Melbourne Jazz Festival 2013
Maria Schneider / James Darcy Argue with the Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra
Recital Centre, 6 June
Reviewed by Des Cowley.
Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra, a Sydney based big band led by saxophonist David Theak, marks its 10th anniversary this year, no mean feat given what must be the financial and administrative complexities of keeping twenty or so of Australia’s finest improvisers on the road. The band boasts an abundance of talent, including, for this gig, Sean Wayland, Richard Maegraith, Roger Mannins, Anthony Fiddes, and Ben Hauptmann, all of whom have recorded under their own names.
As part of their celebration, the Orchestra embarked on a ten-date tour, with Canadian wunderkind James Darcy Argue, taking in Australia and New Zealand. The tour culminated with this Recital gig that also paired the Orchestra with leading American composer and arranger Maria Schneider.
James Darcy Argue represents a new generation of jazz composers who are taking the form forward into the 21st century. He assembled his 18 piece steampunk big band Secret Society in 2005, releasing his debut album Infernal Machines in 2005. His talents were recognised when he won three rising star categories in the 2010 Down Beat International Jazz Critics poll.
Argue and the Mothership Orchestra performed several extracts from his latest album Brooklyn Babylon, an extended suite of music conceived in collaboration with graphic novelist Danijel Zezelj. The music was wide-ranging, trawling the melting pot that is Brooklyn, taking in influences as diverse as Kurt Weill, Monk, and Steve Reich. Argue then finished his short set with his composition ‘Obsidian Flow’, a powerhouse piece featuring an extended solo by Mothership leader David Theak. With music like this, Argue is almost single-handedly making big bands hip again.
At the end of his set, Argue announced how excited he was to be sharing the stage with Maria Schneider, who has been such an influence on his own work as a composer. He referred to her first album Evanescence as the Velvet Underground of big band music: everyone who heard it went off and started a big band. Her current stature is demonstrated by the fact that she has consecutively won both ‘Best Composer’ and ‘Best Arranger’ categories in the Down Beat Critics poll over the past three years.
Schneider’s compositions and arrangements, coming as they did after the dissonance of Argue’s, sounded surprisingly tame, though they were exquisitely played by the Mothership Orchestra. This feat seemed all the more impressive when Schneider informed us they’d only gotten together the previous day to rehearse. She performed two sections from her Brazilian inspired suite ‘Three Romances’, which originally appeared on her 2004 Grammy Award winning album Concert in the Garden.
Schneider originally honed her craft working with the great Gil Evans, best known for his work with Miles Davis on albums like Sketches of Spain and Miles Ahead. She worked as his assistant from 1985 until his death, and his influence on her compositional work is palpable. Like Evans, her compositions for large ensembles strive for colour and texture, over the traditional swing of the Ellington or Basie bands. Her compositions are like miniature stories that capture experiences and emotional states.
The highlight of Schneider’s performance came with the extended composition ‘Hang Gliding’, inspired by her first hang gliding experience in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. Evoking the joyous feeling of being taken up in wind currents and soaring over the ocean, her composition comprised dense layers of competing sound, and featured a number of inspired solos from members of the Mothership Orchestra.
Composers like Schneider and Argue have been at the forefront of making big band music exciting once more. They are equally at home incorporating diverse musical influences from jazz, contemporary classical, and the avant-garde. Rather than looking to the music of traditional big bands for their inspiration, Schneider and Argue take their cue from a number of lesser known, conceptual composers: Gil Evans, Bob Brookmeyer, Don Ellis, and George Russell. In Argue’s case, we could perhaps add Tortoise and Radiohead.
At the end of the concert, both Schneider and Argue drew attention to the magnificent performance of the Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra, who themselves looked somewhat dazed and incredulous to have just given their all playing the music of these two critically acclaimed contemporary composers and arrangers. It seemed the perfect way to crown ten years together.