Gig review: Kevin Hunt Trio

Kevin Hunt - photo by Dan White

Kevin Hunt Trio, VJs
Sunday 17 March

Review by Lloyd Bradford Syke

Kevin Hunt has one of those serene, ageless, amiable, open faces you don’t often encounter in these frenetic times. Perhaps it’s the joie de vivre (of which he spoke) he finds in music that has this more than skin-deep effect. He certainly projects affirmative energy; through his playing, but also in his elucidations. His presentation is almost tentative, but his knowledge of music history is clearly encyclopaedic.

Kevin Hunt Trio by Bill Risby
Kevin Hunt Trio by Bill Risby (l-r Karl Dunnicliff, Kevin Hunt, Dave Goodman)

Given he’s been on the Sydney scene since 1979 and his prodigious talent, he’s worked with a veritable who’s who; spanning generations, what’s more. Don Burrows; James Morrison; Gordon Rytmeister; Tim Hopkins; David Jones. I could go on. His trio, for a few years now, has included Dave Goodman and Karl Dunnicliff.

Few musicians remain at the leading edge for thirty years or more, but Kevin has. This, because of his bravery. Bravery? Yes. For him, all music is fair game. He seems to instinctively adhere to Leonard Bernstein’s famous dictum that there are only two kinds of music: good and bad. Currently, he’s engaged in a project called Ancient & New, based on Aboriginal chants of the Sydney region. Yes. He’s not only engaging, but engaged.

The Kevin Hunt Trio, this evening, began with one of Kevin’s compositions. ‘The Joy of Spring’ is inspired by master trumpeter and bopper Clifford Brown’s 1954 number Joy Spring, an easy-swinging number with one of the most memorable melodic motifs in jazz. Hunt’s homage is more than distinguished: it shows him to be a composer capable of placing himself, in the long run, in the major league; after all, he studied with Joe Zawinul in Vienna and, just as Brown’s ‘Joy Spring’ (a tribute to his wife, who he referred to as such) has become part of the jazz firmament, the sophistication of Hunt’s writing leaves me with the sneaking suspicion his tunes will be played long after he leaves the building.

Of course, Kevin is as good an arranger as composer. He’s famous for his adaptations of classics and the first movement of Ravel’s ‘Nobles et Sentimentales’ is, well, a classic example. It’s also an outstanding opportunity to glean a glimpse of his virtuosic pianistic talent, since this work is so very challenging. To me, it seems like Ravel and Hunt, in their eclecticism, might’ve been fast friends, had they been contemporaries. Like mischievous Maurice, Hunt is also a veritable Peter Pan, mercurially shifting gears, grappling with Ravel’s complexities as if child’s play and with the self-same unbridled enthusiasm a child brings to play.

All kinds of people have covered Guy Wood’s ‘My One and Only Love’: from Sinatra (the original recording) to Sting. Written in ’52, with lyrics by Robert Mellin, it couldn’t present more of a contrast to the innovations of Ravel, being a stock-standard, 32-bar ballad. Nonetheless, it presents as challenging (and beautiful) a melody for a singer as Ravel’s noble and sentimental waltz does for a piano player. Hunt clearly loves the song, since he imbues it with such tenderness.

‘Dance of the Infidels’ was written by Bud Powell, one of the least credited inventors of bop and one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time. Powell, who became known as the Charlie Parker of piano (not least because he took to emulating Bird’s sax), followed closely in the footsteps of two other colossal keysmen, in (Thelonius Sphere) Monk and Art Tatum. In fact, Monk reckoned none could play like Bud. Given Kevin’s penchant for classical refinement and the influence that brings to bear on his writing, arranging and playing, it’s as if Ravel, Powell and Hunt are a kind of musical Marx Brothers, albeit divorced by spacetime.

Like the company I’d put him in, Kevin is very much an innovator. It’s particularly manifest in his playing: he seems to be experimenting with different techniques, to different sonic ends. At times his arms and hands arch over the keyboard; at others the heels of his hands appear to be resting on or pushing against its leading edge. He’ll strike keys with the heels of his hands, or palms, obliquely, to husband subtle harmonics.

