Review: ATM15 – Human Music

By JAMES MUSTAFA

atm15ATM15 are 15-piece big band from Melbourne, Australia. Formed by the highly respected composer and valve-trombonist Andrew Murray, this group has become recognised as one of Melbourne’s most practiced and esteemed large ensembles.

After a six-year period, ATM15 have finally put out a highly anticipated second album – ‘Human Music’,which was launched at the Stonnington Jazz Festival on May 21st. The ensemble are mainly known as a groove-based big band, largely due to their previous album ‘Big Band Reborn‘,which largely featured soul, pop and funk music. Those that are familiar with the previous record will likely be in for a surprise when they are presented with a diverse variety of music spanning from swing to forms of contemporary music reminiscence of Bob Brookmeyer (don’t worry, there’s still a bit of boogaloo!). I personally welcome the development as it is nice to hear the wonderful extent of Murray’s superb orchestrating and use of harmony. He is one of Australia’s most highly regarded writers and orchestrators, and this album is a perfect example of why that is.

The album begins with ‘Dig’, an angsty slow groove piece that sets the tone for the next 50 minutes of music. This surprised me as opening track, but I think may have been chosen to drive home the point that this record was of a more contemporary, almost ‘arty’ evolvement than its predecessor. It presents a nice openness that the rhythm section utilise to build tension and react with the horn figures around them throughout the piece. The figures themselves are still somewhat bluesy of nature but build and develop with various harmonic modulations and tasteful tonal resolutions. The composition builds over the first two minutes leading to what is one of the highlight improvisations on the album – a tenor solo by Stephen Byth. The piece almost acts as a vehicle for Byth in which he solos on top of a rather busy and thick accompaniment at the start and end of his solo. Byth has the experience and know-how to execute this kind of improvisation but I can’t help wondering if this would be realistically balanced in a live setting. Following the solo, Murray shows off just how affective dynamics can truly be in large ensemble music before the piece builds into the ending which highlights a rather brief trombone solo by lead trombonist Alistair Parsons. Parsons shows an excellent command on his instrument and I was left certainly wanting to hear more of his playing.

Tracks 2-5 are all part of Murray’s ‘Stages Suite’, an eclectic combination of compositions that make up 50% of the album. The first movement, ‘Early Days’, is a relaxed swinger reminiscence of Count Basie with a contemporary twist that reminded me a lot of Bill Holman’s own big band writing. Its wonderfully displaced rhythmic ideas compliment Murray’s flawless horn voicings that he has clearly perfected over many years of writing for this reduced big band line-up. This piece features an excellent alto sax solo by Tim Wilson, though I feel like his wonderful character and improv ideas are often ignored by the rhythm section. Following this, we have a brilliant trumpet solo by Callum Froerer who, like Wilson, brings an excellent personal flavour to the track. Those that are fans of this ensemble, should endeavour to research the individual members own projects outside the band. Murray has done a phenomenal job recruiting some of Melbourne’s most respected improvisers and section players, so go out and support their music as well as ATM15’s.

Movement 2, ‘Listen To This’, begins with a free drum solo by Hugh Harvey. His cymbal work is something to be admired and brings a wonderful colour to the album, though I wonder if it stylistically suited to the track to come. The piece, when in time, became a kind of an pseudo-rock tune featuring almost arrogant and dynamic horn writing, complete with shakes, shouts and section unison of a similar vein to ‘Big Band Reborn’. There are wonderful harmonic colours in the writing, which at times give the piece a refreshing contemporary flavour. Murray has a mastery in using harmonic and rhythmic ideas across various styles to create something wonderful that’s all his own. My only real criticism of this track would be of the horn playing, which at times sounded a little sloppy, particularly in the brass sections. I wonder however, if this is a result of post-production rather than actual performance, as I feel that across the album the rhythm section and horns are sometimes a little miss-balanced. Having never really checked out Ron Romero, I was glad to hear him in action in the form of a driving and dynamic tenor solo. The second improvisation of the track was an organ solo by the ever-tasteful and talented Darrin Archer.

