Alister Spence Quartet

Spence McDonald res
Alister Spence and Raymond McDonald. Photo: Miriam Zolin.

The correlation between a musician’s physicality and character and their sound on an instrument is fascinating. Paul Desmond (who composed Take Five), for instance, was a slight, ascetic man who made the alto saxophone sound like it was part of the clarinet family. Raymond McDonald is a burly Scot who makes the same instrument seem to swell in size until it generates the timbre of the larger tenor.

In recent years McDonald has enjoyed a fruitful globe-trotting collaboration with the Sydney pianist/composer Alister Spence. Here McDonald joined Spence’s long-term trio, completed by bassist Lloyd Swanton and drummer Toby Hall.

One of the areas of commonality emerged in the opening Spence/McDonald duet: a fascination with eeriness. A hallmark of the later Alister Spence Trio albums, this was a recurrent mood throughout the concert, especially when Spence was using real-time sampling of the piano to frost the sound with subtle extra electronic layers. His Seventh Song and Circumnavigate were especially effective examples. On the latter it was as if the reality of the music and a dream of that same music were occurring at simultaneously.

During these compositions McDonald floated lines in the upper register across the dream-scape, sometimes using circular breathing to create patterns as continuous as those emanating from the bass or drums. On the more energetic pieces, such as Brave Ghost (with its New Orleans-fuelled drumming), and his own If You Really Want To Hear About It and The Big Toe, he unleashed the full force of his brawny sound as the alto raged and squalled.

He also brought this power to bear on Spence’s wistful Another October, which beckoned a lyrical solo from Swanton and potent statements from saxophone and piano.

Hall’s magical glockenspiel made a couple of appearances, but could have been used more. At a stroke this tiny instrument has as radical an impact on the ensemble sound as a set-change does on a play.