Michael Webb Sydney Conservatorium of Music
Australia is evolving a rich saxophone culture, with a wealth of virtuoso players and eminent teachers as well as a number of first class quartets currently performing and recording around the country. One of the most musically appealing of these is Compass, a jazz-classical unit that boasts an acclaimed Tango recording from a year or two ago and a new CD collaboration with Sydney-based Hindustani musicians on tabla, vocals and sitar. Lest you think this obscure, the quartet has crossed over and looped around to bring together several art music and improvisational traditions and pulled off another feat – a sound that is poignant and sensual, tune-laden and imminently listenable in the way it melds tonality and timbre.On Sunday 29th January the saxophone quartet Compass with pianist JacksonHarrison presented a 50-minute set at St Luke’s Hall, Enmore, as part of the 2012Kinetic Jazz Festival. Jeremy Rose, the creative force behind Compass, is quietlydeveloping a significant Australian musical voice – on this occasion Compasspremiered his 30-minute suite, Oneirology – the study of dreams for saxophonequartet and piano.
Compass opened its Festival set with ‘Passion’ then played ‘Elegance’, pieces fromits CD Abrazo Tango. Here the quartet was able to sound like an impressively largebandoneon, just as on its ‘Indian CD’, Ode to an auto rickshaw, it calls to ear anoversized yet subtle harmonium or shruti box. Oneirology followed – a fourmovementwork cleverly using Inception, Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film on dreaminvasion, as a point of inspirational reference. In its refusal to go over known or safeterritory, Oneirology provided further evidence of the breadth of Rose’s musicalimagination.
The suite sections were titled ‘Daydream’, ‘Subconscious’, ‘Dream within a dream’,and ‘Déjà vu’, and Rose with his four other players led the audience throughstimulating pieces that subtly blended his study of and love for the music ofcomposers Feldman, Wayne Shorter, Scriabin, Debussy, Maria Schneider andDvorak. Contrasting textures delicate and dense, and sounds tonal and dissonant withshifting colourations, Oneirology is an architecturally sustained and resolveddissertation on dreaming that was expertly rendered by all players. During composedand improvised sections including cadenzas, pianist Jackson Harrison was givenscope to impress, and he sparkled on the Stuart & Sons piano. ‘Dream within adream’ was particularly harrowing, as was the equivalent scene in Nolan’s film(knowing the film is not a prerequisite to appreciating Rose’s work) – atonal clusterscontrasted with bell-tone crescendos that called to mind the delicate hybrid scales andtextures of Messiaen.
Compass succeeds on its combination of strengths, technical and compositional, yetas a saxophone quartet what sets it apart and makes it so listenable is that each playerhas quite a contrasting approach to tone and articulation. Hence, the quartet is not asdemandingly ‘jazzy’ as SNAP, say, nor as insistently ‘classical’ as Continuum. Rosecapitalizes on this in his writing and complements it with a knack for choosingthrilling musical collaborators.
Compass is a five star Australian music ensemble that demands to be offered aconservatory or university residency! It deserves a prominent billing at major musicfestivals, here and abroad. It has much to teach aspiring reed players, composers andimprovisers. It models virtuosity, boldness of vision, chamber music delicacy,compositional accessibility, and a savvy interaction with music history and globaltraditions. Jeremy Rose has discovered how to merge distinct audiences: he createscontemporary Australian music that bridges new and traditional art music,incorporates world cultural streams, and in the case of Oneirology, also makes productive reference to contemporary cinema.