You might not have heard of the splendid musician John Scurry, but that can be remedied right away. Here’s a whimsical, swinging sample — elating even if you are allergic to cats:
John and I have a long yet intermittent musical friendship. I know I heard him on a variety of Australian jazz recordings with, among others, Allan Browne and Bob Barnard, but we did not meet in person until July 2010 at the Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party, where he performed as part of Michael McQuaid’s Late Hour Boys, captured here with John on banjo, playing that often abused instrument with grace. In time, I began to hear John as a guitarist but even more importantly as a composer. And I heard tales of his small ingenious band, REVERSE SWING, which I described here. I’d not heard the band, but John’s explanation of the title (enclosed in the post above) made me an enthusiast, taking it on faith.
As a serious but relevant digression, John is also a lyrical painter and photographer, imbuing “common” objects with resonance that makes me think of the painter Giorgio Morandi. The cover is his, and when you purchase the disc, the photographs inside are his also.
In 2011, John — along with Andy Schumm, Jason Downes, Josh Duffee, Leigh Barker, and Michael McQuaid, was part of the Hot Jazz Alliance: they gave concerts and toured in 2014 and 2015. I saw them at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in the latter year and followed John and a larger ensemble led by Josh to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania — Chauncey Morehouse’s home town — for a concert of Morehouse / Goldkette music. In the lobby of John’s hotel, we had a long conversation, and I believe he said a REVERSE SWING disc was in process and I (perhaps not subtly) offered my services as a pro bono liner-note writer. (I’d done the same for the HJA disc.)
And so it came to pass . . . that I heard REVERSE SWING, and was captivated by it. The seventeen compositions on the disc are all John’s, varied in mood and approach: the CD feels like a leisurely sweep through a hall of evocative paintings. Or a slim volume of short stories. It’s not a “trad” band nor a post-bop ensemble — the performances swing — but a group that draws on a tradition of improvising over strong, sometimes quirky melodies and surprising harmonies.
The basic personnel is Eugene Ball, trumpet; Michael McQuaid, clarinet, alto saxophone; Matt Boden, piano; Howard Cairns, string bass, concertina; John Scurry, guitar — with additional cameos by Shelley Scown, vocal; Danny Fischer, drums; James Macaulay, trombone; Phil Noy, alto saxophone.
I know that the combination, for some more staid listeners, of original compositions and a band of less well-known musicians might be slightly intimidating, but we all have sufficient shelf space devoted to Our Favorite and Sometimes Predictable Bands . . . REVERSE SWING well deserves your attention.
Here are my notes:
In A VISION, Yeats wrote that the spirits visited him “to give him metaphors for poetry.” For inspiration, all I can claim is Facebook, where, a few hours before this disc arrived I had seen a famous Mississippi restaurant, The Dinner Bell, with a round table, seating twenty, two dozen entrees on its rotating center. As I listened to REVERSE SWING, I thought of diners moving from one serving dish to another, each one different in content, texture, seasoning, all harmonizing memorably.
A didactic annotator could fill pages saying what this track Sounds Like and what band / musician he Is Reminded Of, but I will leave such fetishes to those who cannot find pleasure without them. Scurry’s music, although irresistibly swinging, is MUSIC first, jazz second: melodic, surprising but inevitable (to steal from Whitney Balliett) with its bright eyes on us, sometimes teary, sometimes winking, even tenderly sleepy. I imagine a dance programme ranging from uptown funk to pastoralia, or soundtrack music for a never-seen Dennis Potter project.
Of John’s light-hearted but distincitve compositional art I can write only that I kept smiling and saying to myself, “Look what he’s doing THERE!” Each song is complete and shapely: a painting or photograph in itself, which is apt. I am also thrilled to hear so much of his guitar playing out in the open, concise yet emotive in solo, prancing in ensemble. Of the other players I write, as would Louis, that they are Topmen On Their Instruments, masters of Tonation and Phrasing. I’d never heard Shelley Scown sing before, but I bow low before her sweet elegance.
Alec Wilder would have admired this; Ellington, too. I want a second and third volume.
Now, something from the Uncollected Scurry-Steinman Correspondence. I’d asked John — so that I could understand the musical scenes better — where the compositions came from, and he wrote me this. Its length is my doing, not his immodesty, because I frankly badgered him to tell me everything, because I find the artist’s motivations fascinating — and how often do we have the artist ready to tell all through a series of emails?
