Adelaide Fringe 2012

Pen Island and Max_Mo

0 Comments 28 February 2012

Presented by COMA
@ The Wheatsheaf Hotel
MONDAY 27 February (until March 5)

To most of us the Fringe is a time when our gridded city is inundated with arrivals from interstate and overseas. They flood our streets with vibrancy, alleviating the steady plod of the day-to-day, and for one glorious month we bathe in a sea of raucous cosmopolitanism. Then the flood recedes and we’re left to trudge onward through the mud. Or so it seems.

One of the unrealised (at least by me) benefits of the Festival is the way it brings some of Adelaide’s secrets to the surface.

As I walked into the beer garden at the Wheatsheaf Hotel, standing beneath the red lanterns strung unevenly across the tin roof, I had no knowledge of COMA, or Creative Original Music Adelaide. But, as Artistic Director, James Brown, informed me, the musician-run association has been active in Adelaide for around seven years, providing “a forum for those styles that don’t have one”. On the first and third Mondays of every month, COMA runs gigs at the Wheatsheaf, filling the space with electronic music, jazz, and any other genre bender too obscure to find an outlet. So it was in conjunction with the Fringe, that COMA presented Adelaide jazz/funk/beat-/spoken word collective Max_Mo, and puntastic, avant-garde jazz piano trio, Pen Island.

Outside small, die-hard circles, spoken word gets a pretty bad rap. If done badly it’s kind of like watching your drunk uncle-by-marriage quote Scarface at Christmas lunch — inappropriate, offensive, and enough to make you crawl under the table and smash your head against the floorboards until you pass out. Similarly, jazz-funk can be the equivalent of that same uncle dancing shirtless at the end of the night. It might seem counter intuitive then, to combine the two. But as co-poet/performer Amelia Walker explained, “it was kind of like a double burden. Jazz isn’t popular and poetry isn’t popular. We thought we’d put the two together and take over the world.”

Thankfully, Max_Mo were able to make the unholy duo work, with expert, creative musicianship — especially Derek Pascoe’s mercurial saxophone — providing a solid basis for Walker and Mike Ladd to weave their poetry. Though some of the poems left me cold — particularly Ladd’s “Meeting the ghost of Don Dunstan on Norwood Parade”, which came of as little more than a vessel for the airing of baby-boomer angst over the new conservatism, and Walker’s “Yoga”, which was unable to walk the tightrope between parody and overblown caricature — there were moments of real class. Ladd’s “Boomer Beach” and “The Ceiling Fan” were replete with beautiful, original imagery, while Walker’s “Work Experience” cast a much needed, nuanced dig at the state of commercial newspapers.

What I noticed, as my ears drifted between the effervescing melodies and the tightly meandering spoken word, was the way in which the use of the latter allowed both the music and the words room to breath. As Pascoe explained to me after the show, by remaining spoken word, rather than singing, the lyrics were able to stand separately from the music, while simultaneously intertwining with the moods and rhythms of the band’s riffing. This, he said, “allows people to be more drawn into the poetry”. As people around me cackled with delight at the various poems, it seemed that he might have been onto something.

True to jazz’s complicated relationship with timing, Pen Island were introduced twenty minutes late, after various sound issue delayed their set. When the three members finally hit the stage, dressed in full-length spandex of various colours and designs, introducing themselves as Phantom Jazz, Lumberjack and Stallion, I got a little worried; it seemed like such cultivated zaniness that five minutes into their first “song”, a drifting, noodley avant-jazz piece, I was ready to write them off with a one-liner, something pithy and grown-up like, “Three dickheads in morphsuits wank through interminable formless jazz”. But then, just as my knuckles began to whiten with frustration, there was a crack on the snare. Simultaneously the band locked into a stuttering chug, morphing (yes) into something else entirely, punishing their instruments with abandon, a band on a mission. PUN-ishing.

As they progressed through a catalogue of jazz standards “bent till they’re unintelligible” (as drummer and band leader Miles Thomas told me), exploring generally divisive genres like ambient noise, thrash and freeform soloing, I watched both myself and the rest of the crowd be drawn-in by the juvenile high jinks. The crotch-stuffed morphsuits, the song titles like “Briefly Coming” and “Gloria’s Whole” became more and more hilarious, cleverly jarring with the expectation of jazz as “cool” and “sophisticated”. Though they achieved the level of technical proficiency usually reserved for savants, these were guys that would probably draw a penis on your face if you got drunk, dropped your guard and fell asleep.

As Thomas told me, the band had “wanted to get around the whole ivory tower thing with jazz” and “make modern jazz more accessible”. During a pause between “The Eternal Triangle” and “Gloria’s Whole” the band began to banter with the audience, swapping penis puns, and shaking their stuffed crotches for our viewing pleasure. As they launched into their next mind-bending display of virtuosity, the audience still giggling like adolescents, it appeared that they’d succeeded.

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