Happy birthday, Bernie McGann
Heading west by train out of Sydney, two stops before Parramatta, that railway voice comes crashing through tinny speakers, “Next stop: GrAAAnville!” The ‘A’ is as harsh as garbage being crushed outside your house. The industrial flatlands of Granville, between Sydney and the Blue Mountains, are where Bernie McGann grew up. Who he? McGann – whose 75th birthday was marked this July by two sensational nights at the Sound Lounge in Sydney – is possibly the most original voice in Australian jazz. In recent decades, his reputation has become international. Although he is not a household name anywhere, a number of his fans are – in Australia, America and Europe. McGann stands in relation to his famous fans much as Captain Beefheart did to Frank Zappa.
McGann’s ‘voice’ is the alto saxophone, which can be as clear as water, golden as sunshine, or harsh and strange as the cries of certain Australian birds. Often McGann convincingly integrates the whole panoply in the one solo.
In person, McGann exudes last-century laconicism and rolls his own cigarettes. The praise heaped on McGann on the nights of his tribute was then received with some diffidence. There were little shrugs in his voice – “Yeah, yeah yeah yeah,” he said rapidly, grimacing slightly. “It was good tonight. The boys played great. Yeah ...” The “boys” were Paul Grabowsky at the piano, Jonathan Zwartz on the double bass and a brilliant young drummer, Tim Firth, who’d told me the experience had been like a glimpse of heaven. Grabowsky stood up from the piano stool, swept his hand around the band and shook his head in admiration. “There he is: the master! Bernie McGann!”
McGann’s actual voice is quite soft, his Australian accent light. His face, in contrast, is almost as craggily singular as Klaus Kinski’s, and partly inspired the producer of McGann’s first digital recording to call the disc Ugly Beauty. (It’s also the title of a tune by Thelonious Monk, which is played on the album, but McGann was noticeably peeved. Well, friends noticed. It is doubtful that he would have said anything to the producer, who also owned the independent label.)
McGann went to a small brick Catholic school with an asphalt playground. After school, he trained to be a fitter and turner, like his father, while playing the drums in local dance bands. “My father couldn’t believe it when I took up the alto,” he said. “I was already getting paid work on the drums! Not only that, I decided that fitting and turning wasn’t for me the day I finished my apprenticeship.”
In the 1970s, McGann lived at Bundeena, on the edge of the Royal National Park, south of Sydney, where he worked as a postman. By that time he was a controversial alto saxophonist on the city’s jazz scene. After his postal rounds he’d practise in the bush, developing the huge sound that would go on to be heard clearly, without amplification, over the loudest, most polyrhythmic drumming of his long-term collaborator, John Pochée.
At the height of McGann’s passion, and when no more momentum could be squeezed from orthodox time, he would sometimes slip the tracks and enter a realm where time was susceptible to free manipulation. His whole body would begin to judder and he’d broadcast strange congested barking patterns that seemed beyond rhythmic analysis – except by Pochée, who’d punctuate uncannily. Yells and even screams would rise from the audience. These peaks of excitement have scarcely been equalled in Australian jazz. Something akin to speaking in tongues was in the air.
McGann still sometimes goes into this area. Not so loudly now but with great effect nevertheless. Initially, he was accused of imitating ‘free jazz’ pioneer Ornette Coleman. “When I heard him,” McGann told me, “I was surprised that there were some similarities, though I didn’t think I sounded much like him. We were heading in some of the same directions. He is like a backwoodsman, a folk musician. [Whereas] Charlie Parker was the complete hipster. I love them both.”
Through the 1970s and ’80s, McGann played his luminous and utterly distinctive compositions with his own piano-less trio – which included bassist Lloyd Swanton, now known internationally as a member of The Necks – as well as with Pochée’s band, The Last Straw. During a spell at The Basement in Sydney, a band of hippies dressed in white would come down from the Blue Mountains to hear them, bringing home-baked bread for the band. One of the most memorable compositions from that era – ‘Mex’ – is on Wending, the Rufus Records release commemorating McGann’s 75th birthday.
Curiously, both McGann and Pochée had earlier played in the understated and then-popular ‘cool jazz’ style, which was associated with college-boy haircuts, moleskin trousers and Ivy League shirts. It was thought that mainly young advertising men listened to it.
McGann’s big influence (before he’d heard Charlie Parker), was the pellucid sound of Paul Desmond, of Dave Brubeck Quartet fame. The Desmond influence has become more obvious now that McGann plays more softly. Still, even when McGann’s raw power was his most striking trait, there were delicate elements, including needles and whimpers of sound in the highest register. McGann usually plays a little behind the beat, and some of his solos begin with gliding, ruminative tones that seem to turn time momentarily backwards. Musicians and fans at these moments lean forwards, enthralled. The solo might build with revolving patterns that invoke some dervishing folk dance, and when everything is churning and flying, sustained soft high notes might float above it all, and figures and patterns will appear that are purely original.
McGann tries not think of anything when he is improvising. “You know, it’s just letting it flow naturally without cluttering your head with too much stuff. It doesn’t always happen, but sometimes you can surprise yourself. If you can surprise yourself that’s a good thing.”