The Umbrellas

Foundry 616, September 4

Umbrellas res
Peter Dasent. Photo: Frankie Lee.

Anyone keeping a band going for 30 years is probably doing something right. Since 1985 keyboards player Peter Dasent has sustained one of the treasures of Australian music by writing music of such wit and imagination as to whet the appetites of some of the best players in the land.

He told us during this 30th anniversary concert that he had initially conceived of music that blended Francis Poulenc with Frank Zappa. These days one might point to Erik Satie, Thelonious Monk, Nino Rota and Carla Bley as other possible touchstones, with Rota supplying the repertoire’s only non-Dasent material.

The common thread is humour, a quality harder to convey in music (as opposed to lyrics) than in any other art-form.

Crucial to the Umbrellas’ success are Andrew Robson (alto and baritone saxophones) and James Greening (trombone, pocket trumpet, sousaphone), who, after decades of working together in several bands, are perfect foils for each other. Robson’s effervescence and Greening’s ebullience intrinsically suit Dasent’s material, while the former thickens the mix with a jolting anguish on occasion, and the latter with a more haunting quality.

The vibraphone and marimba of Andrew Wilkie (a founding member) define the Umbrellas’ trademark sound more than any other instrument, and drummer Toby Hall and newish bassist Zoe Hauptmann have the time of their lives negotiating Dasent’s diverse grooves and switchback tempo changes with panache. It was heart-warming to hear ex-bassist Steve Elphick return to the fold for three pieces, too.

Greening’s trombone solo on Lounge Suite Tango and his fragmented, heart-rending pocket trumpet on Lost at Sea were highlights, as were Robson’s scything alto forays on The Abandoned Mango and The Horn of the Yak. The two Rota suites, from the Fellini films 8½ and Amarcord were, like much Italian culture, miraculously sophisticated one moment and wonderfully cheesy the next, the latter characteristic deliciously amplified by Dasent’s organ sounds. The wonder of Amarcord’s music was only compromised by some missing subtlety in the dynamics.