You know, whereas everyone always says ‘Evans and Jarrett’ when they tell me about my influences, and I have to admit there is a case to be made for the assertion, there are two other names that are actually more important, and that are never brought up: Tony Gould and Paul Grabowsky. Both, as I understand it, are now Professors but I knew them when they weren’t, and I like some of their early stuff, and the rest of it is still worth checking out. (Can’t say that about everyone’s early stuff.) I met Tony in 1989 when I was considering studying at the Victorian College of the Arts (cue ‘They were the days’, etc.) but it was some years before I actually met Paul. My first acquaintances with him were the unjustly neglected movie Georgia (Ben Lewin, 1988) and in a trio performance with Allan Browne and Gary Costello during 1990 at Mietta’s that I’ve carried on about previously at great length. Or repeatedly, at least. (It was important.)
I heard the trio, I was knocked out, and I bought a copy of Six by Three, which remains one of my two or three desert-island records, thick with association and memory. Thereafter I became an insufferable Grabowsky fanboy. I bought the albums as they came out. I marvelled at the compositions and their performance. I went to the gigs. Memorable moments: the Continental, with an encore of rhythm changes that raised the roof; the punching conducting style at the Australian Art Orchestra’s first gigs, delivering Ringing the Bell Backwards at the Malthouse; the Viva Viva band at the Arts Centre, where apart from some spectacular music, and wine consumed onstage!, some unlucky punter toppled off the tiered seating and had to be assisted by a couple of med students in the audience, including Sall; solo at the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz, playing ‘Wangaratta Song’ (later ‘Beyond the black suit’); ‘Roonie’s tune’, again at Mietta’s – oh, I could go on. We finally met in the mid-1990s, and he taught me a couple of things during the first year of my Masters degree. Made me transcribe Tristano’s ‘C minor complex’, too, and buy a copy of Slonimsky’s Thesaurus. I finally began using the latter, just last year.
But these days, what with Festival Direction and, well, Professorship I guess, it seems that opportunities to hear Paul are fewer than they used to be. I missed the recent MJC birthday bash because I was out of town, so when I found that Al Browne and Frank di Sario were performing with Paul at Bennetts Lane, I was sure I’d be there. That was last Monday night.
There is something about the music that is in one’s blood that makes it incomparable with anything else. Jehan Alain’s ‘Litanies’, which my trio recorded on Mickets, is like that for me. So too the slow movement of Bach’s double violin concerto, which a great many years ago I accompanied with two friends of mine, one of whom died at 21. The other day I put on my LP of Lloyd Cole and the Commotions’ Mainstream – that’s in there. Then there’s Paul’s piano playing. I hear it, and it’s changed, but it’s his, it’s the same. While there are always new things to hear, they are spoken in a voice with which I’m absolutely familiar. It is in the moment it’s being played, and at the same time across the 23 years that have passed since first I heard it. It’s immediate, it’s fresh; but I’ve known it almost all my adult life, so I greet it with recognition and affection.
There is sustenance to be drawn from one’s fellow artists, judiciously selected. The music that Paul and Al and Frank played on Monday was sustaining, in a manner that relates directly to my ability to continue making the music I want to make. When I heard ‘Happy go lucky country’ and ‘Colonial sketch no. 1’ at Mietta’s, that night in 1990, I realised I had met with something that was helpful, that situated me, that empowered. Then there was the quote from ‘Parisian Thoroughfare’ in the eights on ‘Star eyes’ – connection, continuity, present inspiration. This time there were several tunes I hadn’t heard before, and the others were far more recent than Six by Three or When words fail, the two albums Paul and Allan and Gary made together. I don’t actually think there was anything from Three, either, now I think about it.
Going along, my expectations were high, particularly as I’d read reviews of the MJC performance, in particular here and here. Two tunes specifically highlighted, ‘Abschied’ and ‘Love like a curse’ were both ballads, and gosh I remember ‘Two hearts, three hearts’ played at the Limerick Arms in the band with Stephen Grant and the Rex brothers, and Al, or ‘Angel’ with Tim Hopkins at the falling-punter gig, or ‘Darling come back to me’ sung by Shell on her album Angel (here’s an optional link to that but the spelling is dreadful), and so now I’m getting scared.
What do you think happened? There were some extraordinary moments. Truly extraordinary, when the band acts together on shared impulse and transports the listener – no other way of putting it. Devilish rhythmic invention, and dynamic shadings that take the breath away. An energy extravagant but mastered, and a sense of the concerted. Then it was over. And I was making my farewells, or trying to, when Paul said, ‘and what did you think of this tune?’ flourishing a chart for ‘Love like a curse.’
Let’s say you’d found it a little dense, and the changes, while inventive, sometimes a little too enthusiastically inventive, so as to make the assertion of the tonal centre feel less urgent and gratifying than it might have been. What if your sense of dimension and proportion was not fully satisfied by what you heard, albeit on the first occasion you’d met the piece, and when indeed there might have been scope for revision on subsequent auditions? What if you’d heard one of those chord movements that always fills you with suspicion, melody and bass moving collaterally by a semitone at a point of significance, for example where the tonality is to be established anew? What if melodically the piece didn’t seem to exhibit of the distinction of ‘Stars apart’, ‘Ballad in search of a title’ or ‘Passing fancies’? What would you say? You’d only heard it once, and one of your heroes was asking.
I was not at my most eloquent, I’m afraid. I tried to be honest, but obviously I was conscious of only having heard the piece for the first time, and aware that my reservations were no match for the time spent on the composition. But I had to say something…