By John Hardaker
Sydney tenor colossus James Ryan’s Sonic Mayhem Orchestra has been committing sonic mayhem every Monday night at Marrickville’s Lazybones lounge since… well almost since Captain Cook invaded Australia.
Much of their new album, LIVE MAYHEM, was recorded there (bar two tunes recorded over at Surry Hills’ 505) and the album captures the Orchestra’s intensity and power probably better than any studio effort possibly could. Probably? Definitely.
Opening with one of my favourite Ryan charts, ‘Frogs’ with its ribbetting horn counterpoint lines, the Sonic Mayhem Orchestra rolls out its mission statement: tough, funky and sharp, with plenty of smart colour in the arrangements and an embarrassment of Sydney’s best and brightest players in the ranks. Mayhem regular Aaron Michael’s tenor break jumps with the kind of joy this band brings out in its soloists and audiences alike. Nic Cecire’s drum feature takes us way out to Cecireland and back again – cool!
‘Frogs’ has that big-shouldered toughness and plenty of mid-range grunt that recalls any Mingus big band and some of Basie’s more funk-soaked moments. It is a unique and thrilling sound that is all across LIVE MAYHEM.
The Trish Delaney-Brown led ‘Sunshine’s Out’ shows Ryan’s more soul-jazz side. In Delaney-Brown he has the perfect voice for the Mayhem band – not the little-girl voice, too pretty for the bruised indigos of the horns, but a grown, worldly woman-voice, one of happy and sad and all the gospel colours in between.
The be-bopping titled ‘Ba Ba Do Beep’ is just that – a bop thrill ride at eye-watering tempo. The soloists fly in its slipstream – Adrian Keevil’s Bud Powell spray, Simon Ferenci and Kim Lawson’s horns eating it up. The ensemble passages are chops-busters but chops are what these players have for breakfast. Seeing this music played live is edge-of-your-seat stuff – but this recording comes excitingly close enough for me.
Ryan’s Spanish flavoured arrangement of Hoagy’s (Ray’s?) ‘Georgia’ stuck in my mind from a Blue Beat gig a couple of years back. Some tunes are too beautiful to mess with and I thought this was one of them, until I heard this chart. Dave Panichi’s trombone solo rides the arc up and the arc down as perfectly as Trish Delaney-Brown sings the sweet ol’ (reharmonised) melody. Make sure you check it out.
Ah, Paul Cutlan, that national treasure; he never lets any of us down. His bass clarinet feature over the top of the humid colours of the Mayhem band’s ‘Bess, You is My Woman Now’ is a thing of wonder – aching, arching, questioning, almost-answering, laughing, sobbing.
The Apple iPhone takes great pictures, and it apparently records pretty good sound – judging by ‘Hey Which Way’ which was recorded here on altoist Kim Lawson’s iPhone (seriously). Thank you Steve Jobs (and mastering engineer Michael Lynch), for it is a stunning performance. Beginning with James Ryan stretching and exploring the baritone horn – á la Hamiett Bluiett – he is soon joined by Lawson’s alto in a twin solo that coils and rubs and dances until the band joins them.
Sydney is blessed to have more than our share of unique jazz orchestras – think the Ethiopia-via-Newtown boogie of the Sirens, the sophisticated jazz classicism of Jenna Cave’s Divergence band. LIVE MAYHEM is more than a document of the toughness and smart writing of James Ryan’s Sonic Mayhem Orchestra. Like all truly worthwhile live albums it stands on its own as a valid document of this unique ensemble.