His own ‘No Shuffle’ was, for mine, possibly the most satisfying piece of the evening, with a hook that beckons improvisation, in the same way as any of the great and immortal jazz standards. I don’t know what inspired the title: perhaps an aversion to New Orleans rhythms (I sincerely doubt it) or, more likely, an allergy to the capriciousness of the digital device.

Hot House is another ‘top of the bops’, courtesy Tadd Dameron, made famous by Dizzy and Bird. If it sounds familiar, it’s because it has exactly the same harmonic structure as Cole Porter’s ‘What Is This Thing Called Love?’. Kevin and co give it all the momentum (and possibly more) Dick Hyman (piano), Sandy Block (bass) and Charlie Smith (drums) did.

‘Little Rootie Tootie’ is a Monk tune, named after his then two-year-old son, Thelonius, Jr., nicknamed Toot, after Little Toot The Tugboat, an early Disney cartoon much favoured by T the younger. Being his father’s son, Toot learned to whistle the tune before he could talk. Here, we had a prodigious trio standing in for a prodigious trio. Goodman is every bit as busily, conscientiously inventive as Art Blakey (the drummer in Monk’s trio) and Dunnicliff’s clean, tight upright bass sound is very much in keeping with Gary Mapp’s. Better yet, it’s the boundary-riding, envelope-pushing attitude they bring to the tune that’s most synchronous of all with ‘the Monkeys’.

Vernon Duke’s ‘Autumn In New York’ predates Monk’s troika by a couple of decades, written for the Broadway musical, ‘Thumbs Up!’, that’s proved an enduring selection for countless jazzers: Bird; Louie and Ella; Billie; Sinatra; Sarah Vaughan; et al. Kevin and co seem to bring a palpable feeling and affection for New York to the fore in their reading of what is, when all’s said and done, an ode to that great city.

‘On A Clear Day (You Can See Forever)’ was written by Burton Lane as the title song for his recently-revived musical, which first hit the stage in ’65. Kevin introduces it by espousing his contagious positivity: how can one look at one’s glass and see it half-empty, on a clear day? And the way the trio plays would have us all rise and look around, shining light into dark corners of our lives.

David Mann, a Brill building songsmith, is probably better known for Sinatra’s real-life breakup (with Ava Gardner) song, ‘In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning’, but ‘No Moon At All’, at least to those in the know, still stands as one of the most treasured standards. Kevin, Karl and Dave capture the driving inclination of the number, that leans keenly into the rhythm, but not without being awake to the darker colour of the lyric, in which ‘stars have disappeared from sight’. It’s a seasoned rendition, informed by what has gone before, but creating something almost entirely new from that musical and emotional intelligence.

‘Folk Melody’ is Hunt’s own and a traditional closer for the trio. It could easily be a memorable and affecting theme for a major cinematic tearjerker. It’s the very quintessence of compositional sophistication: a deceptively straightforward central theme, Celtic in flavour, around which are built endless variations, changes and interpolations, including classically-influenced ones. A sweet piece of music, in every respect, and one that’s emblematic of Kevin’s genre-jumping audacity which, in some ways at least, puts me in mind of Gershwin or Bacharach, since all three have managed to confound expectations, challenging and defying critics, as well as popular taste, in the most transcendent, future-prone way, with utter independence of talent and spirit.

Kevin Hunt on his own is a jaw-dropping live experience, but teamed with the rock-steady Karl Dunnicliff (who may’ve started out listening to AC/DC, but now owes more to the cool groove of, say, Ray Brown) and finessed Dave Goodman, each adventurous soloists in their own right, The Kevin Hunt Trio becomes an entity of exceptionality; an Australian jazz jewel.



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About the reviewer

Lloyd Bradford Syke is a Sydney writer of many stripes. His core professional background is as a copywriter and creative director, in ad agencies large and small, including his own consultancies but, over the years, he has pursued parallel interests as a documentary filmmaker, arts and business journalist and even had a near-miss tilt at the federal senate. Jazz is but one of his passions.