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Mace Francis Orchestra: Chinese Whispers

Jack Bowers By

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In August 2005, barely a year after it was formed, the Mace Francis Orchestra appeared as part of the Jazz Windows Concert Series at the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts, Edith Cowan University in Perth, Australia. Chinese Whispers, the orchestra's first album, was recorded (in part) during that performance.

The orchestra was created, Francis writes, "to experiment with composition in the style of the great modern big bands led by Bob Brookmeyer, Thad Jones, Bill Holman and Maria Schneider, and the concept behind the song "Chinese Whispers certainly bears that out. The idea was adapted from a writing game played by authors in which one would write exactly 200 words and pass the text on to the next, who would write another 200 words and so on until the story was completed.

For "Chinese Whispers (originally called "8x10 ), Francis enlisted eight composers to write ten bars of music apiece. The music was then passed on to the next composer, and "each composer would see only the previous ten bars—never the whole piece. Why? To make it interesting. Each composer was also restricted to seven notes, "so that the final composition had some sort of clarity and unity... A tempo was also chosen which remained constant throughout.

As a kicker, Francis writes, "once the collaborative piece was completed, each composer was given a copy of the entire score and asked to compose a new piece of music inspired by the collaboration, with no restrictions on notes or tempo. Six of these compositions comprise the remainder of the album.

If the idea for "Chinese Whispers seems chaotic, the result is not only comprehensible but fairly interesting, at least as an exercise in musical problem-solving. On the other hand, there's no improvisation, and the "work in progress is sometimes tentative and ponderous, as one might expect. The "undivided compositions are naturally tighter and more unified, starting with Francis' lively "Say That Again and including others by Amanda Jones, Brett Marbury, Jasmine Nelson, Michael Barnes and the MFO's pianist, Johannes Luebbers.

The overall impression is that of a cutting edge orchestra finding its sea legs, pursuing exemplary goals but not always reaching them. Still, there are moments of promise, and Francis is continuing the quest, having recorded the second volume of Chinese Whispers and started work on a third. The MFO has also released a more animated and accessible second album, oddly titled Introducing the Mace Francis Orchestra, with all of the compositions and arrangements by Francis. The young composer and his orchestra are clearly filling a need for thought-provoking contemporary jazz in western Australia, and I wish them prosperity and good health.


Track Listing: Chinese Whispers (8x10); Say That Again; 8x10 Remix; In Between; 5 Minute Noodle; Chinese Whiskers; Hush (41:44).

Personnel: Mace Francis: composer, arranger, conductor; Amanda Jones, Brett Mabury, Jasmine Nelson, Michael Barnes, Johannes Luebbers, Ben Collins, Graeme Lyall: composers; Paddy McMullin, Ricki Malet, Callum G

Title: Chinese Whispers | Year Released: 2007 | Record Label: Self Produced

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