Australian Stage Online Review

Sunday, 22 March 2009 Print E-mail
Written by lloyd bradford (brad) syke   

The title of Compass‘ brand-new album, discreetly launched last Thursday night at Marrickville’s Factory Theatre under the auspices of Joanne Kee’s now well-established and respected Places & Spaces programme, refers to a particular move in the sultry dance meaning, literally, embrace. Certainly, much of the music contained onAbrazo Tango will caress and seduce you. A guilty pleasure, like Belgian chocolate, a mellow merlot or love in the afternoon. Sensual music, which contemplates, evokes and inspires movement, but it moves the mind, as well as body. In fact, it goes even deeper. 

Saxy foursome Compass, augmented by the very considerable talents of Marcello Maio, on piano accordion, and Julian Curwin, on electric guitar, have succeeded in capturing the spirit and soul of tango, its unbridled passion, while corralling it, with great skill & nuance, into largely unexplored areas of jazz or, at least, areas that will benefit (us all) from further exploration.

The obvious comparison is with Argentine master of nuevo tango, the revolutionary Astor Piazzolla, but that’s probably because, if any of us know one thing about tango, it’s Astor. I’d even go so far as to sayCompass is venturing into virgin territory, unfamiliar, even to the pre-eminent AP.

Christina Leonard (soprano & alto) is a Coonamble girl who had her first lessons in Dubbo. She’s in faculty at the con and a remarkably fluid player, soaring over the top of the ensemble in romantic swirls; which just goes to show you can take the Coonamble outa the girl. (Coonamblers, please resist the urge to correspondence.) You’re just as likely to see her in the SSO throng, or in the pit, for the Australian Opera Ballet orchestra. She’s played overseas, philharmonically, is expert in baroque woodwinds, has recorded with the likes of Matt McMahon and lends this ensemble a mellifluous forward motion.

Jeremy Rose, on alto, seems like a very serious, intense & somewhat pedantic young man (in a good way); certainly, noone could question his skill, as instrumentalist or composer. Like Leonard or, for that matter, say, Robert Fonseca, Rose took up music very early (piano & clarinet at six; sax at twelve). That depth tends to show through, in his many and various projects, like The Vampires, which might very well be the only band in the world top concertedly focus on jazz-reggae. He also has a list of awards, scholarships, honours and achievements as long as your arm (longer, if  you’re Danny de Vito). 

Matthew Ottignon, tenor, is, of course, one of the fabulous Ottignon brothers, who are too, too talented for my liking! Well-known to me for his work with the late, lamented Jackie O, he’s also associated with Blue King Brown and songbird Katie Noonan, not to mention having played with weirdo-savants, Lou Reed and Brian Wilson. And, thanks to his versatility, he’s part of the furniture in the eccentric, fun, gypsy-folkdom that is Monsieur Camembert’s cheesy, but tasty world.

Luke Gilmour, baritone, might look like a mild-mannered accountant, but he plays like a demon, supplanting bass with the rasp of the devil himself and sporting a rhythmic drive that underpins the whole shebang, with a rock-solid, pedal-to-the-metal momentum. Speaking of which, for his orchestral work, Momentum, a year or two back, he received the fellowship of Australian Composers award; pretty auspicious for such a young graduate. Perhaps it’s his naval (ships, not gazing) experience that has tailored his Kentish appearance, whereas he’s really a veritable caped crusader. Indeed, it’s his sound that lends much of the predatory sexual aggression so characteristic of tango. 

Maio is a 22-year-old prodigy of piano-accordion, with a dauntingly polished technique; almost as daunting as his compositional expertise. it’s easy to see why this jazz-piano-trained muso is in such cross-genre demand.
Curwin, of course, co-founded ARIA-winning Monsieur Camembert, but has more strings than a zany zither. Perhaps you know of his heavy metal lounge band, Darth Vegas; electro-acoustic experimental pop delicacy, Gauche; or quirky tango-punk chamber-jazz ensemble, The Fantastic Terrific Munkle. If he lacks anything, it’s not a sense of humour. His delicate touch, amused and amusing approach, as well as gentle experimentations with loops, kept things lively, particularly during the warm-up, heavily improvised set by he & Maio.

All-in-all, Compass is a fascinating, exciting & inspiring project, especially in concert with Maio & Curwin. One gets the feeling they’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg (‘though an ironically cool analogy in the context of tango) in collectively exploring their mould-breaking hybridization of classical, jazz and tango. In practice and, especially, onstage, it’s a protein-packed fashioning of composition, arrangement and edgy, seat-of-the-pants impro. It’s dynamic, sometimes sublime and reaches the parts so much other music can’t, with an alchemical, near magical intimacy that is the very stuff of passionate desire.

Coming to the pieces themselves, the opener (on the album too), Tango Deu, by Maio, tangles with the sway of the dance: even if you’d never witnessed entwined Latinos commanding a floor, you’d instinctively mimic and chime with the essential shape of the movements. Gilmour’s baritone lays down a rhythmic railway track, with altos and tenor tumbling over the top, intermingling in the same inseparable way dancers, or lovers, would. It’s a beautiful cacophony of melody, which sounds utterly paradoxical, but is about the only way I can think of describing it. It has jazz harmonies, an Orleans-like flavour, as well as a classical stateliness and sophistication. Sounds complex and contradictory, on paper, but is superb, in the musical telling.

Also by Maio was an impressive Tango Three, which name Rose insisted he change to Tango One. Whatever! It’s listed as the latter, on the record. Curwin’s They Know Not What They Do is a very fine thing to boot. It’s all good, but of particular note and brilliance are the suites, such as Rose’s, boasting four movements: Passion; Elegance; Indulgence; Movement. The speak for themselves and, in total, are an eloquent summation of tango, but also of Compass‘ peculiar (in the distinctive sense) engagement with it

Abrazo Tango is art music, but not at all in a pretentious or inaccessible way. Melding classical with jazz modes, let alone introducing an ethnic cultural influence rarely arrives at such an advance point of synergistic success. 

I look forward to the next place or space Compass inhabits. I hope I can be there too. 

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