A Shorthand of Sensation (all-talk.bandcamp.com)
Review by John Shand
James McLean is a smart man. Rather than blindly following the de facto route of dashing off to New York to find an American with whom to study, the drummer/composer sought out Phil Treloar in Japan. Not only did Treloar go a fair way to revolutionising improvised percussion in Australia in the 1970s and ’80s, he also established himself as a significant composer and as a conceptualist investigating the interface between composition and improvisation with almost scientific rigour. So instead of perpetuating the importation of American models of jazz McLean went and soaked up the ideas and attitudes of someone who had stepped out from that giant shadow decades ago; someone who might help him find his own path into the music.
On the evidence of A Shorthand of Sensation McLean is well on the way to finding it. If his music remains much more overtly jazzy than anything Treloar might be likely to espouse these days it has already moved on to the point where his collaboration with Alistair McLean and Samuel Zerna sounds like no other guitar/bass/drums trio. That in itself is no mean feat, but it is the way he has assembled this suite of his (with a piece each by Zerna and Alistair McLean) that is especially impressive.
The mood is set by the opening ‘Triptych in Miniature’, a drifting soundscape of ringing guitar sounds into which the ghost a rhythm-section groove is intermittently inserted. This piece has the function of pushing a kind of reset button in how we hear the succeeding straighter pieces, so even when the bass and drums are at their most turbulent, the guitar, which boasts a wonderfully singing sound, often continues to carry echoes of that more serene place.
The soundscape mood resurfaces at the start of ‘New Egypt’, the trio not so much using space as decorating silence. The slow groove that emerges from this sounds so right as to be inevitable, and the ensuing three-way interaction sparkles with micro-surprises without losing a fundamental cohesion. Throughout the album the McLeans share an uncanny rapport in phrasing, often spontaneously converging on syncopated accents.
Another drifting episode begins ‘Macarthur Wheeler’, the guitar effects sometimes reminiscent of the Robert Fripp and Brian Eno collaborations, while bowed bass and hand drumming earths the celestiality. But the band is also capable of generating some serious heat in the album’s second half – as one might expect when McLean nominates Mark Simmonds‘ blazing Freeboppers as among his influences.
He often uses the rims of his drums to create speech-like inflections, symptomatic of the fact that all three instruments imbue the more abstract phases with a deep-seated humanity. A solo drums fragment called ‘Shorter in Words and Longer in Meaning’ conveys McLean’s grasp how to create an atmospheric context in which to build a narrative – rather like looking locally for one’s sources, inspirations and role-models, rather than just emulating heroes from across the seas.
Alistair McLean – guitar
Samuel Zerna – acoustic bass
James McLean – drums