Jeremy Rose & The Earshift Orchestra


(Earshift Music EAR082)


Along with the sounds, it was the litheness that first drew me to jazz. As a child I’d listened to music ranging from The Beatles to Handel, and then suddenly this more slippery music, brimming with life, burst onto my radar. Names like Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and Wes Montgomery swam before my eyes, and soon enough John Coltrane was jolting me like an earthquake.

That litheness, common to all the small groups, seemed in shorter supply with big bands, Ellington’s apart. I cottoned on to Fletcher Henderson and Count Basie, and one of the earliest records I had was by the Buddy Rich Big Band. But here’s the thing: I found I liked this record best when it dropped away to just the rhythm section. Then it was suddenly slippery again. To me, the massed horns seemed like huge granite blocks. I got the excitement factor, but of all the ways music can affect your mind, heart and central nervous system, excitement is the one that wears thin fastest.

I remember reviewing guitarist Allan Holdsworth in Sydney, with Dave Weckl on drums, and whomever else. They immediately unleashed such speed, volume, drama and in-your-face virtuosity that it seemed everything they had to say was proclaimed in that first piece, and the rest of the concert was a sort of coda. My experience of big-band jazz has routinely been akin to this: suppleness sacrificed in the cause of massive sound, hurtling velocity and screaming trumpets, whether it be from Rich’s band, Maynard Ferguson’s, or too many others.

Of course there were exceptions, including Mingus’s bigger bands, Maria Schneider’s bands, Ten Part Invention and the Australian Art Orchestra. I liked composers and leaders who treated a big band more like an orchestra, so just a flute and a bass trombone might harmonise a line, rather than the default being the whole horn section. To that list add Jeremy Rose’s Earshift Orchestra (named after his label, celebrating its 15th anniversary this year). Like the AAO, this is a band of varying size, personnel and instrumentation.

Rose had long proved himself an engaging composer for small bands before he released 2018’s Iron in the Blood (with subsequent jaw-dropping live performances), proving he could also write imaginative, ambitious, thoughtful pieces for 17 players, this one being a response to Robert Hughes’ pivotal account of Australian colonisation. Then came a baby version of the orchestra and Disruption! The Voice of the Drums, Rose astutely crafting contexts to spotlight the abundant creativity of drummers Simon Barker and Chloe Kim.

Now we arrive at Discordia, a nine-part suite for 17-piece orchestra in which Rose explores, as he puts it, “the intricate labyrinths of misinformation and consequent human discord”. Vera Discordia (part 1), sets the stage, the piece juxtaposing hustling drums and horns with the sort of quiet reveries that Teo Macero threw into Miles Davis’s immortal Right Off on Jack Johnson. Gradually the hustling and the reveries lock, perhaps in battle, or in a merged perception of truth. Vera Discordia (part 2) reestablishes the dichotomy, now presented it as a more civilised dialogue between Tom Avgenicos’ trumpet and James Macaulay’s trombone.

Jeremy Rose. Photos: Cassandra Hannagan.

If you want a pianist to make your lines as oneiric as possible, Novak Manojlovic writes himself into the score – which for Floating Just Beyond the Reach, Rose presented to the players graphically rather than via notation. The piece suggests the tenuousness of understanding, making it dreamlike rather than rigid. Loudspeaker epitomises the constant information onslaught, but even when Rose uses his horns belligerently, he incorporates subtleties and surprise.

The gorgeous The Illusion of Perfection features Hilary Geddes’ unfailingly resourceful guitar playing, the title inferring that modernity has tossed perfection beyond our grasp – perhaps outside the deceits of advertising! Some relief from intellectual engagement is intended on Just for Laughs, although I find the swelling horns carry a veiled menace, before Rose’s soprano goes for a sprightly dance across the exceptional rhythm section, completed by bassist Jacques Emery and drummer Chloe Kim.

A lighter mood is sustained more ironically on Bring Back the Nineties, with its rock beat and quoted melodies conjuring a world before the information revolution, the latter implied by a growing intensity. Unverified Persona shrinks the scale back from societal to personal, which Rose evokes with the instrument on which he makes his most intimate and heartfelt statements: the bass clarinet. Finally comes the fascinating Echo Chamber, the curse that has destroyed rational debate. The composition cleverly uses recurring motifs, while also finding space for Geddes in more hair-raising mode.

Superbly recorded, Discordia shows that inventive composers continue to find ways for orthodox big bands to escape tiresome conventions. Really, the sky’s the limit – as it is in contemporary interpretations of the concept of truth!

Discordia. By Jeremy Rose & the Earshift Orchestra