Brenton Foster is this year’s winner of the PBS Young Elder of Jazz competition, a unique commission-prize in the Australian Jazz landscape available to working composers and performers under 36 years of age. Love As We Know It is the result, a collaboration with US poet Chris Poindexter across a 5 song-cycle that is personal and intimate.
Entering to the sound of honey-smooth vocals with Glasper-esque future-soul inflected piano groove and see Stephen Magnusson on guitar for what will be the first of many times over this year’s Melbourne International Jazz Festival; and his sound is as brilliantly understated as ever.
Arrangements that include bass-clarinet will always instantly get you on your good side, and the second number is no exception. The tempo shifts up into drum’n’bass territory and Foster delivers Poindexter’s beat poetry with an ease reminiscent of local jazz-funk legends like D.I.G.’s Scott Saunders or Skunkhour’s Del Larkin. Magnusson’s first solo strides confidently over a tempo he perhaps doesn’t get to work in so frequently but nonetheless makes fluid swelling guitar seem like the natural choice for jazzy D’n’B about love. They pivot back to free-time sung vocal with a rolling thunder of drums, then fade to nothing.
The third movement’s initial hip-hop groove gives way to an angular R’n’B melody picked out by woodwind maestro, Gideon Brazil. The middle 8 switches through deceptively fluid metre changes, underscoring themes of love’s uncertainty and shifting subjective terrain, before gliding into a beautifully languid, unhurried flute solo from Brazil. The band comp perfectly beneath, emerging and receding in response to the contours of his playing; a perfect moment that reveals the degree of connection within the ensemble.
“Love in 3 Parts” is perhaps the most clever, composedly turn of the cycle. A traditional cycle-of-fifths harmonic feature dominates the verses, albeit in a 6-beat phrase, but as the piece progresses we see Foster playing increasingly complex games with the titular 3. The piece cycles through all the time-signatures with 3 as a common denominator: 6/4, 3/4, 3/2, 6/8… Until, the eternal love triangle is broken by making the couple into its own triplet cycle: 3-bar melodic phrases in 2/2! It builds to drum’n’bass tempo again as Aaron McCullough’s drumming takes control and the formerly laconic vocal delivery enters a kind of soul-high-dudgeon overdrive. Brazil and Magnusson’s unison melodic feature is pure fire, the energy spikes and the piece closes to riotous applause.
The last movement is all gentle piano and vocal, until Magnusson’s signature volume-swell guitar breathes into life over the top, ethereal and gentle in a way that’s still always surprising. They break down into a moment of body-percussion, the entire ensemble beating against their hearts with the flat of their palms in sync with the rhythm of the tom-tom, before the texture swells one final time, drawing a close to this work’s world premiere.
Foster’s piano has all the necessary elements: harmonically interesting enough when it needs to be, able to lay back when his vocal has to take prominence, all whilst being rhythmically playful. There are no pyrotechnics , no crazy fast running traverses of the board. This is a serious composer who’s taken the time be seriously competent as a vocalist and pianist .
He leaves the stage with hearty thanks to PBS and the Young Elder of Jazz Program, and speaks of how honoured he feels to be numbered among alumni such as Tamara Murphy, Tilman Robinson and Gian Slater.
Leaving the opening night of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival full and happy, knowing that such a program exists, and feeling that a statement has been made about the importance of thoughtfully devised, composed, commissioned music in an art-form that is always striking a balance between spontaneity and reflection.