BY LUCY RASH
Melbourne Recital Centre, 23 February
‘…a sonic experience that is introspective, intriguing, and refreshingly relevant. You should know about it. And you owe it a listen,’ wrote CutCommon’s Myles Oakley in his glistening review of Three’s 2016 debut record, Midnight Songs.
This isn’t an overstatement.
As a team, Joel Brennan (trumpet), Don Immel (trombone), and Ken Murray (guitar) emit an alluring sense of class and calm. It’s apparent not only on the trio’s recordings, but at its live shows. As the musicians walked onstage, we were greeted with that same air of profession; of assurance, security, and promise.
Make no mistake. Three was there to play.
This concert, Australian Electric, was first cab-off-the-rank in Melbourne Recital Centre’s 2016 Spotlight series. Promising us musicians who share ‘a uniquely intimate and virtuosic perspective on the music they perform’, the series finds an apt home in the supple-yet-faithful acoustic of MRC’s Salon.
It’s the perfect room in which to witness an ensemble like this. Combining jazz, rock, pop, contemporary, and classical styles, Three made use of a carefully curated arrangement of overhead microphones and effects pedals to craft a performance that felt strangely intimate and natural despite its unconventional instrumentation. I craved to be close to the action. With both audience and musicians set on the flat, the Salon allowed for it.
Three has, to date, commissioned 20 new works from composers in Australia and abroad. Characterised by an arresting ability to navigate with ease these contemporary works – many of them spine-tinglingly difficult – the ensemble has drawn attention from some of the canon’s most celebrated Australian composers; James Ledger and Katy Abbott to name but two. Its three-tiered vision to develop new repertoire via collaborations with composers, perform and record new works, and engage new audiences is, in itself, cause enough for our attention.
Why? Because these aren’t just words. They’re goals front-and-centre of everything Three does, and everything Three is.
Take, for example, this program. Featuring a selection of the ensemble’s most recent commissions, the works were fresh and exciting. Even if we were to disregard the stunning acoustic, the grateful audience, and the mind-melting rapport between the musicians, the fact the compositions alone were downright interesting listens was more than enough to satiate.
First up was Fay Wang’s otherworldly Steps to the Unconsciousness. Cleverly back-announced by Brennan, this opening work set the scene for a solid exploration of possibilities for an unlikely chamber trio of trumpet, trombone, and guitar. Wally Gunn’s Pinwheel was a delicate and sprightly affair allowing the dexterity and rock-solid musicianship of the trio to take the front-and-centre. I was pleased to bear witness to the performance of Murray’s own compositions too; this time, a clever little packaging of – you guessed it – Three Sketches, the last of which threw open a window into Murray’s keen interest in Brazilian music.
My top pick, however, was the evening’s pièce de résistance: James Ledger’s Voodoo Sonnets. Pairing influence of two of the free world’s most virtuosic legacies – Jimi Hendrix and William Shakespeare, no less – this hellishly difficult work demanded of the musicians 110 per cent concentration and 120 per cent commitment, not to mention a faultless technical facility. The work grabbed both audience and musicians in a violent, spiritual headlock, journeying through a most curious and spellbinding affecting of each instrument’s sound.
Tough ask, right? Not for these guys.
I suspect it’s the unwavering trust that each member has in the others that makes Three the perfect ensemble to tackle such a consuming work. The rapport amongst Brennan, Immel, and Murray is the strongest and most obvious I have witnessed in a long time, a joy to behold. While Immel impressed with a host of incredibly exposed and incredibly clean entries far above the range one might think possible for trombone, Brennan and Murray were there to support him at every turn. The playing was nothing short of brilliant.
With this ensemble, it’s hard to fault anything, really. As a young music lover with fingers in many musical pies – the classical world, the band world, and the world of community engagement – Three ticks all the boxes for me. They’re interesting and innovative, and damn good musicians.
Trumpet, trombone, and guitar might seem an unusual combination, but Three makes it a necessary one.
I’ll be back.
Ensemble Three released its album Midnight Songs last year, which you can read about in this review by Myles Oakey. The group’s second album, which will include works from this concert, will be released later in the year.
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