The Melbourne International Jazz Festival opened at The Jazzlab with Paul Grabowsky’s The Gravity Project, so named because different musical traditions and forms are held together by mutual attraction. This collaboration, a ‘transcultural musical dialogue’ was presented by six Australian and two Japanese musicians: Grabowsky on piano with Aaron Choulai on electronics/laptop, Masaki Nakamura on shakuhachi, Kuniko Obina on koto, Rob Burke playing saxophone, Niran Dasika on trumpet, Marty Holoubek on bass and James McClean on drums.
Grabowsky played piano and occasionally conducted the group in a concert that drew on a traditional Japanese, western classical, jazz and contemporary electronic beat and HipHop influences. The song titles are informed by Japanese film, literature and cuisine.
The opening piece, Takeshi Beats (a play on name of name of famed Japanese actor, director and TV star ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano), the effect was one of being trapped in music, or in peak hour Tokyo traffic in its mash-up of contrasting different musical styles and seemed more like a sound check jam than an integrated flow.
However, this was a scene-setter for the following Tokyo Overpass, inspired by author Haruki Murakami’s opus 1Q84 where the protagonist, a female assassin, abandons her taxi midst a traffic jam and clambers down a ladder to a parallel universe. In this atmospheric and slow-moving musical landscape, a genuine East-West fusion was achieved by the chordal harmonies transporting the audience to another world beyond the binary of traditional and modern musical forms.
The fast tempo piece Plum Rain pushed the conceptual envelope further, combining Aaron Choulai’s thoughtful electronics with the striking attack of Shakuhachi master Masaki Nakamura, playing the Japanese flute almost like a trombone at times, and the intensely focused cameo of koto virtuoso Kuniko Obina. Both Masaki and Kuniko were dressed in traditional Japanese clothes, contrasting with the casually besuited, pork pie and baseball-hatted and sneaker-attired westerners. This visual statement at times semed reflected in the musical exploration; there were moments when it looked like the Japanese musicians were patiently waiting their turns to perform the orchestrated charts on the music stands.
The virtuosic traditional Japanese playing was riveting but often musical segments fluctuated with almost cognitive jolts when the score returned to the conventional jazz form, at times the brass section creatied a familiar big band sound. The best snippets of collaborative musical conversation occurred in the middle part of the concert, leading into the spirited closing tune Vinegar (dedicated to its critical role in sushi flavouring) featuring a ‘wasabi’ piano closure that saw Choulai swapping his computer for his first instrument of the night. Special mention also goes to Marty Holoubek whipping his electric bass and playing a pivotal role in sensitively and joyfully combining the musical traditions of the ensemble.
The Gravity Project performance of just over an hour left the audience applauding for more and the jazz ensemble, minus the Japanese musicians, reappeared for an encore in conventional jazz mode that allowed bassist Holoubek, saxophonist Rob Burke and trumpeter Niran Dasika to stretch their playing beyond the limits of the orchestration.
Overall The Gravity Project felt like the musical equivalent of pins and needles or restless legs: itchy, kinetic, relentless and over-crowded. The occasional hiss of the coffee machine at the bar fitted into the soundscape perfectly. It was music of the intellect rather than the heart.
The Gravity Project has been recorded in Japan (produced by Aaron Choulai, now resident in Tokyo) and is due for release next month to be followed by an eleven-city tour of Japan. With the benefit of experience gained from these performances it’s to be expected that this lived musical collaboration will journey closer to its aim of becoming a truly transcultural dialogue.
2018 Melbourne International Jazz Festival
The Gravity Project
Venue: The Jazzlab | 27 Leslie Street, Brunswick VIC
Dates: 1 June 2018
Tickets: $43 – $48