Jazz, to the layman at least, isn’t known for its compositional style. In the dictionary definition sense, jazz is considered purely an improvisational form of art; through musical interplay, the musicians form a collective consciousness which allows their individual performances to take on a much grander form, greater than the sum of its parts. Yet this is not to undermine the role of the composer, whose role in a jazz band is to direct and tap into the explosive potential of his performers, a trend most famously associated with Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus.

So it was with great pleasure that on a Saturday night your faithful correspondents attended the reliable-as-always 505, my hopeful expectations being more than met by the force of the Paul Grabowsky sextet; consisting of Grabowsky on piano, along with stalwarts James Greening (trombone), Andrew Robson (alto & soprano), Jamie Oehlers (tenor), Cameron Undy (bass) and Simon Barker (drums). Apparently the band formed twenty years ago, with Grabowsky establishing himself as a renowned and influential composer. While I am sadly unable to verify such claims, as the band began to play I found no trouble in believing them.

The show, Grabowsky’s second over the weekend, centred around his “Bitter Suite”, largely full of original compositions. The music itself was eclectic to the extent that Grabowski made it a point to introduce the music and the meaning behind it in an attempt to contextualise it all (and with titles like Waiting on a Fiend, Toy Town (extra eight bar) and Long Distance Enigma it was certainly warranted). The opening Twisty, a southern boogie-funk hybrid reminiscent of Sweet Home Alabama, quickly established the dominance of Grabowsky’s piano in the directing the music, something he would continue throughout the evening. Piece after piece, Grabowsky’s suite twisted and turned in all manner of contrasts, even at one point visiting Brahms 1st Symphony in a reggae song (albeit not the strongest moment of the night).

It was clear however that Grabowsky’s classical sensibilities highly informed his compositions and soloing style. He glided across the keyboard, eager to make use of the entire 88 note range, always with an attentive rhythm section to reign in his excursions.. This trend was most evident in his Black Saffron, a haunting, conflicted tune about falling out of love. The tentative piano intro was soon overwhelmed by the expressive horns, thrashing about like a conflicted heart, knowing the end but so desperate to avoid it. Special mention must go to Simon Barker, whose Korean drumming technique was evident in his incredible rapid fire sticking.

Unfortunately where the first set thrived, the second set floundered, as the pieces began to wash into one another, despite the vast display of talent on stage. Thankfully, Grabowsky’s compositions saved the audience from the inevitable tedium that comes with straight ahead head-solo-solo-solo-head jazz, and where they faltered it was only due to their length, and, it must be said, the late hour of performance. But ultimately, the band was jumping, the tunes were evocative, the beers were cold and the environment pleasant. What else could you want?

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