Ten Part Invention
Venue 505 – Sydney
Saturday 20 April 2013
Review by John Clare
With a 27th anniversary looming, this much-loved ten piece band brought many old followers and a number who were both new and young to 505 (the ground level one: the old 505 still operates in its loft-like space behind Central Railway), a venue in which young musicians and fans usually far outnumber hoary old gurus (you could describe me thus if you wished to be disrespectful, God forbid). Drummer John Pochée formed this band to play Australian compositions and its first appearance was at the Adelaide Festival, nightly in the Fez Bar. Three major composers – who also happened to be major instrumentalists and soloists – were recruited: Sandy Evans, the late Roger Frampton and Miroslav Bukovsky, but work has been commissioned from outside the band. For instance, Melbourne pianist composer Andrea Keller was asked to adapt some of her music for this ensemble. She was then flown up to lead these performances from the piano stool at Sydney’s Sound Lounge. The band also played by invitation at the Chicago Jazz Festival and elsewhere in Europe and America.
Enough history.The first half of the 505 recital saw the premiere of a new Sandy Evans piece. Before you begin cringing at the title it should be explained that Sandy had fastened on to one of the many satyrical descriptions employed by Pochée to describe a large, spectacular, flamboyant event: Drums Across The Ganges. I can hear him saying it – ‘So then an elephant came in and there were 500 dancers and jugglers, and it was… well, it was drums across the Ganges!’ As it happened DATG was a very subtle, sinuous and irresistible piece in 9/8, propelled with great skill and idiomatic understanding by Dave Goodman, who was chosen by John Pochée – whose health is quite fragile – to take his place on most occasions. Sandy has for some time been studying a particular strand of Indian music with masters here and in India itself (some of whom have appeared with her trio). She and outstanding multi instrumentalist Matthew Ottignon played a brilliant series of exchanges, sometimes contrapuntally overlapping, on soprano saxophone (Sandy) and flute (Mat).
Band pianist and occasional composer Paul McNamara also contributed a somewhat disguised samba with some very unusual voicings. Sandy’s vaulting, time-shifting favourite ‘For Tea Two’ lifted the roof with bursting ensembles, thundering drums (as might be heard clear across the Ganges), Andrew Robson inserting the high wailing alto strophes across the brass explosions (a role once played by Bernie McGann), and a wonderful, pretty much unamplified trumpet solo by Miroslav Bukovsky. I have used strophe in its original sense: an interpolation, sometimes melismatic, in the Catholic mass). Another highlight was Sandy’s ‘Wind Across The Lake’ (from the album Tall Stories) with its ethereal and keenly dissonant high brass, alto and woodwind voicings exceptionally well played since the band now has two multi sax and woodwind players in Ottignon and Paul Cutlan – who extends down to the baritone saxophone and bass clarinet and upward to clarinet, alto and soprano. A wealth of darker, deeper detail flies along beneath these hooting high wind voices, which are held against the beat like wind and like the water surface as it is scored and furrowed and sheened out flat.
Perhaps it was played a little faster than usual, which compressed the wind pressure effect. Whatever the reason, it was bracing and lovely and about the best version of this small master work I have heard.
The second half was taken up entirely by Miroslav Bukovsky’s suite based on Kenneth Slessor’s famous poem Five Bells. This has been performed at Wangaratta and the Sydney Opera House Studio, where the poem/narration delivered brilliantly by actor Tony Barry. This time the music was somewhat reworked to stand on its own without the narration. And it certainly did. The poem is a great one (although not quite so good as Slessor’s The Last Trams in my view) and it is about the death by drowning of a hard drinking Irish character known to Slessor and his friends. The poem moves mysteriously over his enigmatic life, his ranting, joking and general eccentricity. One story has it that he drowned after he grew fed up waiting for a Sydney ferry and decided to swim to his destination in the night. Slessor in one interview said that he fell off a ferry. His body was never found.
The music begins with ship’s horns, bells and the rumbling of marine engines – perhaps heard from underwater as i have often heard them myself. This atmospheric opening is achieved in part with muted brass, deployed with invention and facility that would not have diminished an Ellington composition. from there it moves through many moods as the life unfolds. In reflective sections Paul McNamara’s piano deftly sprinkles spare treble figures and deep chords like starshine and moonglitter on small black harbour waves. These passages also evoke a harbourside bar, which is obviously apposite.
Violent surges – perhaps struggles of the drowning man – lunge forward with a three-dimensional presence, then veer and spiral giddily. This writing is really first class.
The solos I most vividly remember are a rocketing, freely phrased stunner by trombonist James Greening and a brilliantly incisive, lyrical and shining trumpet construction by Warwick Alder.
Although the crowed thinned after the break, many stayed on and listened in absolute stillness and silence (bar shouts of appreciation for an ensemble passage or solo). Night lights and smears of electrical colour on the wet road awaited the happy homeward bound.
Ten Part Invention on the web
Venue 505 in Sydney