Tamara Murphy Trio
Melbourne bassist Tamara Murphy retired her long-running ensemble Murphy's law some years back. Of late, she's focused her attention on her quartet, Spirograph Studies, while continuing to perform with Andrea Keller, Nat Bartsch, Paul Grabowsky and others. TMT, however, counts as a brand-new project. Working in stripped-back format of bass/guitar/drums, the trio creates music with ample space to breathe, aided by a close-knit simpatico. TMT boasts a stellar cast: Steve Magnusson is one of our finest guitarists; and drummer James McLean is the go-to guys for a host of bandleaders. Along with Murphy, they instigate a mostly original program, with a few covers thrown in. Chief amongst these is an incendiary take on Lennon's 'Come Together', highlighting Magnusson's space guitar, which digs deep into the groove, teasing out the song's inner-mechanics. 'The Salt and The Sea', with its glacier-like tempo, finds the trio in Bill Frisell mode, the music shot-through with a warm glow of nostalgia. Them Yorke's 'Atom's For Peace' takes on a timbral, abstract demeanour, gentle and contemplative, while Bernie McGann's 'Brownsville' highlights the Monk-like aspect of the late saxophonist's work. The title track is a masterclass in slow-moving minimalist music: Magnusson's guitar uncoiling at a leisurely pace, drifting across bass and drums, a cosmos of emotion conjured by just a few notes. TMT attests to Murphy's love of nuanced textures, her deep desire to strip things back to essentials, uncovering the space within, a music at once unadorned, heartfelt and expressive.
Rhythms Magazine - March 2023
Tamara Murphy Trio
Artist(s): Stephen Magnusson (guitar), James McLean (drums), Tamara Murphy (bass)
Label: CD, digital. Artist's release.
“Despite the fact that this group hadn’t played much together prior to going into the studio, there’s a very natural and organic chemistry at work here, as well as an obvious affinity for the kind of wide-ranging material they cover. Let’s hope they have a life beyond this impressive album.
Bassist Murphy says on her website that she “did a gig or two” with Magnusson and McLean a few years ago and had so much fun she wanted to record the group. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic that didn’t happen until January this year, but to hear them you’d never guess they hadn’t played much together. There is plenty of simpatico, and they take a “tight but loose” approach to the music, a mix of five Murphy originals, one by Magnusson and three by other composers.
The recording is warm and intimate, and in terms of the overall band sound and songs they explore, it’s hard not to think of John Scofield and some of his groups. The ensemble’s texture is quite transparent, Magnusson tending to favour single lines which are often mixed with fragments of chords, although he does play fuller, traditional chords at times. What’s particularly striking however, is his masterful use of different guitar sounds, arguably one of the defining characteristics of the trio. These include a relatively clean jazz tone, twangy sounds, bluesy colours, grungy effects, all of them tending to use varying degrees of reverb and sometimes changing a number of times within a piece. Murphy’s sound is full and round, McLean divides his time between both brushes and sticks, and all three favour a conversational approach.
The first track is the iconic Beatles’ song Come Together, and it’s interpreted in a great, contemporary way. Murphy references the original bass line for much of the melody section before shifting to her own lines for the guitar solo, her whole performance demonstrating what a great groove player she is. McLean is very much on board with her funky take on things, and together they provide a wonderful, infectious and earthy foundation for Magnusson, who takes what could be described as a “fractured” approach to the melodic role. His phrases in the opening vamp include a number of dissonances and angular phrases, and when it comes to the well-known melody, he gives us his own refracted version. His tone varies quite a bit throughout but tends to be on the “gnarly” side, and at one point in his solo he really sounds like he’s channelling Hendrix. It’s a tremendous solo, but fairly brief, and at its conclusion the band comes right down and moves into a short coda rather than revisiting the melody. Magnusson quotes the original final guitar riff for this section but fittingly, it’s again filtered through his own idiosyncratic lens. At just over four minutes the performance could easily have been longer, but it’s an excellent opener to the album.
The third track TM, is Magnusson’s, and it’s a lovely 3/4 piece which begins with a solo introduction from the guitarist. He uses a jazzier sound, and though there’s plenty of his own musical personality in evidence, some of his voicings and his approach to single lines are very reminiscent of Pat Metheny. The rhythm section plays a wonderful, interactive accompaniment, and after another succinct solo from Magnusson, Murphy emerges beautifully from the texture with a bass solo that is substantial in length, full of ideas, and which highlights her attractive and resonant sound. The theme is then restated, and the group finishes with a repeated, unresolved figure, an imaginative way to complete a really enjoyable reading of the song.
Schrodinger vs the Cat, a Murphy tune, is track number six. A loose and slightly quirky piece with a loping 5/4 groove, Magnusson goes with a bit of a “countrified” tone, this very much suiting the rambling character of the song. His solo stays true to that aesthetic (which must be said, is a very natural part of his musical personality), and it’s great to hear him inhabit it so fully and bring so many colours and expressive elements to the table. The leader follows him with another extended bass solo, and here the guitar and drums provide a relatively minimal accompaniment, allowing Murphy pretty free reign, and eventually leading to a more subdued rendering of the theme than was the case the first time around. From there, the piece moves to its conclusion, and somewhat surprisingly, it ends in quite a reflective way.
Track number seven is the Bernie McGann song Brownsville, a lovely 32-bar bop piece, and the only straight-ahead jazz tune on the album. The trio takes a pretty traditional approach to it, the rhythm section moving between two and four feels for the melody section and then swinging beautifully for the guitar solo. Magnusson plays almost exclusively single lines throughout, and for this writer it’s particularly glorious to hear him playing in a bebop style. His approach to both the melody and his solo is broadly in the Scofield vein in that he displays a distinctly laid-back time feel, a way of moulding lines that is somewhat elastic, and a vocabulary rooted in bop that coexists with a more modern, angular language. His tone and articulation, however, and the way he puts it all together make it a conception that is very much his own. All three players take two choruses (64 bars) each, and it’s the only time we get to hear a McLean solo. He doesn’t disappoint, taking advantage of the space afforded him to create a wonderful improvisation which uses many different rhythms, feels quite free and yet has a strong and compelling narrative. From there, the group plays the melody section once more with the same basic strategy as the first time, but in the tradition of contemporary jazz, this time it’s a little changed via the improvisational spirit of the solo section. It’s a thoroughly satisfying performance of a great piece from an Australian jazz legend.
There is plenty more compelling trio music to be found on this album, and although the programming of a couple of low-key pieces around the halfway mark result in a slight flat spot for this reviewer, it’s a wonderful band, and I’m sure listeners will be hoping there are more recordings to come.
The Music Trust E-Zine: Loudmouth. Available at: https://musictrust.com.au/loudmouth/tmt-tamara-murphy-trio/