The Bitter Suite (ABC)
Paul Grabowsky Sextet
Reviewed by John Shand
When I first began writing about jazz Malcolm Fraser was perceived as being right-wing and the divide between Sydney and Melbourne musicians seemed as wide as the Hume Highway is long. In the 1990s that all changed. Fraser offered commentary on the Howard government that could have come from the mouth of Phillip Adams, and Sydney and Melbourne players began numerous collaborations. The desire for such ventures had probably always existed, and now perhaps cheaper airfares played their part, as did Paul Grabowsky’s formation of the Australian Art Orchestra. These days there are any number of exceptional bands with ‘mixed’ membership, led by Stu Hunter, Julien Wilson, Jonathan Zwartz and others. This Grabowsky sextet is a further dazzling example.
Just as the album’s title is both brooding and punning, so the music is in a constant flux of what, were it writing, we would call ‘tone’. Grabowsky can seem to create a pastiche of an idiom out of which a deep truth will grow in the improvising, while a more solemn-sounding piece will spawn sly asides and dramatic jolts from the players, or perhaps contain an unexpectedly curdled harmony. When performing live with this band he seems to take a child’s delight in the monster he has sired, and somehow the playfulness is all the more endearing for coming in the context of sometimes challenging music.
The pianist has assembled Jamie Oehlers (tenor), Andrew Robson (alto and soprano), James Greening (trombone), Cameron Undy (bass) and Simon Barker (drums). All are highly distinctive players, so Grabowsky can provide outlines knowing an abundance of colour shall be added, or he can be very specific, knowing the collective humanity will outweigh the complexity. Among various other associations the line-up contains three duos who are particularly attuned to each other’s work: Grabowsky and Oehlers; Robson and Greening; Undy and Barker
I have heard this band be more explosive than this in concert, but that is not to say it is tame here. All these players are natural risk-takers rather than play-safe-for-the-recording types, and solo after solo comes flaring off the surface of the compositions. Grabowksy’s pieces jumble together influences ranging from Kurt Weill to New Orleans, while nodding to Brahms bowing deeply to Scriabin. The degree to which the nine pieces hang together as a suite might be debated, but I find a certain through-momentum and what we might call a cohesion of improbabilities.
Among the compositions the instantly engaging ‘Paradise’ sounds more like an aural representation of Bosch’s depictions of hell, or perhaps Grabowsky just left ‘Surfers’ off the front of the title. His reinvention of a Scriabin piano prelude for the band, simply titled ‘Scriabin’, superbly catches the odd intertwining of eeriness and beauty. More often the melodies jostle and tumble over lurching rhythms that Grabowsky, Undy and especially Barker keep open-ended and replete with little bombshells.
Improvising highlights include Oehlers’ hair-raising solo on ‘Sisyphus’, which one can easily hear programmatically as beginning with the doomed Corinthian’s mighty boulder tumbling to foot of his mythological hill, followed by the relentless climb back up. Grabowsky braids elegance and sadness on ‘Black Saffron’, Greening splatters his juiciest trombone all over the middle of ‘Toy Town’, and Robson ties aural knots of jauntiness and despair with his alto on ‘Vexatious’. The latter subsequently hosts an extraordinarily spectral duet between Greening and Grabowsky that haunts the mind long after the album has finished.