Count this among the momentous albums of Australian jazz. In 1979 Mark Simmonds (tenor saxophone), Bobby Gebert (piano) and Phil Treloar (drums) formed the Australian Art Ensemble, which only performed twice, but did record. The power that exploded in that three-hour session became legendary, thanks to a widely-circulated, poor-quality bootleg, in the absence of an official release. Now this recording has been meticulously remastered from a cassette dub, and appears as Volume 2 of Treloar’s Of Other Narratives retrospective.
The simple, soulful melody of Gebert’s opening Nexus sounds as ancient as the land. It is phrased in surges, and therefore spawns improvising that arrives that way. The drums and piano roll in mighty waves, threatening to swamp the saxophone, which hurtles like a yacht whose skipper refuses to reef the sails, despite oblivion beckoning. But then this music is partly about staring at oblivion; about daring to shout that the triumph of life is to exalt in a the face of death, rather than be cowed by it. It is torrential and utterly gripping.
When Simmonds’ solo ends it is as though a hint of blue sky appears through brooding clouds, and the piano and drums seem uncannily like one instrument, one stream of consciousness. The recapitulation of the melody is the drawn-out sigh after a vast expenditure of energy, and the closing drum detonations are both exhilarating and crushing in their finality.
Gebert’s Chuggin’ is all tension. Shards of piano shower the jostling drumming, before Simmonds steams into the fray already at fever-pitch. Somehow the three players raise the stakes still higher, until the music is almost frightening in its intensity. Yet, as furious as it is, it is much more multi-faceted and deep than merely expressing anger or aggression.
The group-devised Dream Time begins with Treloar’s other-worldly synthesizer, which beckons a sad and stately saxophone/piano theme. Gradually the statement of this becomes more dramatic, until it unravels into a saxophone solo of desperate sadness against the heaving swells of piano and drums. Simmonds’ sound is magnificent, compounding the effect of some of the most moving, compelling tenor saxophone ever recorded. When his outpouring subsides the drums drop out, and, against swirls of synthesizer, Gebert sustains the mood, but astutely reduces the scale of the drama.
Ornette Coleman’s whizzing C.O.D. is a radical contrast. After a brief statement of the theme and a saxophone/drums duet, Gebert joins for a thrilling section of machine-gun-like rhythmic interaction. The piano solo swings more conventionally against the drums, even as it embraces dazzling melodic invention. Treloar’s phrasing in the restatement of the theme is rousing and inspired. His final hammer blow collapses the curtain on a moment in history when three people collectively met the challenge of making the highest art of which they were capable.