By Des Cowley
Bennett’s Lane, 4 June
I was surprised to arrive and find a long line of people snaking their way up Bennett’s Lane to the Jazz Lab venue, given that Mark Helias’s trio Open Loose are not exactly a household name. However, it turned out that the crowd was there for Snarky Puppy, the Texas based fusion and funk band led by Michael League. The fact that the band has previously played with the likes of Erykah Badu and Snoop Dog no doubt accounted for their sold out shows.
Instead, we found ourselves ushered into the smaller Bennett’s space, amidst a good size crowd that included many of Australia’s finest jazz musicians: Julien Wilson, Sam Keevers, Ronny Ferrella, David Ades, Marc Hannaford. The fact that so many of the local jazz fraternity had turned out says something about the high regard in which bassist Mark Helias is held. Here is a musician, after all, who has played with the late Don Cherry and Dewey Redman, as well as with Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor, Oliver Lake, Arthur Blythe and others.
Helias formed his Open Loose trio in the late 1990s, and has issued six albums to date. The current line-up includes saxophonist Tony Malaby and drummer Gerald Cleaver, both heavyweights whose respective instruments have graced albums by the likes Charlie Haden, Paul Motion, Bobby Previte, Roscoe Mitchell, Miroslav Vitous and Tomasz Stanko. In other words, here is a trio capable of playing at the top of its game.
The name Open Loose was chosen by Helias to describe the trio’s music: open ended, free-flowing, loose, improvisatory. While anchored to a framework of compositions, the trio’s performance strives for a certain abstraction and spontaneity. It’s like a three-way conversation, with each instrument assuming an equal place. For much of the long first piece, Helias laid down complex bass lines, weaving in and out of Cleaver’s light rhythmic pulse. Malaby, with his large frame, played much of the set with eyes closed, making it look effortless. His big booming sound seemed to float above the music, filling the space. At other times he cut loose, playing deep rumbling bass notes, swinging his body trance-like, working up to a series of ferocious shrieks and howls.
This was only Helias’s second visit to Australia. I was fortunate to catch several performances he delivered with his Open Loose trio at the Wangaratta Jazz Festival in 2000, including one that saw them teamed up with local sax player David Ades. Helias fondly recalled the gig, acknowledging his friend Ades who was in the audience. They recently teamed up again, when Ades headed to New York to record his album A Glorious Uncertainty with Helias, Malaby and Cleaver. Let’s hope we don’t wait another thirteen years to see Helias back in Australia.
This gig had a special feel about it. To witness such consummate musicianship in a small club atmosphere is a memorable treat. In such an intimate space (we were literally three feet from the band), it’s as if a genuine bond develops between performer and audience. At the end of the gig, amidst the rapturous applause, I felt as though we’d all gone on a journey together. Though, in the following days, I’d go on to attend other gigs throughout the festival, none came close to the special feeling of this one.