Andrea Keller’s Transients vol. 1 & 2: seminal Australian jazz recordings

To say it has been a massive couple of years for Melbourne pianist Andrea Keller is something of an understatement. In 2018, she released The Komeda Project, a series of stunning arrangements of the music of Polish composer Krzysztof Komeda; along with a self-titled album by her electric band Five Below. Last year saw the release of Transients volume 1 (winner of the Victoria Music Award for Best Jazz Album) and more recently its follow-up Transients volume 2. During that time, she’s held down the Monday night chair at the Jazz Lab (taking over the role following the death of her mentor, drummer Allan Browne, in 2015); and an on-going residency –Transient Thursdays – at Uptown Jazz Cafe. Her collaborations with other performers, such as the Australian Art Orchestra or the Sirens Big Band, along with her appearances at major festivals here and abroad, are too numerous to mention. Somewhere in all of this, she’s finding time to lecture in jazz and improvisation at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, raise kids, and presumably squeeze in some sleep.

Stephen Magnusson, Andrea Keller, James Mclean

The Transients project stands out for its sheer ambition. In January 2016, Keller assembled a set of five free-floating trios, labelled Transients I-V, with the aim of interpreting a body of compositions – some new, some old – in variable ways. In part, she was inspired by the late Allan Browne’s example, emphasizing a collective approach and, in her own words, “striving for human connection and meaningful dialogue.”

The trios comprise the cream of Melbourne’s improvisers: Steve Magnusson, Julien Wilson, Sam Anning, Tamara Murphy, Christopher Hale, James McLean, Flora Carbo, James Macaulay and others (and it says much about Keller’s standing that she can gather around herself such a surfeit of talent). What do these musicians bring to the table? A flexible and pliant approach for starters, brilliant musicianship, and a willingness to fashion Keller’s music into endlessly distinctive shapes.

Transients volume 2 follows the model set out in volume 1 in that it presents a further nine performances of Keller’s compositions by the various Transient trios. These include new versions of four pieces that previously appeared on volume 1, though this time around delivered by a different trio.

The results are fascinating. After all, the finest of compositions – and Keller’s, to my mind, can be considered as such – lend themselves to re-interpretation.

Consider the way that Ellington or Mingus radically overhauled and re-cast their respective songbooks over the years. Or consider Ornette Coleman’s 1987 double-album In All Languages, which presented the same music twice in radically different guises, the first as interpreted by his classic quartet, the second by his electric Prime Time band. Needless to say, we are in the same territory here when it comes to Keller’s Transients project.

Take a case in point: Keller’s exquisite piece ‘Inside Out’, which appears on both Transients volume 1 and 2. The first version highlights guitarist Steve Magnusson, the second alto-saxophonist Flora Carbo and trombonist James Macaulay. The Magnusson version, if we can call it that, has the perfection of a small polished jewel.

Keller gently leads off with a singular set of repetitive notes, opening up the terrain for Magnusson to usher in a delicate and poignant refrain. His guitar, redolent with warmth, conjures clean lines and open vistas. Ever-so-slowly, the music swells toward a climax, Keller’s piano cascading and tumbling like a waterfall, Magnusson’s guitar literally soaring. On reaching the summit, the music suddenly drops away, before Keller proceeds to punch out the opening notes, returning us to the start. In that five-minute loop, the trio of Keller, Magnusson and drummer Danny Fischer pack an emotional wallop, equal parts joy and sadness.

And so, to the second version: Carbo and Macaulay effectively play the same refrain, but the effect is of an entirely different order. Unlike Magnusson’s delicate lines, their voices instead weave in and out, taking on a more plaintive and mournful sound, fragile and glass-like. If anything, the emotive core of the piece is heightened. Which version do I prefer? I am at a loss to say. Each can be counted a minimalist tour de force, and its fair to say neither feels superfluous.

Elsewhere, Transients volume 2 presents a range of compelling music.

The album’s opener, ‘Sleep Cycles’ has the classical precision of a chamber piece, with Julien Wilson’s tenor breathily nudging the melody. Keller spends time in the lower registers, while Sam Anning contributes a haunting bass solo. The track has a filmic quality; it could almost be the soundtrack to a doomed love affair.

‘Search for Optimism’ is a feature for Christopher Hale’s delicate six-string bass guitar, which meanders delicately over James McLeans rhythmic and precise percussion.

‘Salmon Life’, dedicated to pianist Barney McAll, is a ruminative and restrained piece, full of austere beauty – Wilson’s tenor sax is a marvel of invention throughout.

‘SNAFU’ starts out as a rumbling profusion of piano, bass and drums, before hitting its stride with a series of jaunty rhythms.

‘Do Not Go Gentle’, a quiet duo played by Keller and Magnusson, assumes the form of an intimate dialogue between friends.

The album’s closer, ‘Domesticity’, is three-minutes of post-bop buoyancy performed by an augmented Transients quintet.

Keller is generous throughout to her musical colleagues, so much so that it is all-too-easy to discount her own playing. In performance she regularly cites her admiration for the late English pianist John Taylor, with whom she once took lessons. Taylor was often at his best playing with others, his innate modesty and impeccable musicianship allowing them, in effect, to shine. You only have to listen to his recordings with Kenny Wheeler or with Peter Erskine’s trio to register his particular brand of genius. In the same way, Keller’s piano is central to her Transients trios, a thing of wonder that binds together these conversations with her fellow musicians.

There are no immediate fireworks to be found on the Transients recordings, despite there being no shortage of firebrand players at the sessions. Each musician has willingly given over their voice in service to Keller’s compositions, digging deep within these melodies, plumbing emotional depths, and finding beauty therein.

The resultant works, thoughtful and considered, are steeped as much in the tradition of chamber music as they are in jazz. If evidence were called for as to Andrea Keller’s stature as a composer and musician, we need look no further than Transients volume 1 and 2. In a career already littered with highlights, these albums take their rightful place as seminal Australian jazz recordings, demanding space on the shelf alongside recent award-winning albums by Jonathan Zwartz, Sam Anning and Julien Wilson.