Cool in Shul

August 23, 2012 by Lloyd Bradford Syke
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Mark Ginsburg is a helluva guy. You mightn’t think that would enter into his music, but it does. The firmness of his handshake, or hug, and sincerity of his gentle smile is indicative of the heart and soul he brings to his music….writes Lloyd Bradford Syke.

Mark Ginsburg

His (I say his, but it’s theirs, because if ever there was a band in which equality, democracy and mutual respect prevailed, I reckon it’s this one, in which each member plays a valuable part) new sextet, Fabric, is expressive of his generosity, inasmuch as its premise is to collaboratively weave strands of musical expertise and experience, to create a rich, warm and colourful tapestry of sound. At the same time, it’s a collision of two cultures: half the band members originate from South Africa, the rest from down under. Well, not so much collision as complementation. Interestingly too, there’s an age gap of thirty years between youngest and oldest. Not that it’s of any material consequence, as they’re all exceptionally cool cats.

MG fronts on saxophones; Hylton Mowday, on bass clarinet (yes, unusual); James Kennedy on ‘bone; Ryan Grogan, piano; Brendan Clark, Jr., upright bass; Dave Goodman, drums.

Ginsburg, one of the South Africans in the band, was already well-reputed as one of Cape Town’s hottest jazz players more than thirty years ago. Waylaid by an illustrious career in IT and a move to Australia, he’s (happily for us, too) returned to his true love and it’s palpable. Mowday also hails from S. Africa and continues to write extensively and inventively for television. Jazz is a family affair: Bob (Hylton’s dad and Shannon Mowday (sister) are also saxophonists. When he’s not playing slide trombone, Kennedy is an ABC radio broadcaster and producer. Grogan shares Mowday’s penchant for the short, sharp challenges of commercial composition, whether for animation, advertising or games. By dint of the other well-known Brendan Clark, with whom he shares a name and favoured instrument, Clark is both blessed and cursed, I suppose. It’s an attention-getting introduction to invoke his namesake, but he doesn’t need it, already being a very distinguished player in his own right (‘though thirty years Ginsburg’s junior). Goodman is ‘The Doctor’. He has a doctorate in music and to say he’s one of the leading drummers in the country only risks understatement.

VJ’s, where Fabric was playing, is a comfortable venue on Sydney’s lower north shore, which joins a growing band of ‘occasional’, or pop-up venues, which surface once a month or so. Both lighting and sound are of high quality. The first set got underway with Grogan’s Star Child, inspired by a short story by Oscar Wilde, about two impoverished woodcutters making their way through a great pine forest. As that would imply, it has a mysterious, narrative quality about it and a feeling of momentum; insistent forward motion. Piano, drums and bass see to that, while Mowday’s bass clarinet, in particular, adds a magical, haunting, fairytale quality (there’s even a moment when it sounds like all the world like a didgeridoo). Probably because of the indelibility of Prokoviev, the clarinet often proves reminiscent of storytelling.

The piece opens quite delicately; you might even say, apprehensively, as if in awed, wide-eyed contemplation of entering the towering, dark, cool, somewhat forbidding forest, but soon gathers up its skirts for an almost mischievous, devil may care romp, signified by sax clarinet and ‘bone joining and holding hands, as it were. There are robust convergences between the wind instruments, as they dart in front of each other, by turns, before the clarinet sets off on its own again, introducing a classical-klezmerical textural crossover, with runs up and down its range. Ginsburg’s sax brings a wonderfully warm tone, too; one which reminds us that although it’s an instrument made of brass, it’s classified as a woodwind. The arrangement is superb.

Wilde may’ve been the inspiration and, while there’s a certain childlike sensibility about it, it might be seen, more roundly, as universally metaphorical for the human experience: after all, each and every one of us has a long, or not so long journey through the unknown, which brings, by turns, fear, confidence, exuberance, anxiety and much else. Star Child seems to succeed, with its variance of tempo and dynamics, in communicating all of this, through feeling.

Don’t Explain, which followed, is another Grogan composition (if I recall correctly); so-named, I gather, as he isn’t inclined to justify or explicate its meaning or significance. It struck me as having a more languid opening and generally conforming to a more inscrutable, open-ended leaning than its predecessor. In any case, it featured three solos, from Ginsburg, Grogan and Clark and was, thus, as much an exposition of the instrumental prowess of  individual personnel as anything else.

Hymn To Country is also a Grogan invention, which he describes as ‘a slight ode to country music, with African flavours’; or something like that. The hybrid musical heritage of the piece is probably best understood by its author, who has focussed in on a landmark, apartheid-era trial. At the time, it was possible to prosecute someone who was merely alleged to have incited an act as if they’d committed it and, of course, you son’t have to be Einstein to realise which skin colour this most affected. You can ‘read all about it’ in Mitzi Goldman’s documentary, A Common Purpose, for which this music was chosen. The song is characterised by its rather subdued bass, its ruminative, almost resigned mood and breathtakingly finessed finger-control from Goodman, ever the masterful technician; never for its own sake, I stress, but for precise percussive effect.

