RHYTHMS OF GREEN & GOLD
Move Records MCD 622
I’ve been ambivalent about jazz and all its offshoots for many years. After the initial rush to the head during young adulthood when Monk, Mingus, Davis and Coleman set impossibly high levels of accomplishment and virtuosity, an inevitable reaction set in, similar to the disillusionment that comes to us all through an excess of Wagner or Mahler – when you realize the importance of emotional brakes, if nothing else. Just as with low culture’s implementation of serious music – who can forget the drum-kit added to Mozart’s No. 40, or the smoothing out of dissonance in Copland’s Fanfare? – just so do you have to acknowledge the bowdlerization of jazz’s limitless potential in melody, harmony, rhythm and timbre. Many of my contemporaries would remember still the adoption of jazz in the 1950s and early 1960s as entertainment for the pretentious young habitues of Melbourne’s clubs, the brief flash that marked the advent of Brubeck and the MJQ (mainly in recordings, although I heard the former play at Rushcutter’s Bay sometime in 1960), not to mention a few out-of-left-field experiences like the 1965 appearance of Thelonious Monk in the Melbourne Town Hall, playing to an audience of about a hundred of us. But today? The well-worn furrows have been ploughed to base rock and you look fruitlessly for anything original outside the realms of fusion – which is to say, compromise.
This disc offers 19 tracks of solo piano, compositions old and new by Australian composers (hence the CD’s title reference to our national colours – which aren’t any such thing, of course, as this country is still marching in a vexillatory two-step with its colonial master) some of whom offer refined takes on jazz rhythms, if not much else. About half of the writers are well-known, like Elena Kats-Chernin, Ann Carr-Boyd, Stuart Greenbaum, Ross Edwards and the performer himself. A few names rouse tremors in a waning memory bank, viz. Rod Heard and Matthew Dennett, while others have escaped my attention – Amanda Handel, Tom Anderson and May Howlett. The most senior writer represented is Howlett while Dennett is the youngest of them. As for temporal substantiality, Kats-Chernin takes the prize with her Nonchalance that almost lasts 7 minutes; at the other end of the scale sits Greenbaum’s Taurus, coming in at 1’30”. Quite a few of the remaining 17 tracks are brief, seven coming in at under 3 minutes.
Sydney composer Handel is represented by three compositions: Dreamboat Blues, Bootleg Blues and Blue Laze, the last-named being the most substantial. Martin’s reading of Dreamboat is laid-back, to the point where its underlying pulse is relaxed at two obvious spots; the structure is simple, 7th chords abound and no ripples are raised. A jaunty syncopated bass line prefaces the Bootleg drama which features a more adventurous harmonic palette, even if the format is little more sophisticated than its predecessor; again, Martin allows himself a rhythmic flexibility – although that might be written in. Blue Laze is a pleasant post-Gershwin laze which too often sounds like an exercise in peregrinatory chords, its deliberately lolloping bass a genial support for upper meanderings that are amiable if aimless. All these pieces are of an unobtrusive genre of jazz with nothing depressing or ‘dirty’ about them; another way of saying that they’re lacking any decided personality.
Tom Anderson has published a collection of rags – won prizes for them, no less. His A Walk Down Ragtime Lane is a fair representative of the genre with various clear-cut segments jammed alongside each other in the best Joplin tradition. Again, Martin puts in the odd hesitation, almost as though he’s finding a bit of trouble handling what sounds like a pretty easy-fitting modulation. As with a good deal of her work, Elena Kats-Chernin’s Nonchalance exists in several forms but the piano version here is something like a slow toccata or a piano study; there are a few jazz traces, mainly in some syncopated spots like bars 13 to 19 but the piece is probably included because of its original genesis as referring to suave characters in old black-and-white movies (George Raft? Or George Sanders?) but its continual middle ground of Alberti-bass type quavers in sets of four is more reminiscent of Hanon than Hampton. It was probably more effective in its original shape for cello and piano. At about a third the length of its companion, Kats-Chernin’s Reflections derives from an earlier suite written for a piece of theatre. Again, there is a binding sequence of Alberti quavers but the piece is appealing for its melodic sentiment: the sort of thing a very competent tea-lounge pianist would present with the merest suggestion of harmonic liberation.
Canberra-based musician Matthew Dennett proposes a nicely meandering melodic upper line in Round Midday but his piece is cursed with a repetitive bass line comprising steady block chords that seem to work against the free-and-easy meanderings in Martin’s agile right hand. I take it as a tribute/offshoot of Monk’s Around Midnight classic and there are plenty of homage points; like the American’s original, it might have worked better (probably does, in fact) with a mixed ensemble dealing with its bare bones.
