Greening from Ear to Ear
The title of James Greening’s new work – Tam O’Shanter Tales – has two origins. One belongs to a funny, suspenseful, partly magical, occasionally absurd 1791 poem by Robert Burns recounting the adventures of its eponymous wayward traveller. The second is the name of the hamlet on Tasmania’s north coast where Greening spent a week writing the suite that comprises the album, developing ideas he’d been collecting for years.
Anyone who knows Greening’s work would be highly likely to see such diverse connections as fitting. On one hand, his music sparkles with the witty references and idiosyncratic phrasing that Burns might have appreciated; on the other, he’s capable of sweeping melodic beauty evocative of remote wildernesses. He’s one of those rare musicians who can interweave humour and melancholy within the course of thirty seconds without wavering – or losing the audience’s commitment.
Tam O’Shanter Tales, recorded live at the Sound Lounge, is the debut recording from seven-piece ensemble Greening from Ear to Ear. Having debuted at the 2012 Kinetic Jazz Festival, it’s Greening’s first new band since the early-‘90s formation of The World According to James.
Often, when entering a new phase, we take a pause to look back on what forces have brought us to the present moment. That’s exactly what Greening does on this album. Tam O’Shanter Tales is, in part, a series of autobiographical sketches – homage to the great musicians who’ve influenced him. But, in addition to tunes dedicated specifically to ‘giants in jazz’ and ‘mentors who inspire hope and creativity’, there are songs for ‘lumpy, lovable extended family’ and ‘the common desire for our families to sleep soundly’. Greening draws from a rich palette of textures and colours – musically, emotionally and geographically.
We begin with the bright, danceable ‘Parallel Lines’. A tightly restrained opening bursts into an Afro-Cuban rhythm, underpinned by Hamish Stuart (drums), Fabian Hevia (percussion), Brett Hirst (bass) and Gary Daley (piano). Greening then pulls out his 1926 sousaphone for an eccentric, elephantine number titled ‘Lumpy’ that sounds as though it could soundtrack an African safari. A foray into Middle Eastern influences occurs with ‘Hazara: dedicated to the dispossessed’, which features a punchy pocket trumpet solo from Greening and some energetic, angular work from Paul Cutlan on bass clarinet.
One of the most stirring tracks is ‘Sleeping Beauty’. Gary Daley shifts between a gentle, part-Parisian street, part-Brothers Grimm accordion melody and piano improvisation, creating a beautiful harmonic bed over which Greening (trombone), Andrew Robson (alto saxophone) and Paul Cutlan (bass clarinet) interweave haunting melodies. Matters finish up with a terrifically lolling blues – ‘Early Morning’ – that sounds like something Tom Waits might’ve written at the end of a long night.