Musical magic triumphs over COVID threat

13 July 2021

Kate Pass devoted months of effort and love to her ‘Far East Suite’, a stunning blend of traditional Persian music and Western jazz. Tiffany Ha counts herself lucky to witness it.

‘Kohesia and the Far East Suite’, Kate Pass with WA Youth Jazz Orchestra ·
The Rechabite, 10 July 2021 ·

Amid the spectre of COVID lockdowns, it is hard to imagine the extent of Kate Pass’s anxiety at the possibility of her show being cancelled after months of planning, composing, arranging, rehearsing, workshopping and promoting. 

And on witnessing her musical vision brought to life by the Kohesia quartet and the WA Youth Jazz Orchestra (WAYJO) on Saturday night, all I can say is: praise be to the COVID gods for holding out and allowing us to experience the magnificence of “Kohesia and the Far East Suite”.

Pass, a leading light in the Perth jazz scene, started the Kohesia Ensemble in 2016 as a collaborative project combining traditional Persian music with elements of Western jazz. This unique, inspired combination of musical styles is surprisingly effective; there are distinctive overlapping features such as irregular time signatures (five beats to a measure rather than the more common four or three) and the use of modes (scales, or a specific set of five to eight notes) to create a sense of place within a piece: a “sound world” of sorts.

A close up of Kate Pass playing bass. She is smiling at another musician who is out of focus in the right corner of the photo. We can see that he's looking at her, and he is playing what looks like a lute.
Kate Pass on the bass as part of ‘Kohesia and the Far East Suite’. Photo: Josh Wells

The first set of the night featured a subset of the Kohesia Ensemble. Joining Pass as she played double bass were Esfandiar Shahmir on the ney (Persian flute) and daf (a large, tambourine-like frame drum), Reza Mirzaei on the setar and the saz (two types of Persian lute) and Mike Zolker on the oud (a slightly larger lute of Middle Eastern origin). 

The set featured compositions by Pass and Mirzaei, showcasing the capabilities of the traditional Persian instruments and the simultaneous simplicity and complexity of the dastgāh (Persian modal) system. Each solo was heart-felt and beautifully played, as if the performers were deeply, intimately connected to their instruments. 

For me, the highlights of this set included “Golden Crown”, a composition by Pass which featured her playing a gorgeous, intricate, finger-picked, multi-voiced bass solo, and “Isfahan”, a composition by Mirzaei that felt mystical and profound, with a rollicking 5/8 feel that transported me to a distant land.

After the intermission the quartet were joined by 17 young and upcoming stars from WAYJO. Pass spoke to the audience about her creative process and the challenges of writing for such a large and unique combination of instruments. When you consider the typical sound of a big band (emphasis on the “big”) and the typical sound of folk instruments not originally intended for concert halls or night clubs, it seems miraculous that Pass (and the sound tech crew on the night) pulled off this bold, ambitious musical feat.

Some personal highlights of the second set included “Point of Departure”, a tasty opener featuring tense, spicy chords and then a ney solo from Shahmir and a trumpet solo from James Chapman, “Black Mountain”, an energetic dance-like number featuring impressive solos from James O’Brien on keys and Jayden Blockley on alto sax, and “Unearthed”, the world premiere of Pass’s new composition featuring a crowd-pleasing drum solo by Julius Rogers. 

The entire ensemble played with assurance, rhythmic tightness and a unified approach to phrasing and articulation under the direction of Pass. Impressive, given they only had three weeks of rehearsal.

It was clear how much love, time and effort Pass has dedicated to this project, and how respected she is by the other musicians on stage. Her compositions and arrangements are so exciting and satisfying to listen to that you don’t even register the technical genius of it all: it is pure joy. Her incredible approach to musical texture and harmonic voicing – the way she organically blends timbres and transitions between different moods – is always in service to the music, to the pure aesthetic and emotional experience.

Pictured top: Members of the WA Youth Jazz Orchestra and the Kohesia Quartet at The Rechabite. Photo: Josh Wells

Read more about Kate Pass and the Kohesia Ensemble.

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Author —
Tiffany Ha

Tiffany Ha is a pianist, composer, arranger, music educator and vocalist with a soft spot for anything a cappella. She has degrees in Music (Composition) and Arts (English) from UWA and works as a freelance musician. Her favourite playground equipment is anything that involves climbing and balance: monkey bars, rope towers, trees, human pyramids!

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