Graham Reid | | 5 min read
The Auckland-based Rattle label has now passed 25 years of recording cutting edge contemporary classical music, magisterial projects such as Michael Houstoun's Beethoven complete piano sonatas, albums featuring taonga puoro, commissions for New Zealand classical performers, electronica-influenced studio works, an imprint of Rattle Jazz and so much more.
The rewards have been in the many awards the label has won but also – for those who follow its progress through these difficult commercial times for music and small labels – the exceptional quality of production and presentation Rattle set for itself from the start and hasn't resiled from.
And given that it is helmed solely by producer and original co-founder Steve Garden you have to admire just how prolific it has been.
At a guess there are about 20 releases either out there or scheduled for 2017 and according to their website five in train for 2018.
In total Rattle has released more than 100 albums since its inception, and the pace is quickening up.
We saluted it on it's 20th birthday but now we are running to keep apace, hence this brief overview of four new albums which arrived simultaneously: one of them on the jazz side and the others . . .?
Reuben Bradley: Shark Variations
Under a title which might have come from a Frank Zappa album, here are drummer Bradley (who produced this), saxophonist Roger Manins and bassist Brett Hirst; Manins was on Bradley's 2010 jazz album of the year Resonator, and on Dog which won in in 2015. Both came on Rattle.
These seven tracks touch on film noir and soul (a version of Tami Neilson's Don't Be Afraid, the story of which is here), the classic sound of cool West Cast jazz nudging into bop (Wairoa or LA), swing with bite (Meeting at Union Square), a moody ballad (Choices) and more.
Another fine album of New Zealand jazz which is both of the moment and, by touching on the long lineage of the genre, also timeless.
And now for some things completely different . . .
Christopher de Groot: Sailing Ships and Tarot Cards
“Featuring musicians from the Exotica Band Slide Night”, this odd journey of music, soundbites, ambient noise and wordless vocals began as the soundtrack to a 2013 Australian film The Burning Kiss for which multi-instrumentalist de Groot says the director Robbie Studsor wanted the mood of somewhere between Les Baxter and Martin Denny with a darker edge.
Mission accomplished then, because while this has a strange exotica to it, there is also something of David Lynch, unsettling Miklos Rozsa, snippets of cheap early Sixties pop (Beach Beach Beach!, Cry Baby), the disorientating effect of switching stations (news bites, a fleeting bit of opera), spoken word, exotic passages with organ and ethereal sounds (Hidden Reef, Gun Shot Cha-Cha-Cha), titles like Blood Ritual and Underwater Trance . . .
Maybe you have to see the film to get some emotional centre for this because as it plays out across 28 mostly short pieces the effect is like musical kaleidoscope where the image changes constantly.
Very courageous of Rattle to release this one, but unlikely to get many, if any more, replays.
Long, Nunns, Mann: Utterance
This entrancing and quite extraordinary collection of soundscapes by guitarist/banjo player David Long (also on theremin and “assorted paraphernalia”), taonga puoro master Richard Nunns and Natalia Mann (harp, zither gongs and vocals) is exactly the kind of album that only Rattle might release n New Zealand.
It presents daring and sometimes eerily evocative pieces which in places are delicate and refined (City of Green, Mercury) at one end of their spectrum and at the other sometimes quite surreal (Begin Again).
This is music which exists between the worlds of avant-art music, improv contemporary classical, soundtracks for films yet to be made and performances at sonic art festivals.
This album will be Nunn's last recorded appearance it seems as his on-going illness has meant he can no longer continue to play.
It is impossible to measure, overstate or do justice to his role (along with the late Hirini Melbourne) in bringing taonga puoro out of the museum cases and into the aural consciousness of Aotearoa New Zealand. His influence has pervaded New Zealand pop and rock as much as the worlds of waiata or in classical circles.
New Zealand Guitar Quartet: The Passing of a Black Star
The title track/centrepiece of this album by the Canberra-based composer/guitarist Marian Budos was written as a homage to the late David Bowie and was inspired by his final album blackstar.
At 10 minutes – about the same length as Bowie's song blackstar – this might have been a melancholy piece but rather it is vibrant celebration of his life and work as it opens with a spring-heel melody, then devolves into discreet Spanish references in a thoughtful passage before a rhythmic pulse takes over and you can hear elements of Bowie's amalgam of jazz and rock on that last recording.
As the composer notes, in the final few seconds one of the guitars takes it out like a fading heartbeat.
If this piece is some small seduction for those who wouldn't usually listen to a guitar quartet then they are in for quite a treat with this album.
The opening Aotearoa Suite –written by Bruce Paine specifically for the NZGQ – alludes to colonial history, reflections on landscape, the pace of urban life, quiet consideration and more as the refined music moves through six discrete movements.
The quartet – Owen Moriarty, Jane Curry, Christopher Hill and John Couch – are such accomplished and sensitive players that the subsequent shift to an arrangement of a five-part Spanish suite seems effortless, full of filagrees, sometimes passionate intensity and dance alongside a sense of brooding. It is perhaps the section of this album which works the most comfortable and familiar territory for those with only passing encounters in classical acoustic guitar.
Moriarty – who arranged Spanish Rhapsody – also adapts Bach's difficult and multi-layered Brandenburg Concerto for the group where the melodic lines shift between players with alarming complexity.
But it is Craig Utting's three-part Onslow Suite of '93 for three pianos – again arranged by Moriarty for guitars – with its staccato rhythms, angular and intense melodies being passed around with vigour and the depth of emotion in the more reflective passages which attest to the stature of this group and its broad emotional and musical reach.
Enticed in by the title track out of curiosity perhaps, you will be inclined to stay and explore this fine album in greater depth.
It rewards anew on every play.
For these and other albums in the Rattle catalogue check their website www.rattlerecords.net