A program of well known works by some of the best known late 19th and early 20th century influential classical composers, offered by two young jazz musicians at a 10pm jazz hour, would have raised the curiosity of many listeners. In a style described by some as a fusion of classical and jazz, and for a time in the fifties called Third Stream, performers are expected to be highly proficient in both art forms and there is always the danger that one style will be weakened. There is certainly a rise in the success of crossover composers and performers today. Perhaps it is the audience who may find this music unpredictable and challenging at times, especially as experimental and new idioms are heard, labels are unsatisfactory, and we are taken down unfamiliar paths.
Improvisation is the vital component, and there is an infinite number of ways for performers to take a theme, make personal choices – pre-planned or spontaneous, freely drawing on different styles of music for their inspiration.
With only two string instruments, double bassist Ben Hanlon and jazz guitarist Sherlock showed much ingenuity when covering a wide soundscape in their arrangements, although I frequently longed for a colourful percussionist to have been included to enhance the framework with shimmering colour. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is a treasure chest of melodies and rhythms, perfect for the double bass to be an unaccompanied soloist, announcing familiar melodic themes until guitar jazz chords punctuated with syncopated percussive rhythms. The arrangement used material from five consecutive movements, allowing alternating solo melodic work, experimental and free guitar patterns, with added harmonic string effects.
Schubert’s Ständchen (Serenade) offers a rich and timeless melody that never loses its lustre on any instrument. In a more familiar jazz idiomatic structure the solo guitar exemplified that beauty taking the opening theme as the “head” and improvising very nicely around it. The duo was well in the groove in these middle sections when relaxed, innovative musical conversations being shared in a soft, cool jazz style. Hanlon and Sherlock are both high level creative and skilful improvising musicians, with an experienced partnership, however I felt that the solo double bass improvisation in the large Athenaeum Theatre, particularly in the upper range sounded thin in the overall structure and texture.
The arrangements of Massenet’s Meditation from Thais and Debussy’s La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin, provided a source of harmony and beauty for stimulating and imaginative re-arrangements, and again featured the double bass with unaccompanied melodic opening and closing statements. The choice of playing well-known and beautiful classical melodies on the extreme high register of the double bass in a straight style was a brave choice. How much can you bend a classical note or become true blue?
Stravinsky’s Petrushka Suite was an admirable arrangement of Overture, Danse Russe, The Moor’s Room and Waltz, where Hanlon and Sherlock showed their inventive skills with increased melodic and rhythmic activity and flair. Consecutive and contrasting sections were designed to stimulate our imaginations and many colourful musical ideas emerged, although transitions from one new section to the next and final cadences were somewhat hurried and abrupt.
Best of all was the warm and fluent improvised middle sections of The Moor’s Room where the jazz partnership really stepped out with an exciting continuous bebop guitar solo over strong walking bass lines. Hanlon deftly changed his role from bebop bass man to Stravinsky melody maker with little breathing space, before the arrangement had the two instruments weaving in and out of each other’s lines in the final quirky Waltz.
Although this program concluded with Debussy’s gentle La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin, I did feel that the second last work played – Gershwin’s It ‘Ain’t Necessarily So – would have been a finer choice as these players were totally at ease with the rhythms of swing and spontaneous trading of melodic riffs. The exotic melody and chord progressions are full of inventive possibilities, and both Hanlon and Sherlock were really in the groove with a sensitive and relaxed straight ahead playing of this familiar jazz standard. Walking bass lines were smooth and pleasantly cool, again allowing the guitarist to improvise with dexterity and ease through the harmonic progressions.
Hanlon and Sherlock are to be admired for their enthusiastic and creative performance. As the two Stravinsky works took a lion’s share of the program – nine titled sections – I felt there were too many short statements; great ideas but not fully explored. These works could be more fully enriched with a wider treatment and extension of both classical and jazz elements.
Julie McErlain reviewed Stravinsky meets Jazz, performed by Ben Hanlon on double bass and James Sherlock on jazz guitar as part Melbourne Digital Concert Hall’s Michael Aquilina Chamber Music Festival, telecast from the Athenaeum Theatre on May 30, 2020.