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Sunwrae Ensemble: Live at Thornbury Theatre

Ian Patterson By

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Not to be confused with Saturn's most famous jazz son, the Sunwrae Ensemble is the creation of Rae Howell, a multi-instrumentalist who has gained widespread recognition in her native Australia as a composer of highly original music which simmers somewhere between cinematic score, modern classical composition, and chamber jazz of a distinctly progressive variety. Recorded at Melbourne's Thornbury Theatre in 2009, Rae orchestrates various configurations of piano, string quartet, double-bass and drums, harp, vibraphone and flute, through an intriguing set of her own compositions, performed by all with unbridled passion.

Rae is essentially a composer concerned with mood, and much of the music has a sweeping cinematic feel to it reminiscent of Michael Nyman. The opening "Autumn Never Fall" is a case in point, with Rae's pretty, slightly urgent melody on piano repeated mantra-like and serving almost a backdrop to the sophisticated arrangements for two violins, viola and cello. The music swells and recedes with seamless grace and the piece finishes as delicately as it began. Circular or repeated piano motifs color the lyrical "Rainlessness," a rhythmically strong composition, and "The Machine"—two numbers in which piano and string quartet share protagonism.

Luke Richardson's slowly plucked bass and drummer Pip Atherstone Reid's brushes announce the slow blues of "Desert Walk," and precede Emily Rosner's eastern-sounding harp, and Rae's delicate piano. Subtle atmospheric noises from the strings build an air of unease underneath the slumbering pace of the rhythm section, and Belinda Woods carves out a wonderfully exotic solo on alto flute as the intensity increases, evoking a parched person's frantic, gleeful stumble towards an oasis—an impressive, original sounding piece. Woods excels once more on "Soluble Sun II," a delicate duet with Rae. Whether leading nine or two musicians, Rae's presence on piano is that of subtle accompanist and artful director.

Running two cello bows down the edges of the vibraphone keys, Rae draws cool, somewhat ethereal tones into the air on the highly distinctive "Poly." Switching to more traditional mallets, Rae is accompanied by a pulse-like bass and Reid's propulsive drumming, which crashes in and out of the silences quite spectacularly, engaging in a hypnotic discourse with Rae that alternately rages and whispers. Richardson gradually grows into the dialogue, striking and tugging his bass strings ferociously as Rae lets loose on the keys; this dramatic, memorable piece fading as softly as dandelion seed head carried away by the breeze. The full nine-piece ensemble combines on "Chinook Winds," another powerful, orchestral composition which waxes and wanes, before Woods' flute raises the intensity briefly, and exhilaratingly, towards the end.

It's difficult to pick out any highlights—these refreshingly underivative, striking compositions are all highlights—though it is safe to say that this live recording underlines Rae's credentials as a composer and arranger of some originality and no shortage of imagination, and as a musician with a flair for melody, lyricism, and haunting drama. Most impressive, indeed.

Track Listing: Autumn Never Fall; Rainlessness; Desert Walk; Soluble Sun II; Poly; The Machine; Chinook Winds.

Personnel: Rae Howell: piano (1-4, 6-7), vibraphones (5); Rachael Kim: violin (1-3, 6-7); Zachary Johnston: violin (1-3, 6-7); Phoebe Green: viola (1-3, 6-7); Julian Swinnerton: cello (1-3, 6-7); Belinda Woods: alto flute (3-4, 7, 9); Emily Rosner: harp (3, 7); Luke Richardson: double-bass (3, 5, 7); Pip Atherstone Reid: drums (3,5,7).

Title: Live at Thornbury Theatre | Year Released: 2010 | Record Label: Self Produced


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