Gig review by Phil Sandford – Mike Nock’s Tone Poem for SIMA

Mike Nock Project: Suite SIMA | Sound Lounge, Sydney, 8 December 2012

Review by Phil Sandford

You might also like Phil Sanford’s interview with Mike Nock   which he did just prior to the SIMA Suite premiere reviewed here.

Mike Nock | Photo © Marc Bonger

In a fitting tribute to the Sydney Improvised Music Association (SIMA), Mike Nock has composed a stunning 65-minute suite that ranges from lyrical melodies to collective free improvisations. It expresses some of the music that has been played at SIMA concerts over the years and featured SIMA veterans Phil Slater and James Greening.

The Suite is a journey through various musical experiences, with the five main sections blending into each other through a series of improvised transitions, and all musicians soloing at various points.

Suite SIMA opened with a pastoral collective improvisation by the whole band, leading into the slow 7/4 theme of ‘Freedom of Information’, the clarinet giving an Ellingtonian tinge as it soloed over different lines in the background.

A free improvisation between trumpet, tenor and trombone led into the medium-tempo ‘Option Anxiety’, which is built on a bass ostinato, a device Nock has used in several memorable compositions. The tempo picked up for sparkling piano and tenor solos over mixed times.

Brett Hirst’s solo acted as a transition into ‘Peripherals’, which began as a beautiful waltz and developed into a fast Coltrane-influenced blues, with Greening stretching out.

A clarinet and piano duet dissolved into a piano statement of the theme of the gentle ‘Frames of Reference’. The tempo picked up slightly as the band went into 7/4 gospelish vamp behind the saxophone solo.

A free improvisation between piano, bass and drums segued into the aptly-named ‘Holding Patterns’, and a blazing Slater solo led into an extended section of overlapping rhythmic patterns that built up to the climax of the piece.

While less common than in classical music, extended forms have a distinguished history in jazz. Until the 1960s the basic form of most jazz compositions was the 32-bar standard – ‘I Got Rhythm’ alone forming the basis numerous pieces – or the 12-bar blues. However, there is also a tradition of extended or long-form compositions, dating as far back as Duke Ellington’s 1926 work Rhapsody Jr.

Ellington chose the suite format as his primary vehicle in this area and went on to compose major works  such as Black, Brown and Beige (1943), Harlem Suite (1950) and A Drum is a Woman (1958). His suites often included material that became standards in their own right such as ‘Come Sunday’, ‘Star-Crossed Lovers’ and ‘A Single Petal of a Rose’.

Ellington often described his longer works as tone poems and significantly many of his works are named by colours: ‘Mood Indigo’, ‘Azure’, ‘On A Tourqoise Cloud’, ‘Blue Light’.

Influenced in part by Ellington, Charlie Mingus wrote the two-and-a-half hour ‘Epitaph’, which was never performed as a complete piece until after his death.

However, a number of other attempts at extended jazz works were motivated by a desire to somehow ‘legitimise’ jazz by linking it with classical music, and many failed. Nock’s suite does not fall into this category. It is squarely within the jazz tradition, while breaking new ground.

Nock has honed his writing and arranging skills over many years. His first composition to appear on an album was ‘Love Waltz’ on Yusef Lateef’s 1984, recorded in 1965. Nock once toyed with the idea of becoming a painter but instead he has become a painter of sound. He extracts the maximum colour from his musicians in this band, using various combinations of instruments and writing overlapping melodic lines.

His ideas are clear and strong, and deceptively simple motifs unfold and develop in unexpected ways, always maintaining the listener’s interest.  Suite SIMA is a model of how to write for a medium-sized jazz ensemble that will provide student composers and arrangers with many lessons and lots of inspiration.

An earlier version of the Mike Nock Project, a nine-piece band that also featured Greening and Hirst, recorded the excellent Meeting of the Waters in 2007. Now Nock has taken his writing into new territory with this extended work, perhaps best described as a tone poem parallel to SIMA.


Mike Nock piano/composer; Phil Slater, trumpet; James Greening, trombone; James Waples, drums; Brett Hirst, bass; Karl Laskowski, tenor saxophone; Peter Farrar, alto saxophone; Mike Rivett, tenor saxophone, clarinet and electronics.



Mike Nock on the web –

See Phil Sanford’s interview with Mike Nock   which he did just prior to the SIMA Suite premiere.