Hammerhead plays an outstanding set of Hard Bop
Hammerhead. The Street Theatre. Thursday June 4.
One of the many charms of jazz, the recorded history of which is now nearly a century old, is the persistence and viability of its successive styles. New Orleans, Dixieland, Swing, Bebop, Hard Bop, West Coast Cool, 1960s avant-garde, ’70s fusion, contemporary – the list goes on. There are groups all round the world still playing in all these styles – and audiences to support them.
A fine example of this was heard in Street 2 on Thursday night when the Sydney sextet, Hammerhead, gave an outstanding, one-set concert of uncompromising Hard Bop. This is the style that flourished in the wake of Bebop, particularly in New York, from 1955 to 1965. It simplified the melodies of its predecessor, added an ingredient of gospel (or soul) and drew back from Bebop’s frenetic tempos. Its mood was (and still is) assertive (even strutting) but with considerable harmonic subtlety. Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers were its definitive embodiment.
Hammerhead, some distance from New York it must be admitted, have mastered this music in detail and play it very convincingly, staying true to its essence while remaining free from pedantry. Their leader, tenor saxophonist Jason Bruer, writes demanding arrangements with satisfying, full-blooded, three-way sonorities, a “take-no-prisoners” blend of alto and tenor saxophones plus trumpet (or flugelhorn). These arrangements, over the top of an energetic rhythm section – which included the remarkably versatile pianist, Greg Coffin, along with Matt Gruebner (bass) and Duncan Archibald (drums) – generated an almost overwhelming sound and departure point for a series of powerful solos. Among them were several by altoist, Andrew Robertson, who has clearly taken inspiration from Cannonball Adderley, another key Hard Bop figure. Bruer, on tenor, is another who has thoroughly absorbed his influences and who played with convincing intensity throughout – as did trumpeter, Ray Cassar.
The set included a number of Bruer originals from a recent CD, Mozaic (hammerheadjazz.com), most notably “Wayne’s World”, a tribute to Wayne Shorter (whose career started in Hard Bop and went elsewhere). The pace was varied by a Pat Metheny ballad, Sometimes I See, and the horizon widened somewhat with a couple of tunes by Eddie Harris and Hank Crawford, popular figures more often associated with soul music than with the jazz mainstream.
Bruer, it should be noted, is not content merely to reproduce with elan the classic compositions of the genre – though his version of Cedar Walton’s Mozaic did provide a compelling climax to the concert. Among his more recent work was also a difficult, up-tempo spin-off from the recent television series, Breaking Bad. It was an unarguable demonstration that there is still creative room to move in this music, the high point of which is now 60 years behind us.