yet grooving, dense yet swinging. The Berlin Session is like that.
But The Berlin Session is entirely of its own wonder-full world, influences aside. Did I already say I love this album? Did I mention that I unequivocally stone motherless love it? I recommend you take a listen and get to love it too.
Andy Sugg – soprano saxophone
Kate Kelsey-Sugg – piano (Kate was a finalist and 2nd place winner in the 2012 National Jazz Awards. Read our Q&A with Kate >)
Sean Pentland – bass
Jan Liebnitz – drums