Review by John Hardaker
I once heard John Coltrane’s playing described as the sound of a ‘very large man crammed into a tiny room, shooting notes at the corners of that room.’ I have often though of that neat phrase when experiencing the playing of Sydney tenor colossus James Ryan. Lyrical as it is, in a jazz setting – even in his big, bad Sonic Mayhem Big Band – his playing can so strong that it sometimes threatens to immolate the horn with that same sort of phosphorescent energy Coltrane could put out.
So it makes sense that jazz-fusion is a good fit for James Ryan. Jazz-rock fusion (theoretically) takes the best of both musics – the unbridled energy of Rock and the freedom and imagination of Jazz – and combines them to make something (theoretically) greater than the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, too much fusion seems to take, instead, the bombast of Rock and the noodling of Jazz and can be excruciatingly awful.
That said, outfits such as Joe Zawinul’s and Wayne Shorter’s Weather Report, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Chick Corea’s various Return to Forevers have made music that hits some stratospheric and ecstatic highs – that wouldn’t be possible in either Jazz or Rock alone.
Ryan’s fusion super-group, The Subterraneans, are the best of the best. Comprising a core of Ryan, electric bassist Steve Hunter, drummer James Hauptmann and hyperkinetic guitarist James Muller, they are a force of nature, balancing ferocious energy with focused and sharp musical ideas. John Shand has said of The Subs ‘This is what the fusion of Jazz and Rock always promised but rarely delivered: sophisticated improvising harnessed to raw power’.
Their recent album Live at The Townie is drawn from shows The Subterraneans performed at Newtown’s Town Hall Hotel every Sunday in February, March, April and May 2012 and Feb 2013. Every performance was recorded and eight tracks (out of over 100) were selected. Guests Rai Thistlethwayte on keys (lovely gritty Rhodes on the very Miles-ish ‘So To Speak’) and guitarist Ben Hauptmann add to the proceedings.
All this talk of Rock and power, however, belies the scope of The Subterraneans’ dynamic. Opener ‘Constant Change’ is a demonstration of the freedom the band can spin music from – trippy and ambient, it is the sound of band that can truly breathe together (something surprisingly rare in ‘super-groups’). ‘So To Speak’ begins with bass-harmonic atmospheres from Steve Hunter, reminiscent of Jaco Pastorius’ ‘Continuum’, before moving through 11:09 of beautiful soloing from Ryan and the previously mentioned Thistlethwayte.
But all subtle grooving aside, it is the excitingly hair-raising pieces here that really get the band’s blood flowing – their take on ‘The Subterraneans’ makes the studio version, already a barnstorming performance, pale by comparison. Ryan’s soloing threatens to split his tenor at the seams, but it is James Muller’s shredding explorations that push the band into hyperdrive. Muller’s playing throughout is a reminder of the power in his playing, but power – as it is with every member of The Subs – that is subservient to the music and the collective momentum.
It is a rare treat to have a band bristling with soloists such as Ryan, Muller and Hunter. It is an even rarer treat when they subsume their egos to combine into such a remarkable band. And it is a yet even rarer treat when the performances of such a collective can be recorded (nice work Dave Bourke!) in a live setting with all its attendant fire and brimstone and in-the-moment immediacy. As I said, the best of the best.
James Ryan (tenor saxophone)
Steve Hunter (electric bass)
James Hauptmann (drums)
Ben Hautpmann (electric guitar)
And regular guests
James Muller (guitar)
Rai Thistlethwayte (keyboard)
Gordon Rytmeister (drums)
One of my fave YouTube clips (Ed.)