Review: Francesca Prihasti Quartet Live

Colbourne Avenue, 4th December 2014

Reviewed by Lloyd Bradford Syke for Syke On Stage, published 22nd December 2014

It’d been too long since I’d had the opportunity to visit Colbourne Avenue, the unassuming jazz space in Sydney’s inner west, so I was very glad of the invitation from young, Indonesian-born pianist, Francesca Prihasti, to come and hear her quartet, featuring Dave Goodman, drums; David Groves, double bass; Nic Vardanega, guitar.

Nockturne certainly begins in romantic, candlelit style with a solo opening of her original composition, soon accompanied by Goodman’s swooshing cymbals, tick-rocking percussion, Groves’ firm, but expressive, bassline and discreet, tasteful licks from Vardanega, as much a leader of the group, much of the time, as Prihasti. The tune picks up a little tempo and settles into a gently swinging groove, it’s vaguely classical disposition soon gliding into a true jazz mode. It’s a showcase for the sophistication and maturity of Prihasti’s pianism, which effortlessly matches the experience of Goodman, as does the playing of the other cohorts. But perhaps most impressive of all is Prihasti’s compositional skill: this is the very loveliest of tunes (one which, like so many of the best tunes, has that inescapable sense of being very familiar), affording a generous solo to Vardanega, who hold forth with a long break entirely sympathetic to the free-flowing, laidback vibe of the piece.

Fee Fi Fo Fum was one of two Wayne Shorter numbers that featured (the other, in the second set, being Juju). It proves a suitable segue from Prihasti’s own, which honestly loses nothing to Shorter’s: Prihasti has already found her ‘voice’, but a couple of years after graduating the Con. Prihasti and co’s rendition is a little more emphatic, devoid of the boldly bluesy homage of the mid-sixties original. The Prihasti quartet inflects a driving rhythm, fleshed-out with fills and bursts from the busy body and mind of Goodman, master of invention, but very much steered by Prihasti’s patient piano: she never sounds like she’s in a hurry, or anxious to impress, which is what makes her playing all the more impressive. Again, too, there’s a clean break from Vardanega and supportive, characterful bass on Groves’ behalf, who also gets his chance to solo, which he does with understated aplomb. Both these compositions, interestingly, tread an uncertain line between melancholic and optimistic: maybe it’s a key to successful composition. Just a thought. it does make them very like life.

Evolving begins and is led with a bass figure that makes room for more of Goodman’s constantly shifting percussive textures and mischievous excursions in tempo-bending. Prihasti’s clearly stated piano chords set it up, but it’s arguably Vardanega’s piece, given his extended soloing, which floats over the top; again pointing to Prihasti’s generosity. You almost feel like you’re flying. Prihasti takes her turn, playing relatively softly, almost as if shunning her spot. It’s not that, though, I don’t think: merely her style, rather more demure than one or two virtuosic, but incorrigible showoffs who easily spring to mind. Groves’ playing was especially inspired, too.

Again, this tune follows Shorter’s just as well as Nokturne precedes it. Indeed, the fit is so snug, it’s as if all three were penned by the same composer. And, a way in, you come in to land, after your flight of very melodic fancy.

Summer Sky is a newbie and has more of Prihasti’s apparently trademark wistfulness, intermingled with the sunnier disposition evident in Evolving. Piano and guitar work swimmingly together, underpinned by a simple bassline and more of Goodman’s tip-top, tap-tap, drip-drop, swishing soundscaping. There’s some ravishing arpeggiation from Prihasti, followed by a very fresh solo (just this side of blistering, really) from Vardanega, a serious young man who may very well prove the next big thing in jazz guitar circles. Actually, I think he already has. It was Buddy Holly who declared his love wouldn’t fade away, but this lovingly crafted tune evanesces into the ether from which it came.

Sleepless Night is, again, very much in the same ballpark as Prihasti’s other compositions. No wonder there’s no shuteye to be had: it really kicks up some dust when it gets going, with all the players pushing it along; not least bass and drums. It sounds like a little too much caffeine before bedtime to me.

