Phil Slater’s Sun Songbook

Phil Slater@Karen Steains-2167
Phil Slater. Photo by Karen Steains.

Venue 505, February 16, 2013

Balancing reverence and audacity is the trick to reinterpreting or borrowing from another’s music. Too many cross-cultural projects, for instance, lack due reverence, as ancient traditions are mangled with never a backwards glance. In turning Peter Sculthorpe’s compositions into improvising vehicles Phil Slater and his co-musical director, Matt McMahon, have struck that balance.

 They studied with Sculthorpe in their youth, and just as Sculthorpe sought more immediate influences to escape the thrall of European composing, so Slater, McMahon and their colleagues – notably drummer Simon Barker – have looked to shrug aside the thrall of American jazz. In the Sun Songbook they happily bend, dismember and re-imagine Sculthorpe’s work to suit their own creative ends, doing it with the composer’s blessing and active encouragement.

Carl Dewhurst@Karen Steains-1366
Carl Dewhurst. Photo by Karen Steains.

 They presented two hours of Sculthorpe-derived music, sometimes just borrowing a motif and sometimes recreating slabs of a composition. One element of a piece might be repeated and expanded into a lengthy improvisation so that the main relationship to the original might just be mood. Always the textures were new, with Slater’s trumpet, McMahon’s piano and Barker’s drums joined by Carl Dewhurst’s guitar and Brett Hirst’s bass.

Earth Cry rode on insistent bass, over which the drums surged and jostled like a river in flood, and the guitar’s squeals seemed like cries for help. In one extraordinary phase the trumpet/piano harmonies strobed between convergence and clashing dissonance. This suddenly convulsed into the relative silence of sparse piano and drums that slowly built into a dramatic Barker solo, before an extravagant, rock-based finale.

 Djilile, by contrast, was a delicate trumpet/piano duet, with Slater’s notes clouding like breath on a frosty morning. Irkanda IV was another forged around Hirst’s earth-moving bass, upon which Barker hatched multiple cross-currents to set up a thrilling dialogue with the trumpet.

 The one blight was the piano being submerged in the ensembles, but the major arts festivals should be championing this uniquely Australian cross-fertilisation.