Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra & James Muller

Randwick Town Hall, May 13


Muller res
James Muller. Photo supplied.

This concert may well not have happened. The Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra, the country’s preeminent large jazz ensemble, has just lost its Australia Council funding, and Randwick Council’s commendable Twilight Concert Series may well be jeopardised by forced council mergers. So we should be grateful for an opportunity to hear one of the world’s most exciting guitarists, James Muller, amid big-band scores created specifically to feature his playing by the German arranger Florian Ross.

Ross’s Scratch gave the concert such a storming start that one’s ears had to adjust to the venue’s lively acoustics, before his through-composed, charming and rather filmic Okay included huge dynamic leaps from the ensemble. He also arranged four of Muller’s own compositions, beginning with the gorgeous 7/4 lilt of Green Eyes, underpinned by Muller’s finger-picked chords, although the arrangement diminished the piece’s distinctive folksy flavour.

The slower, softer nature of Eindhoven (containing lovely horn sonorities and a lyrical solo from bassist Thomas Botting) suited the room more, but a pattern began to emerge of Ross’s arrangements (and the band’s dynamics) committing the cardinal sin of crowding out the soloist. Turning up was not an option for Muller, and so we were often tantalized by superb playing that was partially swamped. Finally on the rapid Kaboom the guitarist became airborne, at one point having two melodic lines happening simultaneously, and hurtling towards each other with such velocity that they collided in a shower of aural sparks, out of which emerged, phoenix-like, the sprightly soprano saxophone from the band’s director, David Theak.

Chick Corea saw tenor saxophonist Matt Keegan produce an exceptional solo: beautifully measured in its space and phrasing, and ultimately towering in its intensity. The piece also contained one of Ross’s most exciting arrangements, with a crunching conclusion. Pyldriver, penned and arranged by the band’s lead trombonist, Dave Panichi, made the ensemble sound more lithe and flexible than much of Ross’s work, however. It also prompted a Muller solo so astonishing that was like the soundtrack to a supernova event.