Left – Simon Barker (drums), Julien Wilson (saxophone), Stephen Magnusson (guitar). Cover – Barney McAll. Photos – Laki Sideris
There is an element of the prodigal son in Barney McAll’s tribute to Mooroolbark, an area east of Melbourne. Barney explains that 'Mooroolbark' is the name given to his hometown by the Wurundjeri people (“moorool” meaning great water and “bik” meaning place). McAll left in 1989 on a journey that has seen him work with many leading Australian and International jazz players including a 15 year stint in New York. Mooroolbark charts part of the musical territory covered by the prolific composer during that time.
Their concert for the Melbourne’s International Jazz Festival saw McAll and his quintet of leading Australian musicians walk onstage in orange safety vests ironically emblazoned with the acronym of ASIO, not referring to the intelligence agency but standing for Australian Symbiotic Improvisers Orbit, to present their 'evocative reflection on time and place.'
The densely notated compositions demanded disciplined ensemble playing by saxophonist Julien Wilson, guitarist Stephen Magnusson, Bassist Jonathon Zwartz and drummer Simon Barker.
Transferring a performance from a studio or smaller jazz club to a concert format can be problematic unless the band members can project. McAll and Wilson performed strongly but Magnusson appeared to struggle with the restraint of the orchestration and his natural shoe-gazer tendencies.
There was a thinness to the sound at times; it's a shame they weren't playing Bennett's Lane, a room more suited to fluctating levels of intimacy and mood. The dynamics of playing to a near capacity audience in the larger space of the Malthouse’s Merlyn Theatre enforced a closer listening and emotional attachment to the quieter compositions. However, it appeared to restrain and mute Magnusson’s guitar and, at times, create sameness in the energy of the music, particularly in the early part of the performance.
This all changed after the musicians performed as a trio with piano, drums and bass; McAll lifting the power of his playing in a strong gospel and blues-influenced funk number. The shift energised the remainder of his playing and when Wilson and Magnusson rejoined the band, his performance of Apple Tree had the intensity required for the larger concert format.
The more spacious and intricately played slower numbers, featuring Wilson’s mellow liquid tone and Zwartz’s virtuoso bass, were concert highlights. McAll’s signature left hand chords created a depth to his piano playing that was always contained within the discipline of the ensemble.
2015 Melbourne International Jazz Festival
Barney McAll Quintet
Venue: Merlyn Theatre, The Coopers Malthouse | 113 Sturt Street, Southbank
Date: 3 June 2015
Tickets: $45 – $30