Mark Isaacs Resurgence BandAnother instalment of Joanne Kee's marvellous Places+Spaces programme, at Marrickville's comfortable, warm and welcoming Factory Theatre was Mark Isaacs' Resurgence Band, featuring Isaacs on piano; the scintillating, award-winning James Muller, guitar; Matt Keegan, (soprano, alto and tenor) sax; Brett Hirst, bass; and Tim Firth, drums. No less an authority than All About Jazz, in the US, has said Isaacs 'defines what jazz should sound like in the 21st century'. Similarly, the LA Times has trumpeted his 'splendid musical mind'. Neither of these should be dismissed as typical journalistic hyperbole. As AAJ went on to say, Isaacs is no less the man of the moment than Satchmo was, and no less intrinsic to defining jazz now than Armstrong was in defining the sound of New Orleans. This evening marked a national tour (plus), not least in honour of the release of Tell It Like It Is, by the ABC. Appearances have already been made at the ubiquitous Bennetts Lane Jazz Lab, in Melbourne, the Judith Wright Centre, Brisvegas, not to mention The Juilliard School, New York; with many more to follow.
Paradoxically, Isaacs and co manage to make very complex music utterly accessible, while drawing on blues, soul, gospel & even classical genres. The last isn't totally surprising, as Isaacs like, say, Simon Tedeschi, has managed to distinguish himself in both jazz and classical contexts. In fact, this is Isaacs (piano)forte and, perhaps, mission: to marry what might otherwise be considered divergent styles, as few have done. In broad terms, he brings the portentous, disciplined, formal melodic force, drama and dynamics of the classical and orchestral to the far freer realm of jazz rhythms.
He composes in both worlds, too. At the classical end, this means bringing his own, rather dark, anguished, very European stamp to Ave Maria, for example, should you care to delve into his back catalogue. Composition is, effectively, a more collective, collaborative labour with the Resurgence Band, however. An exemplification of classical motifs can be found in Minsk, a nigh-on 13-minute piece, played with incredible fervour for the occasion. Many, if not all, of Isaacs' tunes start out low and slow, but quickly build to soaring crescendos, which become especially exciting when Isaacs, Muller and Keegan let their heads go: it's as if the instruments themselves take charge.

Minsk has a chordal structure which is sort of half-jazz, half-classical, but where others have taken classical (say, Bach) and substantially reinvented it as jazz, it tends to be a makeover, where the surgery is merely cosmetic and not, perhaps, entirely seamless. Isaacs, on the other hand, incises the flesh of both, transplanting organs and ending-up with one body of music that's monstrously brilliant and with disappearing stitches.

I'm not sure what Isaacs' affinity or association with the Belarusian capital means, or how it has affected this composition (maybe he has Lithuanian roots). It probably doesn't matter: the title serves, at least, to bring a sense of the exotic, mysterious, historical and traditional; flavours from Old Europe, which crop-up in one or two other pieces. In the end, Minsk is an wholistic musical adventure: it travels to lots of places (disembarking at the heart, soothing the mind, touching-down in the soul) and takes its audience along for the ride, which is a profoundly enriching one.
Firth's nuanced approach to percussion proves especially sensitive to the arc of Isaacs' compositions: I sense a special bond there. Hirst, too, is right there, in between piano and drums; not only physically, but musically. There are no gaps or cracks and, to borrow the matrimonial metaphor again, these guys go way past being merely a cohesive outfit, they seem to be made for each other. Much of the time, Keegan floats, effortlessly, over the top, like a beautiful bird, hovering, while imparting the sweetest of songs. At other times, such as when subverting a tantalisingly carnal, gypsyesque melodic line, as in Minsk, he's wringing all the life out of his instrument; every last ounce of vitality. Muller is adept in subtly, inventively, bending the envelope. His guitar can be harmonising with Keegan one moment; pouring out an earthy blues the next, as it becomes Lucille, and he, B.B.

A bit of history might be instructive. The Resurgence Band grew out of Isaacs LA stay, a couple of years ago, which also implicated Muller, as well as American luminaries Vinnie Colaiuta (drums) & Bob Sheppard (sax). That collaboration produced the immediate predecessor to the new album. Resurgence was proof positive of Isaacs' propensity for blurring the lines between classical and jazz (and, for that matter, soul, blues and gospel), to the point where they can no longer be seen, or heard: a key track, Walk A Golden Mile, became 'instrumental track of the year'. This being not a jazz accolade but, rather, one awarded at last year's Australian Classical Music Awards. Around the very same time, the album also attracted an ARIA nomination for 'best jazz album'. The all-Australian Resurgence Band sprung-up around these successes.

