CONCERTO FOR PIANO AND TOY BAND
Friday March 2 to Sunday March 5, 2017
Not exactly an unknown entity in Melbourne, Adam Simmons and his Creative Music Ensemble have made creative jazz their playing field The group is an octet – well, it was for this latest venture: three saxophones, two trumpets, trombone, double bass and drums. A combination that you might think would be top-heavy, but the range is pretty wide, especially when you hear the leader on sopranino sax and the high reaches gained by Gemma Horbury and Gavin Cornish with their trumpets. For this one-work program, Simmons had also gained the collaboration of master-pianist Michael Kieran Harvey, soloist for his concerto.
Despite the coy disclaimers and reservations semi-articulated at the start of Thursday night’s performance by Simmons himself, this is a real concerto, one where the spotlight shines on the piano and the ensemble alike. The composer has divided his score into three parts, topped, tailed and divided by a fragmented Confucian quote that had me bamboozled right from the start. It refers to ‘the Grand Master of Lu’, whom I confused with the contemporary exponent of the True Buddha School, Lu Sheng-Yen . . . but it’s not him at all. The quotes from the Grand Master refer to ‘the Ancients’ Music’ and its character; moreover, the cited performance descriptors have direct relevance to what the listener hears – a ‘strict unison’, an expansion of permitted ‘liberty’, then a ‘harmonious, brilliant, consistent’ tone that sustains itself to the music’s end.
All of which tends to project Simmons’ work onto a high plane of operations, moving up that major transcendental musical scale to enlightenment. Except that this particular music is well-grounded in our worldly plane. Right from the start, the concerto confronts the listener physically with the ensemble blasting away on a unison note in ever-mobile rhythmic patterns; an avalanche of unanimity scarred, of course, by intonative imperfections that you suspect are intentional. After this pounding prelude, Harvey entered with a lengthy solo of compressed rigour, taking up on the variegated matter that followed the ensemble’s initial fanfare.
Simmons has constructed a real score, notated with, I suspect, some improvisatory insertions as the concerto moves forward, witnessed by the leader’s signals to stop playing after a sufficiently hectic climax has been constructed. Further, in the best Classical/Romantic fashion, you are presented with passages that fuse Harvey’s ever-mobile piano with the ensemble. The composer has varied his output with some delicate arabesques serving as a relief from tension, the piano generating a neo-impressionist sound world, best exemplified at the stage where the other instrumentalists inflated balloons and placed them on the strings of Harvey’s grand, then removing and popping them.
The only miscalculation came right at the end when a tremendous fabric was constructed that had the saxophone trio heading a generous sonic wall with Harvey pounding out chord clusters, then hand-smashes, finally employing both arms to belt out welters of noise across the keyboard. Simmons halted this abruptly; there was a blackout, and the audience burst into applause – excited or relieved, take your pick. But the end of the concerto – the final Confucian quote – was yet to come: a recited line and some muted valedictory fragments.
You can’t blame the listeners. Most of them have been bred to a musical experience that demands a reaction after an exciting (for which, read ‘loud’) build-up ending with any form of cadence, orthodox or simply curt. You see it year after year at the Myer Bowl free concerts by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra where applause breaks out after every concerto or symphony first movement. It’s a relief from tension, possibly, or a willingness to extend or participate in the energy an audience has witnessed. In the case of this work, the clapping and yips of excitement were inevitable.
Another query came as you had to grapple mentally with the toy band nomenclature. For a long time, the players did nothing out of the ordinary. Eventually, toys were brought into play – rattles, toy trumpets and saxophones, tops, clappers, rubber fish/ducks/chooks, musical ratchets. From memory, these took over at two specific points and acted as palate-cleansers before the players returned to their regular sound-sources. You’d assume that these interludes fleshed out the philosophical underpinning that supported Simmons’ piece and, indeed, all his music.
I find it hard to comment on the concept that asks of art that it be useful. Simmons is dedicated to this aesthetic and there’s much to commend it. But, at present, I’m unclear as to what end the usefulness is being directed. Towards the listener? The creator? The performers? The state? All of these? And, most difficult of all, who determines whether or not the work has achieved its aim? Of course: the critic.
Harvey played with that combination of refinement and vehemence we have come to anticipate on each of his appearances. While the final full-body bout made marvellous theatre, the earlier sections where the keyboard writing’s content was digitally complex and dynamically sharp-edged yielded the more engrossing experiences, the pianist’s control and informed vitality as remarkable to watch as to hear. Further, Harvey is one of the few pianists I know who can sit on the cusp of formal, fully-written composition and extemporisation, leaving you uncertain in which arena he is actually operating.
Simmons is fortunate in his ensemble, as well as in Harvey’s participation. The front line sax trio with Simmons himself continuously bobbing with delight, a relatively reserved Cara Taber on alto and Gideon Brazil‘s ebullient tenor made an intriguing study in contrasts of all kinds; Herbury is one of the most enthusiastic trumpeters you’ll ever see, partnered by Cornish who can be just as strident in timbre. Bryn Hills produced a highly mobile trombone line, very adept in the concerto’s more rhythmically complicated stanzas, with Howard Cairns‘ bass an amiable, bemused support. The best compliment you can pay Hugh Harvey on drums is that he knows his place and that isn’t just drowning everyone else but rather offering a sturdy, right-on-the-beat reinforcement without attention-grabbing flourishes.
At a time when really adventurous musical events are rare, this night was a breath of fresh air, leaving you elated with its accomplishment. Inevitably, it brought to mind other writers and other experiences, although some of the concerto’s more brutalist pages suggested nobody more than Xenakis. Yet the innate flexibility of structure and obvious coherence took me a long way back to the jazz experimental forays of the 1950s and 1960s – not just in the United States, but also here when Barry McKimm, Robert Rooney and Sid Clayton were playing in a new style that fused freedom and discipline. Simmons’ concerto operates on a similar plane of invention but has a novel edge through the composer’s appealing delight in his own good-humoured aggression.