From Sleepless Night to Night Trip. And it is. It’s almost like a train rattling across an expansive landscape, such as one might readily find in a wide, brown land like Australia. Then again, there are phrases more like a trickle of traffic. Take your pick. Public or personal transportation. The real carriage here is the momentum of drums and bass, with cascades of piano giving a little more urge still. Again, I was taken with the harmonising of guitar and piano. A good look. Well, sound. This is a trip well worth taking.

The second set opened with Colours, which is interesting, as it reminds me, just an incy-wincy bit, of Ice T’s Colors (there’s something vaguely hip-hop about the rhythm), but it has a rather sweeter flavour than a song about gang identifiers, not least by way, once again, of Vardanega’s mellow tone and easy exposition. But it’s Prihasti that sets it up, melodically; she, too, takes a solo: a tinkling, toe-tickling, but bluesy one. Groves’ bass is just right: he goes for a funky feel, but lays it back a little; Goodman’s splashing cymbals and big, high-pitched snare sound adds layers of impasto, ‘so-chunky-you-could-carve-it’ textures. It’s one groovy little tune; very lazy Sunday afternoon. Get that cocktail shaker out. And the little umbrellas. Something like a gin sling’s probably the thing.

Unfolding is pensive, really stretches out, unfurling like a mast in a headwind. Spacious and a very free-spirited platform for soloing, it’s one of those soul-seductive excursions you never want to end, as it has a wily way of exfoliating persona so you might rediscover the real you, the one yearning to escape the shackles of that epidermal veneer, used to front the world-at-large. Yeah, I’m getting carried away; but that’s just the point, this is the tune to carry you away, a magic carpet ride to wherever you want to go. Definitely one of the best from Prihasti’s reasonably extensive canon. But never mind the width of her chart folder, just listen to the quality.

Here and Now picked it up a bit, with Goodman still shuffling busily around the kit, making for a musical bed that’s never short-sheeted. Groves’ collaborative empathy can hardly be overestimated, either: like many bassists, his presence is often best felt in being almost unfelt. He finds all the right pockets to put his notes. It’s another tune you can just lay back and enjoy. But you might think of, say, a tropical twilight, rather than England. Vardanega gave us yet more evidence of his feeling for the composer’s work; Prihasti arguably put in her very best, most self-assured solo of the evening; Goodman’s big break and rhythmic demeanour throughout were a blast. By this time, we were really getting just how robust is Prihasti’s talent for contriving memorable, lyrical motifs.

Juju was the other Shorter composition of the night. The saxless arrangement changes the mood distinctly, giving it a more mysterious, furtive, groping-in-the-dark character; certainly not sinister, but the hue is, arguably, darkened and intensified. Not black. Not blue. Chocolate, maybe. All very in keeping with the West African allusion of its title, I reckon. No, I’m not talking about ethnic complexion, but the musical one. In contrast to Prihasti’s compositional style, it’s a little bent, which likely pleases aficionados, while Prihasti’s tunes have, essentially, broader appeal.

Phrydge finally gave Groves an opening. It springs to life with a brisk guitar chord, punctuated by Goodman’s subtle homage to reggae, before Prihasti enters with a solo that stems from a single, insistent note. There seemed to be references to classical and Spanish music, the latter thread picked-up by Vardanega, insinuating a little flamenco, with quite a quantum of reverb, as well as the merest hint of distortion, here and there, for street cred and sheer attack. Just when the players are experimenting, pushing the envelope, it returns to its melodic centre, only to reach out to the edges again, reprising the smack of reggae. My companion has rated it pick o’ the bunch and, I have to agree, it’s an outstanding piece: the melody is barely more than intimated and the structure is urbane and nuanced. To boot, the playing, all around, bristles and brims with style and mastery.

Francesca Prihasti, especially with these cohorts, is the Judy Bailey of her generation. Not the same, but as prodigious.

And, even at this nascent stage, she’s a composer of distinction and truly great promise.


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