Lost In The Stars: interpretations of the zodiac suites of Mary Lou Williams and Karlheinz Stockhausen (Jazzhead HEAD168)
Allan Browne Trio with Mark Hannaford and Samuel Pankhurst
Review by John Clare
Mary Lou Williams was almost certainly the first major female jazz piano stylist. She also wrote accomplished arrangements for Benny Goodman and Andy Kirk (and His Clouds Of Joy), amongst others. Karlheinz Stockhausen was one of the first to move in a new modernist direction related to ‘serial music’ (in turn a highly systematised approach to atonality). One of the first also to see electronica as the music of the future. The concept behind some of his music may seem more important than how musical it sounds. Yet – perhaps through calculated accident – it usually ends up sounding very musical and/or musically intriguing indeed.One of his methods was to present musicians with a composition together with the instruction to rearrange it at will. Other approaches involved random events.
By the by, Stockhausen’s son Markus is a fine trumpet player who can be heard on some ECM recordings.
As it happened Williams and Stockhausen both wrote suites based in some ways on the organisation of the zodiac. That the two ever met is doubtful. Drummer and bandleader Allan Browne, with his trio and in his often startlingly eclectic way, has presented an interpretation of both suites. Movements by each composer are paired. That is to say, Williams’s first movement is immediately followed by Stockhausen’s and so on, eg. Taurus 01: Williams: 5.20 Taurus 01: Stockhausen 2.56. Browne’s trio improvises on the core phrases of each. Williams’s movements are quite a bit longer than Stockhausen’s throughout.
It is very hard to write about this. Let us start first with the trio pianist Mark Hannaford. Like Browne he has extraordinary idiomatic flexibility. Hannaford reveals a particular attraction to classical modernism as well as for very early and very modern (and avant garde) jazz piano. The two actually display remarkable similarities and polarities.
Corny I know, but it’s hard not to hear some of the treble notes as stars. Not just because of the traditional association (‘like diamonds’ being another cliché hard to ignore), but because of the brilliant precision of the playing. In some moves the notes are widely spaced in pitch and time. The effect is meditative. Suddenly, as if ejected by an inner spring, notes arpeggiate, scatter and sprinkle. A surprise arrives early when Sam Pankhurst’s bass begins to tromp with a thick, dark buoyancy, and for a few moments the trio is steaming, rolling and stamping. Cut. We’re out in the stars again. The title of this wonderful recording is of course taken from the Kurt Weill song.
This album is both intellectual and exciting, earthy and ethereal. The sheer quality of the playing is overwhelming. I sincerely hope that Melbourne continues to embrace the tradition that has evolved around Browne and his disparate associates. It made me want to stare out the window into the black sky, but as it happens the rain is crashing and lightning is forking across the city. Thunder rolls out over the harbour and after a frightening delay it cracks like a trip hammer. Strangely the music – often dynamic and bright with dissonance, often delicate – holds its own in the alien weather.
Allan Browne – drums
Marc Hannaford – piano
Sam Pankhurst – bass
Lost in the Stars on the Jazzhead website
Taurus on SoundCloud