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5 September 2008

Alex Masso Ensemble

Sound Lounge, Sydney // NSW // 27.08.2008

Alex Masso Ensemble Image: Alex Masso Ensemble  

If this edge-pushing outing by the newly minted Alex Masso Ensemble was anything to go by, the future of improvisational music sits in safe hands. Aged between 17 and 25 and hailing from Bowral, Wollongong, Nowra and the Blue Mountains, the performers brought to the centre a sound that reflects a grounding in a jazz tradition, but manages also to convey a shared sense of the potential opened up through improvisation and exploration of extended techniques.

The first set involved a single extended structure of duos, the five musicians returning for a second set involving all five players working in a truer ensemble sense. Alex Masso on percussion and Monika Brooks on piano opened, with Masso bowing his cymbal to create a rich, resonant underlay. The piano began with tense, single notes, Brooks jolting as though getting too close to the electric fence-like buzz from Masso's bowed cymbal as it resonated across the skin of the drum. Brooks kept her notes taut but they grew more harmonious, introducing some restrained but well-tempered notes from the lower end that allowed Masso to work further around his drum kit. As his cymbals began splashing more wildly, piano chords crashed in turn, then the drums dropped out and the piano finally found fluidity, rolling then retreating, then silence.

For the second piece, Jono Lake took to the piano, pairing with double bassist Sam Dobson. Dobson began by bowing drawn-out sweeps right down at the bridge; Lake's piano got off to a tentative start. The two were not as well meshed as in the opening duo, lacking their sense of communication and responsiveness. But when Dobson's bass plunged into a lower growl, Lake escaped his plodding middle register and set up a pleasing tension with higher notes. The pair then shifted well, Dobson scratching towards the higher reaches, as Lake tumbled the piano into a low rumble, before returning to the higher end, the pair now bearing traces of each other's high jinks.

The liveliest of the duo works followed, with Masso back on drums joined by Finn Ryan, also on percussion. Masso launched straight in with a staccato stomp, Ryan wandering over the top with metallic jolts as he wandered the rims and edges. Masso set up a driving rhythm and foundation, with Ryan responding with one of his own. They were disparate but not inhospitable, throwing up some pleasing phasing and echoes.

The contrast in styles between the two could not have been greater, but the resultant work made the most of this. Masso's style was restrained and commanding, a solid core with occasional exploration to further reaches, while anyone who has seen Ryan play would be familiar with his sprawling approach – both visually and in the sounds produced. He revels in the possibilities of looseness and the joy of the incidental, a fidgeter from the pots and pans school. He frequently falls off the back of a beat, deliberately holding out longer than you expect, then stumbling back in to pick it up again just before it's a complete shambles.

For the next pairing, Brooks took on the accordion and Dobson returned on double bass. A pencil between the strings about a handspan above the bridge provided a tauter edge to the hushed piece, with the accordion moving so slowly that all we first heard was the tired creaking of the bellows. The bow slowly drawing across the double bass created an eerie, barren soundscape into which the accordion keys soon began to tinkle with a fragmented squeaking.

The final pairing for the opening set brought Jono Lake back to the piano and Finn Ryan to the percussion. Led along by the piano, Ryan added flourishes of colour through broad brushing. A call and response developed, until they suddenly both simply dropped into a precarious silence, one set up almost as a question, waiting for an answer to a riddle. Its answer came soon and was built from tight little flourishes at the lower end of the keyboard and bells being swung across the drumkit, a strong connection in place to close the set.

After interval, the five performers returned to the stage. Masso led proceedings, sticking at first to a single cymbal. Lake on the piano offered up a single recurrent note, before a second splashing cymbal was introduced, the accordion soon creaking slowly into life, drawing the double bass into the fray. As hinted at earlier, Masso's textured percussion again proved tight and underpinned the performance, a safe touching post to which the performers could return after roaming perhaps a little too far from home. He was getting lovely, washing sounds out of an upside-down cymbal resting on the skin of a drum, while Finn Ryan spent most of the set again riding the trailing edges, his technique verging on haphazard but with its own teetering, inner logic.

While Masso was pinning it all down, Brooks was setting it all into place with the accordion, the glue that was filling the gaps and binding all the disparate paths. The low-key laptop treatments were soon chewing things up and spitting them out with a little more edge, a touch more growl. The critical mass of the differing elements was propelling the set along well, and though at times quite disparate and even conflicting ideas were struggling for floor space, they also had enough of an inner logic that we were never left floundering as listeners.

As the set went on, Dobson's double bass seemed to provide more of the middle ground. At times there was too much in there, with sections that could have used a little more breathing space and cracks for new ideas to seep in with less directional constraint, but at other times – such as the almost didjeridu-like tones that were coming from its treated sounds, the circular near-yelping – it was a more-than-welcome focal point.

Sound manipulation became steadily more pervasive, and, towards the set's end, transformed the music into a series of squelches and blips and rumbles, ghostly echoes of the treated accordion skittering along, the drums getting a thorough workout as the piano cast off lots of short, tight clusters, with even the bass notes bending well out of shape. The crash and burn finish was a long way from where the piece had started, leaving listeners with the wonderful sense of having been on a true journey. The almost 50-minute set had gone along quite quickly – always a good sign – rewarding those who were along for the ride.

Benjamin Millar is a Sydney-based journalist, writer and photographer. He works as a journalist and editor for a stable of community newspapers.


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