I was impressed by Michael McQuaid before I met him in person, which is always a pleasant state.
A disclaimer: he doesn’t ordinarily pose for photographs in front of the American flag, but the room in which Bent Persson’s band was rehearsing at Whitley Bay was festooned, United Nations-style, with the flags of many countries. No political statement expressed or implied!
Why was I impressed? I had been asked to write notes for a new NifNuf CD capturing highlights from Bob Barnard’s 2008 jazz party, sadly his last one. The first track paired Bob with a band led by Michael — then new to me — and they roared through STOMP OFF, LET’S GO with the force of a very intelligent swinging whirlwind — not speed but hot intensity. I know it’s a cliche, but I sat up much straighter in my chair, and played this track several times before I decided to move on to the rest of the CD, which, by the way, is a wonderful assortment, taken from different sessions, and hugely gratifying.
I did a bit of online research on Michael and found that he is the leader or co-leader of two fine bands, both websites listed on my blogroll: the Red Hot Rhythmakers (www.redhotrhythmakers.com) and the Sweet Lowdowns ( http://www.sweetlowdowns.com.au/about.htm) . Happily for us, the RHR have clips on YouTube, and both bands have CDs.
The RHR are a galloping group with every energetic nuance of the late-Twenties jazz style in place: hot solos, shouting ensembles, although they can slow down and play lovely dance music, even rhythm ballads (I’LL BE SEEING YOU, for instance). But that’s not the best part. Half of the twenty selections on SWEET LIKE THIS, their second CD, were new to me — some of them Michael’s own compositions, others by fellow Oz composers. I listened to the CD for the first time without access to the liner notes, so I got one pleasant surprise after another — as the “new” compositions or originals seemed wholly idiomatic even when I couldn’t place them. Wonderful to hear a band that’s not only faithful to the old recordings but busy adding to the music. Michael told me that this was an Oz jazz tradition: musicians at recording sessions were required to bring along a certain percentage of originals, which seems like a first-rate idea.
Did I mention that Michael is a first-class jazz improviser on a variety of reeds as well as the trumpet? When I saw him as a member of Bent Persson’s all-star big band, paying tribute to Thirties Louis, he shifted from one to the other, turning slightly in his chair to become a member of the brass section, then back to the reeds. Easy, unaffected mastery, quite impressive!
The Sweet Lowdowns, who take their bandname from the Woody Allen film, are something different: a tidy, fervent quartet of vocals and drums (Sandra Talty), reeds (Michael), guitar (Liam O’Connell), and bass (Richard Mander). They suggest a light-hearted combination of all things good between, say, 1930 and 1945 — a Mildred meets Ed Hall meets Django jam session, but no heavy-handed copying. The CD sounds as if four gifted musicians had decided to get together after the gig and play some nice tunes that reminded them of the intimate jass masterpieces, as well as a few emotionally-affecting originals. No striving for effects, just fine chamber music with deep feeling and innate swing, sparked by Sandra’s neat, perfectly-focused singing and the telepathic interplay of the group.
As a postscript: the stereotypical jazz musician of great inarticulateness who can speak only to the fellows on the stand is by now an unaccurate caricature. But when I met Michael and his sweetheart Anna Lyttle (a fine young actress and trumpet player — see their portrait in an earlier Whitley Bay post), we had a wonderfully thoughtful conversation about the invisible barriers between musicians and “fans,” about working in academia, about making a living from your art — serious, necessary topics.
Michael and his friends are inspiring jazz players and people to watch — if you can’t meet them in person, the CDs are well worth dipping into the disposible income. Let the grandchildren look out for themselves!