Galapagos DuckLeft – Willie Qua

Even after all these years, 'the Duck' hasn't been deboned. Galapagos Duck, that is. One of the synonyms for Australian jazz, even (or especially) for people who know nothing about jazz. Their reputation doesn't only precede them, it transcends their favoured genre. The Duck is like a veritable corporation, when one considers the multitude of members its had over the years. Len Barnard. Roger Frampton. The Qua brothers. Col Nolan. Ray Aldridge. Warren Daly. The list goes on, like a shopping list for Australia's creme de la creme of jazzers.

Near-original member, Willie Qua, who harks back to 1973, related a cynical, but all-too-true joke about 'what's the difference between a rock and jazz muso?' Pause for thought and comic effect. 'A jazz muso plays a hundred chords to three people and a rock muso plays three chords to a hundred people.' But not this night. The Hunters Hill Club, a rather exclusive but none-too-pompous tennis and bowling institution tucked invisibly away behind the council chambers, was packed to the gunwales. I'm not sure how many booked for the Duck (fittingly, duck was on the menu), but they were there for the Duck by the end of the night and clamouring for more. This, because they've lost none of their vigour, enthusiasm, dexterity, versatility, skill or raw brio. In fact, they're probably playing better than ever; which, after forty-three years, is saying something.

The band formed, opportunistically, in 1969, for a ski season residency at the Kosciusko chalet, Charlotte's Pass, after which it settled in to The Rocks Push. Marty Mooney and Tom Hare were on reeds; Chris Qua, bass and trumpet; Des Windsor, piano and organ. When Bruce Viles, owner of The Rocks Push, started The Basement four years later, the Duck waddled across the road and became the house band. By that stage, Doug Robson had taken over Windsor's piano stool and Willie had augmented the reeds, as well as adding drums.

In the intervening years, the band has made a name for itself internationally, playing Montreux, the Singapore International Jazz Festival and many more. There have been numerous albums released too, starting with Ebony Quill, in 1974, and ending (thus far) with Out Of The Blue, in 2006.

A history of the Duck is a history of Sydney and, for that matter, Australian jazz. Along with trailblazers like the late Graeme Bell, Don Burrows, George Golla and the Morrison brothers, Galapagos Duck put Australian jazz on the map. They've won national and international awards. Played in the birthplace of jazz and influenced generations of young musicians through live performances, volumes of original compositions and television appearances.

Our fine-feathered friends began with Revelation, written by famed Yellowjackets' keyboardist, Russ Ferrrante. Essentally, a gospel-blues-jazz-rock fusion; something the Duck's been adept at since certain members (electric bassist and guitarist, John Conley and reedman, Willie Qua) played in a rock band at the Woolwich Pier Hotel on a Thursday evening and jazz combo on a Sunday arvo. But who else is in the band now? Needless to say, the band's lineup has changed in forty-plus years. Drummer John Morrison (eldest of the now legendary Morrison clan), Richard Booth (sax, clarinet, flute and , of all things, steel drum) and Wil Sargisson (keys) have entered the fray. It seems to have endowed the band with a new impetus and reinvigorated mission to tour, both here and overseas.

The Yellowjackets tune seemed very apt, since, like the Duck, the Yellowjackets seem to have been around since time immemorial; though not quite as long as the Duck, having only racked-up a mere thirty years. Revelation swings hard, is irresistibly upbeat and positive and made for a bright reintroduction, with Sargisson just warming up for the showcase that was to come, the twin-turbo saxes of Qua and Booth delineating the melody line, some funky bass from Conley and Morrison's Buddha-like frame bobbing and bopping out the beats. An auspicious start. 

Paquito D'Rivera's Chucho turned whitebread Hunter's Hill into a Cuban nightclub, giving Booth a chance to play steeldrum. Chucho, too, has almost as much history as the Duck, being one of the first tunes composed by D'Rivera after his defection from his homeland to New York. It appears on the reed player's very first American album, from 1981 (Blowin'). It shows off the Duck's affinity for bebop, with a distinctly Latin flavour. 

Then, something which pointed to the Duck's catholic tastes and eclecticism: Time After Time, by Cindy Lauper. In seconds, one is reminded of just how great a song, regardless of genre, this is; while That's A Plenty took us back to the very roots; not only of the Duck, but jazz itself. A frenetic Dixieland rag that emerged at the outbreak of the first world war, written by Lew Pollack, it has since enjoyed various permutations to end up, firmly, as a jazz standard. And you've got to love its tricky, trippy syncopation. Django's Douce Ambience followed, with it's lovely clarinet solo, redolent of Gypsy and Jewish music.

The Bridge is an original, by John Conley, inspired by time done at the Rozelle pub of that name, which was followed by Duke's Caravan, a springboard for Morrison's famous solo, in which he leaves the kit, hi-hat in hand, wending his way through the crowd, applying his sticks to anything and everything that will yield a percussive sound. It's showmanship at its finest. Speaking of drummers, Dave Weckl's 101 Shuffle was up afterwards and it's just that: a blues-inspired shuffle that affords yet more raunchy, fiery sax duels, 'tween Qua and Booth, as well as a little more room for Morrison to stretch out.

And for something completely different, Sting's Every Breath You Take preceded a tenor classic, in Sonny Rollins' St Thomas, which was credited to Theodore Walter (at the record company's insistence, according to Rollins) on his modestly-titled, seminal mid-fifties album, Saxophone Colossus, but which is actually a traditional tune, recorded a year or so earlier by Randy Weston, under an altogether different title. Named after the Virgin Islands territory where his parents were born, it's a calypso-infused (or, at least, inspired) tune and his is considered the definitive version, whatever you like to call it. The Duck do it immense justice. High Society also, of course, has a calypso feel, so made for an ideal chaser. And it's always heartwarming to be transported back in time to the heydays of Porter and Armstrong.

Dizzy Gillespie's Tanga, arranged right, is a big band blowout, but this doesn't daunt The Duck. Nor need it: they're such a powerhouse, even as a five-piece, they're all over it. And, after all, Dizzy did it with just three or four, all in, as I recall, at Newport, circa 1982.   

And now a warning against the demon drink. By the time it came to Sargisson's solo, I may've had a drink or two. Not ten, you understand. But a drink. Or two. So I can't honestly recall the background notes Wil proffered to introduce the boogie-woogie he played. What I do know is that I don't believe I've ever seen or heard a pianist more brilliant, in any genre. Maybe one or two as brilliant. Not ten, you understand. But one or two. Maybe. Sargisson is, without a word of a lie or shadow of a doubt, incredible. Superhuman. His was a very tough act to follow, but the Duck did it with a number of crowdpleasing blues, with their old mate from the Woolwich Pier Band, electric guitarist, Ron Craig, culminating in cool cat, J. J. Cale's Crazy Mama, from 1970.

Qua and Booth left the stage, wandering through the crowd, their instruments gradually fading away, like a New Orleans processional fading into the distance. Finally, they remove their mouthpieces and just play those. It's just one more trick in a magic show.

Galapagos Duck Band In Concert

Venue: Hunters Hill Club
 | 14/16 Madeline Street, Hunters Hill, NSW
Date: 7 July, 2012