Colbourne Ave is a Sydney artist-run venue supported by The Glebe Justice Centre, formerly known as CafeChurch, which has jazz nights every Thursday. It’s an old church hall, with BYO food and/or drinks, glasses provided, entry by cash only – no credit card machine – and very informal and relaxed. There are a number of lounges ranged in a semi-circle around a makeshift stage area, along with chairs. The acoustics are good, and it’s become one of the most attractive and relaxed venues in Sydney for listening to live music. What better place, then, for Mike Nock and Laurence Pike to launch their new album, Beginning and End of Knowing, on vinyl and CD, on FWM Records – Fourth Way Music, named after the fusion band Nock formed in the USA in the 1970s, who were pioneers of a music genre which spawned groups such as Weather Report and Mahavishnu Orchestra.
The duo – Mike is 75, Laurence 39 – first collaborated in 2011 on Kindred, also launched at this venue, an event I also saw, from a position directly behind the drum kit and, apart from being able to witness Pike’s range of sticks, brushes and additional instruments (which included a drone-producing shruti box) at close hand, the piano seemed to be filtered through the percussion.
This time I was right behind Nock’s piano, a sumptuous Yamaha, along with a small electric piano with electronics, so I was more in tune with the keyboards. Pike, incidentally, is a former student of Nock’s at the Sydney Conservatorium, and was a member of the innovative band Triosk before forming PVT.
This time the duo travelled all the way to Oslo to record with renowned engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug, the founder of Rainbow Studio and the man responsible for much of the recorded output of the renowned ECM label. The trip was made possible when Laurence received a Music Project Fellowship from the Australia Council. Pike has been a fan of Kongshaug since his school days, and Rainbow Studio was where Nock recorded his only album for ECM, Ondas, produced by Manfred Eicher in 1981.
As New Zealand jazz pianist Norman Meehan pointed out in his biography of Nock, Serious Fun, recording of Ondas lasted just two days in Oslo, with an unimpressed Eicher appearing to sleep through the first day, when Nock played what he described as ‘typical of what I would play in New York; fairly busy high-energy jazz’. On the second day Eicher got down to business, giving directions on what he wanted to hear from the musicians, who also included Puerto-Rican bassist Eddie Gomez and Danish drummer Jon Christensen, and the session was all over in two hours. As Nock commented afterwards, ‘A good producer can bring out some things that the musicians aren’t even aware are there’. Many people regard Ondas as Nock’s most impressive recording ever, although some consider it a bit on the ambient side. The engineer of course was Jan Erik Kongshaug, who according to Meehan ‘had over the years created a unique aural space for the recordings he’d overseen for Eicher’s label, and that pristine, reverberant space is immediately evident on Ondas. Nock’s piano sings, Gomez’s bass sounds resonant and muscular and Christensen’s cymbals shimmer and dance’.
This was the precedent that Pike was hoping to match as producer of Beginning and End of Knowing, and all things considered, he did remarkably well. As with Ondas, they spent just two days in the studio, March 4th and 5th 2015, and the overall atmosphere of the album has strong affinities with its predecessor, full of elegegance, restraint and quiet power. Pike spent his mornings jogging along the river Akerselva, which lent its title to one of the album tracks. As on Kindred, there was a combination of electronics and acoustics in live performance, with Pike channeling live electronics via his drums. Nock concentrated solely on piano for the recording, but added electronics and electric piano in performance, while Pike is credited with drums and drum pad sampler on the recording.
As with Kindred, there are twelve tracks on the new album, all relatively short, starting with the title track, which begins with a soft gong, some toms and a gently melodic piano, developing into rolling chords, underscored by cymbals. ‘Cloudless’, the second track, begins with soft piano chords, with drums slowly infiltrating. Pike’s restraint on the album is really impressive, and the sharp recording quality means that every drumbeat and cymbal brush, even the faintest, is distinctly audible. Nock occasionally flourishes into trills, with some bass notes, as the conversation between piano and drums continues, into ‘Akerselva’, which again starts softly, building around a persistent two-note figure by Nock, leading into a series of trills, suggesting flowing water, augmented by soft drum rolls. ‘1000 colours’, a title suggesting plays of light, begins in quicker time, with piano syncopations, and Pike confined mostly to bass drum and snare, and ‘The Mirror’ introduces a gentle series of melodies punctuated softly by Pike, moving into delicate trills. ‘Hydrangea’ closes side one, beginning with percussion on its own, before Nock comes in with elegant chords.
Side B again starts with solo percussion on ‘Glittering Age’, with Nock playing a series of shimmering runs, complemented by percussion, while ‘Zerospeak’ has a more syncopated feel, dissolving into trills and a series of ascending chords. ‘Ocean Back to Sky’ is slower, with a consistent soft drumbeat, suggesting the stillness of a seascape, which the piano’s melodies fill out, ending in the high registers. ‘Prospero’ evokes the hero of Shakespeare’s Tempest, with a tinkling piano, and ‘Southerly’ seems more attuned to Sydney’s summer weather, with majestic chords echoed by faint percussion, building to a persistent, repetitive rhythm. ‘In Closing’ is almost hymn-like, suggesting the completion of a cycle.
Delicacy and restraint are the words that spring to mind to describe the overall mood of the album, which was entirely improvised, as was the live performance. At the launch of Kindred, Nock related how when he was playing a solo concert, one audience member ‘from one of those obscure northern European countries’, commented ‘I like the way you know when to stop playing’! On the other hand, during an ABC radio program commemorating Nock’s 75 years, a Sydney jazz musician who was one of Nock’s many students related how when he asked him what he should play at an upcoming concert, Nock said: ‘I don’t give a shit what you play, as long as you play it like you mean it!’ Beginning and End of Knowing demonstrates both Nock and Pike ‘playing it like they mean it’.