Paul Grabowsky might be doing all the talking, but the driving force behind The Gravity Project is Papua-born, VCA-educated, now Tokyo-based Aaron Choulai.
Hunched over an SP404 sampler sitting on what looks like a milk-crate at the back of the stage, Grabowsky tell us that Choulai was the nexus point between the team of local luminaries [ Co-ordinator of Jazz Studies for Monash Rob Burke on sax, Niran Desika on trumpet, Marty Holoubek on bass, and James Maclean on drums ] and the contingent from Japan; shakuhachi player Masaki Nakamura and Koto artiste Kuniko Obina.
The Gravity Project will attempt to bring together traditional Japanese court music, Gagaku, with contemporary jazz and electronics, with a set of tunes recently laid down in Tokyo and slated for release later in the year. The first number seems to try to do all these things at once, with a chaotic free-jazz opening sequence that resolves as the trumpet and sax melodies converge. Choulai‘s addition of sampler is at first is jagged and jarring, all rapid shifts in playback-rate and pitch, morphing into reversed rap-vocals. The effect is definitely novel but is perhaps less musically moving than the more controlled experimentation of Obina’s koto coupled with Grabowsky plucking strings inside JazzLab’s baby grand.
Inspired by Haruki Murakmi’s 1Q84, second piece “Tokyo Overpass” sees more plucking and scraping of piano strings as the koto and bass pick out a delicate unison melodic feature. Skittering drums build slowly to a sinister crescendo as the sax and shakuhachi blow breezy long tones, and Obina shows herself to be a real monster on her first real chance to flex and stretch over a proper solo. It is as beautiful and unified as the opening movement was dissolute and fractured.
The nominally-Bacharach-inspired “Plum Rain” is at first a return to skittishness, before finding a dirty bass-heavy groove. The shakuhachi, then sax, then trumpet enter in over-lapping solos, an intriguing xenograft of the Trad Jazz idiom… and it’s good! Impossibly, the piece decrescendos to just koto and shakuhachi, a moment of Gagaku propelled into the 21st century by Choulai’s manipulated bass textures roiling beneath.
Final number, the Rob Burke penned “Vinegar” returns again to the frenetic pace that has studded this set: chaotic sampler tweaking, tempo shifts and rapid piano runs. There’s something special going on between Grabowsky and former-student Choulai, though at times it feels like the audience, or for that matter the rest of the band, aren’t necessarily invited. They swap places awkwardly stepping over Obina’s koto for Aaron to demonstrate his chops on piano. He can play, ripping out quotes from Dixie and classical music, but it seems out of place in a project where he has clearly centered his performance on the SP404. His sampler work has real skill and subtlety, especially when he manipulates single-note bass textures in pulsing rhythms against Burke’s solo sax, in one of the most successful and effective moments of the fusion of techniques that Gravity Project seeks to promote.
They leave the stage to strong applause from the crowd, who continue to agitate for an encore.
They return without their international collaborators for a largely unnecessary final outing, a mostly dry exercise in tempo and metric changes with more rap-vocal on playback. Marty Holoubek makes it worthwhile with a blistering bass solo, but in general it only serves to contrast the strength of the main body of work. The Gravity Project is a cool experiment, and if the record captures the moments in this performance when the full palette of sounds is deployed with restraint it will make for essential listening.