Bernie McGann and the Australasian Jazz Avant Garde – 1966
(Sarang Bang Records SBR028. LP review by Andrew Cartmel)
Alto sax player Bernie McGann was born in New South Wales in 1937 and died in 2013. In the early 1960s he was living in New Zealand and playing in a Cannonball Adderley-influenced quintet with Kiwi Kim Paterson, the trumpeter on these sessions. Relocating to Sydney, the men hooked up with Californian drummer George Neidorf (who would later mentor a young Robert Wyatt) and continued to develop musically in the direction of Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy and Albert Ayler.
All of the tracks on this LP were recorded in Sydney in 1966, at two separate live performances, featuring the same personnel — with the addition of piano on Side 1. Lazy Days, a McGann original, has the strident jollity, surreal circus feel and surging time shifts of a vintage march by Sun Ra (a resemblance which extends to the guerrilla recording circumstances and the attractively meticulous but handcrafted look of the record’s packaging, with a heavy cardboard cover and informative, glossy insert sheet). This tune features crystalline, trilling piano from Bobby Gebert, which shifts into skilful accompaniment, and relaxed, masterful playing from McGann himself. Andy Brown’s bass provides a springboard for the combo and Kim Paterson slices off a concise trumpet solo.
Chuggin’, composed by Gebert, is take-no-prisoners high speed bop which calls to mind late 1950s Mingus and indeed McGann is suggestive of Jackie MacLean here, acrobatic and exultant on his alto. Sky, another Gebert original shows McGann delivering wheedling imprecations against the solid textures of the rhythm section, speeding and churning, throwing out sharp edged phrases. Neidorf moves to the fore on this piece playing a featured spot which, unusual among drum solos, ends rather too soon.
Side 2 is a slightly more conventional slab of jazz, opening with Thelonious Monk’s Rhythm-A-Ning, which gives Neidorf more scope to display his chops and, in its headlong haste, is an excellent vehicle for the adroit and athletic Paterson. On Ornette Coleman’s When Will the Blues Leave McGann plays with a fat, solid sound like a man shining a torch around a darkened room, illuminating his surroundings in sweeps. In bracing contrast, Paterson is cool and methodical, playing with laid-back premeditation and forging a path for the others with his hammered-out trumpet phrases. Neidorf also gets an extended, resonant excursion, making judicious use of cymbals.
Considering that the source of most of these recording (all three tracks on Side 1) was a “worn out cassette” belonging to trumpeter Paterson, the sound quality is startlingly good. The Side 2 sessions, recorded at Wayside Chapel in Kings Cross (then as now, Sydney’s red light district) have more of a location ambience which conjures a sense of place, but at a cost of rendering the musicians somewhat distant and muffled. No matter, this is a fascinating document and a valuable restoration of a lost era in Australian jazz. It’s exciting to speculate what other treats Sarang Bang Records might have in store.