About a year ago, I covered a trio of fantastic, jazzy releases from the Land Down Under. It’s been a while, so let’s do it again! In my view, Australia is rivaled by only the UK in terms of the volume and quality of its jazz exports. Yet, while the UK scene centers largely around a kind of soulful, nu-jazz fusion, both new and veteran acts from Australia have consistently ventured down their own paths in a quest to expand the genre’s palette. Below you’ll find four standout releases from the first half of 2020, each of which offers a unique interpretation of jazz and some truly excellent music.

Eishan Ensemble – Afternoon Tea at Six

While I sequenced these entires in alphabetical order, it’s fitting that an Art As Catharsis release happens to kick of this post. Label Manager Lachlan R. Dale is a longtime friend of the blog, and he’s spent the last several years curating a stacked roster from the Australian underground. Eishan Ensemble are an excellent example of the kind of forward-thinking groups Lachlan pursues. On their latest album, Afternoon Tea at Six, the quintet (plus a couple collaborators) continue exploring their signature blend of Persian classical music and modern jazz, with some related traditions spliced in along the way.

Earlier this month, I reviewed Josh Feinberg‘s new album Time Does Not Exist For Light, an authentic embrace of North Indian classical music. While I stand by my assertion that Eastern audiences should embrace traditions outside their own, it’s equally important that contemporary musicians continue bringing centuries-old customs into present musical contexts. The ultimate value of an artist understanding their musical origins is how it allows them to guide their songwriting — and by extension, broader genres — into new directions. Similar to groups like Egschiglen and Masada before them, Eishan Ensemble achieve this balance beautifully, and offer up some gorgeous compositions in the process.

My favorite part about covering music from or inspired by other cultures is the opportunity to discover new instruments and/or hear them in new contexts. Composer Hamed Sadeghi plays the tar, a long-necked lute, while collaborator Adnan Barake contributes on the oud, the “parent” of the European lute. Sonya Holowell also performs some traditional singing on the album that essentially vocalizes the group’s intricate instrumental melodies. They’re joined by staple instruments from the world of jazz, played by Pedram Layegh (guitar), Michael Avgenicos (alto and tenor sax),
Adem Yilmaz (percussion), and Elsen Price (double bass).

I know it’s the sole purpose of this post, but it’s a struggle to effectively capture the sheer beauty and complexity of Afternoon Tea at Six with words. Even as an outsider to Persian classical music and Iranian musical heritage, Sadeghi’s compositions pay incredibly accurate homage to these traditions. At the same time, there are recognizable jazz forms for the listener to grab on to, specifically with the contributions Avgenicos makes on sax. I’ll admit I don’t have a regional artist in mind for a comparison, but anyone familiar with Jan Garbarek and similar third stream saxophonists will feel at home here.

And yet, the central strength of Afternoon Tea at Six is the balance between familiarity and discovery. Most listeners have assuredly encountered these sonic palettes in other forms of media before, even if they weren’t aware of the history that informed their evolution. But there’s immense value in directly embracing that history, which is precisely what Eishan Ensemble allow listeners to experience. Whether you’re looking to expand your understanding of “world music” or simply want to hear some lush, gorgeous compositions drawn from an eclectic sonic platte, consider your search complete.

Horatio Luna – Yes Doctor

Look, I don’t want to start this entry with an “Is this even Jazz?” debate; genre purism is boring, the definition of jazz is nebulous, and most importantly, Yes Doctor is WAY too fun to focus on formalities. True, you’ll hear prominent dub and house influences throughout the album, but those are complimented by some incredibly danceable, enjoyable nu-jazz grooves. That’s thanks primarily to the man of the hour: bassist and beats maestro Henry Hicks (aka Horatio Luna). I’ll borrow a line from our sworn leader Eden: if you’re not chair dancing by the end of the album, then there’s simply no fire in your soul. Sorry, not sorry.

But back to Yes Doctor, which is just what the doctor ordered if you’re in the mood for contagious dance tracks with distinct organic foundations. All of the genres Hicks pulls from (dub, jazz, and broken beat) require strong, memorable bass lines to be truly effective, and he delivers big time. Once the main bass groove and watery synths hit midway through the title track, I had to stop working and sway to the beat in my desk chair. Hicks doesn’t limit himself to bass hooks, either. His solos in the latter half of the track are equally tasty and cause involuntary bass face (you know what I’m talking about).

Man, I’m listening to the album while I write and finding it difficult not to pause and bob my head to every track. Even with short interludes like “Your Love” and “Mango & Setwun,” Hicks leaves you wanting more as he and his crew bounce through breezy, jazzy cut of throwback-yet-distinctly-modern fusion. Thankfully, the latter track leads into proper song “Luna Leading,” with Hicks noodling alongside vintage synth tones and a hi-hat heavy dance beat. I’m glad folks like Thundercat have ushered in a wave of respect and interest for the power of bass as a primary instrument, a sentiment Hicks embraces wholeheartedly on every track. He’s never as flashy as Thundercat, which is a good thing; he flexes his muscles without distracting from the tracks main purpose of inspiring a mad dash for the dance floor.

