Mutiny Music (Rick Robertson & Baecastuff)
Venue 505 Sydney 29 January 2014
Review by John Hardaker
Photos by F. Farrell
Read John’s Q&A with Rick Robertson, published prior to the gig
Saxophonist and composer Rick Robertson’s ‘Mutiny Music’ suite has been ten years in the making. But in another sense it has been almost 225 years in the making – as the events which led to its story were set in motion by the famous Mutiny on the Bounty of 1789.
Robertson, born on Norfolk Island and a descendant of the Pitcairn islanders, has composed this wonderfully evocative 12-part suite around this story. He recently presented it with his band, the wonderful Baecastuff, on a sticky, sultry – yes, very Pacific – evening at Sydney’s 505.
Baecastuff – the band’s name a Norfolk word – has long been one of our musical treasures. What has always set them apart is their ability to play and breathe together as one entity; combine that with a line-up of astonishing soloists and you have magic. Formed in 1996 they have carried the torch for tough hard-bop-flavoured jazz like no other.
Which is why much of Mutiny Music came as a (warmly pleasant) surprise – the sensitivity and openness of much of the suite demanded an almost chamber-jazz touch, revealing a side to the ensemble I had not heard.
After a short history lesson from Robertson, Matt McMahon’s gentle piano octaves magically created a calm sea before our very ears with the band, a wave at a time. This was the ‘Mutiny’ section of the suite, which built into the band blowing over ‘Big Swell’, the driving Afro-shuffle from their 1997 album.
‘Search for Sanctuary’ featured drummer Simon Barker on the Polynesian log drum, or pate, in duet with percussionist Aykho Akhrif, creating probably the only Polynesian-Afro-Cuban mash-up you would have heard in Sydney that night. To add to the cultural gumbo, Robertson and trumpeter Phil Slater coolly intoned a traditional tune over the top of the edgy, feverish drums. The effect was hallucinogenic; your mind being pulled in a number of directions at the same time.
This cross-cultural mash-up worked beautifully across the entire suite – a testimony to Robertson’s smart writing, deep research and even deeper emotional connection to the music. Glorious old hymns such as ‘Come Ye Blessed’ played solo by Robertson (sounding as sanctified and grizzled as an island preacher) at the start of the ‘Pitcairn Found’ section pulled you back in time, a McMahon Rhodes solo put you in back in this humid Sydney night; the traditional ‘Gethsemane’ (and it’s ethereal deconstruction) coming up against the almost electric-Miles skronk of ‘Arrival at Norfolk’.
An additional level of space-time dislocation came through the startling use of snatches of field recordings (snaps, crackles and scratchy sound intact) of the distinctive Pitcairn language. Phrases, recorded in the mid-50s and triggered from Robertson’s Apple laptop, were woven into the loping grooves (driven by that peerless driver, bassist Alex Hewetson) of ‘Conflict and Murder (HueHue)’ and the later ‘Discovered (Dem Da Mus Gwen It Et)’. It didn’t matter that we couldn’t understand what was being said, the dynamic curves and rhythms of this language was music in itself.
The soloists were astounding as is expected of a Baecastuff set, and yet the suite was the greater entity – a true sum of its parts, as the band is. ‘Mutiny Music’ took us all away, to the Pitcairn and Norfolk islands, to a time far in the past, to an event that had such wide historical ripples. And yet Rick Robertson and the band held us tight in the present, as all great musicians do.
After a short break, Baecastuff came back for three tunes, which was a bonus. However, as rivetting and fiery as these performances were, I couldn’t help noticing the Pacific Ocean seeping in beneath the 505 door, soughing waves all the way from Norfolk and Pitcairn, salt on its breath.
‘Mutiny Music’ will be recorded late February with a projected release date sometime late 2014.
Rick Robertson – saxophones
Phil Slater – trumpet
Matt McMahon – piano
Alexander Hewetson – bass
Simon Barker – drums
Aykho Akhrif – percussion
Read John Hardaker’s Q&A with Rick Robertson, published prior to the gig
Venue 505: www.venue505.com/music
John Hardaker also publishes on his own blog site – Words About Music