Mace Francis Orchestra

Mace Francis OrchestraThe characterful and exceptionally well-travelled trombonist (she's only just back from Africa, Europe and America), Alex Silver, is the leader of Snafu (no relation to the early '70s Britprogrock band), which also comprises Aaron Flower, guitar, Karl Dunnicliff, bass and Dave Goodman, drums. This is a helluva band to showcase a whole bunch of pent-up, new compositions, as she, or they, did, last Tuesday evening at the now legit 505.

Not only is 505 fully legit, after five very solid years as an underground jazz venue, it has a full bar and snazzy-sounding menu (I've taken the liberty of reviving the daggy word snazzy, in search of a hip-to-be-square new cool).

I'll assume you are au fait with SNAFU, the acronym and simply reflect the name couldn't be more ironic. It's hard to locate Snafu in the musical spectrum; the nearest I can pinpoint is fusion, as in jazz-rock crossover.

I can hear a lot of James Greening in Silver's playing, so I was gratified my impression is supported by the fact she's studied with him, as well as a veritable who's who of other luminaries. She's played with the Morrison brothers, Don Burrows, Dale Barlow & Jackie Orszaczky. And she writes and blows like she's been doing it for decades. She hasn't. She acquired her AMEB Grade 7 only a decade ago; yet blew 'bone at the Sydney Olympics only two years later.

Yes, she's another precociously young prodigy. I'm not (yet) familiar with the new work; suffice to say, there's some chilled ballads, as well as some material that, live, at least, really cooks, with a lot of the heat coming from Flower, colour, from Silver and punch, from Goodman. It's early days, for Snafu, but if this was the shape of things to come, it looks and sounds like a legend in the making.

Officially, I was there to see the MFO, the Mace Francis Orchestra, which is well on its way, with a national tour to celebrates it's fifth anniversary. 'The Neverever Tour' boasts ten major dates across the country and consolidates a busy year that's seen the band become a finalist in the MCA Freedman Fellowship, held at the Sydney Opera House, and play New York dates with the likes of composer & drummer John Hollenbeck, as well as vocalist Theo Bleckmann; its leader co-found a publishing and recording label (Listen | Hear Collective), as well as mentor an emerging composer. And that's by no means the end of it. He seems to set a more breathless pace and hectic schedule than the erstwhile PM.

Led by the diminutive, irrepressible composer, arranger & conductor Mace Francis, who sounds a little like a cartoon character but is unreal in a whole other sense, it's a 14-piece big band ('though jazz orchestra is probably a more apt and accurate term, since MFO's game isn't to play straight-ahead band music in the sense you expect), featuring numerous of Perth's most talented instrumentalists. Mace isn't the only composer in the outfit either. As The Weekend Australian's John McBeath has observed, acutely and evocatively, "these layered compositions and scorings convey colour, atmosphere and movement far more effectively and with greater interest than the stock-standard arrangements often heard from big bands". Mind you, I reckon they swing as hard as anything you'll hear from Basie, Ellington, Miller, the Dorseys. An older track featured during the evening exemplifies this: The Preacher Is Broken. But it hints at other things, too: ostensibly, a desire to bend the music a little out of shape; to interpolate other moods and genres (not least a cinematic and televisual sensibility). There are haunting moments in this piece, foreshadowed in the intro; to say nothing of solos that really blast off. But there's plenty of brand new material, enscapsulated on their album, 'Nevever; Well, Maybe Someday'.

A drumroll, please, for the (almost) title track, 'Well, Maybe Someday'. That's how it starts, before evolving into something dramatic and, at once, mellow and menacing; almost symphonic in character. In fact, strange as it may seem, it's opening feel puts me in mind of Tchaikowsky. Go figure. Speaking of figures, this segues into a very free, bebop-style sax solo and herein lies the magic of Mace: he and his can move deceptively from one feel, mood, colour, texture, or style, to another, almost utterly divergent. There are probably lesser things that qualify comfortably as sheer, unadulterated genius.

Jelly Belly is a big, bold, brassy number that you'd almost swear must be the theme of a '60s or '70s cop drama: a Hollywood Bluey, for instance (given its lumbering feel); it's a deft exploration and exploitation of the power, vigour, vitality and versatility of the big band format, with a beefy brass figure as the backbone and a break-free-and-let-fly guitar solo. Brilliant composition. And, if it's possible, an even better orchestration.

I'm gratified by the fact, the new disc was recorded entirely at the Seymour Centre's Sound Lounge, in July, 2008. Gratified, 'cause I was there. And blown away. Trim, taut and terrific was the impression I had then. With the maestro, Mace, cleverly, ever-so-slightly and bravely subverting the role of the big band, in both his writing and arranging; giving it permission to boldly go into uncharted (no pun intended) territory.

I mentioned drumrolls: one of the undersung parts of this band (well, on the night, as he didn't get a guernsey as a soloist) is Greg Brenton, who never wavers in having just the right feel, or fill, at just the right moment; remembering that 'big band' drumming is an art and discipline unto itself. Three cheers, also, for that other indispensible component of the rhythm section, all the moreso in this context: the bass of Wayne Slater. Guitarist Tim Jago had at least one blistering solo; one which I'm sure would've even pricked-up the ears of Aaron Flower.

To list the other standouts, on the evening in question is, virtually, to cite the whole lineup, such is the depth and breadth of talents in the ensemble. Nevertheless, even my ailing and failing memory banks seem to recall disbelief (in the best possible sense) at soloing from the likes of Ben Collins & Dan Thorne on saxes; Callum G'Froerer & Ben Baker on trumpets; Tilman Robinson, 'bone.

The MFO stands loud and proud as a jazz force to be reckoned with. Compositionally, orchestrally, live and recorded, they manage to get down a whole new sound. I remember being indelibly impressed, at an impressionable age, by the liner notes on an old Glen Miller LP in my parents' collection, which cited the overarching significance of a band having its own distinctive sound. It's not just about marketing. It's about music. Of course, having your own sound means stepping over boundaries. Sometimes, even on toes. Taking risks. Wearing the consequences. The consequences of MFO's overstepping are winning. At fifty-one, I must still be of an impressionable age. I'm damn impressed with the MFO.

Mace Francis Orchestra
with Snafu

Venue: 505 venue, 280 Cleveland St Surry Hills
Date/Time: Tuesday 6 July @ 8.30pm
Tickets: $10/8

Most read Sydney reviews

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is beautiful. The music will bubble in your blood and the...

No End of Blame | Sport for Jove

Putting the ink into think, Howard Barker’s No End of Blame is as powerful and poignant, perhaps...

Do Not Go Gentle | Drill Hall Theatre & Everyman Theatre Company

There are few topics more challenging than death, and the inevitable journey toward this state...

Amadeus Live | Sydney Symphony Orchestra

Amadeus Live is an engaging performance, which perfectly combines history, entertainment, and...

Miracle City | The Theatre Division

This is an excellent production of a show which is likely to entertain, but may not quite have...

Sign up for our newsletter

* indicates required