Stories Under the Sky Album Review on Loudmouth

Mandy Stefanakis has been moved by Stories Under the Sky and she reviews it on Loudmouth: “But there are only a few albums that I want on constant replay, because, like all best friends, they know when to act like a caffeine fix or, alternatively, transport me out of the traffic melee. Stories Under the Sky is one of those albums and falls into the latter category.”

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I mainly listen to music when I drive. The happenstance of a moving vehicle and moving music is pretty joyous. But there are only a few albums that I want on constant replay, because, like all best friends, they know when to act like a caffeine fix or, alternatively, transport me out of the traffic melee. Stories Under the Sky is one of those albums and falls into the latter category. Despite often frantic improvisatory work, it hits a spot of inner calm, inner knowing that is really difficult to describe with such a benign implement as language.

The group is Melbourne-based and, as so often happens in the tight-knit music community here, members play across genre boundaries in an array of outfits, but this line-up is accomplished and making a strong mark in their performances at venues such as Paris Cat and on the jazz festival trail.

ade ishs is obviously inspired by the work of Lyle Mays, best known for his collaboration with guitarist Pat Metheny and there is a dipping of the lid in ishs’ harmonic modulations and keyboard technique to this player. But Mays, too, has that inner knowledge of how sounds connect with the world’s phenomena. They both get the magnificence of sound’s potential and they understand flow, resonance and space. These are the qualities that shine through on this album. This is particularly evident on tracks such as Blue Sky where ishs has a field day extemporising around the theme which is trebled up on voice and flugel horn.

The Sound of Morning is such a simple melody with straight crotchets, but a beautifully structured chord progression lifts it from this simplicity, gradually influencing the build of a complex overlay of instruments, the piano and trumpet solos a feature as they are on so many tracks.

Shades is one of my favourite pieces, exploring as it does, nooks and cracks of the subtle flugelhorn with its ephemeral restraint, more in the style of Miles Davis than other compositions on the disc. There is also intricate and unique drumming, bass playing and piano work that all come together in a multi-dimensional riot of sound colours. The piece is so beautifully shaped and despite the disparate parts, a great sense of musical fusion and unity of form is achieved.

ishs most effectively uses the doubling of instruments to reinforce melodic patterns and on Autumn Walk, sax, trumpet and piano share this role, with movement in parallel unison, octave and fourths. Alto sax and double bass shine, the bass line is a cracker in its support of the internal parts and gradually everyone does their thing as the trumpet goes wild. It’s a stunning track. Indeed all the builds on the album are special in their complexity and unity.

Together, trumpeter Ee Shan Pang and ishs on piano are a tremendous force. There is incredible musical sustenance and communication between the two. This is particularly evident in the lovely conversation the two have on the upbeat Fragments of Truth. Sustaining many of the melodies, Pang lights up when given enough rope to venture into her own territory, revelling, as she does, in the harmonic movement on piano. Again the bass line is important here, introducing the melody and then holding everything up.

Chelsea Allen sustains this role too. She is never overbearing or intrusive, but the impact of her musical empathy in this outfit cannot be overstated. She knows precisely what’s required to enhance the feel throughout and adapts beautifully to every nuance. ishs is the main composer on the album, but his two collaborations with Allen provide a counterpoint in musical voice. Moving Forward, an extended piece, epitomises that inwardly reflective glance already spoken of and the electric bass is perfectly tailored for it, adding depth to the direction of flugelhorn and piano and offering contrast with the subtle use of glockenspiel. Again, these are such simple patterns, commencing with one of three notes, which is explored and moved into areas of great complexity. This riff works its way into yet another, this time of only two notes, but boy they pack a punch in the improvisation that is employed by all instruments in expanding this Eb to Ab motif, particularly on piano and drums, producing a united and life-affirming musical proclamation.

I’ll Wait Until You Arrive, the other collaboration of Allen and ishs, does precisely as stated: a piano solo (until two voices unite on the last note) provides a subtle introduction attempting peace of mind in anticipation. It gradually seeks out new spaces as meditation seems to be resisted by a wandering cortex. Indeed one can almost feel the neurons firing in ishs modulating meanderings, an active brain in a still place and then this glorious space and the simple fulfilment of the arrival. It’s a perfect ending to this album.

There is great clarity and balm elicited from the mastering and production of the project by Allan Neuendorf. This combined with the openness the players provide for each other to move in and out of frame is really special. Catch them if you can!

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