Jazz heavyweights preach Coltrane

9 November 2021

The Jamie Oehlers Quartet gives a world class interpretation of the spiritual music of John Coltrane at the Perth International Jazz Festival, says Kristian Borring.

“Jamie Oehlers Quartet Presents Soultrane – the Music of John Coltrane” performed at the Perth International Jazz Festival ·
Rechabite Hall on 6 November 2021 ·

The buzzing and trendy Rechabite in Northbridge has in recent years become the centre of the Perth International Jazz Festival, both in the upstairs hall and downstairs in the Goodwill Club. On Saturday night one of the headline acts saxophonist Jamie Oehlers performed in the hall, leading his quartet through a program of music by the legendary American saxophonist, John Coltrane. The “Soultrane” title may have had hardcore jazz fans expecting a recreation of the 1958 album of the same name. However, as the program text anticipated, this concert was focused on interpretations of Coltrane’s later musical period, where he transitioned from the densely harmonic styles of post-bop into what is known as modal jazz.

The band set the tone right from the start with an expressive, freely improvised introduction leading into “Dear Lord”, a slow gospel-like composition that showed Oehlers’ ability to channel the spiritual “preaching” qualities explored by Coltrane. The rhythm section – local jazz heavyweights Harry Mitchell on piano, Karl Florison on double-bass and Ben Vanderwal on drums – provided an energetic and responsive interpretation that continued throughout the concert. It quickly became clear that this was not a band trying to merely recreate the playing of Coltrane’s famous quartet. Instead, the lighter swing feel by Vanderwal and his interplay with Mitchell on piano, pointed initially more towards Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams, rather than McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones. Similarly, Florison asserted himself in his only solo of the set with a brilliant virtuosic display, perhaps associated with more contemporary bass players. Nevertheless, the warmth and the “vibe” of Coltrane’s music was never lost, and Oehlers demonstrated his world-class ability to embody Coltrane’s playing while developing his own impressive style.

After the second song, the pulsating “Blues to You” – with ferocious solos by both Mitchell and Oehlers in brilliant interplay with Vanderwal – the quartet began sounding more and more authentically like Coltrane’s quartet from the early to mid-sixties. The audience were taken on an intense journey through the compositions “Spiritual” and “Resolution”, delivered with a level of skill and expressive abilities which got most people off their seat with euphoric applause.

Oehlers let everyone catch their breath halfway through the hour long set with a gorgeous solo version of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life”. Unfortunately, the buzzing atmosphere of the Rechabite building didn’t quite allow for the noise-free listening the lone tenor sax deserved. That said, the overall sound in the Rechabite Hall for the evening’s concert was outstanding, with the sound engineer capturing the acoustic instruments really well. However, I thought the ever-changing stage light was overdone and more distracting than adding to the experience.

The set finished with one of Oehlers’ proclaimed favourites, “The Promise”. Here, Mitchell’s versatility and originality as an improviser was on clear display over Florison and Vanderwal’s hip boogaloo feel. However, it was the bandleader that brought the set home with a profound and relaxed demonstration of his skills as an improvisor, perhaps also hinting at another influence, the great Sonny Rollins.

As jazz performance Oehlers’ group delivered at the highest level. As a featured concert for a jazz festival that wants to put itself on the map, the Coltrane angle seemed a little uninspired. Considering Oehlers’ prolific creative output of original music that reflects the 21st century, it seemed like a missed opportunity to shine light on the quality of modern Australian jazz and its performers.     

Pictured top: Jamie Oehlers plays The Rechabite. Photo: Richard Watson

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Author —
Kristian Borring

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