THESE DAYS, JAZZ is so ossified into specific zones of endeavour, so very stylised, and overwhelmed by a distant past that now seems almost miraculously packed with innovation that it’s hard to get excited by the form. Any small deviation from the norm, therefore, is something to get just a little bit excited about.
This Adelaide-based trio of electric guitarists James Brown (no relation) and Sam Cagney, and drummer Stephen Neville, update the jazz-fusion tradition by betraying what sounds like a formative experience with the post-rock of groups like Tortoise.
With only guitars, “effects” and drums, and the whole thing laid down live in the studio, the tonal palette is austere, but that’s beneficial. Additional instrumentation may have diluted the impact of these 11 performances. The bare bones approach brings out every nuance, and spotlights the dramatic crescendos that inevitably, though not predictably, occur from time to time.
If you listen hard enough, you can hear the kind of thinking-on-your-feet electric improvisations that guitar gods like Larry Coryell battled with in the early ‘70s. The formative Coryell, or perhaps the early, more fractured explorations of John McLaughlin, are closer parallels than the busy pyrotechnics of later jazz-rock fusion. Neither Brown nor Cagney seem interested in showing off – everything they do is to the service of the compositions, and the improvisations that ensue. Sound, structure, intensity.
It’s evident from the throwaway band name and album title (couldn’t someone have convinced them otherwise?) that there’s a sly sense of humour at work, and that’s there on song titles like ‘A Perfect Day For Bananafish’ and ‘On Your Marx, Get Set!’ The music too, is smart, but never supercilious. So while traces of spy movie guitar might assert themselves on ‘Why Sleep?’, such influences are subtle enough not to overwhelm the piece.
Neville’s explosive percussion is mixed loud, and that’s a good thing on a performance with a wide dynamic; one where a piece can begin like a reflective ballad and end in a cacophony of distortion. Not that there’s a uniform approach to these pieces, which the members take turnabout on the writing front. ‘Shetland Dream 1863’, for instance, plays the mellow card, coming across as vaguely reminiscent of John Abercrombie.
What will turn off jazz traditionalists, but thrill the rest of us, are the occasional interjections of what sound like guitar-synths. These are invariably shrill irruptions that provide a completely new colour to the sound. And on ‘Void’, the main guitar solo emerges from what seems to be a backwards guitar solo, and it’s quite exquisite.
Melodic, austere, explosive, Um.. has made an album that’s more surprising than it might at first seem.
The only slight downside is the lack of Rattle’s magus Steve Garden in production/engineering/mixing duties: I can live with the live guitar-amp buzzing that intrudes on some tracks, but some of the squealing guitar lines are a little sharp for my audible comfort. But then again, yeahyeahabsolutelynoway! was never meant to be like a comfy couch. GARY STEEL
Sound = 3.5 stars
Music = 4 stars