Phil Slater

Immersion Lure


The desiccating effects of age are not all bad. Phil Slater’s trumpet sound, for instance has steadily become more austere, less lush and romantic, across the years. Something similar has befallen his composing, too. While this slightly compresses the music’s emotional range, it makes the spikes in that range more telling. Often these now have a chilling quality, like a sudden blast of wind when a door is opened on to a storm.

Slater’s collaborators are of one mind. Partly his asceticism is contagious, partly the compositions demand this approach, and partly his colleagues have moved in a similar musical direction with the passing years. Pianist Matt McMahon and drummer Simon Barker have now shared projects with Slater for over three decades, and the instant rapport evident in the early days has only deepened. Bassist Brett Hirst and tenor saxophonist Matt Keegan, meanwhile, have long ceased to be the relatively new kids on the Slater block.

Rhythmically, the music tends towards gentleness and sparseness, so the melodic lines don’t have to work at dominating the foreground. The intent is to cast spells: to draw you into hypnotic patterns, only for Slater to impale you on slicing lines that, in the case of the title track, gradually rise in pitch, until the trumpet notes become a silvery stream of devastating impact, delivered with exceptional evenness of tone across the instrument’s range.

Rigour and discipline are major elements, but never ends in themselves. On Blossom, for instance, the restraint evokes the delicacy of the title, like time-lapse photography of a flower gradually unfurling into something more lavish, at which point elation and despair become jumbled, because beauty and sadness are almost always inseparable twins.

Phil Slater. Photo: Simone Coleman.

Helping Keegan make such telling statements is the fact that he dares to push so little breath through his saxophone, so the edges of the notes are blurred and smudged, as sketch artists do to hard lines with the heel of their hands. The piano, bass and drums insinuate themselves around the horns, darting to the foreground for a moment, and then retreating into the loosely woven rhythmic texture, always with a keen sense of sustaining the total aesthetic that’s in play. It’s only on the closing Panoramic that they fill more of the picture, and, as the title suggests, that frame keeps widening, until there are endless details on which to focus, with the piece also being the album’s most rhythmically robust.

Having a vision that is this distinctive in the jazz pantheon is improbable, as is finding the perfect people to realise it, so this may prove one of the timeless records of Australian music. It’s one to stop you in your tracks for its duration, and lure you into a world that is the poetic antidote to our prosaic daily lives, while using austerity to magnify endless simple beauties – the sonic equivalent of taking time to smell the flowers.