The Alister Spence TrioLet's hear it for Joanne Kee and her underpaid efforts, in bringing us the remarkable and, I'd argue, important, Places & Spaces programme. What is it? A series of midweek musical oases, Wednesdays at Century Venues' newish baby sis to The Enmore & Metro, The Factory.

The latest in quite a long lineup was The Alcohotlicks, a firebrand trio of precocious, young jazz musos, who've had the audacity to take their training into the realm of 70s psychedelic rock. Wittingly, or unwittingly, adopting a posture of nonchalance, their output is anything but insouciant; their edgy, grungy, irreverent attitude is invested in full-tilt, precarious inpro, requiring they're on & on it, all the time. And on it they are.

Two guitars and drums is an unusual lineup and I'm not sure it would be anywhere near as compelling if the instrumentalists weren't as prodigious as those in this trio. In fact, it's more a triumvirate than a trio, since the collusion and fusion (which could so easily lapse into confusion, yet never does) between the instrumentalists is a meld so self-assured and fluid they achieve an almost breathtaking unity of purpose.

On ya-yas, Ben Haptmann and Aaron Flower; drums, leader, Evan Manell. All uphold the Australian jazz tradition inasmuch as fashion sense, or the lack of it, but, rather more importantly, in terms of expertise, energy, enthusiasm and, in their case, sheer grunt. Hauptmann & Flower are very different players, with very different predilections, techniques and sounds. While Flower takes most of the spotlight and deservedly so, since his playing is nothing short of scintillating, Hauptmann's finesse and taste can't be overestimated. Belying a mild-mannered appearance, Flower clearly relishes his shameless, adventurous forays into, say, the riff-realm of Hendrix and, while they hide the smiles, I'm sure all get off on the odd interpolation of a Zeppelinesque rhythmic motif. In tune with this is Hauptmann's apparent penchant for passages from progressive, or symphonic rock. So for tragics still inevitably and irreconcilably embedded in music from several decades ago, such as your reviewer, references or reminders of ELP, Sebastian Hardie, or Jethro Tull, come as sweet, nostalgic surprises. Even more arresting is the odd lick of thrash country. Or is it punk western? Manell is just the unflinching powerhouse you want behind you, pounding the skins and cymbals, while you run your fingers up and down the fretboard, trying to burn the house down. There's a kind of masculine, if almost balletic choreography to his style, making him as spellbinding to watch as listen to.

But despite a name which seems well-and-truly geared to target the indie scene, the gentler, jazzier side of The Alcohotlicks shouldn't be overlooked, as that training is very much a part of what makes them what they are; whatever that is. The one box I can put this band in without fear, or favour, is exciting; visceral; potent. OK, so that might be three boxes. Regardless of boxes, I suggest bagging a disc and getting your bum on a seat at their next  accessible gig.

The Alcohotlicks were a somewhat incongruous warmup for the sublime, transcendent, melodic meanderings of The Alister Spence Trio. Not quite as young as The Alcos, TAST loses nothing to 'em, in terms of blinding musicianship, and a madly unscientific level of invention. On top, they layer an extra stratum of experience. Toby Hall is a flashy, jazzrock stylist, deviously propelling beautiful compositions to deft conclusions. Lloyd Swanton's bassplaying is liable to dessert spoonfuls of praise, adoration and admiration: you can admire it for its seamless weave; or him, for astonishing flurries of fingers which, notwithstanding what your ears might tell you, never leave the hand.

We are blessed by many fine jazz pianists in this big country. The savant genius of Kevin Hunt never fails to blow your mind. The versatility of classicist Simon Tedeschi makes me seethe with envy. Spence is like neither of these, nor any others I can think of. He has something of the sage-like pianistic knowing of recently reviewed Mike Nock, but has, arguably, an even gentler, tinkling ivory air about him; something ethereal, new age, or even spiritual. Unfortunately, these descriptors risk bringing to mind thin, soulless, throwaway music of the sort which might be on sale at a Lismore community market. But Spence's evocations and journeys are the quintessential antithesis, ever-so-carefully constructed (with plenty of room for the breath of extemporaneity, of course) from an appetite for and awareness of true beauty and that which resonates in parts of us we can't even name. His ability for painting pictures makes it easy to see why he's also acclaimed as a film composer and the visual was made real, on this occasion, too, by the presence of artist Louise Curram. Sidlights such as these can so often be tedious distractions and detractions, but her work was enhancing and affirming.

The AS Trio was, and is, spellbinding. They'll chill you out and softly sand down the rough edges in a way even a double Scotch cannot. Theirs is music for the mind, body and soul.


Places + Spaces presents
The Alister Spence Trio
Supported by The Alcohotlicks

Venue: Factory Theatre | 105 Victoria Road, Enmore, Sydney
Date/Time: 6 Aug 2008, 08:00 PM
Tickets: $25+bf Adult, $15+bf Concession
Bookings: (02) 9550 3666

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