Review: Resolve – stellar jazz music inspired by stardust

Naomi van den Broek and Erin Harrington review Resolve at Space Academy, Thursday 27 May 2021.

What would it sound like if we could hear the universe’s improvisations and movements as music? This question is explored in Resolve, which showcases new compositions and arrangements from jazz guitarist Heather Webb, in an evening presented as part of the 03 Sessions concert series in the warmth and intimacy of Space Academy.  Webb, a talented musician, ably leads her band: Reuben Derrick (tenor sax), Darren Pickering (piano), Michael Story (bass) and Mitch Thomas (drums). The pieces are thoughtfully arranged and well-rehearsed throughout, and the musicianship is excellent. It’s also apt that this invigorating trip through the stars nearly lines up with the blood supermoon of the night before. 

Webb’s key inspiration comes from ideas encountered while studying astrophysics at the University of Canterbury this year, something that was in turn prompted by reading saxophonist and theoretical physicist Stephen Alexander’s 2016 book The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe. Alexander’s work considers the improvisations that might happen as the universe bounces through phases of expansion and contraction, connecting cosmology with Coltrane. In response, Webb uses concepts from physics and astronomy to inform musical frameworks, beginning with “Replay”, which offers improvisations over cycles of an 8-bar chordal structure. 

This conceit works particularly well when the concepts are embedded within the form of the works themselves. This moves away from more recognisable structures of modern jazz, which don’t always lend themselves to compositional originality. When Webb deeply explores the possibilities that these devices enable, it allows her to demonstrate a more distinct and personal compositional vision. 

“Parallax: Ode to Ornette” shows this clearly. It’s a dynamic and surprising piece that draws its structure from the shifts of stellar parallax, taking free jazz improvisational breaks and moving them in and out of phase. Moving away from solo sections over established chord progressions allows for more creative ensemble improvisations. So, too, do the stylistic contrasts of energetic unison passages and more open sections underpinned by driving rhythms.

 A piece inspired by the pursuit of mystery and understanding shared, historically, by religious and secular astronomers gently explores the tidal structures of the moon and the sections of the sun. It starts with a solo rendition of “Moon River” beautifully harmonised and played by Webb, before moving into the main composition. On a night combining two relatively serious pursuits, it is these personal and quirky touches that invite the audience into Webb’s world.  

Singer Alice Tanner joins the five-piece in “Wave Particle Duality”, in which the band are divided into waves and particles, performing almost in opposition; Webb describes this as having the band do two things at once. Tanner is a warm presence and a terrific addition. It’s a pity that the lyrics are lost in places due to a combination of under articulation and a slightly muddy vocal mix – although to be fair the space itself does present some acoustic challenges which are, on the whole, handled well by Alex Harmer on sound.   

“Resolve” is an exploration of a series of harmonic sequences that don’t resolve until the end of the piece, inspired by a comment from astrophysics lecturer Associate Professor Karen Pollard that ‘you can’t resolve the stars’. It begins with a yearning, gentle duet between guitar and piano, like a love song made up of echoing phrases. It’s a nice change to hear piano and guitar in duet in jazz, where usually they are seen as similarly functional instruments, often trying to work in different ways to keep out of each other’s turf. It then moves into a more open improvisational section before its final resolution. 

The final number of the night is an arrangement of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”, chosen by Webb for its lyric ‘we are stardust’. Webb’s version is an energetic and imaginative reharmonisation of this well-loved classic, and a surprisingly moving way to end what could have otherwise been a cerebral evening of high concept music.

The night is an engaging blend of scientific and musical nerdery. Webb offers fascinating context in her introductions, invites the room into her enthusiasms, and asks us to cheer for the four fundamental forces. She gives shout outs to her lecturers, who are sitting, chuffed, near the front of the audience, and leaves the audience wanting more.

It’s also important to acknowledge the evening as a woman-led event. At the evening’s close Webb acknowledges the difficulties women face in a largely male-dominated music industry, and the importance of female visibility – something that could similarly be applied to science. It’s a real joy to watch her own the space and lead the all-male band in something with such a clear and thoughtful creative point of view.

Harmony and Rhythm‘s 03 Sessions is a seasonal concert series showcasing original composition and improvisation.

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