Despite its relative geographic seclusionor perhaps because of ita closely knit jazz scene has emerged in Australia over the past decade, most notably in Sydney, where the Jazzgroove Association has grown from humble beginnings into one of the country's most important arts organizations. Led by saxophonist David Theak, the association's flagship Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra released one of last year's best recordings, The Mothership Plays the Music of Mike Nock (Jazzgroove, 2006). Theak has also been leading his own smaller Theak-tet for a decade, and Old School is another fine example of the vibrant Down Under post bop scene.
The group is pared down to a quartet, whose only remaining original member is guitarist James Muller, a ubiquitous presence on the Australian scene who recently released the well-received Kaboom (Birdland, 2006). With Muller's sharp harmonic acumen, losing the pianist has resulted in a sparer, more open sound that better suits the group. Bassist Brendan Clarke is new to the Theak-tet, but he's developed a strong rapport with Muller and Theak in the Mothership Orchestra. Drummer Felix Bloxsom's synergy is all the more remarkable for his relative newness with the group.
Recorded by engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug at Rainbow Studios in Oslo, Norwayhome to countless ECM recordingsone might expect Old School would reflect at least some of the German label's aesthetic. But while the record's pristine sonic clarity bears the Rainbow/Kongshaug signature, Old School does something that most ECM recordings don't: swing.
While Theak's writing looks brief on paper, it provides plenty of challenge. "Thrio and "Flea Bag both swing hard, with knotty but memorable themes and solo space that puts everyone's ability to navigate changes to the test. "3, 4, 5, 6 is more complex still, with a brief but rhythmically idiosyncratic theme that opens up into a blues for a fleet-fingered solo from Muller that combines self-accompanying chordal motion with a loose, almost slap-happy approach to linear phrasing.
Theak's tone is sharp, but he feels surprisingly at home with the mid-tempo lyricism of "Ki-Ki and the elegant ballad "June. But he's at his best on the more unfettered "Watch Yo' Back, where Theak-tet mines territory similar to guitarist John Scofield's late-'80s/early-'90s group without ever sounding imitative.
The one non-Theak composition is Muller's "Green Eyes, first heard on the guitarist's Thrum (ABC, 2002). Muller seamlessly shifts from fingerpicked support to a rich theme doubled by Theak, where single-note phrases are pianistically interspersed with fuller voicings.
Some albums are centered on the writing, others on the playing. Old School straddles the line with strong tunes that leave plenty of room for Theak-tet's individual and collective voices. It's another fine record from Australia, and further proof that plenty of compelling jazz is being created beyond the confines of North America.
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