What connects the three members of soundgun is that they’re all musicians who, for all their technical prowess, keep a close eye on the bigger picture. Even when their improvisation is at its most complex, it doesn’t forgo its shape or direction or capacity to communicate. In other words, the song is usually in close range and lyricism is a priority.
So, the premise for their debut, self-titled album is fitting. The trio, which first performed at Wangaratta Jazz Festival in 2008 and is made up of pianist Tom O’Halloran, bassist Jonathan Zwartz and drummer Evan Mannell, has handpicked a selection of their favourite popular, folk and rock songs and given them the contemporary jazz treatment.
Addictive opener ‘Journey To Reedham’ by Squarepusher is transformed into a spectacular, energetic, driving journey that sounds something like a cross between The Necks and Bela Bartok. This gives way to a lovely, lilting version of Bon Iver’s ‘Stacks’, which opens out to a sweeping, ethereal solo from O’Halloran. His wide-reaching emotive palette is evident, too, on Bjork’s ‘Joga’, with his haunting piano lines contrasting dynamically with Mannell’s edgy, at times enraged, drumming. Then there’s a perceptive, compellingly restrained yet funky take on Radiohead’s ‘Airbag’.
The only original on soundgun is Zwartz’s ‘Wait Until the Morning’. It is testament to his powers as a composer that it comes across as a classic. Being an accomplished jazz musician doesn’t always translate to being a great songwriter – the temptation to over-complicate is rife – but Zwartz certainly knows how to put together a simple yet beautiful melody.
Jazz has long benefited from the cross-fertilisation of popular songs and outstanding improvisation: from John Coltrane’s ‘My Favourite Things’ to Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook. soundgun is a compelling example of this tradition manifesting in the twenty-first century.