The Necks: Vertigo (Fish of Milk)
Sandy Evans: Kapture (Rufus)
Gary Daley: Sanctuary (garydaley.com.au)
Allan Browne Quintet: Ithaca Bound (Jazzhead)
We all remember doing it: falling for a song and buying the relevant album only to discover the rest of it was dross. Then along came the brave new world of downloads: the democratisation of music, no less, putting the consumer in the box-seat, skimming a track from here and a track from there. Progress!
Well, perhaps from the listener’s point of view, but what about from the artist’s? In particular what about the artists who sweat blood creating an album of thematically linked material intended to be heard in one go? “Concept albums?” I hear you scoff. “They were the blight on rock that obliged punk to be invented 40 years ago.”
In fact concept albums came along virtually from the moment the long-playing record was invented. Duke Ellington and Miles Davis were among those making them in the 1950s, and rock caught up in the mid-’60s with the likes of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s. Thereafter the floodgates opened, and all too many songwriters suddenly imagined they were born to pen larger-scale works. The results were often dire and concept albums became unfashionable.
But recently a surprising number of Australia’s finest musicians have been thinking big-picture musical thoughts once more, including Andrew Robson, Rick Robertson, Andrea Keller and Lloyd Swanton, plus the four covered here. These are albums that are intended, and deserve, to be heard in their entirety.
In a sense virtually every Necks release has demanded this treatment because nearly all have consisted of just one or two long pieces. Vertigo is no different: 43 minutes and 57 seconds of a single multi-layered improvisation that is conceptually quite different from the band’s approach in concert. This particular piece is like a high-contrast photograph, with bright, glistening sounds and dark, gloomy ones cohabiting a foreground behind which labyrinths of tiny subtleties squirm and shift. Periodically the surface is rent by a torrent of percussion that sounds as though someone has stumbled into the studio in the dark. If it requires committed listening to fall under the eerie spell created by Chris Abrahams (keyboards), Tony Buck (drums, percussion) and Lloyd Swanton (bass), chances are that once in its grip you won’t be going anywhere for its duration.
The other three albums are more truly concept-based. Sandy Evan’s Kapture is the score for a dance piece dedicated to Ahmed Kathrada, a South African politician who spent 26 years in prison thanks to his anti-apartheid activism. Evans and choreographer Liz Lea formulated rhythms based around Kathrada’s prison number of 46864, while other pieces were inspired by his writings. As usual Evans’s saxophones are joined by Brett Hirst’s bass, Toby Hall’s drums and Bobby Singh’s tabla, with Sarangan Sriranganathan as guest vocalist on four pieces. The strength of the suite lies in the intersection of music of heart-rending sadness with other parts of almost sprightly sanguinity. Kathrada has written of the importance of his memories in sustaining him, and the soprano saxophone on Explosion of Memory is some of Evans’s finest work (in a dialogue with Hall’s evocative percussion). The album as a whole is Evans’s most convincing amalgam of jazz and Indian classical elements to date, with the beauty of the sinuous bass lines being a highlight.
The impetus for Gary Daley writing Sanctuary was caring for his Alzheimer’s-stricken mother. Thematic links bind together 10 pieces where, as with Kapture, the weight of melancholy is balanced by music of reassurance and even optimism (Daley’s first grandchild being born during his mother’s illness). Idiomatically and texturally it wanders far and wide. The use of a recording of Roscoe Holcomb singing The Wandering Boy, a famed piece of Americana, finds echoes in the deployment of Bruce Reid’s steel guitars, James Daley’s mandolin and Jess Green’s guitars.
Meanwhile Daley’s writing for Veronique Serret’s violin and Ollie Miller’s cello can carry pungent echoes of India, sometimes sustained by Tunji Beier’s percussion, or veer towards classicism in company with Paul Cutlan’s reeds, which can also take flight in jazzier soloing. Meanwhile Brett Hirst’s bass and Daley’s piano and accordion traverse all this territory. With these diverse elements in play from bar to bar the wonder is that Daley has made the work remarkably coherent. I would, however, have preferred it without the spoken-word version of The Wandering Boy in the middle.
The death of the wonderful Melbourne drummer, band-leader and poet Allan Browne in June makes the release of Ithaca Bound all the more poignant. Over the last decade his quintet has specialised in concept albums based around major poetic works. Fittingly the last of these is based on his ultimate favourite, The Odyssey. The music, intended to be programmatic, is composed by the quintet’s members: Geoff Hughes (guitar), Eugene Ball (trumpet), Phil Noy (alto), Nick Haywood (bass) and Browne himself.
Sometimes you may have to squint to see the relationship between sonic events and relevant sections of the poem, although the music as a whole – which falls fully within the jazz idiom – is, like Odysseus’ voyage, certainly full of surprises. A routine highlight is the warmth of Hughes’ guitar playing, not to mention the infectiousness and beautiful touch of Browne’s drumming. Alas, no more.
All these albums beg to be listened to in their entirety. Anything less and you are short-changing yourself as well as the artists.