I don’t know what Australian musicians have been up to recently, but it seems every second artist is changing their stage name. Even the Melburnian jazz scene has gotten into the mix of this “evolution” la-di-da, with a fusion quintet that came to my attention earlier this year pulling a “Prince” manoeuvre, to change their name from ‘Pilot’ to the increasingly vibrant, but also confusing ‘Neon City Pilot’. But despite all the befuddlement that comes with changing a name, the group has just launched another incredible release, with their debut album Ghost Wings.
I first saw the band formerly known as Pilot earlier this year at Paris Cat, and they truly blew my socks off. Tenor saxophonist Richard Butler and guitarist Kumar Shome had me mesmerised with their impeccable bebop lines from the outset. But even more impressive was how tight the group was, from drummer Josh Koop, through to bassist Jack Davies and keyboardist Liam Butler Webb. The five, having already reached international success after placing second at the Bucharest International Jazz Competition, are back in Melbourne and have played shows at all the leading jazz clubs.
But September 17th’s performance was not just another gig, with the group releasing their debut album Ghost Wings. The album launch was energetic and fun, including Kumar’s bobbling head cuing the ensemble, Moog solos galore and screeching saxophone improvisations. Having recovered from the barn-burner of bebop, I have now had a chance to have a proper listen to the album as a whole, and boy, are those guys good!
For those who might be taking their first steps into jazz, I would suggest having a listen to Little Wonder. The gorgeous piece sounds like a delicate pop song, played beautifully on tenor saxophone and with a delicate meandering piano solo. In contrast, single Neon City Cab is a bouncy and fun number. The catchy descending chorus melody played by Butler and Shore and the improvised solos are not exceedingly intense for a mainstream ear. Eclipse is also splendidly cheeky, with the 3/4 bossa just urging the listener to tap a foot or loosen their hips into a Latin sway.
Looking at the rockier numbers of the album, Mon Beau is held together by the matter-of-fact four on the floor beat by Koop, and the keyboard solo is certainly exciting, but a mid-solo change of tone colour for the synth would’ve made the track really ace. The piece ends with rhythmic syncopation galore with chord stabs falling everywhere except where the listener predicts, keeping the listener on their toes right to the final note. Unfortunately, the erratic saxophone solo didn’t really work for me, with the added reverb just creating an unpleasant barrage of noise. Wheels also rocks hard as a slide-guitar feature. The roots rock track however lacks the raw punch that the snare drum and screaming guitar provides when it is performed live. Definitely one to see Kumar play in the flesh!
Eleven is the only composition by Liam Butler Webb on the album, but it is absolutely gorgeous and I wish there was more by the keyboardist. While it is obvious it has been composed by a pianist for a pianist, there is so much to love about the track. It connects really well with me, and I love Liam’s solo from beginning to end. Calamine shows off the fantastic talent of Jack Davies, but I do find that the track falls flat, with no real wow factor between each of the disjointed sections. The piece is nearly 7 and a half minutes, but doesn’t really go anywhere, making it a real lowlight of the album.
Looking at the more intense jazz tracks of the album, Ghost Wings is solos galore, with nearly 80% of the piece being an exchange of solos between the keyboard, saxophone and guitar. While this is certainly not a bad thing, it does drag on for the more mainstream listener, and the ending of the piece is probably the anticlimax of the album, when there could’ve been so much more. After an explosion of soaring synths, screaming saxophone and virtuosic guitar, the final 20 seconds sounds like it has been plunked in carelessly for the sake of an ending.
Despite Kumar’s charismatic description of how he wrote Reverse Platypus, I find the track messy and unnecessarily complex, to the extent that it is too much to listen to. While it definitely shows off the impeccable playing of each band member, the unyielding crashing cymbals and distorted saxophone sounds like a rambling mess, and unfortunately makes it my least favourite track of the album.
The album closes off with That’s All Folks, which feels like a classic jazz standard from the outset, and is a pleasant refresher from the intricate lines and bebop extravaganza that has just been witnessed. The form is simple and the harmonic structure is, for jazz, fairly straightforward, making the track a perfect closer for the album.
Don’t get me wrong; Ghost Wings is an awesome album, and I would strongly suggest jazz fans or otherwise should at least give it a listen, and hopefully a download! The guys are fantastic musicians and are worthwhile seeing live! There are flat moments through the album, but the virtuosic playing of the group is faultless and delightful to listen to. So, regardless of how nonsensical changing their name might be, Neon City Pilot is definitely a local name to be following.