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Mark Isaacs: Aurora

John Kelman By

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As Tell It Like It Is (ABC Jazz, 2009), amply proved, sometimes it's better to work with local musicians who, through regular touring, establish a singular collective voice. That's not to say Resurgence (ABC Jazz, 2007) was bad—it's hard to imagine anything with bassist Jay Anderson, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and saxophonist Bob Sheppard as lacking in the firepower department. Still, when looking at Australia-based pianist Mark Isaacs' discography of the past decade, the standout albums have invariably been those featuring fellow Aussies—lesser-known internationally, perhaps, but ultimately the ingredients of a much more compelling ensemble.

Aurora also demonstrates the benefits of consistency. If the live Tell It Like It Is was an improvement over Resurgence's chemistry and collective energy, then Aurora trumps it yet again, with some of Isaacs' most appealing writing to date and even greater empathic interaction. Isaacs, saxophonist Matt Keegan and guitarist James Muller solo in tandem, like a well-honed tag team, in the final minutes of the impressionistic rubato tone poem, "Threnody," which opens with an a capella piano intro that harkens back to ECM dates by pianist Richie Beirach, like Eon (1975) and Hubris (1977), and reflects the influential classical background shared by both pianists.

But it's not all abstraction and implication. Isaacs and his Resurgence Band get positively propulsive, with drummer Tim Firth driving the energetic "For the Road" with a pulse reminiscent of the late Tony Williams on Miles Davis' "It's About That Time," from the classic In a Silent Way (Columbia, 1969). Muller begins on his own, his tart tone recalling John Scofield but with a little less grit. The American guitarist has been an unmistakable touchstone, but the Australian six-stringer has long since subsumed this and other roots, like his channeling Allan Holdsworth to great effect on drummer Chad Wackerman's Legs Eleven (Self Produced, 2004). When he first emerged, in 1990s with groups like Sonic Fiction, Muller was more a remarkable chameleon than distinctive personality, but in the ensuing years, in collaboration with Isaacs—the pianist's sole near-constant companion since 1998's On Reflection (Grace Recordings)—and on solo recordings like 2006's Kaboom (Birdland), he's demonstrated why, in Australia, he's become the first call guitarist of choice for so many musicians.

As ever, Isaacs combines deeper lyricism and an avoidance of "look at me" pyrotechnics, while impressing consistently on tracks like the contrapuntal "Aurora," which feature his most incendiary solo of the set, matched in relentless intensity and drive by both Muller and Keegan, and again driven by Firth and bassist Brett Hirst, who are both featured in the second half of this powerful ten-minute closer.

As a bonus, Aurora also features a DVD with the entire Tell It Like It Is album, effectively reissuing it as a concert video, complete with song introductions as a bonus feature. For those who've yet to check out Isaacs and his Resurgence Band, it's the perfect introduction, effectively shining a spotlight on the different (but equally important) kinds of energies and synergies that emerge in the studio and on the concert stage.

Track Listing: CD: Will-'o-the-wisp; Good Tidings; Emergence; Threnady; For the Road; Bagatelle; Aurora. DVD: Minsk; You Never Forget Love; Homecoming; Night Song Part 1; Night Song Part 2; Angel; Tell It Like It Is; Between the Shores. Bonus Features: Intro by Andrew Ford; What Was Said Between Songs.

Personnel: Mark Isaacs: piano; James Muller: electric and acoustic guitars; Matt Keegan: soprano and tenor saxophones; Brett Hirst: bass; Tim Firth: drums.

Title: Aurora | Year Released: 2011 | Record Label: Gracemusic

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