John Clare on Wangaratta – Scott Tinkler: Fire And Thought

Many of my favourite trumpet players could be heard at Wangaratta this year, including Eugene Ball, Bob Henderson, Bob Barnard, Warwick Alder, Eamon McNelis. All instantly recognisable.

Scott Tinkler | photo by Marc Bongers
Scott Tinkler | photo by Marc Bongers

Two, however, must be counted amongst the most interesting contemporarystylists in the world. They are Phil Slater and Scott Tinkler, who are actually breaking new ground for the trumpet. There is no law that says you must break new ground, but it is always interesting when it seems to be actually happening. Amongst the elements of Slater’s concept are new angles based on Miles Davis’s approach in a rock and funk context. These are often applied in an acoustic context, but not always. Hard bop and free jazz – e.g. Don Cherry – have also been distilled and extended. Tinkler’s sources seem more mysterious, though some influence from modern classical music is apparent.

Often Tinkler plays in streams and geometric patterns of similarly shaped and weighted notes, all at an artillery barrage volume; all at full, or nearly full, force. This is very exciting of course, but it carries the threat of monotony. Yet these hard bricks of brass, with their dark subtones and bright edges, form again and again in patterns that intrigue and constantly evolve. Exhilaration does not fade for those who are listening rather than assuming. It builds as the bricks seem to be stacked more rapidly to form more complex percussive patterns. Or are thrown one by one through the air. Through this the volume is rising, alarmingly in the end until we have, yes, lift off! Furthermore, a startling range of tonal manipulations begins to inflitrate the Mondrian-like constructions.

Living in Sydney, I hear Slater quite often and he never fails my expectations. I had not heard Tinkler for a while, when his quartet played at Wangaratta in the Wangaratta Performing Arts Centre (WPAC) Memorial Hall. What was soon apparent was that Tinkler had extended his already impressive range. More of that in a moment, in context. The sound in the hall is markedly inferior to that in the WPAC Theatre next door, but Tinkler and company overcame that, despite the walk-outs early in the piece. You could blame these on the impression that can be gained initially that Tinkler is going to keep playing patterns as described above. Actually the wildebeest were on the move early in a number of modern events this year, yet a substantial and enthusiastic audience always remained. So it was with the quartet. It was not long, following the lemming walk, before shouts of enthusiasm began punctuating the music.

Mark Hannaford is the perfect pianist for Tinkler. His approach has similarities and substantial differences. An initial evenness of attack ensures that increases of volume and of note density will have their effect. The patterns build and begin to crowd, with deliberation and unpredictability alchemically combined, with a deliciously flustering effect somewhat related to that of Thelonious Monk. This is an intellectual music in some ways, in its construction and harmonic expansions, yet it has a big, sometimes brutal and violent physical presence. Simon Barker was the drummer, Sam Pankhurst the freely mobile bassist. At one point, having explored the lower drum sonorities, Barker released a sudden burst of thunders. Tinkler was unheard for a moment, but when the drums suddenly stopped, Tinkler emerged in the silence with a fluttering, whirling complex of notes, like moths blown here on a tremendous gale. These notes were so soft and stratospheric they were actually whistling. This control of extreme high notes at low volume is an extension, not only of Tinkler’s range but of his range of expressive devices. Not that he has lost the ability to scream and blast and rise shining at high volume like a fountain in the sun.

Vince Jones and I later went way up into the gallery of the WPAC Theatre to hear the American Trio M play with Barker, Tinkler and Slater. This free interaction alternated fire with passage of sweet meditation, but reached a point where one felt one had heard enough. Near the end fortunately. Let us move now to one of the great highlights of the Festival, the duet between Tinkler and Trio M’s extraordinary bassist Mark Dresser. This came near to equalling the alto solos played here in earlier years by Oliver Lake. Tinkler’s taste and intelligence in modulating his volume and tone to the double bass was outstanding. When he did release a stream of fire, Dresser did not drive hard with him but bounced up and down in a loose, limber, floppy and almost haphazard way, producing big soft sounds that waffled airily and surrounded him like bubbles. His eyes and mouth were round as pennies, as if he was bewildered and mesmerised by the notes whirling and fluttering about his ears. These whimsical moments of theatre were rare and perfect.

As I walked slowly backward down the aisle with the recital closing, Tinkler released a deep blaring belch of brass that filled the lofty space. Glancing at my watch (I was about due elsewhere) I stopped near the back door of the cathedral, edging towards a side entrance, and stopped because the two briefly created a sound between them that seemed to defy explanation. Dresser had occasionally jagged his bow fiercely across the strings, producing growls, sounds like a forest giant cracking in a hurricane, sharp pangs and tiny harmonics like radio static, and Tinkler had complemented this with his own radio harmonics via his unique control of half-valve techniques. All of this was present in the final moments of sound, yet it was unified as one liquid glob, like – actually I don’t know what it was like. Simon Barker heard it too I later discovered. We both homed in on it in our incredulous discussion of this magnificent dual performance. Before that final interlude, Dresser had spoken in praise of Tinkler and told how they had tried to get him a professorial post at an American university – which suddenly ran out of money! I am disappointed for Tinkler – and seflishly glad he is still here.