Great Australian jazz pianist Paul Grabowsky and Australian pop legend Joe Camilleri have a long history.
Seventy-four-year-old Camilleri has provided coming-of-age music for several generations, dominating radio playlists with Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons then later with The Black Sorrows.
The latter’s sound in its early records owed much to Grabowsky on keyboard, with the pianist crediting Camilleri with giving a serious young jazz musician his start in the wider musical world.
The affection – and musical connection – between the two was obvious in the premiere performance of a new collaboration at Mt Barker’s UKARIA Cultural Centre on Friday night. But this was a long way from a rip-roaring Sorrows pub gig.
Jazz, blues and soul was the order of the night, mostly with Grabowsky accompanying Camilleri on vocals, but with the latter occasionally picking up his guitar and, thankfully, showing his still incredible chops on the saxophone with a sensitive and virtuosic jazz solo in the second half.
The beginning was somewhat tentative in this exposed concert hall environment: Camilleri was obviously feeling it, too, noting that he usually had a drummer “blowing up his skirt” in his comfort zone of the “sticky carpet” world of pub rock.
A halting, soulful version of Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey” gave way to the sweet strains of “St Georges Road”, the title track from the latest Black Sorrows album. The poignant tribute to a lost friend is gorgeous; Camilleri’s vocals are choppy, with that distinctive Morrison-like phrasing – similarly exaggerated on the next song, a gentle take on Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman”.
Camilleri was strutting his frontman thing, but Grabowsky was doing a lot of important work on the flow: tasteful, jazz-infused, melodic.
In between (long – Joe likes to talk) anecdotes about things like gaining a musical education among the record racks at Hindley Street’s Third World Bookshop, Camilleri started to loosen up – his voice coming alive with Ray Charles’ “I Believe to My Soul”.
Grabowsky took the spotlight briefly with his early jazz piece, “Angel”, which moves from a contemplative start to a flowing improvisational reverie.
A cruisy version of “That’s What I’d Give (For Your Love)”, with excellent sax solo and audience singalong, had everyone humming in the foyer at interval.
After the break, Camilleri hit a new gear. His voice – which sounds like an encyclopedia of great modern voices, from Van Morrison to Elvis Costello in crooning mode – started to flow with some of that honey.
Highlights included a gorgeous torch song from his own pen, “Cold Grey Moon” (which wouldn’t have been out of place on Costello’s great collaboration with Burt Bacharach), given beautiful treatment by Grabowsky’s piano; a stripped-back version of “Hold Onto Me”, giving new insights into that early Black Sorrows hit, and a ripping Elvis impersonation on “Love Me”.
The Grabowsky-Camilleri project is likely to go further. One of the interesting side-effects of having a great venue like UKARIA attracting serious artist like Grabowsky is the flow-on effect from providing a welcoming place for risk-taking art creation.
Grabowsky is a UKARIA regular, with the cultural centre tracking three collaborative albums from the pianist – Tryst with Kate Ceberano, Tell Me Why with Archie Roach and Please Leave Your Light On with Paul Kelly – to performances in the concert hall.
Here’s hoping we get a similar recording out of the Grabowsky-Camilleri experiment.
Joe Camilleri and Paul Grabowsky played at UKARIA on July 1 and 2.