★★★★½ Drummer James McLean wins the annual award for jazz musicians.

The Studio, Sydney Opera House
August 1, 2016

Once more the Freedman Jazz Fellowship final night, and once more an event to remember for the standard of performances and of course the splendour of its situation. The Opera House Studio is undoubtedly one of the outstanding acoustic spaces in Australia and one in which it is possible to slip out at interval and absorb a nightscape that perfectly complements the sonic unfoldings within.

As it happens all three finalists led trios and this led to intriguing comparisons rather than uniformity. One group was a piano trio in the jazz sense – led by contestant Joseph O’Connor with Marty Holoubeck, bass, and James McLean, drums. One other was led by drummer James McLean and included guitarist Alistair McLean and bassist Christopher Hale, while pianist Luke Sweeting’s trio incorporated a drummer, James Waples, but no bassist – trumpeter Reuben Lewis supplying a second melodic voice, and an intriguing one.

All groups worked with large silences and sonorities, amongst other elements. Opening contestant Joseph O’Connor included an unaccompanied piece called Madrigal that was perhaps symbolic of the classical influence that appeared in all groups (and was counterpoised against an African influence that was particularly strong in the second trio of the night), and with complex and sometimes delicate textures (sometimes also brittle and explosive interactions). This listener was a tired man, for various reasons, yet the music enlivened him even as it led to meditative absorption, speculation and contemplation. O’Connor, like pianist Sweeting who would soon appear, displayed beautiful poise, time and pellucid sound.

Madrigal? This is a musical form that I used to think, perhaps unfairly, stood for things twee and awfully English. In fact it originated, as I recall, in Italy and was used for the expression, by two or more unaccompanied voices, of things secular, romantic, sensual and charming. The form has also been used for purposes of worship. O’Connor made beautiful use of measured time and melodic intervals, but in O’Connor’s hands the form also exploited verticality, brilliant fleet runs and melodic rural evocations. 

The accompanied pieces – with drummer McLean and bassist Marty Holoubeck – incorporated darker atmospherics and more aggressive dynamics at times. Still, the use of sound-filled and silent space maintained the listener’s awareness of the surrounding world. Drummer McLean sometimes supplied series of sudden curt, brief bangs, and rolls using wire brushes. These strokes were remarkable for their thickness of dense overtones in combination with their sudden cessation. I have heard many sounds spring from a drum kit, but rarely such wide, grainy ones.

Equally surprising was the appearance of the same McLean as the contestant and leader in the second group – with Hale and the guitar-playing McLean as mentioned. With a drummer leader, and contestant, the African influences were not so surprising. These stretched across the region from Senegal to Egypt.

There was a time, for those of us old enough to remember it, when African instrumental music was heard as a bombardment of drums – with some shouting as well, not to be listened to for very long. Ah, but now we hear all those cross-rhythms readily. When McLean and his young men really cut loose, the tumble of drums and the holocaust of electric guitar and bass were received in the same spirit as a Stones-era rock band.

Here in fact was the winner. James McLean is now richer by $20,000 and has free studio time at the ABC.

I doubt that many would have quarrelled if any one of these aspirants had won, but let us not forget the final contestant, pianist Sweeting. I first heard him leading his remarkable Grey Wing Trio which also had a thoroughly distinguished trumpeter in Ken Allars. Reuben Lewis is likewise a very different trumpeter, sometimes playing soft passages that were a scarcely identifiable part of the band’s texture. Squeezed and oddly burbling lip manipulations, sounding strangely fleshy, were punctuated by the mechanics of the valves being operated, and sometimes left far below as a pure trumpet tone rose in unforced but soaring and somewhat operatic arcs. And also, I had forgotten, pierced by the metallic sound of the Harmon mute.

Drummer James Waples, who plays brilliantly across the various styles of jazz and related music, sometimes supplied pressing thunder and complexity while holding everything together.

While the judges deliberated backstage we were diverted by an exhilarating set from 2003 Freedman Fellow, alto saxophonist Andrew Robson.

The Freedmans began two years before that and I have spoken to many successful aspirants who have much benefitted, career-wise and artistically, from this marvellous institution whose finals we look forward to each year.