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Album Reviews

Album Review: Andrea Keller - Life is Brut [if] al (self-released)

John Fenton

By any measure, Andrea Keller is an extraordinary musician and her latest release, Life is Brut[if]al is the proof of the pudding.  This is music for our times, and it reflects her well-documented and highly original creative journey. Keller is Melbourne based and like most musicians in recent months, her activities have been severely curtailed. The insidious grip of the virus is causing ever tighter lockdown restrictions, but creatives are used to working in challenging conditions, and happily, her prodigious output continues. This artist has a work ethic that few can equal, and we are the beneficiaries. 

The term tune is wholly inadequate to describe how the pieces unfold and although the substitute term journey is somewhat clichéd, it is accurate.  As we listen, we find ourselves in a world located far from the mundane, a world full of intricacy and wonder, but revealed via the medium of minimalism and kaleidoscopic shifting patterns. This is Keller’s preferred space as her various influences have led her here.  She is an extraordinary pianist with a deft touch, but her compositional skills are very much to the forefront of this work.  

As one would expect, Keller has gathered some of Melbourne’s finest musicians about her for this project. Her ensemble writing is always about the collaboration: Scott McConnachie (soprano and alto saxophone), Julien Wilson (tenor, saxophone and bass clarinet) and Jim Keller (voice), alongside Five Below band members Stephen Magnusson (guitar), Sam Anning (double bass), Mick Meagher (electric bass), James McLean (drums). Andrea Keller plays piano throughout. 

The first piece "Meditations on Light" is the longest and it is the perfect opener as it invites a reflective mood before diving deeper.  It opens with a soft pulse, followed by guitar; the latter evoking the sound of a wine-soaked finger rubbed on crystal. Then you hear Keller, moving slowly and purposefully; a T. E. Lawrence riding out of the distant desert haze. By this point, anyone with open ears and a receptive heart will be fully engaged. You listen and the realities and cares outside the door fade into obscurity.  The soprano, when it enters, soars ecstatically above the drums and bass. It has the feel of a Fellini movie and the album is worth buying for this track alone.  

The second track "Dear John/Joan" is more sombre and mysterious. It reminded me of church bells and mourners in an Italian village, and again it is eerily cinematic. Perhaps it reflects the loss of connection that the world is currently experiencing. Bley and Burton achieved a similar effect with A Very Tang Funeral.  That is followed by the title track "Life is Brut[if]al" a powerful track which takes a freer path over a long earthy vamp. I love this track, especially, as the freedom-seeking soprano dances so unbound. This track best sums up that happy place where freer music talks to its growing audience. An intersection for the adventurous and a place where the finest of improvised music is headed.

After that comes "Suicidal Snails" and "Blip" the former featuring reeds in unison and the latter, a short but sweet segment featuring tenor saxophone. The penultimate, "Youth Unleashed" finds us exploring the free again.  

The final track incorporates portions of Rainer Maria Rilke’s profound prose, from "Letters to a young poet". The track is "Love in Solitude (disassembled)". This intertextuality is the icing on the cake and perhaps the point where the album makes its strongest claim to greatness. This is art music and it is timeless. 

Born of Czech parents and growing up in the ethnically and musically diverse city of Melbourne, Keller has been gifted an ecumenical viewpoint. Her album speaks to the world and beyond, and due to its originality, depth and fluid interplay it is a five-star achievement.  This album and its predecessor The Composers Circle are part of her ‘Monday Nights at Jazzlab’ series. ‘Five Bellow Live’ won the 2019 Jazz Bell Award for the Best Jazz Ensemble. 

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Andrea Keller (image by John Fenton)

Keller is a multi-award winner, renowned educator and mentor. She was contemplating a visit to New Zealand in the New Year, but travel restrictions will likely prevent that. Until then, I will remember Keller performing at the Uptown Jazz Cafe (and the night before at Jazzlab). They were wonderful performances, and my photographs and these albums, reinforce that memory. 

During the writing of this post, an email arrived in my inbox, informing me that Keller is about to release yet another album; this time of solo piano titled Journey Home. There is also a related film to be released on DVD. The latter, a collaboration with filmmaker Hayley Miro Browne; a tale of their fathers, fleshed out with graphics and Erik Keller’s photographs of the 70’s Czech Republic. Again, this speaks to the work ethic and the creativity of this gifted artist. I have my order in. To purchase the above or any of Keller’s self-released albums, visit her Bandcamp site. It is a treasure trove. There is also merchandise available, and who could resist that gorgeous artwork by Luke Fraser.  

Purchase Life is Brut[if]al from AndreaKeller.Bandcamp.com 

Radio 13 appreciates our partnership with John Fenton. Check out his other writings and reviews at jazzlocal32.com 

Written By: John Fenton John Fenton was educated by books and bohemians; the equivalent of being raised by wolves. His interests: jazz, poetry, philosophy, literature & the visual arts. He is a jazz journalist, music blogger, Gonzo journalist, guerrilla commentator & social activist. He lives in Auckland, is married, and wrangles several cats. His long running blog is https://jazzlocal32.com/