Sirens Big Band

Io Myers Studio, August 5


apart res
Ellen Kirkwood conducts while Andrea Keller, Gian Slater and Sandy Evans perform. Photo: Catherine McElhone.

In previewing this concert I noted that no one could accuse composer Ellen Kirkwood of lacking ambition. This was because the thematic underpinnings of [A]part, her new long-form work for jazz orchestra, were her responses to such major issues as climate change and the global refugee crisis. In fact the music turned out to be as loftily ambitious as her subject matter.

In the absence of a libretto, obvious programmatic connotations or more literal illumination from Cleo Mees’ accompanying video projections I grasped few specific relationships between the music and the stated themes. What I did discern, however, was that throughout the suite’s four parts a dialogue existed between agitation and portentousness or agitation and a certain quietude.

Kirkwood articulated this dialogue multifariously, as she did another quality that evoked motion or journeying. The agitation, for instance, was variously suggested by singer Gian Slater creating looped overlays of her voice at the work’s outset, by knotty grooves, or by a furious, sand-blasted solo from Sandy Evans’ soprano saxophone. In utter contrast Evans’s subsequent feature was a madcap comedy employing toys and slapstick musical devices.

The third guest soloist, pianist Andrea Keller, delivered a ravishing improvisation in the suite’s opening section, while the Sirens’ leader, bassist Jessica Dunn, offered one of the works strongest statements with her solo introduction to the finale.

Although the ensemble writing could pack a mighty punch thanks to the presence of Jessica Ling’s tuba among the horns, Kirkwood exhibited keen dramatic and colouristic instincts in generally keeping this uppercut in reserve. Instead she favoured such fascinating sub-groups as alto, tenor and Slater’s wordless singing (the latter routinely extraordinary in its accuracy of pitch on challenging material, whether notated or improvised). Structurally, however, some parts of lesser interest received more space than they warranted.

To open the concert Kirkwood directed the Young Women’s Jazz Orchestra, the band cohering despite a broad range of skill levels, from the enthusiastic to the assured (bassist Renee King) to the creatively sophisticated (saxophonist Kali Gillen).