The third movement, ‘Karma’, is, in a word, stunning. The composition itself weaves fluently between tonal centres, blurring the lines of harmony in a highly sophisticated and emotive manner. My absolute hats off to Murray with his writing and choice in not including a soloist, instead letting the composition sing for itself. The ensemble does a respectable job at playing the piece, though at times I thought their balance and phrasing took away from notes on the page.

‘Present’, the fourth and final movement of the ‘Stages Suite’, is by far my favourite track on the album. It is an outstanding composition, complete with superb orchestrations, refined use of colour and commendable playing by the musicians. Beginning with a thoughtful piano introduction by Darrin Archer, the piece slowly grows into a light contemporary groove which seems highly influenced by other big band luminaries, such as Maria Schneider and Gil Evans. Interestingly, it is one of the only pieces on the album that has a clear and distinct melody, first appearing on the guitar and piano around the 1.40 mark. The melody itself is beautiful and exciting, moving superfluously through tonal centres, a trait Murray uses numerous times across the whole album for great effect. I did feel that the horns and rhythm section once again didn’t quite match each other through the final mix and at many times the guitar and drums seemed too strong to me, barring their solo sections of course. Mat Fagan’s guitar solo is filled with tasteful musical lines and language but as a listener, I felt I was battling to hear them with such intense and busy backing figures from the horn sections. The horns really take off following the guitar solo with wonderful melodies and orchestration that weaves through the different family sections. An unsung hero of the album would have to be Michael Potts on the bass trombone, who plays his role superbly; this is particularly notable on this track. The piece continues to grow and build in marvellous tension and resolution amongst a rather aggressive drum solo. Finally, the song ends with more beautiful melodic language from Fagan before beginning to fade in a similar fashion to the pieces introduction. I wish it had continued this way and ending by fading, but instead the work concludes on a final big crescendo as Fagan riffs over the top.

With the conclusion of the ‘Stages Suite’, we move to a latin-styled piece called ‘Bobby B’. Beginning with a light groove, this feel quickly expands and grows melodically amongst the ensemble. Unfortunately, some intonation issues from the trombone section bought down the integrity of some of the lines. Tim Wilson’s alto continues to sing brilliantly throughout the piece as he plays the role of lead alto superbly. We are also once again treated to an improvisation by Ron Romero, who I believe sounds more comfortable on this track than on the earlier ‘Listen To This’. ‘Moving on’, a breakdown of sorts gives way to another Fagan guitar solo, which I feel was hindered by the repetitive backing figures, though his language and time was once again strong.

I told you there would be boogaloo and track 7, ‘The ATM Boogaloo’, is all that and more. The feel/groove is pretty strong but I’m not sure if the bass and drums truly locked in until a bit later in the track. We feature a trumpet solo by Paddy McMullin that explodes from the start of the section though seems to slow down in energy as the solo section grows; I wonder if this was recorded towards the end of the day? Overall the piece in my mind paints a style suggestive of composers such as Gordon Goodwin, with the bubbly latin-esque style within a big band setting.

The final track ‘Derby Jump’ is a burning, bouncing swinger starring a mighty double tenor dual from Byth and Romero. The horns and band sound tight and very much at home playing this classic swing material. During the solos, I once again feel like the rhythm section could have interacted with the soloists a little more. Concluding with a dynamic shout chorus we hear Murray play homage to writers such as Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa. It’s a perfect conclusion to what has been a very fulfilling and exciting collection of original big band tunes. I also imagine hearing this band playing this tune live would be quite spectacular; you can hear how familiar they are with this chart.

Overall I really enjoyed this album. Soloists such as Archer, Fagan, Wilson, Byth and Parsons all stood out to me in a big way which both compliments their own playing but also Murray’s excellent writing to highlight these players’ personal character. You can hear that the ensemble is rehearsed, experienced and clearly enjoying playing with each other and playing the music. And of course, who wouldn’t enjoy playing this music? I can only imagine sitting in this band and feeling the warmth and security of Murray’s flawless voicings, sensational orchestration and general excellent big band language.

Congratulations to Andrew Murray and all the members of ATM15 on an excellent big band album. Australian large ensemble music is in excellent hands here.

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