“This CD is a selection of tunes of mine written over some years and conceived specifically for this recording. I can liken it to having an exhibition of paintings wherein there is no articulated concept or theme at play, rather a gathering of works that hopefully cohabit together and make sense musically. Most of the pieces were kept relatively short so as to state them as tunes in their various guises and feels and not as extensive flights of improvisation. Part of the joy in producing this body of works was in having the privilege of playing with my fellow musician friends developing and coaxing these melodies into life as new presences. Some have been recorded previously such as “Yes’” and “By practised Skill”. These two, put to music from two poems by Dashiell Hammett written in 1927 (from memory) with the words and poetic form fitting well in 32 bar and 24 bar formats common to the period. With the song “How Calm the Sea is Tonight,” when I put it together melodically and with the words, my original thought was to use Shelley Scown to sing it. I had imagined her singing for several years before actually meeting her. She made a wonderful recording called “Angel” with Paul Grabowsky and the late Allan Browne and Gary Costello respectively. Her voice had a lilting purity that I thought would embody the song. The song I developed verbatim from the last paragraph of a brief magazine story told by a woman reflecting on her life in a whaling town in southern New South Wales. Hence its folk ballad sense. The melody was originally created as a sound backdrop for a short animation. I finally met Shelley last year at a memorial concert for my old comrade Allan Browne where we were both performing and the circle was completed. Shelley’s other vocal,”Your Face”, I fess up to the words. In the spirit of all those who have gone before, another song about longing and the tactility of memory.
“Virology” was conceived for the band “Virus” that I played with regularly for many years. Strangely we never played this tune. Some of the tunes have personal connections such as “A Walk Around Tom” which is for my oldest brother who sadly has severe short term memory recall. A big jazz aficionado in his day with what he referred to as progressive jazz and, like my immediate next brother, a huge influence. “Post Matinee” for me has cinematic overtones. Sometimes meaning in a non literal way evolves out of the process of connecting time signatures and chord structures. My first paid employment, albeit brief, was as a ten year old theatre attendant selling screen news magazines at our local theatre. The theatre is long defunct but maintains its physical presence as an apartment block in Windsor, Melbourne. Going to the Saturday matinee every week was like church. A few years back I made a small painting of the then ex Windsor Theatre and called it “Post Matinee”.
Two more with poetry connections. “ Tonight I Can Write the Saddest Lines” is by Pablo Neruda. The first seven words of the opening stanza are enough to create the feel and melodic context for the resultant song. “Last Trams” is titled after the poem by Australian poet Kenneth Slessor. Originally, from memory, I think I was playing around with the changes to “Baby Won”t You Please Come Home”.
Some fauna related pieces. “Otis the Cat” is not the guy you are sharing a cell with; he is my dear friend of eighteen years, our cat Otis. Unbridled sentimentality to the fore. “A Blackbird Skipped Quivering Between Things” Yes, I know. Behind every title is a story. Oddly enough titles emanate from the spirit of the work. We are visited daily by a blackbird family in search of morsels of cat food. They stop and start skipping across grass and verandah and at a pinch have the odd quiver. I came across a lovely quote by a French art critic who was lauding the paintings of Berthe Morisot, Manet’s sister, and he stated with reference to the light in her paintings that there was “a quivering between things”. Hence my theft which seemed apt at the time. A little waltz with an inadvertent homage to American folk traditions, as our music from my first memories is a great melting pot of American popular song plus a smattering of British music hall and folk song, not to forget the centrality of hymns. “Sad Songs” is a tune without words which it almost demands. It started off as “Sad songs and bad songs,” a would be letter to a recently deceased musical friend, reassuring him as to his boy’s welfare, but somehow it turned into a sort of optimistic cowboy song. They can assert themselves with a life of their own, these songs.
The last piece I shall comment on is “Thomas and Green,” named for the street corner where I grew up. My first encounter with live music was not “Honey Hush” or “Buttons and Bows” that blared regularly on the radio, but the mellifluous sounds of tenor horns and cornets from the Salvation Band that would appear of a Sunday evening on that corner. Howard Cairns grew up in a Salvo family, his dad being a Major in it. Howard inherited his father’s concertina so we conceived honouring that connection in the chorale “Thomas and Green” as a coda to the album.”
Here the wise and curious listener can hear more, purchase a disc or a download. I recommend all these actions. REVERSE SWING is quietly, subversively remarkable.
May your happiness increase!