Album review: The Voyage of Mary and William (Matt McMahon) by John Hardaker

The Voyage of Mary and William (PathsAndStreams Records PAS 001)
Matt McMahon – solo piano

Review by John Hardaker

TheVoyage of Mary and WilliamJazz at its best is a music of conversations. The dialogue between soloists and rhythm section – whether lover’s whispers, sibling bickering or gospel shouting-match – can take the music out to some fantastic and funky places.

Solo jazz performances are, unlike group efforts, conversations with oneself: in the hands of a pretender, touchingly masturbatory; in the hands of a master, deeply meditative.

On his new album – The Voyage of Mary and William – eminent Sydney pianist/composer, Matt McMahon reveals himself even further as a true master of the art we call Jazz. Over twelve solo pieces, McMahon converses with both himself, the history of Jazz and everything in life and music that has brought him to this point.

He unconsciously converses with past generations of his family, and his Irish heritage, that have physically brought him to this point as well.

For these twelve pieces were recorded (beautifully) with David Nicholas as purely improvised performances, with no thematic or conceptual rope for McMahon to pull himself along. It all came from the magic air.

But not quite. After he had finished he listened back and realised that there were spirits and ghosts from his Irish past, a past that reached back generations, hovering in and around the music. As he puts it, the Irish current was ‘not necessarily in the foreground, but somewhere underneath or behind the sounds I was hearing’.

So the tracks – and the album – were named, after the fact, for episodes in the voyage of his ancestors, William and Mary Navin, who crossed the oceans from Tipperary to Australia in 1847. The titles fit and turn all of these perfectly realised solo pieces into deep, still meditations that stop time and open pools of wonder below and star-choked skies above.

‘Island of Destiny’, which opens the album, sets the spiritual pace with one note following another, and then another and so on like a language building a word at a time. ‘The Winding Path’ surprises, along its winding way, with small dissonances and gently chafing harmonic quirks. Throughout The Voyage of Mary and William McMahon uses overt ‘jazz’ harmony sparingly – and impeccably – giving all the tracks an astringent and faintly austere chamber quality.

The next three pieces seem to descend emotionally by degrees into a place of sadness the colour of Atlantic Ocean deeps –­ the colour of life’s bruise, indigo and blackened. ‘Embarkation’ with its suspended chords which never seem to set foot on the earth; ‘Lamentation’, sadder still, sagging with sadness; and ‘The Creaking Night’, a nadir of nihilistic low notes rumbling beneath.

Then the storm that is ‘Tempest Within’ hits and it is a tumble like rolling surf, churning and never letting you up for air. The only wildly rhythmic and propulsive piece on The Voyage of Mary and William, it builds into a kind of insanity that hits a wall of silence at bang on three minutes. And that silence rings like a bell, and we are back down into ‘The Second Dream’, one of the loveliest things here.

‘The Second Dream’ is McMahon inventing a perfect jazz standard as he goes. Nostalgic reverie and half-remembered perfumes drift in and out of his notes as he plays. It is deeply felt and greatly affecting – as is all this music: McMahon connecting emotionally to the music throughout.

The final piece, ‘The Stranger’s Land’ conveys the alienscape that Australia must have seemed to Mary and William after European juniper-green Tipperary. Its dry, ochre notes bring to mind the landscapes of Australian painter Fred Williams – all scraped background earth with flecks of tree-stump, mulga and rust-iron. The title may have been given later but the tone-poetry is there, aptly so.

The Voyage of Mary and William is Matt McMahon’s first recording of solo piano improvisation. In his illuminating liner notes to the CD, he describes the piano – a machine of wood, ivory and wire he remains obviously still smitten by – as ‘this wondrous invention’. The same descriptor could be applied to The Voyage of Mary and William. It is all invention and, yes, it is pretty bloody wondrous.


Matt McMahon launches The Voyage of Mary and William Friday 6 March at The Sound Lounge, Seymour Centre, Sydney and Thursday 19 March at Bennetts Lane in Melbourne


Matt McMahon ‘Island of Destiny’