By the way, don't picture the sober, genteel, retiring figure portrayed, photographically, on Isaacs website. Put him in a pair of iridescent orange Converse basketball boots and he becomes a stage demon, possessed by a spirit that seems to draw energy from David Helfgott, Jerry Lee Lewis and God-only-knows who else, all at once. His mannerisms are eccentric, entertaining and owe more to a rock 'n' roll persona than jazz, let alone classical. But this is neither here nor there relative to the output, except to say it seems to open a window of concentration and focus which enables a depth of commitment which can be heard, as well as felt. Expect to hear a lot of vocalisation, too, which might channel Ike Hayes, or Shirley Temple. Another incidental segue: if you're old enough to remember ABC-TV's GP, you'll easily recall, I expect, it's jaunty theme. Well, as further testimony to his enigmatic unpredictability, it was penned by MI. His musical bent would seem to be as much nature as nurture, too: speaking of Ikes, Mark's uncle was Ike Isaacs, the British guitarist associated, for many a year, with Stephane Grapelli. Now that's a heritage! It doesn't end there, either. By no means. Only time & space prohibit me form getting too biographical.

MIRB played all the tracks off the new album, and then some, including a couple of hot-off-the-press pieces. (Actually, they're nowhere near reaching the press yet, but you get the drift.) Overall, the latest tracks seem to reflect an urban, nocturnal sensibility, very much the habitat of the jazz (or other) musician. The beauty of the album is that all reading this who weren't there for the launch and who, thereby, missed a memorable, powerful couple of sets, from a prodigious group driven by a charismatic genius, get to hear them live anyway, as it was recorded, recently, live at The Sound Lounge, in subterranean reaches of the sober Seymour Centre.

You Never Forget Love, opening with lyrical licks from Muller, is underpinned by a warm, tender, caressing groove; a sweet evocation of the emotion which most engages us. This piece pans out, too, at 12 minutes, or more, but not a note is wasted or superfluous. Isaacs pianistic trickles are treats and Keegan's opposing, rather more strident, tormented sax a breathy, rasping counterpoint, a setup which mimics loves agony and ecstasy palpably & poignantly. The two then meet and merge, in a coupling more than the sum of its parts. Eloquent!

The trilogy, triptych (call it what you will, it's a work in three movements), that incorporates Night Song 1 & 2, as well as Angel, emerges surreptitiously, as if from shadows on stage, as gently as a lullaby. Night Song 2 throws a lot of focus onto Isaacs, solo, and, again, is a striking example of Isaacs' classical-jazz duplicity.

The album's title track is the unapologetically lusty blues alluded to earlier, sharpended with a sophisticated saxophonic riff that lifts it into a class of its own. The interplay between Muller and Isaacs was particularly arresting; a visceral, edge-of-the-seat impro spontaneity peppered with knowing glances, subtle cues and slightly dangerous liaisons. Meanwhile, Keegan is taking off, while Hirst & Firth steady things, back down on planet Earth. This piece swaggers into the room, strutting its erotic stuff to an almost burlesque extent. Going-on 20 minutes of full-on, head-first, blow-your-mind, industrial-strength, rootsy earthmoving equipment, with the merest sheen, a quick buff, of jazz polish. Yeah, baby!

Between The Shores was, and is, inspired by a few lines from T S Elliott, an ode to insecurity; the familiar feeling of being all at sea, a boat without oars on a dark ocean, but braving the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune nonetheless. Of course, TSE puts it rather better than I, but no better, surely, than Isaacs, who has a breathtaking aptitude for making feeling and experience audible.

Isaacs is a composer and musician utterly unencumbered by boundaries, taking a box-cutter to those who'd file him under anything in particular: he's apt to cite influences as diverse as Vaughan Williams and Earth, Wind & Fire. He lives and breathes Bernstein's ethos, which I'm prone to quote: there are only two kinds of music (good & bad). But there's a third. Bloody-well brilliant!

LATE FINAL EXTRA! News just to hand confirms the Juilliard gig mentioned above wasn't part of the current tour. rather, it was a discrete engagement. Still impressive but! 

Venue: Factory Theatre, 105 Victoria Rd, Marrickville
Date/Time: Wed 20 May 8pm (door open 7pm)
Tickets: Pre-booked tickets $18 Adult, $12 conc for students, pensioners. Tickets at the door $20/ $15
Bookings: 9550 3666 |

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