Ghost Breath is a Ginsburg composition and harks back to a visit to the South African town of Heilbron. In any event, the title refers to fairy floss. That’s right. In Afrikaans, fairy floss is known as spook asem, which translates, literally, as ghost’s breath. Afrikaans, as spoken, may not sound especially poetic but, as written, apparently is. Ironically, perhaps, the tune features up-tempo horns, a bluesy bout of ‘bone and an assertive sax break which sounded much more substantial than the ephemeral nature of spun sugar might suggest: more like a spirited poltergeist than mere ghost’s breath. Goodman’s snare sounded very crisp; the piece was punctuated with ‘bone blasts and, all-in-all, the tune had a stealthy, sneaking, creeping, sassy, knowing, playful, Pink Pantherine vibe.

Two Angels is another Grogan, inspired by his daughters, who may or may not live up to that high bar. It’s certainly heartfelt, opening with rasping sax and subdued trombone, followed by a clarinet solo. Goodman tinkers and tinkles away; the bass is soft and sensual; piano chordal, before taking its sentimental turn. It’s a fine musical expression of father’s love; a love manifest from the first bars. It put me in mind, structurally, of a Bacharach song which, for mine, is no bad thing. Mowday gets a second, longer solo, which mines the emotive depths of the instrument and the composition, which has something of a Celtic lilt. In short, if the little miss Grogans are half as lovely as their dad’s homage, they really must be angels. If you want to talk about hymnal things, this fits the type. And, is it just me, or is the opening section of Star Child something of a kissing cousin, melodically?

Shift came next. I noted a ‘bone solo intro and that this was a piece that swung and swaggered in that quintessentially New Orleans manner. I felt like I was striding up Rue Bourbon. Also featured is a sweet soprano solo (which later interweaves with clarinet and ‘bone, sounding collectively like three charmed snakes rising from their baskets, in a horns-only break), funky bass and resonant rim shots signposting a session in which Goodman is really cooking in the kitchen. The piece builds to the point where steam is veritably billowing out of the band, like a locomotive. And that’s just the first set, trendsetters.

The second gets underway with The Shape Of Things, one of Fabric’s more challenging pieces. Challenging in the sense it’s, perhaps, not quite as accessible as some others; it demands more intensive listenership, but this is more than commensurately rewarded. A plaintive, lonely piano is joined by a tapped cymbal, low bass, clarinet, snare and sax. Notes are bent; a disturbing, seething, calm before the storm mood prevails. It’s the musically embodied feeling of perplexity and agitation. Though there’s profound sadness and resignation present. too. (Yes, I know: such impressions are absolutely subjective. It could equally be the theme for a cinematic or televisionary murder mystery.) And, let’s face it, few things in life conform to the shape we might prefer; many are distorted into a form we barely recognise, and this tune navigates through that experience. Grogan’s playing reflects profound sensitivity, of the Matt McMahon order. Ginsburg’s tonal calibration, on tenor, is little short of a textural triumph and the quality of his vibrato is another hallmark of his sophisticated style, which explodes into a throbbing, apoplectic improvisation. Kennedy also impresses with his modulation and there’s a brief moment when Mowday’s backgrounded clarinet even seems to mimic an electric guitar. Bass, drums (Goodman’s snare becomes a machine-gun) and piano are the skeleton of the piece ; ‘bone, clarinet and sax the flesh. The individuality of all the players is clearly apparent.

Blanco is another Grogan, with Brazilian inspirations. It’s a driven piece: Goodman is good for a thunderous, primal intro. Underpinned by an insistent piano-bass riff, it affords plenty of space for bass clarinet and piano solos, is notable for innovative horn arrangements and, for mine, possesses a certain Gershwinian characteristic.

Kennedy might be a stellar musician, but he’s no diplomat. In fact, he’s an Indian-giver. If I’ve got the nomenclatural history straight, Eddie was, at some point, just called Ballad, but more cogently, was formerly known as Veronica, after Kennedy’s wife. Eddie, however, who’s now been endowed the tune, is Kennedy’s dog. Ouch! Anyway, it’s a track that features same and fair enough: he wrote it. It was the only time I recall seeing Goodman pick up the brushes: his technique is so fine he can do most everything with sticks. While Clark’s bass draws attention, it’s really a conversation ‘tween clarinet and ‘bone; one, I suggest, that justifies eavesdropping.

Finally, Outside In is a Gins comp, a record of the feeling he got listening to McCoy Tyner play at Blue Note, in Tokyo, in 2003. Everyone gets a chance to really stretch out. Grogan reminds us that a piano has eighty-eight keys and Goodman’s solo is full-tilt.

Fabric is a combo of, apparently, simpatico soulmates. A marriage of musical minds. That they’re backgrounds and ages range so widely is of no consequence. These men were not only born to make music, but to make it together.

VJ’s is part of the North Shore Temple Emanuel complex.

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