Imagine gazing out at a placid, turquoise-coloured lagoon, then diving in, only to discover it’s seething with sea-snakes. This music is a bit like that. The surface is all high-gloss melodies that often carry a certain beguiling tranquillity, and if you play it too softly or are perverse enough treat it as background music, that’s all you’ll hear. But sit and listen via a good sound system, and suddenly a snakes-and-ladders labyrinth of intricacies plays out in the rhythms.
Christopher Hale is a Melbourne bassist and composer whose music has roots in jazz, but from those roots has grown a vocabulary rather than an idiom, and even that vocabulary has steadily become more multilingual, soaking up sounds and concepts from sources as diverse flamenco and the traditional music of Korea.
What sets Hale’s endeavours here apart from some of the more vulgar fusions that proliferate in contemporary music is that his core motivation is not to appropriate superficial elements simply to spice the music with a veneer of exotica. Hale doesn’t deal in surfaces so much as underlying principles and the various ways these may be interlocked.
His key collaborator here is the Korean percussionist Woo Minyoung, who plays the album’s opening notes on an hourglass-shaped double-headed drum called a changgo, the unique sound of which is a hallmark of Korean music. The curiosity is that her little introduction leads to a piece called Flamenco, so you have a rhythm from that Spanish tradition being coloured by the changgo, and topped with solos on electric guitar (Theo Carbo) and tenor saxophone (Jamie Oehlers), while Hale’s warm bass guitar, Andrea Keller’s electric piano and Simon Barker’s drums complete a sonic picture that seems unrooted in time or place.
Barker is an important part of that picture, being the first Australian jazz player to be seduced by Korean music, and having now spent most of his professional career immersed in it, seamlessly weaving its ideas of rhythm, texture, dynamics and drama into his work. The use of various Korean rhythmic patterns underpins these Hale compositions, and Barker and Woo make the tricky precepts as natural as breathing.
But the point is that you’re not sitting there preoccupied with the sophistication of the drumming, because the placid lagoons of melody disguise the snaking syncopations. In Ch’il Ch’ae that lagoon is a dreamy dialogue between the guitar and saxophone, while the electric piano merely laps at the edges. On Radio Mori, Oehlers with his light, Stan Getz-like tone, wafts across the shifting complexities of the rhythm, and on Minor Diamonds it is Keller’s turn, her electric piano solo as delicate and elegant as a pearl necklace, with the changgo now popping like a bongo, while Barker’s drumming builds from a mist of cymbals around the changgo to ferociously sharing the foreground with Nadje Noordhuis’s trumpet. In his digital liner notes, Hale wryly describes this climax as “part Stravinsky, part Kate Bush”.
Topollim Sketches is initially more wistful, before Oehlers unleashes his finest playing on the record: a lament that chops up the music’s surface with swoops and cries. Finally, the title track is a chance for Woo to shine, her drums and gongs concocting a dense tangle of rhythmic convolutions that storm into your ears via the phenomenally rich and resonant recording quality. If the album has a flaw, it’s that one might wish the melodies to move us more and soothe us less, but hey: the world could use some placation right now.