Album review: Backblocks (Sam Bates Trio)

Sam Bates at drum kit

Backblocks Newmarket Music NEW3334.2
Sam Bates Trio

Review by John Clare

Read John Hardaker’s review of this CD

Backblocks coverMy memory has been a little funny lately, but I seem to recall having given some misinformation to Sam Bates in Sydney last year. I told him that the drummer on the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Jazz Goes to Junior College was Norman Bates, a name familiar to movie buffs from Hitchcock’s Psycho. We had some sport with the idea that he could take as many drum solos as he liked…’We don’t want any trouble. Take another one if you feel like it.’ Well, it may or may not have been Sam Bates whom I told, but Norman Bates was actually the bass player, which is an extraordinary coincidence because the bassist on this disc is definitely psycho!

Still, this trio has played together intermittently without homicidal incident since 2011. The group is one unit within a network of friends and colleagues who include Scott Tinkler, John Rodgers, Ken Edie, Allan Browne, et al. I have written about them often here because they are prolific and they maintain a high level of inspiration and satisfaction. Some would locate these musicians within the more abstract reaches of Melbourne jazz and general improvised music, and this is understandable. To me, however, their music is no more abstract on one level than Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Frutti’. Of course that has words, making it somewhat representational – ‘I got a ga-a-al named Sue/ She knows just what to do’ for instance. I guess we know what he means. But Womp Bomba Lomp Boma Lom Bam Bom! I mean it is really a concatenation of propulsive vocables and instrumental sounds, far more purely exciting and intellectually interesting than sentimental. Yet these musicians also create a parallel universe of sometimes harmonically severe lyricism largely stripped of nostalgia.

The first piece on Backblocks begins with a series of slightly sour or dissonant clanging industrial piano chords with a cymbal clash: a favourite feeling of mine. Simultaneously a fast free swing pulses down the centre while many cross rhythms, eruptive and syncopated drum punctuations and racing light cymbals are activated. Pianist Hannaford flies in the treble again and again with remarkable fluency, falling back at intervals into the lower register or simply repressing the volume to create the illusion of stasis or at least slowing down. In fact sections of the complex moving sound do slow down or drop into half time or other multiples, and this is a characteristic of this lovely disc. Parts moving independently and in subtle relationships. Bass and drums branch out and hover at the at the edges, then snap back into the central drive. The second piece begins with huge zombie steps in the lower end of the piano over a kind of fractured backbeat. Again tranquillity and aggressive speed and complexity are alternated.

The next two pieces begin with brief meditations for bass and piano before springing into complex rhythmic play.

On this disc the connection with late period modern jazz is more apparent, and this will perhaps make it more immediately accessible to some. Surprisingly perhaps, this is very listenable whether you are concentrating or distracted, but for me the greatest rewards come when I listen at night with the lights out so I can see out the windows. Then the open patterns of the music become part of the mystery of night, the movement of lights and traffic simultaneously at various speeds and the thoughtful walk of some stranger along the footpath on the other side of the road.

Parramatta Road as it happens, by Sydney University. The music is like the audible substance of thought and it puts you specifically in the picture, though wonderfully invisible, like the beginning of a murder mystery. If you are wary of this kind of music it’s worth playing a few tracks at intervals until this sense of brilliant and thoughtful unfolding takes hold.


Sam Bates: drums
Marc Hannaford: piano
Philip Rex: bass


Purchase your own copy on the Newmarket site


Backblocks on the Newmarket Music website
Read John Hardaker’s review of this CD