Adrian Cunningham: some like jazz hot

Is Adrian Cunningham Australia’s finest export? A couple of years ago, we entertained that thought,which may have been unfair to the other members of the Australian jazz deployment in the US, making waves in the local scenes and the international community.

However, there is something that distinguishes Adrian Cunningham and makes him something of a hot property – and in this case, I use the word ‘hot’ in association with this sub-genre of jazz that is characterised by blazing tempos and fiery improvisation: hot jazz.

Having made a name for himself in Sydney, Adrian Cunningham is now an essential part of the New York trad jazz scene, mostly through his combustible outfit, Professor Cunningham and his Old School, bringing the repertoire of the Dixieland and New Orleans tradition to the modern era.

Still, to say that Adrian Cunningham plays pre-swing era music would be unfair to him and to his excellent sense of swing. And labeling him as this old-school devotee is also a lack of acknowledgement of his versatility, which allowed him to play with everyone, from Wynton Marsalis to Bria Skonberg.

Yes, depending on the recording, Adrian may seem to be channeling either Benny Goodman, or Sidney Bechet and Mezz Mezzrow or rather a pumped-up combination of them all, but in fact, he’s just being himself.

Labeled as a “reeds guru” from an early age, this woodwind master (he plays sax, flute and clarinet) combines all jazz eras and sub-genres in both his playing and his repertoire. When he takes out his flute to play ‘It ain’t necessarily so’, he turns it into a hard-swingingsoul-groove flavoured anthem and when he plays an actual 60s soul-jazz anthem, like ‘Mercy, Mercy, Mercy’, he does it with a free spirit and a post-bop sensitivity.

As elusive as the succession of notes that rapidly come out of his horn(s), Adrian Cunningham is hard to pinpoint and the only label that applies to him is that his playing can definitely bring a smile on your face.

Now “The Down Under Sax Star” (asthe Wall St Journal described him) is back to Australia, launching his new album ‘Jazz Speak in Sydney and Melbourne.

Unlike his previous album, ‘That ain’t right, in which he paid tribute to a mostly unsung hero of composition, Neal Hefti, his latest venture is a platform for him to showcase his own music, combining it with carefully selected covers, not least among them Duke Ellington’s ‘Mood Indigo’, Sidney Bechet’s ‘Petite Fleur’, but also the Cold Chisel classic, ‘Janelle’.

Recorded at the legendary United Studios in Hollywood, the album features the rhythmic powerhouse of John Clayton and Jeff Hamilton, with Ted Rosenthal on the piano. None of these legends is traveling with Adrian in Australia, unfortunately, but this doesn’t matter much.

The dynamic duo of Clayton-Hamilton will be replaced by local luminaries Tom Lee on bass and Darryn Farrugia on drums; what’s more important is that Adrian will be accompanied by another rising star of the NY scene, Alberto Pibiri. The italian-born pianist is making a name for himself in pretty much the same way that Adrian Cunningham does, proving that jazz is indeed an international language and its tradition is in good hands, Australian, Italian, or whatever.