Review and interview by Phil Sandford
Brendan Clarke‘s sparkling debut album Stretch lives up to its name, with extended, probing solos over three standards and six originals. The in-demand Sydney bassist and his musical partners, Murray Jackson (alto), Carl Dewhurst (guitar) and Andrew Gander (drums), work within the post-bop tradition but are not afraid to take risks. The result is a satisfying mix of hard and sometimes edgy blowing, and ballads emphasising Clarke’s interest in melodic development.
Clarke chose ‘Lazy Afternoon’ after hearing Joe Lane’s version at Lane’s funeral. ‘We all remember Joe with his scat singing, but the way he sings that song is just beautiful and heartfelt, and tells a story. My two-year-old daughter fell in love with it and says, “I want to hear Joe, I want to hear Joe”.’
‘I’m Getting Sentimental Over You’ also has a special meaning for Clarke. At the start of a lesson in New York, bassist great Rufus Reid asked Clarke to play the piece solo for fifteen minutes, ‘melody, basslines, solos, everything’.
The carefully-crafted originals on the album are a summary of the writing Clarke has done over the past twenty years, ‘Three Wishes’ dating back to 1993. ‘Busline’ was written for an unreleased ABC recording after he won the 2001 National Jazz Award at the Wangaratta Jazz Festival, while the medium-up ‘Billycart’ was written specially for the album.
The band was formed two years ago but its present make-up dates to last year’s Manly Jazz Festival. ‘It just jelled and it’s the sort of playing I wanted to be doing, which is in the tradition and swings but is also open,’ Clarke says. ‘Those guys are very flexible in the way they approach music and I like the way they play my tunes.’
Clarke has only been playing with Gander in the last couple of years but they connected straight away: ‘I feel incredibly comfortable playing with Andrew. He swings like mad and he can also play more freely. I don’t feel I’m locked in by him.’
Clarke started playing with Jackson twenty years ago and their familiarity shows on the album. ‘You can hear Bird and Cannonball in his playing, but he’s made that his own. He swings and his sound and intonation are amazing.’ For Clarke, he is ‘an unsung hero’.
Dewhurst is another musician Clarke has played with over many years. ‘I feel very relaxed playing with Carl,’ Clarke says. ‘He swings and he is open to just playing and let it happen.’
Clarke describes his fellow musicians as ‘not just beboppers and not just on the extreme playing out. I like a mixture of both and hopefully you can hear that on the album. Some of the stuff sounds straight ahead yet within the structure it’s allowed to go where it wants.’ He feels this reflects the Canberra background of all but Gander: ‘Unlike Sydney there weren’t musical camps in Canberra. We liked to play tunes but we didn’t feel inhibited in any way and would try anything. I like playing bass with this group because there are no rules as such, they are not imposing any kind of restriction musically. They’re happy for the music to go wherever.’
Among his many influences, Clarke places special emphasis on the late Bernie McGann:
The first time I played with Bernie was on my nineteenth birthday. There used to be a thing called Jazz Initiative organised by students at the Canberra School of Music and we’d bring down players like Dale Barlow and Mike Nock. Bernie came down in 1994 and I played with him. It was great.
When I moved to Sydney in 1999, he called me and I was in a band with him, John Pochée and Steve McKenna until about 2003. The last band started about five or six years ago and I was on his Wending CD.
It’s a great loss, I miss him. The most obvious thing about him was that he was such an original player. His sound was so recognizable. On the other hand, he was a real jazz player. He’d play swing tunes and standards. He had so many aspects to his playing.
He was an incredibly creative individual voice but he was totally informed by the tradition. He wasn’t afraid to stretch out. Usually we would do three tunes a set, each one lasting about twenty minutes, but it was music all the time. His swing feel was great and he was such a groovy player. He would play the melody beautifully. He influenced everybody so much.
Sandy Evans and Warwick Alder played beautifully at his funeral.
He was great to hang out with, just a fun guy. He liked to have a laugh and have a few beers. He never talked about music. We’d have the odd rehearsal and he might bring in a new tune during a sound check.
His influence was through his playing. He wouldn’t sit around preaching or saying you should listen to this or you should do that. Sometimes he might suggest that I do some pedals or to walk instead of playing in two, but very minimal. I feel so privileged to have spent so much time with him.
Launch of Stretch
Thursday 5 December, 8.30 pm
Foundry 616, 616 Harris Street, Ultimo www.foundry616.com.au
Brendan Clarke on the web – www.brendanclarkemusic.com
Purchase Stretch at CD Baby – www.cdbaby.com