Review: Mark Isaacs, solo piano extemporisations at Bird’s Basement


Think of this as half a review, or half a review and a bit. It hadn’t t been my intention, when I agreed to write something about Mark Isaacs‘ solo performance at Bird’s Basement, on Thursday 14 June 2018, to arrive midway through the first set. Fact is, I’d somehow made a mess of my commitments that night, an increasingly common and mildly disturbing trend. Having agreed, prior, to be part of a discussion on the work of writer Gerald Murnane, scheduled for Readings St. Kilda that same night, it was always going to be a madcap dash back to the city to catch Isaacs. If there came a moment knowing how late I was running when it all felt futile, I can report that, with hindsight, it was worth the effort, and then some.

This was Mark Isaacs first club performance in Melbourne in five years, and it ostensibly celebrated his sixty years on the planet. That’s a decent milestone, given the longevity of his career as a composer and musician. The fact that he is no longer a household name in jazz circles these days strikes me as an oversight, something we can maybe chalk up to his other significant career as a classical composer and performer, or perhaps to his increasingly infrequent performances and recordings. Looking back over his discography, there is no shortage of watershed moments: Encounters (1990), recorded with Dave Holland and Roy Haynes; Elders Suite (1997), with the late trumpeter Kenny Wheeler; or his several Resurgence band outings, featuring James Muller, Brett Hirst, Matt Keegan and others.

I’ve long admired Isaacs’ ambitious cycle of solo improvisations The Elements, released as a 4-CD box set in 1996; and so was taken aback to recognize that this was my first opportunity to see him play in a solo context. Upon first entering Bird’s, I was immediately conscious of the crystalline sound of the piano, each unamplified note lingering in the space, untrammelled by its neighbours. The audience, in darkness, appeared hushed, as if intensely focused on the music: lyrical, melodic and restrained. As I was drawn into this music, I was conscious of its fragile delicacy, as Isaacs mined the upper register, unafraid of summoning sheer beauty from his instrument.

While it seems unjust to bang on about Keith Jarrett every time a pianist sits down to embark on a fully improvised solo set, on this occasion the comparison is a worthwhile one. While Isaacs’ improvisations (he prefers the term ‘extemporisations’) never strove for the melodic runs of a Koln Concert, there was that same sense of journey, of constant surprise, of dark passages giving way to light. Rather than a single arc, Isaacs played shorter, spontaneously composed pieces, each imbued with their own internal logic. Intense melodicism gave way to sporadic blues-tinged grooves, an occasional snatch of a popular song might linger at the edges and vanish just as quickly. You could sense the physical concentration of the performer, the deep introspection, moments of doubt. The delicate flow of notes only giving way to silence when a musical idea had run its course.

Isaacs’ demeanour has changed since I last saw him. Possessed of a shock of grey hair, and white-bearded, he looked prophetic and seer-like, his face comfortably etched with his sixty years. His piercing eyes occasionally strayed toward the audience, but more often turned aloft to the ceiling, as if looking to the heavens for divine inspiration. As the long second set progressed, his music, wrestled from silence, increasingly took on an ornate and majestic quality, as if reaching for the sublime.

Aside from Keith Jarrett, Isaacs’ performance also brought to mind two other fine jazz pianists, both classically trained, whose music displays a similarly lyrical and, at times, romantic touch: the late UK pianist John Taylor and American pianist Steve Kuhn. I remember catching a rare solo performance by Kuhn in New York a few years back, and feeling the same exhilaration I felt from Isaacs’ improvised set.

By the end of the performance, I began to realise my night had not turned out to be a mess of commitments after all. I had spent time in the company of two people – a writer and a musician – both possessed of great artistry. In the case of Gerald Murnane, it has taken decades for this country to recognise his particular genius. As a nation, we have never been exemplary in acknowledging our elders. I sincerely hope the music of Mark Isaacs continues to be championed and supported, and that we see a flourish of recordings and concerts over coming years. Maybe a live recording of improvised solo piano, for starters. Five years between jazz performances in Melbourne is too long.

Mark Isaacs is performing his solo piano extempore at Bird’s Basement on Thursday 12 July