A Ginsburg Session

September 27, 2012 by Lloyd Bradford Syke
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True to cliche, I get (even) sillier as I get older. Having painstakingly taken notes (on the back of a ticket and Woolies docket) in deference to my unreliable memory at The Mark Ginsburg Band’s Sound Lounge gig last Saturday evening, I thoughtlessly discarded them almost immediately afterwards in a bin on Redfern station. In my defence, it was late and I was tired. Regardless, with a little bit of help from Mark, I shall boldly go and venture forth with my opinions and estimations of two sets, as best I recall the detail…writes Lloyd Bradford Syke. 

Mark Ginsburg

Ginsburg is apt to describe his pieces as ‘sketches’, which proves to be a germane descriptor, give their impressionistic nature.

There are a number of distinctive characteristics of the man and his music that set him apart. The first is a gentle, quietly spoken, warm, sincere nature, in person and on stage. It’s palpable and undeniable. It’s abundantly evident he lives, breathes and reveres music and for him, it’s a spiritual, life-giving, life-defining force; a source of good and meaning. His eminence, Mike Nock, has described Ginsburg’s playing as ‘heartfelt’ and it’s an eloquent summation. His compositions are imbued with humility, fragile beauty, inspiration, harmony & passion.

His first, much celebrated, album, Generations, was the font from which much of this evening’s material flowed so freely. It’s a concrete example of another authentically Ginsburg aspiration: to meld traditional, often liturgical, Jewish music with jazz. The two may sound like the odd couple, strange bedfellows indeed, but you’d be surprised how seamlessly Ginsburg and co can weave the two; it’s a magic carpet tide into an exotic, esoteric other. It’s a territory (to the best of my knowledge) not otherwise traversed. Oh sure, the borders might’ve been breached, but there’s been no incursion like this.

The tunes are often elegiac, but just as liable to explode into blistering solos which, somehow, are always relative and integral, never incongruous; proof that placidity and intensity are in no way mutually exclusive.

Arriving a few minutes late, I missed Nostalgia, which opened the first set and refers to annual pilgrimages back to his native Cape Town to visit his elderly mum, but was in time for Big Sea, which recalls a walk by  the waves, breaking on nearby rocks. It’s sensuous dimensions describe the visceral experience of being caught in bitterly cold weather, yet becoming overheated from by a steady gait, while treading a fine line between hugging land and being submersed by a force many times greater than one’s own. It’s almost man versus god. Or G-d. Or whatever you subscribe to. The capricious, reckless moods of the ocean are captured here: from seductive, toe-tickling lapping at the shoreline to the intemperance of a perfect storm, embodied in an unbridled crescendo of tenor.

This is as good a point as any to mention the members of Ginsburg’s band; a lineup he can hardly believe himself. On piano, Greg Coffin; drums, Tim Firth; bass, Karl Dunnicliff. Typically, both Ginsburg and Coffin take extended solos, while the rest of the rhythm section make do with short, sharp breaks.

There’s something in The Pace of Things for all of us. Like Ginsburg, practically everyone’s overcommitted and time-poor. As he puts it, ‘many spinning plates’. Ginsburg pick up his soprano for this, which works  tonally, insofar as underscoring the screaming rush we seem to be propelled by and melodically, by interpolating a Groundhog Day refrain. He’s also opted for a sixteenth-note drum feel, which Firth keeps kicking along. It’s cacophonous and chaotic, just like real life.

Generations, obviously, is the title track from Ginsburg debut album under his own name and, appropriately for this time of year, is based on a solemn, achingly beautiful Yom Kippur prayer (Kol Nidre, or Yom Kippur eve, to be strictly accurate) written by Jacobsen, in Eastern Europe. The piece was integral to Ginsburg’s Masters in Music and has been adapted for the quartet. Again, it features soprano, but introduces and insinuates itself via the warmth of Dunnicliff’s bass. KD, it must be said, has a style all his own and it’s almost as much a pleasure to see him play as hear him. Almost. Plaintive piano phrases seep in, followed by subdued percussion, with Firth using mallets. But it’s Ginsburg’s breathy sax that carries the tune and gives it form, texture and melancholic momentum. Mind you, Dunnicliff’s soloing is superb. This work brought to mind three keywords for this band: subtlety; finesse; nuance. There are moments when the tune has an almost classical sensibility. Sad, serene and sophisticated.

Outside In is a piece also played by Ginsburg’s other band, Fabric. It’s a raunchy, hard swing thing, with tenor surrendering to Coffin’s piano fingers in full flight. Coffin then concedes to Dunnicliff, but each time the improvisational baton is passed, tracking of the central theme remains true. There’s enough freedom for some tangential outings but, like magnetic north on a compass, there’s an essence that’s never lost.

Common Purpose gives drums and bass a respite; it’s soprano and piano only that share the limelight.

Coalessence (Ginsburg’s spelling) is another piece for tenor with liturgical connections. At root, it’s a blues, but based on the phrygian mode, which can certainly be found in jazz, but also in classical (Bach; Respighi), Jewish prayer and elsewhere. It features a blistering, full-tilt intro, with Ginsburg blowing like Vesuvius and a scintillating solo from Coffin to boot.

Folk Lore, given the title, is surprisingly funky. The blues makes its presence felt as well; there are some diverting rhythmic subversions, with ‘rude’ bass tonality imparted with customary mastery by KD. Again, solos from Ginsburg (soprano) and Coffin are well worth the wait, too.

Afa is a bossa by pianist Vittorio Mezza (who Ginsburg I met at a Dave Liebman intensive), is Italian for sultry and is as romantic as you might imagine, but gathers a head of steam, becoming quite unbridled, only to revert to a subdued frame. It’s distinguished by its tenor solo, but also by its marching snare and sensual, tinkling piano.

Finally, another song drawn from liturgy and adapted for quartet. Avinu Malkeinu boasts bewitching tenor and piano solos (the latter extended, but enthralling) and an almost jaw-dropping fusion of New Orleans, gospel and even rock ‘n’ roll flavours. And there’s a drum break that puts you right on Bourbon Street.

The Mark Ginsburg Band is comprised of musicians whose calibre isn’t measured by technique alone, but by a simpatico which still stands as a rare and precious commodity.

Brad Syke ventures his humble (or not so humble) opinion on a range of subjects, not least among them Sydney theatre. He sincerely hopes you’ll take issue with him, at least some of the time…








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