Three Australian waltzes by Ross Edwards come from 1988 and you won’t find in them any sign of Maninyas-type ecstasy; rather, you can detect Chopin and Brahms, even a touch of Satie in the third. The Sassafras Gully Waltz is dedicated to musician/educator Nicholas Routley; Sandy Stone’s Waltz inevitably goes to Barry Humphries; and the Annandale Waltz was written for the composer’s wife Helen. All three are undeniably in 3/4 time and any twist of jazz goes a-begging. Yet the mood, tempo and enunciative changes across the trilogy exemplify the personalities of the dedicatees: determined and bouncy, old-fashioned and sentimental; quirky and ruminative. As you’d expect, Martin has little difficulty in delineating these short, medium-range-difficulty works with a care that invests them with merit, maintaining a fine balance of charm and caricature.
Another New South Wales writer, Rod Heard is represented by four works, the largest grouping on the CD. First comes Take 7, a tribute to Paul Desmond (of course) but not as seductive as the Brubeck classic; we can keep track of five (see Tchaikovsky) but any larger odd number (until 9, to state the bleeding obvious) is beyond most of us (despite Bartok). Heard keeps pretty close to his home key and avoids rhythmic games by maintaining his original allocation of accents; taken as a whole, this optimistic gambol reminds me of Grainger who also showed a penchant for the tonic in a good deal of his piano music. Summer Arrives presents as a sort of two-part invention at either of its ends with more substantial episodes intervening; the odd thing is that its rhythmic element seems to be the least interesting part of its structure.
A more obviously jazz-inflected piece arrives with Barbera Blues, which refers to a variety of Italian grape; mind you, it might just as well have been called Montepulciano and achieved the same result. It’s a 12-bar blues in essence with a middle section in the major that leads to a nicely contrived high-point, but the framing pages display a quiet sinuousness that shows a familiarity with and ease at handling chord progressions endemic in jazz practice. Finally, Rags to Riches boasts a clever title and is a straight rag in the Joplin vein with plenty of discrete sections and some repetitions to give us the reassurance of familiarity. It seems to me that Martin takes this too quickly and employs too many pauses to mark transitions between segments; as well, some of the writing is awkward across its essays in momentary counterpoint and the interpreter’s uneasy execution of them.
Probably the most Romantic music on the CD comes from Martin himself in his The Everglades at Dawn, which has nothing to do with Florida but refers to a National Trust property in Leura through which the pianist/composer takes us on a walk. You can appreciate Martin’s piece as a placid amble at first, although it leads to something more intense later on but the initial impression – at least for the first third of the score – is of an English pastoral, something like Cyril Scott but with less purposeful modulations. As far as green-and-gold rhythm is concerned, the composer is more concerned with a kind of fluent rumbling than any metrical nips and tucks, the interest mainly lying in a slightly elliptical melody line.
A slight syncopation distinguishes the placid elegy Taurus by Stuart Greenbaum, written as a remembrance of Australian composer James Wade who died suddenly in 2017 at the age of 38. The piece is both emotionally charged and restrained, a ternary-shaped deploration that makes its statement without elaborations, and then stops. Martin treats it with calm consideration, realising just the right amount of Greenbaum’s simplicity of utterance. A sort of companion piece comes in Looking to the Future which Greenbaum originally wrote for a play dealing with the Newcastle Workers Club disaster of 1989. It is slightly more optimistic than Taurus with an aggressive counterweight that follows the opening quiet cellular statement; however, a similar melancholy pervades both short pieces, each coming in well under 2 minutes long.
Western Australian-born May Howlett has contributed The Baroqua Rag: a combination term that covers J. S. Bach and Berocca. The first is easy to detect as Howlett uses the opening subject of the C minor Fugue in Book 1 of The Well-Tempered Clavier, stated en clair towards the end. How she gets the effervescent tablet into the mix remains a mystery; I can’t remember the jingle that mentioned how you get back your b-b-bounce but I sense it might be in there, somewhere along the way during this rather awkward piece with an over-repetitious bass; well, over-anchored might be a better way of putting it. Last of all comes Ann Carr-Boyd – not quite as much a veteran as Howlett but of the same generation. Her The Solitary rag comes from 2020 and is a kind of comment on the arrival and isolation of COVID with minor key (A?) bookends around a melancholy major-key middle, which presumably recalls the good times when we could socialize without penalties, personal or state-imposed.
But it’s an odd piece with which to end. Martin seems to be doodling around with it, taking his time over the end of sentences and blurring the piece’s outlines – but then that may be the way Carr-Boyd wants it outlined, so as to emphasize its nostalgia, a longing for the way we were. Such an epilogue does remind us of the current state of public safety (here comes the revolution), the uneasy condition of our world, and so is a worthy musical image of the green and gold national cosmos (!) that we have to negotiate. An interesting CD, then, if not a particularly challenging collection of Australian produce.