Christopher Hale @ The Northcote Social Club – Review

By: Tom Barton

Christopher Hale launches “Sylvan Coda,” Northcote Social Club, 16/08/2012

Photo: Keith Parsons

The Northcote Social Club stage brimmed with lighted cul-de-sacs of instruments and microphones – a glimpse of the possibilities ahead.

Anticipation was especially heightened considering it had been a “long time between drinks” for Hale, who alluded onstage to a notable period of artistic mourning following the passing of his long-time collaborator, pianist Will Poskitt.

An opening cascade of improvised notes from Hale’s six-stringed acoustic-electric bass heralded his return, with a buoyancy and deep propulsion that is trademark of his virtuosic instrumental ability.

Both Hale’s and the ensemble’s playing were pervaded by a focused playfulness; the fluid dialogue between ensemble members throwing more prominent improvising ensembles into relief.

“Improvised chamber music,” is often how Hale’s work is described. This new music continues that aesthetic: a stream-of-consciousness of innovative compositional explorations of classical, jazz and world-music traditions, buttressed against improvisational sections.

It may seem an understatement to recount the essence of rhythmic exploration to a bassist-led ensemble, yet Hale’s amalgamation of Flamenco and jazz rhythms, breakbeats and rock declarations, demonstrate the breadth of his influences and vision as a bandleader and composer.

The percussion section included the versatile Ben Vanderwal on drumkit, and percussionists Javier Fredes and Johnny Tedesco – the latter generating a dynamic centrepiece with his extraordinary Flamenco dancing. Tedesco’s almost-levitating synergy of movement and percussion left the audience spellbound. The rhythm section maintained a pulsating narrative, imparting an inevitable, irresistible crescendo throughout the entire set.

Guitarist Nathan Slater moved effortlessly between the musical fore and background, his percolating flamenco-influenced nylon-stringed guitar punctuated by outbursts so passionate and arresting that at one point during a solo he elicited a gasp from an audience member.

Photo: Keith Parsons

Vocalists Gian Slater, Jacquie Gawler and Emma Gilmartin allied with saxophonist Julian Banks to enmesh vibrant, ethereal clusters of sound. These sweetly jarring contrapuntal threads regularly formed the harmonic substance of Hale’s pieces. The most minutiae of sonic detail was attended to, with vocalists uttering pitched in-breaths reminiscent of the artic tundra, or sounding muted horn-like vocal tones through toy megaphones.

Slater often delivered the melodies of Hale’s compositions. Her singing exhibited a thrilling technical dexterity more commonly expected of a dynamic horn player, and a highly expressive yet uncoloured vocal phrasing. Slater’s rhythmic prowess really shone in the context of this ensemble. A particular highlight was the Slater siblings’ interwoven duo-solo, reminiscent of childhood play interspersed with playful mimicry.

The crowd’s response to Slater’s improvised statements was a heartening signal that her unique vision of vocal jazz may be transitioning towards widespread comprehension.

Between songs, Hale was visibly moved by his colleagues’ contributions. The same was true of the audience, collectively alternating between cheering and awestruck silence.

At one moment during the performance, Hale unwittingly and succinctly revealed the possible catalyst for his creative renewal. During one song’s unhurried introduction, musicians traded complex layered clapping and percussion parts with a relaxed, focused feeling, imparting a strong sense of musical joy and community.

Support acts

Hannah Cameron’s ensemble gave an impressive support performance. Cameron’s mature voice conveyed an intimacy and depth with quite stunningly-paced phrasing. Her jazz-influenced compositions are innovative well beyond the typical ‘singer-songwriter’ caste, yet they maintained an uncluttered and earnest feel.

James Gilligan’s accompaniment and improvisations on the acoustic contrabass demonstrated the emerging player’s notable technical aptitude and his already considerable musical sensibilities (he is, incidentally, a protégé of Hale’s). Cameron and Gilligan’s opening duo-piece rang hauntingly throughout the venue; striking rhythms emerging from the familial blend of nylon-stringed acoustic guitar and acoustic contrabass.

The pair was joined by guitarist Lincoln McKenzie, who contributed sensitive guitar and a compelling composition; and Tom Noonan, whose searching alto sax solo on one piece was the most captivating I’ve seen of this seriously promising young player.

The audience sat in quiet reflection from the beginning of the set. This changed when a security guard requested everyone to stand – apparently carrying out some disappointingly counter-intuitive venue policy. This momentarily broke Cameron’s spell with shuffling, chatting and phone-checking, but people were again soon subsumed in the moving music.

Luke Moller, multi-string instrumentalist who has previously performed with Hale, gave a solo violin and vocal set as the night’s first act. His performance was marked with bold rhythms, lyrical melodies and honest, unadulterated singing.

Moller’s use of a single condenser microphone to pick up a blend of both the violin and voice was a strong performance gesture, allowing a natural blending of sounds that enhanced the intimate feeling of his music. Moller won some genuine laughs from the crowd with his cheeky demeanour and made us rest assured that the fiddle’s larrikin spirit is indeed alive and well.