Review – On a Clear Day

Jazzhead, Head129, 2010
Jamie Oehlers / Paul Grabowsky
On a Clear Day

Reviewed by Peter Kenneally

Liner notes are often best avoided: they tend to veer from inarticulate puffery to over-profound attempts at Fine Writing. However, in the case of Paul Grabowsky and Jamie Oehlers’ new cd of improvised standards On a Clear Day they are invaluable.

Not sure what a standard is? Paul Grabowsky tells you: ‘Their compact forms frame focussed emotional states, placing lyric and melody in the kind of dramatic balance inspiring for the creation of infinite variations.’ And Jamie Oehlers explains how, while their improvising trio ‘Lost and Found’ was playing a standard to warm up, ‘The two approaches blurred and I realised the freedom that could still be achieved using standard song forms. I can’t remember the tune we were playing at the time, but I do remember that when we finished the song we simultaneously stated that we should record a standards album.’ Their notes are not only admirably concise, but genuinely inform your listening.

There are two approaches usually taken to standards: either a polite respectful caressing, which tries to leach the banality out of the old chestnut, or a gut busting ‘I can make any tune do anything I want’ assault. This recording ignores both, and goes its own way right from the start, with the title track. Oehlers drifts and swoops over the idea of a clear day, while Grabowsky quarters the land below, keeping him in sight. The tune’s there, like a town in the distance, occasionally sighted, and when the track ends it’s almost impossible to believe that it only lasted for nine minutes. It’s like the Tardis, only less gimmicky.

”Round Midnight’ is a tune I’d never thought of as a standard, largely because it refuses to lie down. However different the approaches to it, from Miles Davis to Robert Wyatt to Les Nubians, Monk is always there, shaking his head. These two don’t think it’s a standard either and treat it with due caution. After a nod to the surface of it, which is to say the tune, they go deep: each of them exploring a different implication, and then another, and then another. Humphrey McQueen once said that Peter Booth’s abstract paintings were far more frightening than his paintings that actually had scary monsters in them. That’s what this version of ‘Round Midnight’ is like: the truth.

Elsewhere, with ‘I’ve Never Been in Love Before’ and ‘I didn’t know what time it was’ they relax into the tune and drive it along with a mellow, amiable sense of expressing the style of the song in their own way. These moments of sheer enjoyment are welcome, and as quickening as the more conceptually surprising ones are. At the very centre of the album comes ‘I Remember You’, the most improvisationally expansive track, where the playing is all the thing. It’s an eloquent justification of what Oehlers calls their ’old school’ approach: little rehearsal and only one or two takes ‘allowing for spontaneous creativity and true imagination within the structure of the songs.’ You can feel as well as hear the process unfold.

Grabowsky and Oehlers improvise as a rule with drummer David Beck in their bassless trio Lost and Found which may explain why Sam Anning’s bass on this album seems muted and unassertive, almost as if it wonders what its place is, while the drumming, from Ben Vanderwal, is everywhere, crisp and percussive when needed and more often setting up a colour field of brushy crystalline whispers that blow though the improvisations like a breeze through a tin shed.

Amidst the excitement of approach and technique, there are moments where Oehlers’ sax almost falls silent, breathing among the susurrations as if to say ‘Listen, listen: it’s all here in just this little breath’.

It takes your breath away