CD Shorts

Given the radically reduced number of CD reviews being run in The Sydney Morning Herald here are a dozen recent releases of Oz music that have missed out on coverage in the paper…

 Steve Barry Steve Barry res

Steve Barry


Conceptually the piano is half way to being a percussion instrument, and in jazz it is mostly the players who rattle your bones with their rhythmic ideas who really stand out. Steve Barry, yet another Kiwi on Sydney’s jazz scene, is one. 

Barry’s sophisticated rhythmic sense combines a raw instinct for burning grooves and a mind for mathematical convolutions that make the music boil and twist. He has penned attractive pieces, upon which some of his solos are melodically and emotionally explosive.

With him are bassist Alex Boneham and drummer Tim Firth who, being well used to working together, share a rapport that smooths the bumps in Barry’s more complex pieces. Guitarist Carl Morgan compounds the fireworks on three tracks. My only reservation is that fireworks are periodically the collective first resort, rather than something deeper.



Dead Space


Often you’d swear it was electronics, not one bloke mainly playing saxophone and flutes and another mainly playing double bass. It’s due to the sheer eeriness of the sounds: disembodied, ambiguous, ominous. Jim Denley and Mike Majkowski love extracting unfamiliar sounds from familiar instruments, and here they have created seven free improvisations dedicated to their late fathers.

Rather than walls of sound, these guys make mists of the stuff, with the instruments looming and fading. On Third Ending the bowed bass sets up a drone as thick as a Katoomba fog, amid which the alto saxophone yelps and barks like a lost hound of the Baskervilles.

While I relish the disorientation of not instantly knowing how a sound is being made, the appeal of this music also lies in its aesthetics, surprises and even unlikely emotional jolts.


 Willow Neilson

Lightbulb Life


Willow Neilson is on to something. Despite considerable experimentation with rhythms and sampling the saxophonist has arrived at a very approachable album. Its surface is of chilled-out Latin jazz, but seething beneath that are sundry cunning ideas and veiled complexities.

Some years ago Neilson moved from Sydney to Shanghai, and the latter’s bustling cosmopolitanism shines through in the music, which embraces a world of possibilities from Brazil to Mongolia.

Among his saxophones the tenor remains the vehicle for Neilson’s strongest statements, including in an enchanting dialogue with singer Coco Zhao on Sunday Story. Steinar Nickelson brings a gripping, coarse-grained electric piano sound to bear, bassist Peter Scherr defines his grooves with deftly placed rests and the drums/percussion pairing of Alex Ritz and Leonardo Susi love unexpected twists and turns. Very entertaining.


 Amanda Handel/Michael JacksonGardens of Stone res

Gardens of Stone


No, the Gloved One has not returned from the dead. This Michael Jackson plays the didjeridu, and in a most unusual context. Composer Amanda Handel has penned a repertoire of pieces evoking the Blue Mountains, which she performs at the piano in company with Jackson’s instrument. Ostensibly it is one of those “shouldn’t work, but it does” marriages. Take away the didj and the programmatic nature of the beautiful title track would be lost, for instance. The piano may be supplying the lyricism and harmony, but the didj has a crucial colouring effect, much as changes in light dramatically affect a mountainscape. The other especially striking piece is Blue Labyrinth, on which Jackson takes the main theme on didjeribone, the haunting (French horn-like) timbre and melodic capability of which suggest that this is an avenue for further exploration from this interesting project.


Dave Jackson Quartet



It has almost become a rite of passage for local jazz musicians to go and record in New York. The danger of this is that it tends to enshrine the idea that the US way of doing things is the “right” way, as opposed to seeking out fresh approaches.

Nonetheless saxophonist Dave Jackson has made what, on its own terms, is a fine EP, assisted by pianist Sean Wayland, bassist Orlando Le Fleming and drummer Greg Hutchinson. They begin with a sprightly take on Bernie McGann’s D Day, before delving into the more meditative title track, where Le Fleming and Hutchinson offer a master-class in keeping the feel fluid. Wayland paints in the stars on the night sky of Infinitas and Jackson offers his most assured, propulsive solo on Into Stella.


Spike Mason

Widening Circles

(The Poatina Tree)

Spike Mason creates attractive, wafting settings of the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, whose work glows with a hushed religious fervour. Kristin Berardi sings the words in a quietly reflective way that suggests an internal dialogue. Mason has scored his music for his own saxophones, Henri Peipman’s piano, Mark Lau’s bass, Gillian Smith’s bassoon and Gareth Lewis’s trombone. As a song cycle it could do with more contrast and perhaps some fervour.


Jess Green’s Bright Sparks

Tinkly Tinkly

(Yum Yum Tree)

Jess Green’s guitar sound is a thing of joy, with just enough distortion to amplify the warmth, but not enough to make it hostile. Here she has expanded her band to an octet, and leads them off on a jaunt through groove-oriented pieces that swagger and cavort like a street parade. Matt Keegan’s burning tenor leads a horn section of Dan Junor, John Hibbard and Simon Ferenci, and Zoe Hauptmann’s bass anchors the drums and percussion of Bree van Reyk, James Hauptmann and Evan Mannell.


David RexTour of Fate res

Tour Of Fate


David Rex’s bustling alto saxophone sounds right at home amid the fireworks detonated by New York’s Aaron Goldberg Trio. He has penned most of the pieces, too, which offer plenty of sinew into which for the brilliant rhythm section of Reuben Rogers and Greg Hutchinson may sink their teeth, and Goldberg (piano) enjoys spreading a varnish of lyricism about. But one wonders if mastery of New York jazz is ultimately the most creative course for a local to pursue.



Karaoke and The Usefulness Of Art

(Fat Rain)

Adam Simmons wonderful trio has released two discs simultaneously. The first is called Karaoke because Simmons, Howard Cairns (bass) and Anthony Baker (drums) slide in between the notes of a host of Australian rock songs, like three musical spies. There is an obvious affection for the music (by Nick Cave, Wally De Backer (Gotye), INXS, Daniel Johns, Colin Hay and more), but ultimately the band feels constrained by the material in a way that is not the case on The Usefulness Of Art, where the pieces are all penned by Simmons. Then there is more chance to truly relish the dynamic imagination implicit in Simmons’ playing (now on bass clarinet, after his exclusively using alto saxophone on Karaoke), the manner in which Cairns’ bass seems to spread to the aural horizon and beyond, and the zippy effervescence of Baker’s contribution.


Jim Conway’s Big Wheel

Just So


The strain of pub r’n’b that was so virulent in Sydney 30 years ago lives on in Jim Conway’s Big Wheel. There is a laid-back feel to the grooves that distinguishes it from blues-rock, alongside solos that are not look-at-me extravaganzas, but brief storm cells on the radar of each song. Conway sets the tone with raw, blustery harmonica. Don Hopkins takes a no-nonsense approach to the lead vocals while adding keyboards drenched in the idiom. Jess Green offers slinky guitar and Stan Valacos and Andrew Byrnes ensure the grooves roll more than they rock.


Aaron Michael

Aaron Michael


This debut from Sydney saxophonist Aaron Michael sees him with Dieter Kleeman (guitars), Matt McMahon (piano, keyboards), Duncan Brown (bass) and Paul Derricott (drums). The opening Leytonstone (by Michael) stands out: reminiscent of the sort of instantly appealing, country-tinged melody that Keith Jarrett used to write in the 1970s, and capped by a storming tenor/drums duet. There are more pastoral pieces and punchier ones, and perhaps a sense of a player still working out his own identity as an artist.