13 August 2009

Stay away from that jazz man

by Matt Rubinstein at 1:06 pm


Last night I had the very great pleasure of catching famed jazz pianist Barney McAll with bass guy Jonathan Zwartz and drummer Simon Barker at the Macquarie Hotel. Barney was in town for some sold-out shows with the legendary Fred Wesley, but this was a more intimate acoustic gig. The piano trio is my favourite jazz combo, and I think it’s the most poetic arrangement. It seems to me to be a perfect balance, rarely showy, a real conversation.

Barney and Jonathan did the music for my stage adaptation of Solstice, with Hamish Stuart on drums and Kate Ceberano singing along. Over the years Barney has continually stretched and redefined himself, experimenting with Cuban, African and electronic influences, and trying to keep up with him has taught me a lot about music. Some of his stuff is pretty challenging, but last night he folded it all back into an old-school trio performance that soothed the mind and the soul.

Barney’s five albums are available as high-quality DRM-free downloads from his website and are well worth the $US9 each. I’m encouraged by the way musicians are using the Internet to get their work out there and get a return on them, despite some questionable moves from the industry associations. I think the publishing industry can learn a lot from the music industry, though I’m not sure exactly what yet.

The Macquarie Hotel is a labyrinth of bars all apparently playing live music at roughly the same time. Some of the classic rock from downstairs started drifting into the Ravál bar upstairs towards the end of the second set. It’s quite a new space and nicely done up with sofas and soft lighting, perfect for jazz. From my seat by the window I could see but not hear the traffic of Wentworth Avenue, and even look up into an apartment block where a few lights were on and a few silhouettes were wandering around. At one point two people in adjacent apartments leaned at the same time against their common wall; one was talking on the phone, and I don’t know what the other one was doing. Looking at them, and at the jazz—it seemed to be what a city is all about. The photo doesn’t do it any justice, but I kind of like it.

There aren’t many famous bassists—Charlie Mingus being a spectacular exception—but it’s an incredible instrument, it reaches deep inside you. It’s usually a buried pulse, occasionally let out for a brief solo, but I’ll never forget Jonathan playing a devastating, elegiac “Over the Rainbow” entirely on his bass one night in Bondi maybe ten years ago. That’s him in this sonnet from Equinox, one of my favourites, though not as good as I wanted it to be:


They book a table at the Basement
with vodka and potato wedges.
The band tonight is Hip Replacement;
the music seems to have no edges.
The bassist slows to treacle pace
and waltzes with his double bass,
cradling its neck with loving fingers,
stroking its strings. The music lingers
like heavy blossom in the air
as he sinks deeper in his solo.
Tugging the collar of his polo
he sweats and winces, unaware
of anything beyond the dance
of man and bass in mutual trance.

Thanks, guys!

12 August 2009

Unicode Fail

by Matt Rubinstein at 1:28 pm


I’m all kinds of excited at the news that Greek publisher Livanis has just released its edition of Vellum.

Since the novel is all about translations and different kinds of writing, I was stoked when it was first translated and I’m even more stoked now that it’s come out in a different alphabet. My first intimation that there were alphabets other than the familiar Latin one came in my second year of primary school. We had just moved from Byron Bay to Adelaide and I started halfway through the school year. I wasn’t too worried about catching up on the work; I was already well-established as a nerd (I recently got a nice e-mail from my Year 1 teacher who remembered me dictating complete sentences), but I was a bit nervous about making new friends.

So my mother bundled me off with a big bag of cherries so the kids would like me—which may have been the kind of thing that worked in Byron but wasn’t going to cut any mustard at Goodwood Primary. It was a relief to come back to the classroom after that first lonely lunchtime—until I sat down and realised that I couldn’t read any of the writing on the blackboard. I really thought my brain had broken, I could dictate complete sentences and suddenly I couldn’t read a word. And I couldn’t understand how all the other kids were able to read the words aloud. Maybe the whole school was playing a horrible trick on me? No, they were just learning Greek, as they’d been doing all year.

In an earlier draft of the novel, Jack suffered from a condition called transient pure alexia, which is a temporary acquired inability to recognise the relationship between graphemes and phonemes, letters and sounds. My description of his condition was more or less exactly my experience in the Greek class. Even after Jack’s alexia had been cured by redrafting, the dissonance he experiences on first seeing the manuscript’s unreadable writing has a lot to do with my first exposure to another alphabet.

Anyway, the Livanis edition looks great and is dotted with little footnotes added by the translator: sometimes sourcing quotes, sometimes explaining English references, other times who knows. I’m dying to know exactly what the notes mean, but I’m certain that they’re completely apposite to the themes of the book. Many thanks to Rena Lekkou-Dantou for the translation.