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April-May 2003

AAJ Staff By

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In this column:

  • Fiona Burnett’s high octave octane
  • New albums: Australian Art Orchestra, John Bell Trio, D’volv

Please italicize album titles; use double quotes on song titles.
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EAST/WEST

Sita. Australian Art Orchestra (Newmarket) 9.5 stars: This orchestra is automatically notable for its illustrious musicians, but that alone does not account for its significance. The music they have produced across several intercultural projects is some of the most creative and exciting this country has on offer. This time esteemed pianist/composer Paul Grabowsky has collaborated with theatre dirctor Nigel Jamieson and lauded Balinese musician I Wayan Gde Yudane on the project which we saw last year at venues including the Sydney Opera House, called “The Theft of Sita”. Even without the delicious western/Asian cultural encounters and synthesis as depicted by mediums such as traditional shadow play and innovative stage and lighting techniques, much of the drama’s unique flavour and daring can be heard in this score. It cleverly uses a combination of Indonesian and western ensembles to range evoke traditional and contemporary forms, making something new out of the synthesis. Bursts of free jazz, for example, ride on Asian rhythms. Western instruments are tuned to Asian scales and the music uses the pelog and slendro scares in parts. One of the key features of this music is its rowdy energy, so evocative of Balinese music with its percussive pots’n pans clangour and bustling rhythms. The purity of Shelly Scown’s voice is the perfect vehicle for the stately, elevated “Sita’s Song”, while elsewhere the cultural poles shift toward and away from each other. Yudane uses traditional forms but he is interested in pushing them to their boundaries. Where he leaves off, Grabowsky can pick up. So, typically of the Art Orchestra, this is jazz and something else at the same time. Art is the best description. Those interested in contemporary creative music should seek out the Art Orchestra’s albums - each different in flavour entirely, yet the same in cultural miscegenation and ingenuity. They hold a special place in the Australian musical canon.


HIGH VIBE

Spirals. John Bell Trio (Newmarket) 8.5 stars: Hailing from New Zealand, vibraphonist John Bell has a few albums under his belt, including the Sanctus project album, “2 Moons” in 2000. His working partners this time are Melbourne players, Ronnie Ferella (drums) and bassist Frank Di Sario, both high profile players on the local scene. The opening, title track – loose, almost rubato in terms of time, and as ephemeral as swirling clouds of gas – demonstrates the freedom and understated attack that the three piece format allows. For such a low-key outing it’s astonishing how enthralling the track is, and that quality extends to the rest of the album too. Other tunes, such as “Orbits”, are more sharply drawn, yet they also elicit this feeling of relaxation and focus at the same time. This music speaks to you, not forcefully but persuasively with charm and gentle enticement. It can swing, like “Orbits”, or paint languid pictures in something like Keith Jarrett’s “Everything That Lives Laments”. In his writing, Bell has a sure knack for melody – check out “Dreamers” – while his approach to the instrument is mostly to let the chords lay lugubrious waves of vibrato, a thick bed of sound, that easily fills the spaces in the trio instrumentation. The clever theme and voicings at the start of “East West Fantasia” give way to a quite assertive, quasi-funky strut that indicates a different hand to Bell’s, and turns out to be one of a couple of Ferella’s tunes. Di Sario’s “Melody in The Memory of Milt Hinton”, prompted by and guided by the acoustic bass, draws lines as carefully as a charcoal sketch in progress. In all, an album of pleasures, with something to savour at every turn.


WOOD AND WIRES

Africussia. D’volv (Move) 7.5 stars: This is the second album by the guitar trio. The three players – Jim Kelly (steel string), Peter Martin (electric guitar) and John Fitzgerald (nylon string) – have a lot of playing experience behind them but these days also underpin things with their teaching careers at Southern Cross University in northern NSW. The complement of nylon and steel string and electric guitar makes a trademark sound for the trio and a pleasing meld of timbral qualities. The playing skills of these three are not a question but this album does have a little too much of a low-key and slightly studied, polite air about it. While it pleases, it could do with more imagination in the writing and the use of the guitars – right down to the wood, if necessary – to create more varied textures and edge than they achieve here. Though “Deep Tango Blue” and “Feel No Pain” are outright successes, it would have been nice to hear the guys extending themselves a bit more.


ORGANIC

Waiting For It. Ish Ish (Newmarket) 9 stars: Melbourne drummer Ronny Ferella’s highly esteemed quintet never fails to produce idiosyncratic music. Their quirky and unusual combination of something akin to free jazz amid tight structures and meticulously precise arrangements – often at the same time – is masterful indeed. This organised chaos, recalling something of Mingus, Ornette Coleman and Gil Evans, begins with the solid rhythmic impetus of the drums which is often offset by counterposed time structure for combined choruses of the trombone, sax and trumpet. It all sounds coherent yet the contrast of structure and looseness gives this music a sense of freedom and playfulness underpinned by sturdy foundations. The lead instruments, when not in lockstep rhythms and tight harmony, roam and graze, like herd animals. This is music of great personality and, despite its lack of ostentation and showiness, masterly skill.


INTERVIEW: FIONA BURNETT

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