by Indre McGlinn
Miles Davis was in Sydney last week. Exciting perhaps for music fans, a total gas for those within the jazz community considering that he died in 1991.
Davis travelled through the conduit of Sydney’s own Sonic Mayhem Orchestra during its performance of his legendary 1958 album Porgy and Bess, a reinterpretation of the original opera by composer George Gershwin.
Sonic Mayhem Orchestra’s performance for the Sydney Fringe Festival represents a further break with the tradition of both these incarnations of Porgy and Bess, which tells the story of a beggar and his attempts to be with his love in Catfish Row, a fictitious location in Charleston, North Carolina.
After many appropriations of this story and the music that tells it, James Ryan, lead composer of Sonic Mayhem Orchestra’s performance, explains why this album remains relevant today, and why it is conducive to re-imagination.
“It is one of the great large ensemble jazz works. The use of Miles Davis’ trumpet is the lead voice, with a 19-piece band backing him with highly original use of orchestration and harmonic conception. For many composers and arrangers, this album is an inspiration,” he said.
Inspired, yes, as several audience members agree as they sit in the after-show glow in Blue Beat, Double Bay.
“I’m a really big Miles Davis fan,” says musician Michael Manzini, 24. “I never had the opportunity to see him live because I’m too young, but to go to a venue and see a jazz band playing one of his albums as a tribute is the next best thing.”
James Ryan, who, aside from composing and arranging music for Sonic Mayhem Orchestra, plays tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone and flute in the band, says that while he deliberately stayed true to many elements of the Davis and Gershwin creations, his band maintains freshness in the music by keeping the band small – 13 pieces, as opposed to 20 on the Davis album – and by playing around with instrumentation.
“This includes a singer, who I wrote for as an instrument on nearly all songs, and instead of having one instrument featured throughout I featured a different member of the band on each piece,” he said.
These featured solos are one of the highlights of the show. James takes his solo on the baritone sax, distorting the notes so much that it becomes a screech, a howl, buoying the audience to a kind of ecstatic energy seldom experienced in live shows. Every musician gets an enthusiastic round of applause from the audience, but none as loud as that for James.
With the Sydney Fringe Festival presenting only a few jazz shows this year, Mr Ryan reflected on the jazz environment in the city, which he said is ‘constantly developing.’ He said he enjoys “working in this city with fantastic musicians.”
Music critic Carla Marx said the jazz scene in Sydney is healthy and vibrant, but could benefit from finding avenues to appeal to wider audiences.
“There’s a long way to go before jazz is more accessible to a wider audience, and to younger audiences. Many younger people who are into other kinds of music would think jazz is great, if it was just more accessible to them. Sometimes there is a bit of a gap between jazz music and other kinds of music, and that’s a shame,” she said.