Adelaide Festival. Alex Frayne and Paul Grabowsky. Adelaide Town Hall. 15 Mar 2023
Adelaide Town Hall is packed. An Adelaide Festival audience has gathered to gaze through what the programmers call a “window of possibility”. This is as good a way as any to describe this brave and beautiful arts experiment: a celebrated jazz pianist improvising music at the prompt of photographic art imagery by an equally celebrated photographer; two wildly contrasting genres; two outstanding talents. Can they complement each other? The audience clearly thinks so as it rises to its feet after the 90-minute performance.
But it feels like a tough call for Grabowsky. The images are spread over three giant screens with the sleek grand piano shiny black in a blackened shoebox of stage, the pianist’s hands and his silver-haired head carefully spot-lit. He is performing respectfully attired in a dark suit. There is a smaller extra screen for his eyes across the piano so he does not have to crane to see his inspirations.
The images are static. Or are they? Opening with a serene vista of leafy open woodland, it becomes apparent very gradually that the still images are expanding ever so slightly by a subtlety of projector zooming.
Grabowsky responds to the leafy tranquillity with a twinkling of light keys, playing with the fresh forest air between the leaves. As the images grow, it is the strength of the trees’ great exposed roots that he depicts, his chords deepening and the hands pounding.
There are seven phases of Frayne imagery around which the musician must improvise.
Landscapes with piano-scapes.
Sometimes Grabowsky seems to focus on the pictorial moment and then, as the images remain in place, he retreats into the world of his own swirling creative juices whence the power of his jazz derives.
Depending, of course, upon the photographs.
There’s a girl on a tyre swing in front of grand old building. There’s the Claypan church and crosses silhouetted against a lonely Aussie vista. Grabowsky reacts with a hymnal intonations working forth to perhaps a deeper place suggestive of failed farms and faith. There are quick grabs of dunes and slow misty rural views. As the audience studies them, the Grabowsky fingers race around the keyboard, sometimes in steeples of precision, sometimes exploratory and delicate. On one occasion, he reaches into the piano’s gizzards and emits a plonk and a twang.
The music reaches its zenith on the open road. There are a number of wonderful country and outback road studies among the Frayne collection: one is of the sort of challenging scrub-lined undulating roads one encounters on Eyre Peninsular; another is of straight lines of pristine bitumen; and yet another is of a graded dirt road. They are a fabulous road trip in themselves, complete with a forlorn “Motel” sign.
Then Frayne returns home to the Heysenesque gums and streams of the hills. Superbly lit photographs also depicting drowned trees of flood, beauty as from the eye of the artist and illustrated by the imagination of the musician. It is slowly paced, cerebral and sensual...
And one is not to forget the sublime loveliness and serenity of the gulf shallows on calm summer’s day.
The Fraye hues are exquisite. The soul comes to rest on them, that sense of calm, cool, luscious leisure. Meanwhile, Grabowsky plays with and to those scenes, evoking senses of great moody depths, a dose of the inimical and the relief of sweet sandy safety - or so one interprets as he flourishes those dextrous fingers.
Perchance Grabowsky looks a little relieved as he stands to take a bow at the end of 90 minutes of intense concentration. It was always a big ask. But, he has pulled it off. A brave piece of experimental art - and another Adelaide Festival landmark.
Where: Adelaide Town Hall