Sound Lounge, February 3


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The late Allan Browne. Photo supplied.

Divide artists into the knowing and the innocent, and the late Allan Browne would muck in with the latter. Despite the sophistication he brought to his drumming, poetry and band-leading, his was inherently naive art, made with child-like glee. Paul Grabowsky described him as “the single most important jazz musician that Melbourne has ever produced”. He was certainly a strong contender.

The remaining members of the Allan Browne Quintet (his key project in the decade before his 2015 death), trumpeter Eugene Ball, alto saxophonist Phil Noy, guitarist Geoff Hughes and bassist Nick Haywood, have reformed as Five Bells. Browne would have approved of their decision not to revisit the old (routinely exceptional) repertoire, but to create a new one: Songs in the Key Of Al. Given that Browne’s quintet crafted musical realisations of major poetic works from Homer to Rimbaud, he would have cherished (and been humbled by) the fact that each new composition takes its name and inspiration from one of his own poems, including Jazz, which redolently refers to this music as “a sea of question marks”.

On Noy’s The Three Planets those question marks were bright dissonances darting through the harmonies, and on several (including Ball’s Spring, inspired by Browne’s beloved dog, Sooty) they were explorations of the striking, music-fattening contrast between the arrow-sharp trumpet and the wider, drier, coarser alto, with its sudden star-burst convergences with the guitar. Ball’s lines, meanwhile, were spiked with his flair for surprising flourishes, from vocalised effects and timbral variations to a gorgeous upper register sometimes reminiscent of the great Booker Little. Among the finest pieces was Haywood’s Moon Dogged, a vehicle for Hughes shimmering guitar, while the latter’s Oxygen conjured the weirdly remote world of hospitals, an enduring aspect of Browne’s final years.

The night opened with John Clare’s eccentric delivery of some of Browne’s poetry (with a little Shelley and Eliot thrown in) to the accompaniment of Evan Mannell’s vibrant drumming. Both acts could source the poet; the innocence was harder to locate.