Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Ordering new CD

The new CD is being released May 1 but can be ordered online already here.

Saturday, April 18, 2009


Western non-classical music has evolved to the point where a composite instrument called a drum kit (or set) consisting of several drums and several cymbals of varying sizes is played continuously with four limbs throughout the entire rendition of any given piece (with occasional brief exceptions).

This is quite unusual in the history of music across all cultures. The density of a multi-drum/cymbal set-up and the unique application of four limbs using pedal mechanisms for the feet is equivalent to at least two instrumentalists playing drums with hands. The cymbals would be another player. Leaving aside the special case of actual music for drums alone this use of a drumset in a wider instrumental ensemble is an unusual instrumental balance. Continuous percussion in folkloric musics might come from a single tambourine or hand drum playing with several melodic instruments rather than what amounts to maybe the density of three traditional percussionists pitted against an equivalent amount of melodic instruments. Moreover there is the singularity of the very assumption of the drumset's necessary constancy in the foreground of the music. Traditional folk musics and non-Western classical traditions like Indian and Arabic musics feature long passages without drums or if the drumming is continuous it doesn’t necessarily have the same degree of constant primacy that it so often does in jazz, rock and related forms. And of course in Western classical music drumming and cymbals are used only very occasionally for punctuation.

Now, the situation with drums as we now know them is all very well and I in no way intend to make a case that it should be any other way in non-classical Western music. But what is the musical purpose of this unusual case of the multiple drums + cymbals playing such a big role all the time?

Drummers need to justify their existence far more. It's not at all the case that "swingin’ or groovin’" music needs drums inherently. A master folkloric player will groove like crazy without drums. Same for the unstoppable swing of a sublime jazz musician playing alone or indeed the rhythmic propulsion of a great country guitar picker. A certain kind of classical player - I'm thinking of someone like Glenn Gould - can also groove palpably without drums. Orchestras (really good ones) might get you on your feet dancing in certain passages with no more than an odd timpani bump, or not even that.

Clearly an accomplished musician doesn't (or shouldn't) need a drummer to keep time for them or to create a groove that they themselves are apparently incapable of generating. Why would it be that way other than lack of skill? All instruments are percussion instruments. Chick Corea once remarked that he liked to approach the piano as if he were a drummer with 88 drums and 10 drumsticks at his disposal. Even a voice can be percussive. So really – as is the case with every other instrument – the drums should bring something truly special of its own beyond the rhythmic dimension that all instruments contribute to anyway.

What distinguishes the master drummers that I know of is that they make sure they are really adding to the music something that it would lack without them. And so mere timekeeping is no more important to them than it is to any player. They play in time and share in the groove along with everyone else, no more, no less. But when music without a drummer is capable of grooving of its own accord if we're going to have drums all the time it behoves the drummer not to forget that along with everyone else they must make very sure they are at all times adding something of unique value to the timbre, orchestration, counterpoint, dynamics and all the other spectrums of the music. And since their instrument can so easily dominate adversely, they of all people need to pay extra special attention to balance.

Let's strive to be sure the music really is better by virtue of what the drums are playing as it clearly is when Tony Williams - or any other master - plays. Too often the reverse holds, with a bombastic, gormless drummer wringing all the dynamics out of the music, puncturing a carefully spun fabric with boorish ejaculations and drowning out or indeed completely destroying the subtleties, careful pacing and shadings of other players to whom they just can’t be bothered to pay deep attention since the art of accompanying largely evades them. When this lamentable situation is in play the drumming is so far from being special that the music really would sound better without it.

Mark Isaacs, Good Friday, 2009

Friday, April 10, 2009

CD liner notes - Tell It Like It Is

In 2006 I recorded my previous CD Resurgence – also released on ABC Jazz – in Los Angeles. That album was in every way a studio project. Not only was it made in a recording studio, the band itself had never – nor has it ever since – played live. It’s a unique way of working, and when one engages musicians who are not only formidable jazz players but also consummate studio musicians – as I had done with Vinnie Colaiuta, Bob Sheppard and the rest of the American team – it is quite possible to work very successfully despite the band meeting each other and the music the day before the sessions. I think of the results as being as crafted, polished and succinct as I could ever want them to be. 

On New Year’s Day 2007, feeling in the doldrums with the LA recording yet to find a label, I sat down at the piano and came up with the melody of You Never Forget Love surprisingly quickly. It instantly became a song in search of a band and I realised how much I wanted to continue with the particular instrumentation and subgenre of jazz I had explored on Resurgence

Integral to the sound was the sheer genius of Australian guitarist James Muller who had joined me in Los Angeles. The ‘subgenre’ I’ll call my take on jazz fusion, melding the rhythmic feels and sound worlds of gospel, blues, soul, Latin and classical into a largely acoustic jazz framework while approaching the composing in a way that contrasts highly arranged – even through-composed – sections with the ‘blowing’ (or improvised) soloistic passages. 

An email chat with James helped me find the ideal players for the Australian edition of the band. Bassist Brett Hirst had played superbly in some previous music of mine in a similar format on a tour in 2000 and had played hard to get with a busy schedule ever since. I knew the warm and friendly grittiness of his sound would suit the new project perfectly. Matt Keegan’s loving approach to melody and beautiful sax sound had already knocked me out at a concert I had curated in Brisbane. Drummer Tim Firth was the wild card, a young player whom I had in fact never heard play, but he was James Muller’s drummer, which was recommendation enough. Tim grew into being the perfect drummer for the band, sensitive and strong, creative yet accurate, virtuosic and subtle. Since so many seminal ideas pertinent to the band had emerged from the Resurgence CD and we would be touring on the back of its release, it seemed natural to call it the ‘Resurgence Band’. 

At the soundcheck for the first gig in March 2007 I felt the balance of personalities was perfect with all opposites neatly in place, as I hoped they were in the music – in turn serious and fun, edgy and pensive, the list goes on. With a brand new repertoire written since LA we became a touring – rather than a studio – band, and we certainly got around. An Asian tour in 2007 took us to Japan, Korea and Thailand followed by an extensive Australian tour later that year and concerts through 2008. 

Unlike the studio project, with a working band like this the music can develop organically on the road. As well as bringing in new tunes, I’d endlessly refine the arrangements, bailing up band members with yet another idea (or scribbling) whether in a motel room in Mackay, as our seatbelts clicked in on an international flight takeoff, or at soundcheck and backstage. Eyes would sometimes roll in response to my ‘Guys, I’ve just thought of one more thing’, not least because it was never the last tweak. Of course, much changed of its own accord without direction from me or anyone else. I became delighted with the dynamics and pacing the band achieved, and felt we were reaching for a larger-scale narrative beyond merely presenting tunes and solos. 

When the opportunity to record arose in the second half of 2008 it was pragmatic factors that led me to a live rather than a studio recording, but as so often is the case, what was practical was also the perfect aesthetic. The band was distinguished from the previous project by being a working band, so how better than to capture it than in performance? And without losing any of the polish of a studio project, I knew that playing live we could also stretch out and really go for it. We recorded two nights for safety but everything here came from the second night, which had that required magic. At the end of the first night filmmaker Roen Davis offered to document the second night with a five-camera video shoot and subsequently edited it painstakingly to the CD mixes. I don’t think I’ve yet had a better offer at the end of a gig and I hope that the pictures along with the sound of Tell It Like It Is will soon be coming to a screen near you. 

To tell it like it is simply denotes honesty and I hope you’ll feel the music coming from just this place. 

Mark Isaacs

Tour poster - Australian Tour May 16-29

CD cover - release May 1 on ABC/Universal

Nice, huh? Thanks ABC designers!