CD Review: Big Creatures and Little Creatures (Murphy’s Law)

CD Review
Big Creatures & Little Creatures
(Independent, Nov 2012)
Murphy’s Law

Review by John Clare

Big Creatures and Little Creatures cover
Big Creatures and Little Creatures cover | original artwork by Jacqueline Murphy

This extraordinary recording begins with an isolated pure high ‘ting’ – presumably on one of Joe Talia’s or Danny Farrugia’s cymbals. It oscillates for a moment, sustained electronically perhaps. Or is it in fact a glockenspiel? It is certainly iridescent. Odd how a sound like this can make the silence black. But far back in that supposed silence there is a deep bump bump bump bump. These bumps on bass or bass drum are about two seconds apart. A brief drum roll. Then an electronic wash and a receding electric drone like the reverberation of something that has just occurred in a cathedral moments before you entered. This accumulation of sounds is moving to a pulse, an exceedingly slow one. Murray Jordan’s trombone begins to sing, rising above the stave. There are a number of pulses on this disc – barging, Latinate, rocky, shuffling and the trombone later breaks into staccato over clattering stereo drums, and Nashua Lee – who has presumably created all the electronic sounds – releases a howling, screaming rock-influenced guitar solo of some originality.  But that is a long way off. The slow high song of the trombone begins again in the second track, ‘A Song For Two Rivers’.

It is very easy to see a river widening in your mind, from a plane or a hang glider, as the trombone unfurls its lines in purling drifts and billows. This is very beautiful playing. The tone is both transparent and rich. There are remote electronic pangs and plaints like seagulls crying far out on an estuary. This slow song, this drift of iridescent sounds, is sustained for more than twenty minutes through the next two movements. Pulses come and go against the big slow one. The initial pad pad pad pad is incorporated into a blithe drum kit pattern. Ostinati appear briefly, some in a baroque mode, others more like the patterns of high minimalism – which is often quite baroque in itself (what would Phillip Glass have done without J.S. Bach?)  Having held us in a somewhat exalted state the music begins to break into different pulses and patterns, different textures; this is not the only thing that stirs a memory of Duke Ellington, as for instance in ‘The Tattooed Bride’, an extended Ellington work admired by Bob Dylan in one of his memoirs. Unless you are looking at the track numbers every piece seems to run effortlessly into the next. Yet I read on the publicity leaflet that each movement is a discreet module and that the whole can be fitted together in performance in completely different sequences – decided upon in real time. In the recorded sequence these pieces move into each other organically in a changing continuum, wonderfully inventive, atmospheric, and purely beautiful.

Sometimes quite simple, the music often has a grand solemnity. Also the radiance of stained glass windows when the sun is bright outside. It is propulsive, forceful, intricate, rhythmic and coruscating. Fast, barely moving, through thick ensemble textures and spare, you can hear the strings of Tamara Murphy’s double bass vibrating. This is very good recording, but it is also very strong playing, striding right on through.

Murphys Law
Murphys Law

What other music have I heard that is like this? Here is one that comes to mind: Jerry Granelli’s Another Place, featuring Granelli’s drums with electro-acoustic percussion, David Friedman’s vibraphone, Jane Ira Bloom’s soprano saxophone and the glorious trombone of veteran Julian Priester. And there is a distant connection with Duke Ellington’s On A Turquoise Cloud featuring Kay Davis’s wordless vocal, Ray Nance’s violin, Jimmy Hamilton’s clarinet and Lawrence Brown’s wonderful trombone. This was one of Ellington’s very self-conscious but ultra wonderful exotic pieces from the late 1940s. They all had ridiculous titles – Lady of The Lavender Mist’ was another; also ‘Transbluceny and Magenta Haze’. Forerunners, title-wise, of Jimi Hendrix’sPurple Haze’ and Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’. I think you get my drift. The common factor here is the pursuit of heightened tonal colours – mostly chromatic rather than primary – that goes beyond richness, mellowness etc. Also beautiful trombone playing. Murray Jordan, may I remind you. I don’t think he is widely enough recognised.

Of course Ellington was working with acoustic instruments in unusual combinations – Ellington’s Liberian Suite in 1947 used a vibraphone on one track, a rare instance for Duke – while Murphy and her band have the extra resource of electronics.

Since Dave Tolley and Phil Treloar used an ancient kind of synthesiser where sound is built up with tons of oscillators, followed by Clarion Fracture Zone‘s utterly distinctive intermingling of acoustic and electric sounds – Sandy Evans, Tony Gorman, Alister Spence, Lloyd Swanton (replacing Steve Elphick) and Toby Hall, in the 1980s and 90s – Australian jazz has made many forays into this fruitful area. Tamara Murphy and colleagues have been participants for some time. This, their latest, in a very significant achievement.



Tamara Murphy – bass
Jordan Murray – trombone
Nashua Lee – guitar
Daniel Farrugia – drums
Joe Talia – drums


Big Creatures & Little Creatures on Bandcamp (listen and purchase)

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