Birthday gift from big band

21 August 2020

The Mace Francis Orchestra has had a big impact on the WA jazz scene over the last fifteen years and Rosalind Appleby explains why.

Mace Francis Orchestra, ’15th Birthday’ ·
The Rechabite, 20 August 2020 ·

The Mace Francis Orchestra is something of a national treasure. For fifteen years band leader Mace Francis has been writing music and gathering players, resulting in four national tours, six albums and an APRA/AMCOS award for jazz work of the year.

The capacity crowd downstairs at The Rechabite obviously agreed it was worth marking MFO’s fifteenth anniversary with a birthday gig. It has been a long time (thanks to COVID) between gigs, so there was a sense of reunion and plenty of laughter at Francis’ unique brand of self-deprecating banter which makes fools of us all.

There is nothing foolish about his music, however. Francis (also artistic director of the WA Youth Jazz Orchestra) understands big bands inside out, and he manipulates the possibilities wonderfully.

Firstly there’s his instrumentation. There’s plenty of colour options in a band comprising six brass, four reeds and a rhythm section, and Francis’ imagination is broad. Take the ponderous bass clarinet introduction to “Rose” which sets up a dirty 80’s vibe, or the rock ‘n roll guitar flavour of “Jelly Belly”. “No Post Code” was particularly exotic with its references to Turkish folk music, Frank Zapper and the Grateful Dead cleverly embedded over a rhythmic groove.

Then there’s the rhythm which underpins Francis’ compositions; every melody seems to have its roots in the rhythm section. He also loves the kickback of uneven time signatures like 7/8 and 5/4 (and I’m with him here) which creates what you could call groove with whiplash.

Add to this a harmonic palette grounded firmly in tonality but wandering atmospherically in pieces such as the haunting “Squint Your Eyes”, and you have a compelling package. It is music that is intelligent and inventive but communicates directly. Let’s not forget the musicians who last night lent their full support, delivering polished solos with emotional conviction. This is a band that knows when to blend behind a solo and when to erupt with an immense wall of sound.

It wasn’t all perfect; the pitch issues after interval could’ve been easily avoided, and there is a distinct lack of diversity in the band members, something which hopefully will be addressed in the next 15 years.

But there is no underestimating the impact of this ensemble on the development of Perth musicians over the past fifteen years. MFO know how to champion big band music in all its glory. This is the gift they have been giving us for fifteen years.

MFO perform again October 22 at The Rechabite.

Picture top: The Mace Francis Orchestra celebrates its fifteen year anniversary. Photo Rosalind Appleby

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Author —
Rosalind Appleby

Rosalind is an arts journalist, author and speaker. She was co-managing editor and founding board member of Seesaw Magazine 2018 – 2023, is author of Women of Note, and has written for The West Australian, The Guardian, The Australian, Limelight magazine and Opera magazine (UK). She loves park percussion instruments.

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