What then did Bloom and Dedalus descry?
They saw the heaventree of stars, hung with humid nightblue fruit
— James Joyce
I am just having a coffee – LaVazza as it happens, which smells mighty good – and I imagine that Allan Browne will join me. Allan’s latest disc is playing. Ithaca Bound. Ithaca was the home of Ulysses. Allan’s shipmates are Geoff Hughes, guitar, Eugene Ball, trumpet, Phil Noy, alto saxophone, Nick Hayward, bass, and the captain on drums. Beautiful music, beautiful men in every way. The opening track begins with a suggestion of creaking timbers heard from underwater. Well, that is how I hear it. The ship is launched. Then there is a phone call. Oh! Brave Ulysses has indeed gone home. That is to say, Allan Browne has died. UH
Not unexpected but…
Everybody loved and admired Allan Browne, but have we underestimated him nonetheless?
You need a certain innocence to tackle projects like a jazz projection of The Illiad and Ithaca and make it meaningful and casual, not overblown. You have to be very highly regarded to be able to recruit such players, such composers and arrangers as are mentioned above for such a project.
When James Joyce began Ulysses – the modern novel that is – he had absorbed a Catholic/classical education, though he had become disenchanted with the Roman Catholic part. No comment here, I was not born into the faith. Both the Christians and the Moslems regarded themselves as curators of the imperishable myths of the inner sea. For Joyce they still belonged to the Greeks and to Everyman and the Wandering Jew. There was a time when Ithaca and Athens and all of ancient Greece were the here and now and the everyday, in that they were what was seen and known and touchable. But nowhere is mundane. Every populated place is host to heroes and curiosities great minds and mediocrities. Remember that back then the gods were as crazy as the humans. The classical past Allan has evoked in the unlikely language of jazz is an everyday that is infused with a heroic ethos.
Allan’s parallel is the world of jazz with its heroes – Louis Armstrong, Lil Armstrong, Miles, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Gil Evans, Bix, Mary Lou Williams et al. And Allan, let us not forget, was a poet. Conjuror (extempore) has a good selection of his verse.
We might well agree with Phillip Johnston who called him the swingingest drummer in Australia. With Allan’s drumming we are talking about grace and punch, an ecstatic and even vicious swing. The swing that lifts the players out of themselves.
Allan is also one of the most versatile drummers anywhere. He convinces in several idioms. He is able to play brilliantly and to lead musicians of his own fabled era and with much younger players in younger styles, including even some that are seen as avant garde.
It may have been forgotten by some that the drummer with the celebrated Red Onions was later the drummer with Paul Grabowsky’s trio and quartet.
Melbourne is the home of the stand up comic. In his spiels at the beginning of a set Allan was as purely brilliant and funny as any. In one of his raves he might use the names of some of our heroes as signifiers of hilarious pretention. Either way was fine by me. I know he was not pretending. In his last years Allan played despite a lung transplant. An oxygen tank was always in the background and occasionally worn at the drums. Allan did not go until he had said it all.
Allan and I did not often see each other, but we conversed through email. It is tempting to say that we talked of James Joyce, Marcel Proust and T.S Eliot, but we only mentioned these names occasionally – to evoke some belle epoch or golden age of our own. Playing in Sydney, Allan dedicated a piece to Eliot. ‘We admire his pulse’, he said. Some seemed mildly puzzled. I suggest you read the section in The Wasteland that begins A Woman drew her long, black hair out tight / And fiddled whisper music on those strings / And bats with baby faces in the violet light/Whistled and beat their wings…
Of course Elliot’s Waste Land may seem a golden age to others.
Sometimes we had little free form jousts. Sometimes Allan would take something I had written and construct jokes, sublime passages of memory and evocations on it.
As Miriam Zolin said to me on the phone, we should count ourselves blessed to know him. A man of magic talent with a beautiful nature.
moon-dogged (from Allan Browne’s Conjuror)
the moon follows me
at night, mostly
(although at dusk too
i’ve enjoyed companionship)
a friendly face
glowing with warmth
it bobs along
as i skirt trees, houses
even forests and hills.
i wonder if everyone
the whole world
has a lunar soulmate
and if so
are there millions of moons
or just the one
that is incredibly busy?