Review by John Shand
Is this a new genre? Pub jazz-rock? I remember that hearing the Subterraneans for the first time was a hallelujah moment. Finally here was a band combining rock’s visceral energy with jazz’s lithe spontaneity without compromising either.
Surprisingly few have managed it since jazz and rock became bed-mates around 1967-68. In England the interest centred around Robert Wyatt’s bands Soft Machine and Matching Mole: players who, conversant with both idioms, merged them quite unselfconsciously, and added good humour and charm. US fusion ranged from the dreamier West-Coast explorations of Mike Nock’s the Fourth Way to the bristling Tony Williams Lifetime, Weather Report and Miles Davis’s rapidly evolving love-affair with electric instruments, back-beats and volume.
Wyatt’s ongoing eccentric genius apart, jazz-rock hit something of a high water mark with Miles’s A Tribute To Jack Johnson (1972), which contained notably incendiary playing from guitarist John McLaughlin, who would never favour such rawness again. Thereafter too much fusion came to combine the worst of rock’s bombast with boastful, technical soloing.
Fast forward into the new century and the pounding rhythms and thrilling solos of the Subterraneans, led by tenor saxophonist/composer James Ryan. With him are two members of Oz jazz-rock royalty in guitarist James Muller and bassist Steve Hunter, plus the rock-solid, energised and understated drumming of James Hauptmann.
This album was recorded live in Newtown’s Town Hall Hotel (in Sydney’s inner west) over a 12-month period. It is no disrespect to the music to say that the setting is ideal, because the art is inherently convivial. Pub culture spawned most of this country’s finest rock bands, and pub-rock was a vast asset to Australia’s music and social cohesion. Now the Subterraneans offer pub jazz-rock: music without its guard up and without pretensions that still arrests the listener and maintains the grip. Enjoying music in a pub does not equate to not listening as intently. It is about informality and how that may in its own way engender elevated art. As it does here.
Two of the band’s most regular stand-in players also appear, with guitarist Ben Hauptmann on ‘Constant Change’, the chimerical improvisation that opens. From there we plunge directly into first of Muller’s stunning solos on ‘Happiness’. The mid-tempo funk gives him to time to use discrete phrases as building blocks, before he starts streaking lines across the relentless groove in a solo that is both blazing and dazzlingly well-constructed. Such Muller eruptions can routinely render the next person’s solo anticlimactic, but Ryan eliminates that issue with his unabashed love of generating excitement of his own, and as the tenor howls so the rhythm section toughens, aided by a snarling guitar riff.
The simple, ascending chords of the funky riff-based rock of ‘The Journey’ send Ryan off into a meaty, r’n’b-styled solo, before Muller’s foray leaves the music blistered and smoking.
It sounds as though a solo-bass introduction to Hunter’s ‘So To Speak’ has been edited out, and we come straight to his kalimba-like use of harmonics in the rapid bass riff underpinning this piece. Rai Thistlethwayte (keyboard, in place of Muller) uses a sensational distorted electric-piano sound, initially to paint in a night-sky behind Ryan’s mix of lyrical lines and stakes-upping altissimo cries. Then he lets the rhythm section settle again before setting to work. Fans of Dave MacRae’s playing with Matching Mole and Joe Zawinul’s with Weather Report will find much to relish here. Thistlethwayte is one of the few players who uses pitch-bending to actually make the keyboard more voice-like, and his solo is exhilarating in its intensity and invention.
‘The Subterraneans’ is an explosion of joy riding upon turbulent bass. The tenor is a monstrous, unstoppable force, and then Muller unleashes intergalactic guitar, achieving such velocity that one seems to levitate while listening. ‘Three Monkeys’ has a hybrid reggae-shuffle groove, with raucous tenor and a return appearance from Ben Hauptmann, who combines a coarse-grained sound with pretty lines. Again it sounds as though a bass solo is edited out.
The funky ‘Together We Stand’ is a showcase for Muller bouncing phrases off the rhythm section to kick-start a solo, before he takes off into the red-line zone, beckoning a storming performance from Ryan. ‘Astrid and Percy’ (Ryan/Hunter) reveals the band’s gentler side, and this tenor/bass dialogue finally gives Hunter a share of the foreground, something oddly absent elsewhere, given that he may be the most fluent bass-guitar soloist in the land.
Live At The Townie offers a highly enjoyable idea of what it’s like to share a beer with the Subterraneans.
James Ryan (tenor saxophone)
Steve Hunter (electric bass)
James Hauptmann (drums)
Ben Hautpmann (electric guitar) (tracks 1 & 6)
And regular guests
James Muller (electric guitar) (tracks 2, 3, 5 & 7)
Rai Thistlethwayte (keyboard) (track 4)
Gordon Rytmeister (drums)