Australian Jazz Roundup – COAST, Meatshell, Milton Man Gogh

At its core, jazz has always been about innovation and collaboration, which explains why different scenes have popped up over the years. From NOLA big band to West Coast cool jazz, likeminded players have constantly worked to establish and nurture key movements within the genre. Several of these scenes exist today, namely the budding Afro-jazz and nu-jazz community in the UK and the various collectives propagating European free jazz. Further still across the pond is a unique group of musicians in Australia creating some of the most forward-thinking installments of contemporary jazz. We’ve covered some of these groups before, including classic acts like The Necks and budding talents like The Biology of Plants.

And thus, we arrive at today’s post: an attempt to compile a snapshot of the scene’s numerous offerings this year. All of these albums certainly deserve their own full-length post, in the same way they deserve at least one full spin. Of course, with time being as scarce as it is, I’ve instead packaged them together as both a celebration of their individual strengths as well as their contributions to the eclectic, immensely talented pantheon of Australian jazz. Let’s dive into the next generation of fantastic young jazz acts, shall we?

COAST – Skim

Anyone who’s followed the blog for the last couple years know how much we love COAST. We sang high praise for their self-titled debut last year, and Nick already highlighted how excellent Skim is as a follow-up. I’d be remiss if I didn’t share my thoughts on Skim, though, given how truly phenomenal COAST continue to be at composing truly captivating modern jazz. Through various shades of melody and technicality, drummer Paul Derricott’s compositions and the group’s performances bring together a collection of songs offering the genre’s full spectrum of emotions.

Just look at the album’s first two tracks. “The Speckle” opens with a syncopated fusion jam, bookended by horn arrangements and general ambiance in the vein of Arabic jazz and electric-era Miles Davis. Immediately after, “Tazzie” kicks off with a bold, brassy flourish that exudes confidence. It’s catchy and modern without losing the band’s unique stylistic flair, particularly evident with Shannon Stitt’s funky organ solo and the band’s heavy guitar/sax breakdown towards the end of the track (courtesy of Peter Koopman and Michael Avgenicos, respectively). The duo also sync up for an effortless, breezy duet on “Another Again,” one of the melodic highlights on the album.

The heaviness continues throughout the album, with Koopman’s punchy riffs accenting the bittersweet sax melody running through “Of the River.” Its a sign of the band’s forward-looking view of the genre, further exemplified by the album’s progression into more modern territory. The title track features some spacey Moog explorations from Stitt, and Derricott’s frenetic drumming on album closer “Blood Dancer” leads the band through one of the most electric and energetic fusion tracks you’ll hear this year.

COAST’s debut was the kind of album that heavily implied their follow-up would be similarly spectacular, and potentially more so. Indeed, Skim is nothing short of a triumphant leap forward, thanks in large part to the band’s collective investment in their established formula. As Nick said in his Editors’ Picks blurb, “Skim, doesn’t do too much to mess with or potentially corrupt the winning formula they’ve hit on, but it most assuredly does continue to push their incredible artistic instincts outward.” In short, if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it; just continue making it better. Skim achieves this mindset beautifully, and continues building on COAST’s already impressive résumé.

Meatshell – Afar

June is going to be an eventful month for Helen Svoboda. She’ll have albums from two of her projects drop within days of one another, including Vol. 2 from the aforementioned (and excellent) The Biology of Plants, followed by the album I’m stoked to highlight here today. Full disclosure: Afar isn’t your father’s jazz album, nor does it fit the comfortably into subgenre molds like COAST and Milton Man Gogh (more on them later). But it’s undeniably a fantastic album exploring the fringes of jazz, modern classical and post-minimalism, coming from some of the Australian scene’s exciting young talents. Jazz or not, it’s certainly worth your time and attention.

Joined by MMG’s Andrew Saragossi on tenor sax, Svoboda trades in her bass guitar duties with Biology of Plants for a classic contrabass. Her vocal stylings also differ considerably from Vol. 2, shifting from indie coos à la Feist to more angelic, soaring vocals. The change is fitting, given the more textured, grandiose compositions the duo unleash across the album.

Fans of Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld—specifically their collaborative work, Never Were the Way She Was—will find plenty of parallels and noteworthy material here, with the stunning intersection of sax, strings and extended techniques. Svoboda’s vocals float around the album’s compositions, while the duo fill the space with layers of sound, both collaboratively and through their own playing. The lush, viscous tone of Svoboda’s contrabass creates a consistent foundation, falling somewhere between elegant and foreboding. Meanwhile, Saragossi sprints through a marathon of ideas and techniques, ranging from deep, percussive notes to what sounds like circular breathing and continual playing.

The results are, again, stunning. Focusing on a specific track misses the point, given how much the album builds on its own themes. Instead, I urge anyone even vaguely interested in the album’s styles to press play and allow the duo’s interplay to consume you. There’s a certain fantastical quality to this type of music, an the imaginative nature of the Afar bolsters this feeling throughout the album. Svoboda is proving to be a versatile and singular force in the Australian music scene, which inspires heavy anticipation of where she’ll take her talents next.

Milton Man Gogh – How to Be Big & Small (At the Same Time)

The niche of “experimental jazz” is one that’s interested me for quite some time now. In my own view of jazz, “experimental” ventures beyond the safety of standard jazz but falls short of the full-on avant-garde; not everyone can be John Zorn playing sax and duck calls under water, after all. For me, the value in this niche is clear: I often crave jazz that resembles the core traits of the genre while still bearing a distinct, bold personality. From their music to their artwork to their naming conventions, Milton Man Gogh are a perfect example of a group that hits this sweet spot with pinpoint accuracy.

The core trio of Andrew Saragossi (tenor sax), Zac Sakrewski (upright bass, effects) and Benjamin Shannon (drums) all share composing duties on their latest album, How To Be Big & Small (At The Same Time). The record is also an exercise in how to be simultaneously adventurous and accessible. Each of the album’s 10 tracks follows traditional jazz outlines, which are then filled to the brim with endless excitement, energy, and experimentation. The obvious parallel here is Ornette Coleman, as both MMG and the legendary free jazz composer mastered the art of expanding jazz’s horizons from within.

As a result, How to Be Big effortlessly synthesizes melody and liberated form. Saragossi shifts between catchy, melodic sax lines and percussive, Moon Hooch-esque blasts, along with plenty of seemingly improvised moments. Similarly, Sakrewski and Shannon pull together a rhythm section that can shift from keeping time to stealing the show at a moment’s notice.

The trio also pull together a couple surprises that defy this formula all together, namely the title track’s gorgeous ballad. Kristin Berardi and Toby Wren lend their vocals and guitar, respectively, to create an equally vulnerable and romantic track at the album’s midpoint, serving as a fresh, intriguing bissection. Berardi returns for a slightly more experimental, spiritual vocal track on album closer, “Small Town Hero,” while Wren pops up again on “TV Was Better When I Was Younger” to add a bit of funk and fusion to the mix.

Across How to Be Big, the trio take a measured approach, in the sense that their various musical focuses are woven together beautifully. Other bands may have allowed this formula to fall off the rails, but MMG excel at spicing up jazz without burning the listener’s palette. Hopefully, the album elevates the band into the jazz mainstream; they very much deserve to “be big.”

Skim is available now via Art As Catharsis, which will release How To Be Big & Small (At The Same Time) on June 21. Afar will be available on June 17 via MADE NOW MUSIC.

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