So much time over the past year can be described by a perceived feeling of “never-ending”: incessant chaos, incessant uncertainty, incessant loneliness and, most fundamentally, incessant change. And although distinguishing something as transpiring in a continuous manner is itself neither inherently good or bad, everything in the margins of the real world that colored this year’s flow of activities and feelings, definitely ended up strained through a sieve of negativity. Alternatively, take some of those same taxing states of being, like unpredictability and uncertainty, and apply them to the working dynamics of the new group relationship forged into Australian jazz quartet Aura, and the results hardly cultivate parallel pain or anxiety.
Flora Carbo (Alto Saxophone)
Audrey Powne (Trumpet)
Helen Svoboda (Bass)
Kyrie Anderson (Drums)
A story of origin not entirely uncommon for musical groups, Aura came together rather quickly amid a flurry of interpersonal connection and shared interest in the informative offerings of the 2019 edition of the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music, held in Banff, Alberta. The self-titled, six track debut culmination of that connection is a record largely centered around the musical style and compositional approach that brought Aura together in the first place: free-flowing improvisatory jazz. Furthermore, the EP gives ample attention to both the individual and intertwined musical artistry of the four women. In these ways, Aura is very self-assured and, to an extent, self-explanatory for a first release. However, don’t let the latter characteristic impart a presumption that Aura’s approach to improvisation operates from an overly safe or overly formulaic place.
The sheer lack of concern for having a staunch chordal roadmap in each of the record’s pieces, gives Aura a very relaxed nature. Still, that doesn’t mean the music is without bounds and some sense of order. One can think of the directionality of each song as being like a river. There are many bends, swirls, pooling spots, sudden surges, and abrupt breaks, but ultimately a river is formed between a defined point A and point B. This is often how it feels to listen to Aura. There’s always an understanding of when the music is building itself up, breaking itself down, or coming to an end. Yet, a copious amount of smaller, mostly execution related details, like impromptu bent notes; dragged stick strokes; lingering exhalations; and even amorphous sounds made by Carbo’s saxophone or Powne’s trumpet, which extend beyond the bounds of generating melodic color, line the pathways of each improvisational journey.
“Dissociation Daze” is perhaps the most prominent showcasing of this controlled-but-zany-unpredictability. Meanwhile, tracks like opener “Then They Ran” and the pair of “Contrafact 1” and “Contrafact 2” run on the same melodically surprising energy, save for a slight reduction in added sonic ambiguity. How Aura makes up for tracks containing less sparkles of sonic ambiguity, its in the excitement that comes from riding along with music not dictated by the backseat driving of harmony, which in this case, means a lack of steadying piano.
It’s quite liberating and can be a surprise in and of itself, to realize how not dysfunctional chord-less jazz is as a listening experience and how it manages to somehow keep enough structure to fall into a void of fully abstract free jazz. Aura is a great starter listen for folks looking to break away from the basic fundamentals of traditional jazz and-or those looking to better understand or appreciate the nuance and art of free jazz, without feeling ready to amply embrace either side of the spectrum without a familiar musical life line.