This Is Always (Lionsharecords)
Julien Wilson Quartet
Review by John Clare – Nov 21st 2013
These are curious and poignant days for those of us who have felt connections to a stream of Australian music that began flowing as far back as the 1940s with Graeme and Roger Bell and their colleagues (who in turn connected us to Rex Stewart, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll and all that has since transpired).
Dave Ades and Bernie McGann – both great alto players, and also dear friends – have moved on, while others, including Julien Wilson and Allan Browne, have experienced extreme vicissitudes of health. It is easy to inflate what is in fact a small cluster of coincidences and the simple inevitability of people reaching a certain age – though some are in fact quite young – but very deep feelings have been tapped. It is easy to see omens in nature. Bushfires have raged in the Blue Mountains and charcoal and burnt sienna smoke has spread down over Sydney. The sun at some hours has burned through with the orange of an electrical element, and late in the day in a weird neon disc of hot pink. But firemen came from Victoria and New Zealand to help. Furthermore the rain is crashing down now at last and the black streets are splashing and shining in the night.
On cue, as it seems, I have received This is Always, plus two others, reviews of which will soon follow.
In the notes to this disc, Julien Wilson says, ‘This is my first recording with a Classic Quartet playing standards’. What, then, are standards in this context? Tunes that have become standard fare in a repertoire sometimes revisited often, sometimes rarely. ‘All Shook Up’ and ‘Slippin’ And A-Slidin” are rock and roll standards. They are perhaps my favourites in that area, speaking to me from my mid teens in the mid 1950s – the classic rock and roll era. Yet they are rarely played. This is true also of a broader stream of standards, but some of these are visited perhaps too often with too little attempt at understanding. This stream began pre-rock and roll and the tunes are usually in ballad form with the chorus leading and the verse forming a bridge (in recent pop the reverse is usually the case). These melodies may have begun their lives in movies or Broadway shows, or on the Hit Parade (as the charts were once called). Many have continued as vehicles for jazz expression and exploration, while others were written expressly for that purpose.
This kind of standard can be presented as middle of the road fare, or it can be taken into abstract, lonely and even alienating regions. Willie Nelson once made an album of standards, because they were as familiar to him on the family radio as the Grand Ole Opry. I think my favourites are the mysterious and even somewhat cosmic standards, such as ‘Deep Night’ (beautifully played on this disc), ‘Deep In A Dream’, ‘Where Or When’, ‘Stairway To the Stars’, (also beautifully played here), ‘Midnight Sun’, ‘Laura’ (is the face in the misty light) and so on. The bluesy standard is represented here by Duke Ellington and Bobby Troups’ ‘The Sound Of Jazz’. Other examples elsewhere include ‘Stormy Weather’ and ‘Blues In The Night’. Some have become jazz standards and mainstream popular standards simultaneously – I think of ‘St Louis Blues’ and ‘Ain’t Misbehavin” , thanks to performances by such as Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller, who were at once influential jazz artists and world wide pop stars.
Julien Wilson and his players have approached their sometimes unusual selection of standards from a particular jazz point of view, which means that both the formal and the emotional aspects of each are explored. McAll has explored many areas since he specialised in this music, but hear how easily summons the idiom. Treat it as pure music if you like, but you’ll most likely feel the grip of deep and subtle feelings. Some were home for troops in World War Two. You can feel that here. Stan Getz fell and died, or died and fell on stage playing ‘Out Of Nowhere’. Not all these melodies are in standard ballad form, and a few have been written by Wilson (making them originals not standards, though they could be the latter). Wilson’s ‘Trout River’ is particularly beautiful.
The band Wilson has chosen could scarcely be surpassed anywhere: Wilson (tenor saxophone and on the last track clarinet), Barney McAll ( piano) Jonathan Zwartz (bass) and Allan Browne, drums. Wilson notes incredulously that bassist Zwartz (from Sydney) and drummer Browne (from Melbourne) had never played together. They sound as if they have played themselves into a special musical relationship over years. Browne is, like myself, somewhat older than the others. And like Wilson he has distinguished himself in areas from deep trad to the avant garde. The rhythm section is of course of paramount importance in this melodically, rhythmically and harmonically subtle form, where the interacting band can seem to drift effortlessly as smoke across the land, or break into stress patterns, deep swells and concussions, like the sea.
Look, I’ll say no more than that Julien is both subtle and magnificent. The tenor saxophone is like smoke, and it is like carved oak in his hands. Even at his softest his presence is large, and the same must be said for Jonathan Zwartz’s great dark bass, pizzicato or arcetto. Even at their softest, smokiest, most meditational or sensual this band keeps the form strong. Apparently this disc sold better than any other at Wangaratta this year. You should have it. A study will begin, and a deep connection. Here in Sydney Birdland is the most likely place to get it.