29 March 2021
Loretta Palmeiro & Mark Isaacs: Figure-skating into Outer Space
"Sometimes it was as if we were figure-skating partners; or were being catapulted into outer space or through some kind of surreal landscape", writes saxophonist Loretta Palmeiro about the experience of making music, real-time, with pianist Mark Isaacs. A fellow artist Guy Strazz also attempted a description of the duo's work: "The ear and heart are transported through modern pastoral melodies, improvisations, abstract nuances, and a narrative that embraces contemporary classical, European folk, and jazz", he said.
Loretta Palmeiro and Mark Isaacs had forged a strong collaborative relationship over years of 'extemporising' long before they made their first public appearance together. During 2020-21, they have published two albums (see Bandcamp) and recorded 'lockdown' videos - see SIMA's Meditations In Jazz (27 March 2020) and a performance as part of the Phoenix Central Park 'Behind Doors' series (4 October 2020). A side-product of a Great Southern Nights concert in November 2020 was an entry in the Australian Book for Records for the longest real-time composition performance. In this article, they experiment in collaborating in words.
Loretta Palmeiro: I love the intention in Mark's playing and the way in which he embodies and lives his music so completely. Through playing with him in our duo, I found those same qualities within myself and came to know that I can join him in that space on an equal footing.
Mark Isaacs: Loretta has been my sole musical performance collaborator for a few years now and I feel totally blessed by it. Loretta can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with any saxophone soloist in Australia, such is the quality of her imagination and remarkable instrumental finesse. I consider her 'first among equals' in our duo.
LP: I had been aware of Mark for a long time. We crossed paths in 1997 when my peripatetic saxophone teaching work took me to MLC School, a private girls' school in Sydney's Inner West. Mark was there conducting student orchestral/choral rehearsals of an oratorio Voices the school had commissioned from him, with a libretto by Sydney Morning Herald music writer John Shand.
Another 15 years were to pass before we would meet again and eventually begin to play together, but, in the meantime I vividly recall hearing Mark play with his jazz groups at Sydney's Sound Lounge and being completely awestruck by his energy, pianistic mastery and the way he explored a diversity of colours, moods and time feels. His facility was effortless: a delicate and tender touch yet with immense power in reserve for when the music called for it.
When soloing, Mark's fountain of inventiveness flowed from the vast depths of his musical vocabulary and all the language he holds in store. His innovative harmonic and melodic approach; the treatment of time; the ability to take listeners on a journey and to surprise them with spontaneous turns that moved the music in unanticipated directions; the crafting of ideas with such elegance of design: all these made the music feel and sound so very right, as if one were hearing the true, and only, way in which the sounds could, and should, ever have evolved.
Because the musical dialogue with his fellow band members was so dynamic and engaging - a seemingly electric connection - I knew Mark was a true ensemble player as well as a soloist, and hoped that I might make a similar connection with him when the time was right.
MI: What draws me to Loretta's playing is the beautiful sound she makes. That should really be 'sounds', plural. It surprises me how many very famous artists build their reputations on just one, admittedly gorgeous, tone colour. What I seek in a great artist, whether as collaborator or as a listener, is to hear that a panoply of different gorgeous colours lie at their disposal. These Loretta has. She also has impeccable intonation, also not always a sufficiently prized attribute for some performers.
Loretta's beautiful pitch and colours help me poise the palette of my instrument. She also knows how to shape and sculpt her phrases with the finest of detail, changing dynamics and intensity midflight. Her magnificent control of breathing is, well, breathtaking. And, most importantly, she always has something utterly genuine to say: a wholly honest story-teller, never a poseur.
LP: How was it that we came together? In 2012 I was performing in a suite for jazz quartet and symphony orchestra Blue, black and white composed by a colleague, Nadia Burgess, who was undertaking her PhD in composition with Professor Matthew Hindson, exploring the meeting ground between jazz and classical music. As fate would have it, Mark was the mentor for a composers' workshop involving Nadia's piece with the Ku-ring-gai Philharmonic Orchestra.
I encountered Mark in the foyer after I played, and he greeted me with his warm and friendly smile. Mark knew that I had previously completed a classical degree in music and I now told him I had recently returned to the Sydney Conservatorium to undertake the jazz course. With this came the realisation that Mark and I were on the same page with our experience in both classical music and jazz.
I was very happy when Mark told me how much he liked hearing my tone on the alto sax, and he suggested we have an informal play together some time. I was extremely honoured and thrilled! Yet suddenly I was also incredibly nervous at the prospect of playing with Mark. Though I wanted very much to play music with such an incredible musician, I was more than a little concerned that I was the only one who would actually get anything out of doing it!
After a few failed attempts at lining up a meeting, finally I plucked up the courage to go through with it and set off to Mark and his lovely wife Jewel's home in Sydney's south, where I was greeted with Mark's inventive sandwiches, lots of tea and great conversation.
In our first few meetings we played some compositions that Mark had recently completed for his Resurgence band. We also tried out a few jazz standards and some classical repertoire for saxophone and piano.
Then Mark suggested that we extemporise together, which I thought was a fantastic idea. Initially I was a little timid with this approach, worried that I might play 'the wrong thing' or that I would neglect to provide what Mark was hoping for from me. But these concerns soon subsided when it was clear Mark was enjoying the experience as much as I.
MI: I have been on something of a mission to rehabilitate the term 'extemporisation' in music, in addition to the reflexive 'improvisation', a broader term which most often denotes improvising within a preset structure. When there is no predetermined template, jazz makes the necessary distinction with its 'free improvisation', a clumsy two-barrel contrivance I reject for its received stylistic resonances, and indeed its semantic fraudulence, since 'freedom' is only ever relative. (Playing the piano I am stuck with the notes of the chromatic scale locked into equal temperament; if a performance goes for 9 hours, unannounced, no-one will stay, and if it lasts 5 minutes people will need to have their tickets refunded. This so-called 'freedom' can only be an idle boast).
