In case you don't know him, Don Burrows is one of the key figures in Australian jazz. If you ever come across a record from Australia that contains jazz it will also probably have Burrows playing on it!
Released in 1963, On Camera collects together some of the music Burrows and his band recorded for TV shows such as The Bryan Davies Show and This Is Jazz.
Oh, for a time when you could see and hear jazz on television. I don't know about you but round these parts the only jazz that gets shows on any of the hundreds of channels I get are concerts of sixties jazz luminaries but only recorded at the sunset of their careers, usually for some reason in the early nineties. There is definitely nothing showing young, avante garde, or interesting modern jazz. Imagine a whole programmes devoted to it! But then again in 1962 the world hadn't yet been completely changed by the arrived of the Beatles! I'm sure they didn't mean to, but their success put an end to the era when jazz could be considered pop music, much less popular music.
Anyway, I digress!
With Burrows on this record is a veritable supergroup of Australian jazz musos. Accompanying Burrows on brass is Errol Buddle on tenor, as well as oboe, bassoon and clarinet (that's him on the front cover with a bald head and 'tache). Rounding out the brass section is Johnny Bamford on trombone. Judy Bailey is on piano, as well as celeste, glockenspiel, George Golla is on guitar, John Sangster is on drums and George Thompson on bass. Each one is a name to be reckoned with in Australian jazz.
In the early sixties all of these musicians, and many other jazz musicians, were making the lions share of their livings playing for TV, movies, and adverts. Just as in the UK and America, there was a demand for musicians who could play jazz, but who could also read music and be relied upon to turn up to a recording session at the right time and not too drunk! It was in this atmosphere that musicians such as John Sangster learnt about arranging and writing. All of the musicians on this record had long experience in this world. It may not have been very glamorous and you may not have been able to play exactly what you wanted but it paid well and was fairly solid work.
I'm sure that is why Burrows chose these six for his band. After all they would be recording music for TV shows, often broadcast live and frequently with little time to rehearse before hand.
But these were no faceless session musicians. At the same time as they may have been knuckling down to session work, in the evenings, everyone on this record, and many more musicians were jamming in the El Rocco. A Sydney nightclub in the Kings Cross district, El Rocco became in the early 60s one of the places for jazz musicians to congregate and engage in sometimes fearsome jam sessions that might last all night. Everyone apparently could have a go, but few could take the pressure. All styles were welcome from Trad Jazz (of which there seems to be a lot in Oz) to more avante garde styles influenced by what was going on in New York.
Like all such crucibles of musical invention, the El Rocco was both welcoming and off putting at the same time. However, it provided a place for musicians to push at the boundaries of jazz in a way that paying gigs never would have done.
Can you hear any of that experimentation in On Camera?
I'm not sure. Don't forget the music here was intended to be sent by the Australian Broadcasting Company into the living rooms of Australians all over the country. It wouldn't do to have anything too 'way out'. You might be pleased to find jazz on the box but you wouldn't have been able to get anything experimental, much less dissonant!
However, there is something playful and irreverent about the whole record. Perhaps its the way they deconstruct the songs they cover. The Porgy and Bess Medley, Moon River, Nutcracker Suite, Begin the Beguine all start conventionally enough. You might think you were getting an easy listening version of each one. Then, almost without you realising it, the band have headed off in their own direction and left the familiar song somewhere far behind them. What's going on, you might say, I know its supposed to be Begin the Beguine, what's happening now? And just at the point that you might wonder if they are still playing the same track, like the professionals they are, they slide back in and you can sit back in your armchair, puff your pipe and drink your tea. Phew, I thought for a terrible moment that those jazzers were up to their old tricks, and were trying to pull a fast one on me!
However, by a long way the standout track for me is the Burrow's penned The Wailing Waltz. Everyone has a crack at trying to wrestle it away from the others. From George Golla's intro to Burrow's own flute solo, Sangster's pushing drumming in the background, Bailey's strident, off-kilter piano until to winds up a slightly sweaty but very pleased with itself heap at the end its an endless enjoyable piece of music.