AK (Newmarket NEW3321.2)
Review by John Shand
One of the tricks when combining jazz and rock is to avoid the players’ virtuosity spiralling into bombast. A cunning way of escaping that dismal fate is to write tunes that are blessed with a light, airy, rather elfin and even friendly spirit, so the improvising is goaded in this direction. Frank Zappa did it very successfully, especially on albums from the Burnt Weeny Sandwich, Hot Rats and Grand Wazoo period, and across the Atlantic at much the same time the composers for such bands as Soft Machine, Matching Mole and Hatfield and the North built a whole genre upon this ability.
Add Adam Katz to that list. The Melburnian pianist has penned five very affable compositions for this album; pieces that engender focused, relevant and engaging improvising from his pool of players. This pool, in addition to boasting saxophonists Julien Wilson and Ben Anderson, guitarists Steve Magnusson, Nic Lam and Christian Meyer and bassist Brendan Tsui, includes the remarkable drumming of American Keith Carlock. Katz rehearsed with Carlock, then sent him guide tracks to play along with, over which the rest of the band then recorded. It is an unusual way to make a jazz album, but the proof is in the pudding, and I could not tell what had been laid down first, so thoroughly integrated are the drums with the rest of the band.
Carlock is fully unleashed on the opening ‘Mistral’, which has a delightful, slightly wistful melody, doubled by Katz and Wilson’s tenor. Katz begins the improvising alone, instantly establishing the space and air I was talking about. As his solo intensifies he maintains a sense of restraint which is then preserved when Wilson slides into the foreground. Soon the sparks start to fly, and Wilson, as ever, is exceptional at toughening his sound in tandem with his lines as the energy rises. A recap of the melody leads to Carlock’s feature over a bass/piano vamp. The drums have a singular fatness to them (particularly the open-sounding bass drum), and Carlock builds his foray using the inbuilt excitement of these sounds with just a dash of his trademark rhythmic ingenuity, but without overplaying. I think it’s called taste.
‘Working Title’ could almost be a second movement of a suite, so strong are its conceptual ties to ‘Mistral’. This time, however, Katz, the groovy Tsui and Carlock are joined by guitarist Nic Lam, whose fuzz-laden sustain makes for an engaging solo that is rather dreamy, despite its intermittent snarls and bite and the ferocious push from Carlock. Katz defuses any pugnacity with a lyrical solo, before Ben Anderson’s soprano slices through the thickets of rhythm.
Katz unwinds the energy in a dainty little duet with Tsui’s bass called `Interlude’, and, avoiding any jarring contrasts, he then brings in Christian Meyer’s acoustic guitar for the soft-rock of `Blue Pants’, which Carlock keeps bubbling with his inimitable ear for detail. The string scrapes as Meyer moves his hand on the finger-board are oddly prominent in the mix – the first time I played it I thought some small bird was trapped in the house! – although his solo is full of attractive little stings.
The coda to this pithy (30-minute) album is a duet between Katz and Steve Magnusson’s acoustic guitar called ‘Lullabye’, continuing the pianist’s love of phrasing his pretty melodies in unison.
Katz has come up with an appealing, thoughtful and lyrical take on jazz-rock, ‘Mistral’ and ‘Working Title’ being especially strong. It is unusual to attempt an album of interactive improvising with one member working alone in a studio some 15,000 kilometres away, but somehow Katz has knitted the outcome together so you would never guess. I shouldn’t have even told you, really…
Ed’s note: At posting, Adam Katz has just been announced as one of five finalists for the Melbourne Prize for Music – Development Award. He is also eligible for the Civic Choice Award, which is an additional award based on votes from the public.
Adam Katz – piano
Brendan Tsui – bass
Keith Carlock – drums
Julien Wilson – tenor saxophone (track 1)
Steve Magnusson – guitar (track 5)
Nic Lam – electric guitar (track 2)
Christian Meyer – guitar (track 4)
Ben Anderson – soprano saxophone (track 2)
‘Mistral’ from AK