Sometimes you’d think Bill Frisell was a singer rather than a guitarist. You have to reach back across the decades to a Miles Davis or a Ben Webster to find comparable mastery of the art of making a lyric come to life without a word being sung. Instead those words resonated and echoed in the strings of his electric guitar, whether stripped back to homespun simplicity, or having their inbuilt enigmas amplified by electronic effects. With bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Rudy Royston, Frisell excavated improbable commonalities of beauty and vulnerability in songs as diverse as You Only Live Twice, Blowin’ in the Wind and Lush Life. Among the paths to high art is self-effacement.
Others, too, saw how paring back could expose raw nerves and deep truths. The Phil Slater Quintet crafted latticeworks of entirely acoustic sounds: whispered, layered conversations; shadow-lands of eerie melody, in which the sadness welled up until it had to find expression in Slater’s trumpet. Pianist Barney McAll brilliantly unravelled the knots and gnarls of Thelonious Monk’s music, and accordionist/pianist Gary Daly’s genre-defying Bungarribee quartet meticulously unstitched compositions by such adventurers as Ligetti, Bartok and Sculthorpe.
Some mighty singers came to town. Veronica Swift may essentially be a bebopper, but that doesn’t begin to suggest how new and hip she sounded, fizzing with virtuosity and supreme musicality. Lisa Fischer (of Rolling Stones fame) was oddly pedestrian to begin, and then suddenly shot into a vocal stratosphere where rock, Middle Eastern, African, Caribbean, soul and jazz elements fused, so even Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song could be reborn as a world-music sonic dream. Jennifer Holiday crossed between R&B and Broadway, deploying a voice that could crack a Sydney apartment block at 50 metres, while flying up from an opulent contralto to an exquisitely restrained mezzo range.
Paul Capsis broke through to another level with his new cabaret show. He was still doing wickedly accurate impressions of the great divas of jazz, cabaret and R&B, but was now channelling those ghosts so that the extravagant theatricality was wrapped around a genuineness with sadness at its core.
One dazzling concert launching a book of compositions by the late Kim Sanders was an object lesson in keeping an artist’s legacy alive in the face of our fog-like cultural amnesia, and another concert exemplified what art does better than governmental policy: foster social cohesion.The latter, Universal Rhythms, melted away cultural differences in how rhythms are felt and expressed and brought together 25 wildly diverse musicians and singers in the feel-good event of the year.
The first few months of 2020 will host three “don’t miss” events. The first is the January 23 reprise of composer/saxophonist Jeremy Rose’s Iron in the Blood, inspired by Robert Hughes’ seminal work, The Fatal Shore. Rose’s has not just created a boldly imaginative work for his Earshift Orchestra, but shone a fresh spotlight on Hughes’ text, fostering a dialogue between idioms and eras. On February 8 pianist Mike Nock, saxophonist Julien Wilson, bassist Jonathan Zwartz and drummer Hamish Stuart – an Oz jazz supergroup by any measure – launch their debut album This World at the Australian Institute of Music, and then on March 7 the ever-questing Pat Metheny returns to town. The guitarist brings what should prove an astonishing band, which retains drummer Antonio Sanchez and adds British pianist Gwilym Simcock and the brilliant Australian bassist Linda May Han Oh.
The year will commence with Venue 505 having closed. Its music program will now share digs with the Old 505 Theatre in Newtown.