MFG: Modern jazz-funk, the Euro-Australian way

If MFG were circus performers, instead of an international jazz group, they would probably be a balancing act, fearlessly treading a tightrope between two seemingly separate jazz traditions: one stemming from the ’60s funk and hard-bop genres, and the other reflecting the contemporary European approach to the idiom. This is not very common in the modern jazz ecosystem and what is even less common is a band that manages to excel in both sub-genres. Nowhere is this more evident than in the two opening tracks of their latest output, ‘People, Places, Lizards’.

The opener, ‘Rubberbands’, is a high-energy funk piece, with creative use of syncopation and shockwaves coming out of Nico Maas’ guitar. The title of the piece itself could stand as a metaphor for the band’s sound, which stretches and snaps, much like a rubberband. And as the track’s final ‘snap’ leaves you hanging mid-air, you’re further elevated, riding on the cloud created by the band in the following number, ‘Midnight Drive from Margaret River’. A serene, contemplative ballad that would not seem out of place in one of Charles Lloyd’s ECM records, ‘Midnight Drive’ is definitely one of the most beautiful compositions to come out of all the jazz spectrum worldwide last year. Its relaxed pace and open structure leaves ample space for the core members of MFG (guitarist Nico Maas, saxophonist Gemma Farrell and pianist/organist Thomas Goralski) to demonstrate their exemplary symbiotic musical relationship and empathy.

By now, it’s evident that the name MFG stands for the trio’s respective surnames, but it is also a nod to the German greeting, ‘Mit freundlichen GruBen’ (with friendly greetings). Because this group is a collaboration among friends, two Germans (Maas and Goralski) and an Australian (Farrell), who met as students at the Amsterdam Conservatorium. In a way, this project could have never been created anywhere else in the world, but in the country that supplies Europe with inventive, creative and daring musicians, nurturing the continent’s scene. But in another sense, MFG could not have been more Australian. The group embodies the most significant trait of jazz ‘Australianness’, the will to break free from the canon and preconceived notions of what is and isn’t appropriate in a jazz setting.

Free from the burden of traditions – be it the European classical one, or the American blues/ swing/ bop styles, Australian musicians have been quietly leading the way in jazz and MFG’s mix-and-match approach has definitely benefited from this ethos.

The duality of the band’s European and Australian identities is also manifested in their playing, with Maas and Goralski weaving a delicate and intricate harmonic net around Gemma Farrell’s direct, robust melodic lines. Their rapport is so rare that it is no wonder they decided to keep the band together after finishing their studies and returning to their countries.

It is common knowledge that for a long-distance relationship to succeed, a lot of work is needed and MFG are determined to put the effort. Their plan is to meet every couple of years, alternately in Europe and Australia, and do a recording backed by a rotating roster of local rhythm sections. Their first output was the superb ‘Live at the Brisbane Jazz Club’, with Joshua Hatcher and Nathan Goldman, followed by ‘People, Places, Lizards’, recorded in Dusseldorf with Dario Schattel and Richard Struck. Now they’re about to embark on yet another venture, this time focusing on the jazz-funk side of their musical palette, joined by Kane Shaw on Bass and Ryan Daunt on Drums. It’s their first return to Australia after four years and they’re scheduled to play in Brisbane (at the Doo-Bop club, on July 2), Sydney (July 4 – Foundry 616), Melbourne (July 6 – Jazz Lab), Perth (at the inaugural King St Corner Pocket Festival on July 7 and at the Ellington club on July 12p). This tour marks the group’s debut to Australia’s leading jazz scenes, Melbourne and Sydney. We’ll be there.