HAMMERHEAD LAUNCH, Wednesday 13 August, Venue 505
Less than a year before his premature death in 2008, I asked Tony Hobbs, one of Australia’s most passionate saxophonists, if he had any plans for a new band. “I guess I’m just a hard-bop muso”, he replied. “Who wants to hear hard bop nowadays?
Tony was much more than a player who could be defined by one genre of jazz but in words as in music he had a gift for cutting though the bullshit, and he was making a point. Hard bop is a style and format of jazz that, in Sydney, at least, has been shuffled from the wok-burner to the deep freeze. Although hard bop continues to stylistically define jazz to many casual listeners, its political moment has long passed and its innovations have been codified. Its glories and achievements too easily forgotten, it is no longer seen to be at the cutting edge of creative jazz, having been succeeded – some would say superseded – successively by modal jazz, free jazz, spiritual jazz, electro-fusion, jazz-funk and ethno-jazz. It’s fair to admit, too, that some hard bop gigs are little more than blowing sessions, with solos passed around all-too-democratically to each instrument on every number in strict rotation between the theme and its reprise.
So it was a delight to be at 505 for the CD launch of Hammerhead, a Sydney hard bop combo that creates and presents its music with fire, freshness and a loving knowledge of where it has come from. Hammerhead is the co-creation of Jason Bruer, a highly versatile band-leader and saxophonist who has returned to Australia after decades in London; and Duncan Archibald, a powerhouse drummer. It is rounded out by trumpeter Ray Cassar; Andrew Robertson on alto, baritone and flute; pianist Tim Bruer; and bass-player Matt Gruebner.
The opening set demonstrated how Hammerhead has evolved from a kind of tribute band to Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers into a distinctive collective voice. The high-spirited opening number, Blues Of Many Hues, an attractive Tim Bruer composition, established the quality of the original songs the band has developed while Pretty Eyes, re-arranged by Jason Bruer from a Dee Dee Bridgewater arrangement of a Horace Silver classic showed how the band has married ingenious creativity to the rich traditions that inspired it.
Sometimes I See, an unexpected selection for a hard bop band, was one of the highlights of the night. It’s by Pat Metheny, not one of your customary hard bop pantheon, with the gorgeous, mournful theme drawn out by exquisite horn harmonies, Jason Bruer’s limpid tenor, a telling bass solo and Ray Cassar’s lovely trumpet filigrees. Metheny is visiting Australia later this year and he’d surely love this treatment of his beautiful song. The be-hatted Ray Cassar thrilled everybody all night. He is a superb technician on all registers, equally capable of lyricism or power on open horn or mute. He has been exciting and delighting audiences all year whether he is lighting up James Ryan’s soulful and heavy-hitting funk excursions at Marrickville’s Lazybones Lounge; Steve Fitzmaurice’s thrilling Mingus tribute band, Mingus Amongst Us at the refurbished New Hampton Hotel in Darlinghurst Rd and of course Hammerhead too..
After the end of the first set, many of us hoped that a few intrusively effusive drunks would sink into silence or go home but they continued to exhibit their misplaced brand of conspicuous enthusiasm. Fortunately, Hammerhead are way too professional an outfit to be deterred and amongst the high points of their second set were Sham Time, a hugely funky Eddie Harris workout augmented by Andrew Robertson’s baritone sax and Tim Bruer’s righteous piano solo, and Searching For Network, an electrifying Jason Bruer original that loses no lustre against the classic compositions by Wayne Shorter, Oliver Nelson and Cedar Walton that the band interpreted with distinction. Duncan Archibald’s exemplary drum power continued to drive, colour and cajole the band all evening.
Whether or not hard bop becomes a music that once again attracts the volatile niche markets that comprise jazz, Hammerhead is a band that approaches its music with passion, generosity and imagination. It has become a genuinely cohesive collective which deploys a deft mixture of purposeful originals, canny arrangements of neglected classics and the occasional left-field surprise to present a contemporary take on hard bop with admirable taste and integrity. If you get the chance to see them you will not be disappointed.
David Sampson / austalianjazz.net / 18- 9- 2014