Seymour Centre, City Road, Sydney 12 September 2014
A good indication of the strange attendance fluctuations that exist for some at the top level of contemporary jazz – particularly in Sydney it would seem – is provided by The Vampires, who have had successful international and Australian tours yet, after a highly acclaimed tour of Germany and a brief hiatus, appeared here recently before a numerically very modest audience. That audience weaved and pulsated at their tables to an eclectic feast of world-wide rhythms, though one distinguished-looking gentleman entered dancing gracefully on his feet while tracking down a good listening spot. That gent may have been your reviewer. The fluctuations might be explained by a contemporary shortage of helpful event listings, on and off-line, and of interviews, reviews and essay which stimulate interest.
Having broached that issue, our aim is to give some idea of how worthy The Vampires are.
There is now a well-established tradition of Australian jazz-trained musicians going abroad to study various South American, Cuban, Indian, Balkan (etc.) musics and bringing their rhythms, temperings and melodic shapes into play within their own music. They have an old-fashioned multi-cultural agenda and many inter-racial friendships, musical and otherwise, have indeed been formed. Sandy Evans, Lloyd Swanton, Barney McAll and Simon Barker come immediately to mind. There is a rumour that The Vampires have been around for thousands of years longer than any of these, but we will dispense with bad jokes and note, firstly, that they have as distinctive an ensemble sound as any. There are two pairings within the band, which in combination contribute to this. First the superb rhythm team of double bassist Alex Boneham and drummer/percussionist Alex Masso; then, riding on their rhythms, the unisons and contrapuntal lines and improvised relays of saxophonist and clarinettist Jeremy Rose and trumpeter and flugel horn player Nick Garbett.
The horn unison passages have the extraordinary unity – bright and seemingly electrically fused – that characterised the famous pairing or alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman and trumpeter Don Cherry; while their solos are freely melodic, somewhat in the Coleman vein. The jazz orientation is neither camouflaged nor emphasised. The tension of jazz rhythmic displacements, cross rhythms (or polyrhythms) and the spontaneous succession of chromatic and folk-like figures arrives naturally. Sometimes the two might murmur in unison over a stealthy drum and bass pattern and often flair into the highest register of their instruments together. There is an ecstatic feeling to this, similar on a smaller scale to the bright eruptions, like fireworks, of a swing era trumpet section.
Rose’s saxophone improvisations have fluid, lithe lyricism – leading sometimes to pleasingly mind-boggling polyrhythmic tangles – and Garbett’s trumpet flickers between high galvanic blasts and breathy intimacies. The sharp brightness of his sound is coloured by bluesy figures and the use of half-valve fingerings that suddenly change the tone to something vocalised and strange. By ‘half-valve’ I mean choking and distorting sound by pressing the valves part of the way down. When the big squeeze is applied by throttling the sound yet blasting through that compression high and loud, the notes can physically sting. That is a blues principle. A taste of pain can heighten pleasure.
Both these players, like the rhythm team, have compositional gifts. The ‘book’ is large and eclectic.
This is ecstatic music. In the unlikely event of my throwing a party I would very seriously consider hiring The Vampires. One of my very rich associates would no doubt throw open the grounds of his mansion so we could all wildly dance without crashing into tables.
Jeremy Rose (saxophone, clarinet)
Nick Garbett (trumpet)
Alex Boneham (bass)
Alex Masso (drums)
The Vampires on the web