Pyramid Pieces 1: Modal and Eco Jazz From Australia 1969-1979.

Label: Roundtable.

Over the last few years, independent and major record labels have released compilations of American, British, European and Japanese jazz. They’ve focused on everything from bebop and hard bop to modal and modern right through to avant-garde, free and spiritual jazz. It’s been a veritable feast for jazz lovers. However, despite the release of all these lovingly curated compilations there was still, until very recently, one omission…Australian jazz.

For some reason compilers overlooked one of the most important periods in Australian jazz, when the scene was vibrant and thriving, This was between the late-sixties and late-seventies. During this period modern jazz in Australia was flourishing.  

Across the country, many talented and innovative musicians and groups were releasing ambitious albums of modern jazz that was as good, if not better than anything their American, British, European and Japanese counterparts were releasing. These albums should’ve found a wider audience. 

Sadly, the albums failed to find the audience they so richly deserved. There were several reasons for this. Sometimes the bigger record labels didn’t know how to market jazz artists, and other times they failed to support the artist they had signed. Sometimes it was as simple as the record label failing to promote an album properly, and when it was released it sunk without trace. It was a case of what might have been.

That was why some artists thought that there had to be another way? An alternative was to found small, independent labels which specialised in releasing jazz. During the time that modern jazz was flourishing, independent record labels such as Jazznote and Horst Liepolt’s 44 Records were founded. They became part of what was a new, underground movement when modern jazz was thriving between the late-sixties and late-seventies.

The only problem with releasing albums on small, independent record labels was that they often lacked the expertise, budget  and marketing muscle. Often the albums they release were discovered by a small discerning group of jazz connoisseurs. Other times, the album failed the audience it deserved. It was a familiar story. 

Sadly, many of the musicians and groups that were around during this golden era for Australian modern jazz are almost unknown in their own country. The albums they released failed to find an audience and commercial success and critical acclaim eluded them.

Ironically, some of these musicians and groups went on to enjoy successful career in Britain and America. Despite that, they’re largely unknown in Australia. It’s another case of talent not guaranteeing commercial success. Sadly, it only gets an artist so far and often hugely talented artists can release groundbreaking albums that are overlooked for forty or fifty years. 

Sometimes, though, the inclusion of a track on a compilation can relaunch or rejuvenate an artist’s career, or has introduced their music to a new audience. Hopefully, that will be the case with the six artists and groups on a new compilation that has just been released by the Australian label Roundtable. It’s entitled Pyramid Pieces 1: Modal and Eco Jazz From Australia 1969-1979, and takes its title from an infamous Australian jazz composition by the Jazz Co-Op. 

Side One.

Opening side one of Pyramid Pieces 1: Modal and Eco Jazz From Australia 1969-1979 is Jazz Co-Op’s A La Coltrane which is from the group’s 1974 eponymous debut album. It was written by pianist Roger Frampton who had played alongside Don Rendell and Joe Harriott in Britain, before emigrating to Australia. By the time Jazz Co-Op was recorded he was head of jazz studies at Sydney Conservatorium of Music where saxophonist also Howie Smith worked. They were part of what was an important albeit short-lived collective of composers and improvisers which also included a rhythm section of drummer Phil Treloar and bassist Jack Thorncraft. They all play their part in the success of an eight minute modal jazz opus that is a fitting homage a to a giant of jazz, John Coltrane.

Nowadays, Alan Lee is regarded as Australia’s greatest ever jazz vibes’ player. His career began in the sixties, and he was heavily influenced by Milt Jackson. By 1973, he had led several bands and had founded The Alan Lee Quartet who released their  eponymous debut album on the Jazznote label. It features a summery sounding cover of Freddie Hubbard’s spiritual jazz standard Sunflower which showcases the considerable talents of the Quartet and especially its leader Alan Lee. 

During his career, John Sangster had a reputation as a musician who was will to embrace the new and experiment musically. During his career, the bandleader also worked as a session musician. A talented and versatile musician he recorded everything from psychedelia and soundtracks to Musique Concrete. He was also a pioneer of the Australian Eco-Jazz movement, which was influenced by the natural environment and a feature of the recordings is the unusual instrumentation. An example of this is Exploration Of The Sun an unreleased track by The John Sangster Quartet from the 1969 soundtrack Once Around The Sun.

Side Two.

Galapagos Duck were formed in 1969 and named after a Spike Milligan sketch. They were for a time the house band at The Basement, the famous Sydney jazz club. Although they released a number of albums, their finest recording was their 1974  sophomore album The Removalists, which was the soundtrack to the adaptation of playwright David Williamson’s urban crime melodrama. One of its highlights of the soundtrack was the mesmeric Kate Did, which was written by pianist Dave Levy and is played in 6/8 time.

Just like John Sangster, Brian Brown is regarded as a modernist and one of the most progressive Australian jazz musicians of his generations. After recording a cover of Miles Davis’ modal classic Milestones for an EP in 1958, he decided he would only record his own music in the future. That was the case, and in the seventies, Brian Brown was one of he pioneers of Eco-Jazz and one of the first Australian musicians to use synths in jazz music. However, his contribution to this compilation is one own composition Wildflowers which was recorded by The Brian Brown Quintet for their 1979 album Bells Make Me Sing.

Closing Pyramid Pieces 1: Modal and Eco Jazz From Australia 1969-1979 is People Make The World Go Round which was covered by Peter Gaudion’s Blues Express on their 1979 eponymous album.  Philly Soul classic. However, this jazzy remake is full of emotion and beauty and brings something new to what’s a familiar and much  Philly Soul classic made famous by The Stylistics in 1971.

Pyramid Pieces 1: Modal and Eco Jazz From Australia 1969-1979 is a tantalising taste of the various sub-genres of modern jazz that were part of what was a new, exciting and vibrant scene. This included everything from deep spiritual jazz to ‘Eco Jazz, modal and avant-jazz film soundtracks that were popular during this period. 

These sub-genres were part of a scene that was populated by future icons of Australian jazz including John Sangster and Alan Lee, through to the sadly oft-overlooked Jazz Co-op and The Brian Brown Quintet. Their music should’ve been discovered by a much wider audience but sadly, that wasn’t the case. Maybe their inclusion on Pyramid Pieces 1: Modal and Eco Jazz From Australia 1969-1979 will introduce their music to the wider audience and there will be a resurgence of interest in the one of Australian music’s best kept secrets, modernist jazz.

Pyramid Pieces 1: Modal and Eco Jazz From Australia 1969-1979.

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