I was thrilled when we agreed that our duo would only ever extemporise. The vast majority of my extemporisation projects over more than 40 years have been solo piano concerts and recordings. I have only collaborated thrice over those decades in wholly extemporisation-based public projects with other players: the recording session I did in New York in 1988 with bassist Dave Holland and drummer Roy Haynes, which produced the album Encounters (released several times in various territories and still in the catalogue), a duo extemporisation project with James Morrison that has only seen two performances to date, and a single two-piano extemporisation concert with Paul Grabowsky in 1998.
The experience of collaborative extemporisation with Loretta goes just as deep as my encounters with the aforementioned major stars, and since Loretta and I have had a chance to grow together over a decade and many performances, surely ours goes deeper still.
Loretta and I extemporise all the note-based aspects of the music, including large-scale form. Once the length of the set is communicated to us by the presenter, we only find out as we go along how many pieces of what length will comprise it. We may end up with only a single continuous piece.
LP: We would sometimes talk a little after one of our extemporisations in Mark's home, before we decided to go public. Often we'd first say how we had enjoyed the journey just taken together, and then marvel at the new terrain just explored: like the first time we suddenly found ourselves in a dream-like Debussy-esque land of whole-tones, or the occasion when Mark commented to me how he had appreciated my taking a middle-voice countermelody to his own melody which had come into being in the upper range of the piano. The latter led us to discuss how we could take on different roles when the music called for it, like my also having a turn playing the role of accompanist.
For me, the experience of playing together like this was filled with great adventure and exploration, which I treasured. It was also an exercise in trust-building through which we developed the powerful musical communication we now enjoy.
Often Mark would begin the extemporisations and I would weave my way into the musical landscape he had established, but it was always clear that we were very much creating together: reacting to, playing off and developing ideas from each other's musical offerings. Over time I became less inhibited and found myself taking a stronger lead, including sometimes being the one to start a new piece.
MI: We did discuss many matters arising from our mandate to extemporise. Usually it was a case of reminding ourselves of the various musical constellations which were available to us, while still avoiding any obligation to implement them: 'Let's not forget that this is possible, but that's not to say we have to do it'.
We also came up with techniques to solve certain challenges. If I played a solo piano introduction, Loretta could be quite diffident about entering. Like many brilliant musicians, she has excellent relative pitch, but not absolute pitch. So, standing in the crook of the grand piano she had no idea of the key I had established, and was concerned that her first note would be an ugly clash. I suggested she simply walk around to the front of the piano and look at my hands, despite the eccentric concert manners this entailed.
Then there was the question of knowing how long we had been playing for, being happy to fall into the general duration guidelines requested by presenters. It was I who adopted the timekeeper role, as it was easy to place my wristwatch on the piano's tuning pin block, keeping my eye on it as the set drew on and sending subtle signals to Loretta as to roughly when we might bring the journey to a close.
Having tried the duo in my home, with Loretta sometimes playing alto sax and at other times soprano, we needed to work out if she might alternate instruments or play just one exclusively. We settled on soprano sax and piano as being 'our sound'.
When we play more than one piece in a set (which is mostly) there was the question of whether there should be applause before the next piece. The audience is as much in the dark as we as to the unfolding structure, and we can 'cue' applause by turning our focus away from our instruments and acknowledging the audience. Applause has the effect of a sonic reset splicing the musical fabric, hence it is traditionally avoided between movements in classical works. Sometimes we make sure, through our focus and body language, that applause doesn't occur, so that we keep the larger structural thread as intact as possible. While it might then seem we were playing a large multi-movement work in the classical sense, it occurred to me that it could also be a multi-part single movement with general pauses between sections, like the Liszt Sonata, which is ambiguous from the listening perspective: only the score or program note signal it is one movement which sounds like several. We never have printed artifacts so that question can't be resolved!
We also decided if there were a seeming sudden 'collision' of intentions, we would meet whatever happened with complete acceptance, without recoiling, and with maximum will to integrate it effectively.
LP: After our initial playing session at Mark's home, every so often we would meet there again and chat, drink tea, eat sandwiches and, of course: extemporise together. I loved the world of inventive music-making which took place with Mark in his music room, with its bush outlook. It was exhilarating to be able to take flight with him: we never knew where our next adventure would lead us and there was always something new that emerged from our musical dialogue and interplay.
MI: Our regular musical meetings at my home over five years were for ourselves alone, until we finally decided to play in public. I suppose once we did this they retrospectively became 'rehearsals', in which case it could be said that we undertook around 20 rehearsals over five years in preparation for our first pubic performance in late 2017.
LP: In our musical adventures, sometimes it was as if we were figure-skating partners; or were being catapulted into outer space or through some kind of surreal landscape; like diving deep in the sea or floating upon the rippled surface of a lake.
And then one day Mark said 'I think we are ready' and I knew that he meant we were 'ready' to play in public. Even though it wasn't at all the intention with which we began our journey, I also knew it to be true.
MI: Over several years platforms for all aspects of my work had become so nearly extinguished that I quietly accepted I no longer had a place in the world of music. Loretta stayed by my side through all this, took my hand and led me out.
LP: Mark is an enormous inspiration. The growth I have experienced exploring music with him has been incredibly important in helping me to find and express my innermost musical voice.
> A live duo concert is in the calendar for 13 November 2021 at the Melbourne Recital Centre.
© Australian Music Centre (2021) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
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