Delightful discourses from Down Under, courtesy of three high-flying albums by trombonist Daryl McKenzie
's intrepid Jazz Orchestra from the merry old land of Oz (more widely known as Australia). The first, It's About Time,
was recorded in 2007, the others (Scallywag, Slammin' Joe's
) in 2010, when the band was roughly eight years old. Yes, big-band jazz is alive and well in places as far removed from its birthplace as Melbourne, and McKenzie offers irrefutable evidence not only to prove the point but to show that he and his colleagues are well-versed in the elaborate nuances that make jazz so unique and exciting.
Most of the songs presented in these studio sessions are original compositions, many written and / or arranged by members of the orchestra. The number of tunes from the Great American Songbook totals zero. That's not to infer that anything here is less than engaging; to the contrary, everything is well-written and well-played by musicians who go the extra mile to make sure the enterprise is successful. If you appreciate fresh music that rests firmly on the bedrock of established big-band tradition, McKenzie's albums should put a smile on your face and a spring in your step. The ensemble is well-grounded, the soloists a rung or two above what might be expected from those born and bred in faraway lands.
The earlier album, It's About Time,
is comprised of seven instrumentals presumably written by members or associates of the band (including McKenzie's "Still Workin' It" and "Boogaloo for Two"), one vocal, "Legacy" (written and sung by Gian Slater) and one original by a transplanted Aussie, Los Angeles-based Tim Davies
' "Dialmentia." Alto saxophonist Lachlan Davidson, one of the group's more frequently heard soloists, is featured on trombonist Roger Schmidli's Latin blazer, "Ariba," tenor Tony Hicks on Ross Irwin's powerful "East Side Lonely," trumpeter Vinnie Bourke on Davidson's airy ballad, "Clouds on Blue," trumpeter Scott Tinkler
on the funky "Dialmentia" whose opening melody calls to mind Johnny Mandel
's theme from the TV series M*A*S*H
. "Legacy," listed as Track 5 on the album's jacket and play list, is actually No. 8. Slater sings the largely inscrutable lyrics on key, which is about all that can be said about it. McKenzie opens the album on a happy note with the plain-spoken "Still Workin' It" (solos by Hicks and trombonist Ian Bell
) and scores again with the irrepressible "Boogaloo" (Simon Patterson, electric guitar; Tim Wilson
, alto sax). Bourke and pianist John (Gianni) Turcio are the soloists on Turcio's sunny samba, "Hola," Davidson and guitarist Jack Pantazis on Davidson's enticing bossa, "Upon a Rock." Scallywag
offers more of the same including a pair of originals by McKenzie, two more by Davidson, and one each by Schmidli, Turcio, Irwin, Cam McAllister
and Andrew Batterham. Davidson, Bourke, Turcio, Pantazis and Hicks return as soloists, reinforced by tenor Remco Keijzer (McKenzie's "The Time I Knew You") and drummer Daniel Farrugia who solos with Davidson and Pantazis on Davidson's "Missed Turn." Once again, the orchestra is primed and ready, from Irwin's propulsive opener, "West of the Sun," to Batterham's buoyant "How to Win the Rat Race," which rings down the curtain. Hicks is splendid on "Sun" and "Race," as are Davidson on McKenzie's playful "Scallywag," Turcio and Bourke on the pianist's colorful "Johnston Street" and Turcio again on McAllister's picturesque "Across the Sky." Schmidli's "Patch Goes to Town" is a Basie-style blues on which Bourke and Davidson shine, Davidson's "The Bird Has Flown" an earnest rocker that embraces forceful solos by Pantazis and Turcio (on electric piano) and a wordless vocal by Daina Jowsey.
Anyone who appreciates McKenzie's first two albums should derive sizable pleasure from Slammin' Joe's,
as the same components are in place and the music is for the most part quite similar. Once again, it is comprised of original compositions by McKenzie and Turcio (two each), Schmidli, McAllister, Irwin and Davidson, plus Matt Lamy
's "La Mana Despues." And once again, the able soloists include Hicks, Davidson, Schmidli, Bourke, Turcio, Keijzer, Pantazis, Bell and Farrugia, plus trumpeters Michael Fraser
and Paddy McMullin, bassist Kim May and percussionist Phillip Binotto. There is a bit more funk this time, and that may or may not suit everyone's taste. Among the more straightforward numbers are the Latin "Despues," Turcio's "Hugger Mugger" and McKenzie's "Keep Left," while McAllister's "Blues for the Roos" draws its inspiration from Julia Ward Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic." There are two ballads, Irwin's "Other Side of the World" (Schmidli, trombone) and Turcio's "My Father My Son," on which he solos with Bourke. The ensemble gets down on Schmidli's "Slammin' Joe's," McKenzie's "Chops" and Davidson's "Helter Skelter" (on which he solos nimbly on soprano).
While McKenzie may not be a household name, even in Melbourne, he deserves praise for helping to keep big-band jazz humming in the Land of Oz, as trumpeter Ralph Pyl's band has been doing in Sydney, trombonist Ed Wilson's in New South Wales. Beyond that, McKenzie's albums are for the most part superb (sound quality could be a tad more resonant) and should make any big-band enthusiast's day a g'day.