Adam Simmons’ Travelling Tales music review (45 Downstairs, Melbourne)

This is the third in a series of five shows held together by Adam Simmons’ musings on The Usefulness of Art. The final two shows in the series will be held in 2018.

It’s a wintry summer night in town, and anyone who thinks that sounds odd hasn’t lived in Melbourne. The rain is pelting down as we arrive but one of the charms of 45 Downstairs in Flinders Lane is that the old warehouse allows some of the outside world in. Rain thrums on the windows and the sounds of workers trundling commercial waste bins filter through to colour the performance.

Simmons is relaxed and warm in his introductions; it’s clear he’s someone who loves what he does. This is not the art of torturous self-analysis, but for this instalment at least, reflections on travel and the experiences encountered.

The Arcko Symphonic Ensemble are backing him tonight, a lush, velvety cushion of strings to contain and nourish his brass and woodwind (soprano sax, tenor sax and bass clarinet). There are ten violins, four violas, four cellos, two double basses and a partridge in a… oops no it’s conductor Timothy Phillips commanding them calmly and firmly.

As with the last show, there has been attention to the staging with old fluorescent lights this time, some chairs climbing the far wall and all the players draped in cheesecloth, some looking very toga-classical, others like superhero capes.

The richness of sound from unamplified instruments in a high ceilinged old warehouse is a rare privilege. The venue doesn’t hold a huge crowd, and there’s lots of free space around the group in which the various sounds rise and fall, bouncing off windows and walls; the timbre of strings contrasting with the sharper blasts of wind from Simmons.

Some of the lovelier sections occur when Simmons walks away from his spot up front to play at the side or rear of the orchestra. The extra distance deepens the echo and warms the overall sound of the ensemble.

Whilst the earlier instalment of this series was much more challenging to the listener, these pieces are far mellower, some almost harking back to Brubeck and Getz. His work on the bass clarinet on Thursday night was especially smooth, and even the louder, more abrasive works on sax were rounded and softened by being seated within the string cushions.

These pieces are sweet and melodic, though never syrupy. They are titled around his travel adventures, people and places – Warm Croissants, Threnody, Milosc, A Single Step and more. Each piece is a few minutes long, then a pause and into the next.

They finish on a separate item, Travelling, not part of the suite, but on a similar theme, a bit lighter and more fun. It’s been a smooth night of sweet music, tonight topped with of course… warm croissants!

Adam Simmons plays Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at 45 Downstairs.

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