Hicks isn’t afraid to think outside the box either. The bass on “Bubbly” sounds like it employs a combination of effects and dubbing, bolstering high-key disco and funk vibes. Honestly, the themes of ’90s plunderphonics I hear on this and other tracks had me thinking, “Is this what it would sound like if DJ Shadow made dance music with a bassist?” That would be wild. Hicks does a great job manifesting that thought experiment, though, and he continues innovating as the album progresses. Whether it’s the prominent jazz fusion vibes on “Golden” or the FlyLo-leaning, two part “Brunswick Massive,” Hicks has no shortage of fantastic ideas that you need in your life ASAP.

Note: Horatio Luna has a new collaborative album (Nice To Meetcha) with fellow Aussies Foshe, which I didn’t know existed until I sat down to write this post. I’m stoked to check it out now, and you should be too!

The Necks – Three

Of course, no recap of the latest Australian jazz (or music, for that matter) is complete without The Necks. The trio of Chris Abrahams (piano), Tony Buck (drums), and Lloyd Swanton (bass) have been improvising minimalist, avant-garde jazz for over 30 years, producing an incredible 16 studio albums in the process. They’ve experienced a bit of a critical bump in the last few years thanks to releases like Vertigo (2015), Unfold (2017), and Body (2018). Experiencing the band’s unconventional approach to music for the first time can be challenging. Their shortest songs start around the 20-minute mark and regularly approach an hour. The trio spend that time building dense, meditative compositions that push the simplest jazz ensemble setup (bass, drums, piano) into experimental territory.

The Necks continue this tradition on Three and somehow manage to spin up new ideas this far into their career. Each of the album’s three distinct pieces touch on different themes present throughout the band’s discography yet finds the trio pushing those ideas further, making for one of the more varied releases of their contemporary output. “Bloom” opens the album with a jolt of energy, driven largely by Buck’s intense, skittering percussion. Abrahams and Swanton each provide careful, stirring performances that compliment Buck’s work behind the kit, a perfect example of the trio’s mastery of contrast and layering musical moods.

“Lovelock” offers a stark reversal, as each member of the band provide flourishes of instrumentation while experimenting with space and atmosphere. Abrahams will play pensive sequence of notes, Buck sprinkles in some drum rolls and cymbals, and Swanton maintains the murky textures underneath it all. The subtle pauses between these solos and interplay delivers the essence of unease, with the remnants of dying notes hanging in the air for what feels like ages. Striking a balance between these two extremes, “Further” is the album’s jazziest track, with a mid-paced groove and some of the album’s most dazzling piano bars. It’s a fitting, full-circle conclusion for the trio’s latest installment of forward-thinking jazz only they could create.

Party Dozen – Pray for Party Dozen

It makes sense to bookend this post with mentions of Art As Catharsis given their importance to the Australian underground. While the label didn’t release Pray for Party Dozen, they brought it to my attention with a post on the day it dropped. I haven’t stopped spinning it since.

The best way to describe Party Dozen‘s music is “Lightning Bolt playing free jazz with sax instead of bass.” Sounds wild, right? Kirsty Tickle (sax) and Jonathan Boulet (percussion) prove themselves to be one of the most dynamic duos I’ve encountered this year. The moment I started picking my jaw up off the desk, the next track would start and make it drop once more. Seriously, I’m tempted to continue rattling off superlatives instead of writing a proper review. This is such an electric, tremendous record that manages to be as intellectually stimulating as it is infectious and downright fun.

And yet, there’s plenty to talk about here, so let’s dive in. The duo waste no time setting the stage with “World Prayer,” which erupts the moment you press play and alludes to the album’s overall lack of respite. Like Peter Brötzmann‘s Machine Gun reimagined as a noice rock record, the track is a blur of drum fills and bleating sax wizardry. There’s no specific instrumental credits listed on Bandcamp, but it sounds as if Tickle uses effects on her sax that elevate the oddities to even greater heights.

The remaining tracks are equally intense while deviating from this bombastic introduction. “The Great Ape” features repetitive guitar refrains that work with Boulet’s drumming to create an almost Earth-like drone metal effect with distinct power and swagger. And naturally, Tickle unleashes free-wheeling sax over the proceedings. The self-referential title track of sorts sees the duo performing around an incessant electronic refrain that creates an incredible groove. Oddly enough, my mind jumped to the opener on Death Grip‘s No Love Deep Web, except with loose, intense free jazz layered on top.

“Auto Loser” continues these electronic themes in a unique fashion, with Boulet laying down a danceable beat over an equally hypnotic, bass-heavy groove as Tickle explores her keys in the distance. Fun fact: there’s a remix of the track on Bandcamp produced by Stuart Braithwaite of Mogwai, which is equally awesome and deserves your attention as much as the rest of the album.

From there, the band twist and turn through adjacent sonic landscapes, introducing organ on “Dead Friends,” closely emulating the fuzzy, effect-heavy intensity of Lightning Bolt on “Gun Control,” and even touching on the off-kilter post-rock of late-career Swans on “Play the Truth.” Of course, be sure to imagine all of the above with Tickle’s liberated sax stylings. Or better yet, forget this post, click on the Bandcamp embed below, and experience one of the year’s most creative (and best) albums for yourself.

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