Cinematic Orchestra at City Recital Hall, Sydney 21/01/09 (Sydney Festival 2009)


I’d been waiting to see J.Swinscoe’s Cinematic Orchestra for almost a decade.

Back when our club night, Frigid, was around, Cinematic Orchestra tracks featured prominently in the late 90s and early 00s. Cinematic’s first few albums, Motion and Every Day as well as the alternative soundtrack for Dziga Vertov’s A Man And His Movie Camera are high water marks of those few years – capturing a period when the astral jazz period of Alice Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago were being re-explored (and re-imagined) by a new generation.

I don’t often walk out of live gigs. Especially not when I’m reviewing them.

Left without a visual backing and faced with a seated audience, a band’s live presence needs to leap offstage and grab the audience immediately – even if their latest recordings have been relegated to no name compilations featuring permutations of the words “art”, “chill” and “lounge”. Instead we get producer and composer Swinscoe politely introducing the band then standing back behind a laptop, arms behind his back, whilst his band plays, occasionally shifting to trigger an effect.

Now the band itself were fine musicians but, tonight, were without any presence. Vocalist Heidi Vogel ululated without conviction ending up sounding terrible, the drummer played as if bored, the saxophonist squawked then disappeared offstage only to reappear later in the same track, and the whole mix was dragged down by reverb and bass.

Sitting in front of the mixing desk is usually a good move – if you can be close to the mix engineer then you’re most likely to get good sound – but in this case the mix was so dire and dominated by bass that it was indistict and foggy. Brooklyn guitarist Grey Reverend (real name Larry Brown) redeemed proceedings slightly with his lovely modest guitar work but the damage had been done already.

As I sat there in the puddle of reverb and bass I thought back to those few years between 1999 and 2001. Surely my friends and I hadn’t been conned into thinking that this music was anything more than ‘contemporary jazz’ dressed up in shimmering ‘trippy’ effects?

This should have been much better. Indeed, on paper it should have been one of the best gigs of the past 12 months.

First night nerves? A new venue? Jetlag?

I expected more. Much more.


About Author

Seb Chan founded Cyclic Defrost Magazine in 1998 with Dale Harrison. He handed over the reins at the end of 2010 but still contributes the occasional article and review.


  1. Wow = that sounds really disappointing. I was actually kicking myself because I hadn’t made it to this particular show…

  2. I feel that they had sound sorted for the second show, but it really did lack a presence. What sort of presence? Any.

    Vogel – was she sad, or bored? The saxophonist – where did he keep going? The conductor, lacked a look of enjoyment (he should have taken notes from Matthew Herbert or Ludovic Navarre) – perhaps he was nervous, or was just bored.

    The drummer looked far from bored though – he looked as if he was in some transcendental trance on a higher plane feeling the world through his skins and cymbals – enthralling.

    Overall – about I feel it was a 6.9/10. Larry Brown gave some great and well needed presence, but why oh why did they play the guitar led version of “Build A Home” when it is so widely known and loved as the piano version.

    Also, the performance did shift into adult contemporary at some points and it lacked the final killer blow to make this a gig to remember. Good. Not great.

  3. have to agree.

    i went with long term fans who suggested they felt like they’d been cheated on by an old friend.

    never been a fan of the staged encore either.

  4. I think this is a fair assessment. The sound was probably a bit better on the second night, but I concur with Ben about the performance. Why did the saxophonist feel the need to walk off the stage mid song, just because his bit was done? How hard is it to engage with each other, let alone the crowd? There was no dancing, no interaction, the whole thing was really conservative and dispassionate.

    I’m also not a fan of the last album. For me, it’s nothing more than bland chill-out jazz. I’d hoped that if I saw it live, I might change my mind. The sense of innovation, of moving with the times, has all but gone.

  5. Bob Baker Fish on

    Isn’t their primary aim to sell Lemonade these days? It’s hard to do that with interesting music.

  6. I went to the gig after seeing Camille at the same venue on the same night. She was incredibly brilliant and gave a 150% performance, so watching this lacklustre performance was doubly disappointing. I couldn’t believe that such good musicians could produce such a bored and boring performance. The Bass player looked like he wanted to be anywhere but at Angel Place. it was the low light of an otherwise great Sydney Festival. I saw the best thing I had seen at the Festival – Camille and the worst thing I had seem at the Festival – Cinematic Orchestra on the same night at the same venue. I expect that is what festivals are about, a smorgosbord of offerings.