CD Review by John Hardaker
In James Ryan’s liner notes to Aaron Michael’s eponymous debut, Aaron Michael, he mentions that the Sydney saxophonist took an unusual tack when picking the players for these sessions. He put together people who did not usually play together, players from different parts of the jazz community – a risky move, but one which paid off, as the band appears to greatly relish the new accents and flavours of the experiment. You can hear their buzz jumping from the tracks.
In the goldfish bowl of the Australian jazz scene this might be the sort of calculated risk that we need to see more of. All evolution needs diversity and the occasional short sharp shock to the status quo.
Opener ‘Leytonstone’ is an immediate illustration of the ensemble’s joy: a bright expression of positivity – a happy strut with maybe a whiff of New Orleans gumbo, the tune’s broad smile disguises an intricate melody – intricate in harmony as well as phrasing. Michael digs in for a solo duet with drummer Paul Derricott that cuts up hot and sweet.
And here it must be mentioned that Aaron Michael’s playing has not had the edge knocked off, despite being the go-to horn-guy who seems to be playing all the time, with everyone… everywhere… Consummate professionalism can be a hell of a thing – too many players lose their own identity, their own voice, working nine-to-five replicating the voices of others, as superbly as that may be. But the most beautiful thing, ultimately, is a musician’s own voice, as it has all the scars and laugh-lines and happy-sads of life which make it as unique as fingerprints or a face. Session work can suck that right out of a player.
Aaron Michael’s voice is as true to himself as he would want – a clean, nimble, modern tenor tone, unadorned with effects or false sentiment, it is astringently honest. Check ‘Por Favor’, a lanquid pulseless ballad that Michael’s soprano floats over – bringing to mind Wayne Shorter’s ability to express every part of the straight sax’s vocabulary, sometimes within the same phrase: the sharp jabs widening out to round, sonorous tones. (The lovely bonus track at the end of the CD is for once, truly a bonus – a second take of ‘Por Favor’ with a spare piano accompaniment – lovely stuff indeed).
‘Here and Now’ shows Aaron Michael’s compositional strengths – it is a piece of contrasts: 3/4 against 4/4, swing pulse against straight, with a smartly conceived ensemble section towards the latter part of the tune (and, as a bon-bon, a typically measured and balanced piano solo from Matt McMahon). Michael’s ‘Spicy Beans’ with its rush-hour head and his 9/8 gospel blues ‘Communion’ (with a testifying bass solo from Duncan Brown) are sharp pieces of writing that also show him as a jazz composer to watch.
‘Spicy Beans’ and Paul Derricott’s ‘Evening Haze’ have the band plugging into some fusion electricity. Guitarist Dieter Kleeman snaps, crackles and shreds on these – an impressive player equally at home playing a sweet acoustic jazz tone on the opener ‘Leytonstone’. The whole band, in fact, strongly convinces on the rock pieces while remaining totally mesmerising on the more ‘jazz’ tunes.
But as hot as the players are, and as fine as Aaron Michael’s compositions may be, it is really his playing which makes Aaron Michael such a startling debut. As a pointer, the sheer beauty and downright ‘heart’ of his solo on the last piece ‘Communion’ is a small masterclass in blues, restraint, humanity in music and transcendence of technique. Modern jazz has always been a balancing act between science and poetry, chops and soul – and sadly, too many players fall for the formulae and lose the funk.
Gladly, Aaron Michael is not one of them and you need go no further than Aaron Michael for actual proof.
Aaron Michael (tenor and soprano saxophone)
Matt McMahon (piano)
Paul Derricott (drums)
Duncan Brown (bass)
Dieter Kleemann (guitar)
Album preview on SoundCloud
Aaron Michael’s website is aaronmichaelband.com
Read more by John Hardaker on AustralianJazz.net