British blues enthusiasts often reflect on how, in the '50s and early '60s, they chanced upon what seemed like music from another planet. Tracks heard on crackly US service radio frequencies, or the acquisition of the occasional record brought in by a merchant seaman uncle, opened up worlds of sound that bore no relation to what the BBC or local dance halls were offering.
It can be a bit like that for those of us in Europe or the States with a curiosity about contemporary Australian jazz, which has appeared on few recordings and seen minimal radio exposure. Consequently, new discs from the southern hemisphere always excite more than the usual anticipation.
Pianist Andrea Keller is a major talent on the thriving Australian scene, with a growing list of recordings and supporting appearances to her name. Apart from being an outstanding pianist, Keller has the gift for writing totally distinctive and engaging compositions.
The pieces on Angels and Rascals go well beyond the standard theme-solos-theme structure. Each track has a shape of its own, the improvising growing organically out of the composed music. "The House," which opens the disc, commences with crisp, polyrhythmic drumming, joined first by trumpet and tenor shadowing one another, then building to what appears to be the main theme, before dying out quite suddenly. "Resting Place" has a processional, ritual-like feel, the sparse percussion providing a pulse for the other instruments to slide over. Two outstanding solos from tenor player Ian Whitehurst and trumpeter Eugene Ball shine out of the centre of this beautiful performance.
The horns frequently play what at first seem quite repetitive themes, but close listening reveals one or more of the instruments to be shifting away from the overall pattern; meanwhile, underneath, Danny Fischer's drums are turning everything upside down. The deliberate decision not to use a bassist seems to liberate the drumming from timekeeping into a more soloistic role. Rhythms are never overstressed or forced; each piece breaths quite naturally, following a groove where needed, elsewhere allowing the instruments to move quite freely around one another.
Gina Slater's vocals on some tracks deserve special mention. Whether singing lyrics or employing pure sound, her voice acts as another instrument in the overall texture, reminiscent in places of a younger Norma Winstone. The title track amounts to an almost circular instrumental pattern, with Slater's voice repeating the same words"walking with angels and rascals"but employing every possible musical variation.
If Angels and Rascals had been released by an American or European band it would have been feted for its originality of concept and execution. This recording stands as a marker of just how good Australian jazz is. It's a glimpse into a vibrant musical world and an invitation for the wider jazz community to take notice.
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Personnel: Andrea Keller: piano; Eugene Ball: trumpet; Ian Whitehurst: tenor saxophone; Danny Fischer: drums; Shannon Barnett: trombone; Gian Slater: voice.