Theseus and The Minotaur
Captain Kirkwood (view on Bandcamp)
Review by John Hardaker
Composer and trumpeter Ellen Kirkwood is known for her inventive and genre-busting arrangements for Sydney’s Sirens Big Band – check out her ‘Balkanator’, the opener of the Siren’s recent debut album, Kali and The Time of Change. (The band also rocks her arrangement of Radiohead’s ‘Paranoid Android’ in performance.)
Kirkwood’s small group – the whimsically named Captain Kirkwood – is a whole other trip from the Sirens. But the much reduced format doesn’t reduce Kirkwood’s smart ideas and great sense of tonal colour one iota.
In fact, on the band’s debut, Theseus and the Minotaur, Kirkwood has taken on a hell of an idea: the Greek legend of Theseus and his battle to the death with King Minos’ monstrous cannibal creature, the Minotaur. The band tell the story over five linked pieces, with narration by Ketan Joshi.
It could easily be a train wreck – very few of these jazz-prose things really fit right – but on this one it all works beautifully. The balance between the music and Joshi’s measured narration never tips, the music following and enhancing the narrative path, now and again moving to the forefront to feature the ensemble or some brilliant and considered soloing.
Multi-instrumentalist Paul Cutlan stands out, playing bass clarinet, tenor and Eb clarinet across the tracks. His howling, gnashing bass clarinet evocation of the Minotaur’s roars reminds us why Cutlan is one of our most respected musicians: he somehow manages to, among the terrifying animal sounds, suggest the anguish that the poor creature suffers, being not man and yet not beast.
The Minotaur’s lonely pain is also touched on in the sharply written text adaptation (by Kirkwood together with Oliver Downes), widening the psychological scope of the good-vs-evil aspect of the legend.
Kirkwood’s band writing is subtle and deceptively tricky – all to convey the moods and settings of the story. Her band – the traditional jazz two-horns-plus-rhythm combo – is up to anything she throws at them. There are some truly exceptional moments: the dread conveyed when Theseus enters the Minotaurs labyrinth using just Tom Botting’s scraped bowed bass and drummer Alon Ilsar’s ominous toms; the ragged, angular dance that suggests Theseus and the beast circling each other before their final battle; the use of kalimba suggesting sparkling sea.
As well as the five-track legend suite, the band also works through three tasty Kirkwood originals with Cutlan playing Eric Dolphy to the leader’s Miles’-inspired trumpet (her tone on the ballad ‘Dharamsala’ is particularly luminous). Pianist Glenn Doig through the suite and the three band pieces once again proves he is one to watch.
Ellen Kirkwood (bandleader, trumpet, kalimba)
Paul Cutlan (bass clarinet, tenor saxophone, Eb clarinet)
Glenn Doig (piano)
Tom Botting (bass)
Alon Ilsar (drums)
Ketan Joshi (narrator tracks 1-5)
Recorded at ABC Studio 227 by Russell Stapleton.
Produced by Cathy Peters.
Captain Kirkwood on Bandcamp
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