Band of Five Names

Annandale Creative Arts Centre, April 4


Phil Slater. Photo; Karen Steains.

This is a bond that’s thicker than blood. Trumpeter Phil Slater, pianist Matt McMahon and drummer Simon Barker had not played as a trio under their Band of Five Names moniker for five years, but you wouldn’t have picked it. It’s not just that they have over a quarter-century of shared projects behind them, it’s that, almost like lovers, musicians can develop private languages, and the expressive range of the language these three share is as profound as any in Australian creative music.

They allow each other to be unencumbered by the baggage of a vernacular, so there’s no role-playing, and the music’s foreground is a ceaseless flux of solo, duo and trio combinations.

Their enthralling hour-long improvisation began with a finely crafted Slater/McMahon dialogue, and when Barker finally joined his contributions were initially as faint as shadows on a cloudy day, although even these was enough to begin to intensify the sonic image. When Slater dropped out, McMahon and Barker maintained the minimalism that had existed while the trumpet was there, except now the piano was more naked and Barker’s playing as slight as the whisper of wings.

Matt McMahon. Photo: Karen Steains.

They developed their story in chapters: an implied groove, with sudden textural and dynamic extremes from the drums, pushing the trumpet towards overdrive; soft, dense solo piano at the keyboard’s bottom end; elegiac trumpet that dissolved into anguish; shuddering solo drumming that was hypnotic and surprising in equal measure.

One dialogue had the trumpet and drums hurling shards and fragments at each other, before a lone McMahon, now on Fender Rhodes, assumed the foreground, the instrument singing eerily in a wide-open sonic space. Slater re-joined, his trumpet sound raw and cracking at the edges, like a flamenco singer’s voice.

The only constants from this, one of the world’s great bands, were beauty, drama and the absence of artifice. They were followed by the fascinating Microfiche, whose six members have arrived at their own sophisticated, suspenseful and sometimes thrilling ways of combining composition and improvisation, with keen instincts for orchestration.