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The Usefulness of Art music review (45 Downstairs, Melbourne, August 24)

You know when you’re seeing a jazz performance, especially one to be expressed in a five-part series of concerts over two years, that some work is required on your part. That’s what sometimes puts people off going to see this sort of jazz. It’s conscious art and deserves active listening. The beauty of Adam Simmons’ work is that it respects this and aims to draw its listeners in and rewards you for that participation.

The Usefulness of Art is the second in this concert series which will be recorded and released over 2017/18. It derives from Auguste Rodin’s comment that art is useful if it makes us happy and is part of our raison d’être and is part of Simmons’ response to a world in which art is increasingly valued only in monetary terms.

There is a big ensemble here; two drummers, two percussionists (xylophone and gamelan plus other shakers, guitar, double bass, three saxes, trombone, trumpet, Simmons on bass clarinet and Pete Lawler (ex-Weddings Parties Anything) on an assortment of percussion and a synth that makes some impressive spacey noises.

Lawler provides some lightness in the mix – his vocalising humanising the instrumental melange, and his synth noise used to signal sections in the hour long piece. He’s plainly enjoying it, as are they all, Simmons kicking off his shoes early in the piece.

The space at 45 Downstairs in Flinders Lane is roomy, but feels quite intimate with a set of seating facing the ensemble, and an installation by Diokno Pasilan giving some extra interest and lighting effects to the show. The band is all in matching Melbourne black – costumes designed by Christine Crawshaw add some whimsy.

The music tonight is variable. As more of a jazz-lite listener, some sections were a little long for me, as the band built and built without really heading anywhere.

Others were simply lovely. Simmons’ circular breathing and overblowing in the introduction was especially inspiring. Sounding like a cross between clarinet and didgeridoo, it set the tone for what was to come. Some of the sax and horn sections were similarly smooth and the band had a sonic force when everyone was playing.

As it was all natural sound (no PA and only the guitar and synth with a stage amp) the mix was at times a little hard to control. A lot of the double bass work was missed (and there looked to be lots happening there as the night’s bassist was making up for the fact that there was only one of them, not two). The same with the xylophone – we really couldn’t hear most of the playing except in one or two spots where it was featured, and that was a shame.

It was a solid hour of music played with verve and passion, capped with a singalong to close. If the usefulness of art is to make one happym then Simmons went a long way to doing so on Thursday

The Usefulness of Art is on at 45 Downstairs at 7.30pm tonight and Sunday at 3pm.

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