Jazz legend’s first solo album in 30 years is worth the wait

Mike Nock’s Hearing: Elegies that leave notes hanging in the air.

Mike Nock’s Hearing: Elegies that leave notes hanging in the air.

Mike Nock, Hearing

No one does wistfulness better than Mike Nock. Although perfectly capable of evoking infinite moods and feelings at the piano, he does wistfulness with distinctive unsentimentality. It’s the kind of sadness that might be expressed with a half a wry smile, and is always couched in beauty because Nock, above all, is an aesthete who has ever greater command over his art.

Now 82, he has honed his instincts for eliminating the extraneous – not that he has ever been an excessively garrulous improviser. In 1981, when he made the great Ondas LP for ECM, he sustained the oneiric sound-world he created across the album’s length without the music ever being tainted by monotony. He did it again 30 years ago, when he released his last solo album, Touch, which, like this one, was recorded in Eugene Goossens Hall.

An improvised Prologue sets the scene with its sparse, subtle drama and sprinkle of surprises. Sunrises, which Nock recorded on his first solo album in 1978, follows with impeccable programming logic. It’s a reassuring piece that makes you settle more comfortably in your chair for the aural journey now begun.

The pattern of a short improvisation leading to a longer piece is repeated by the mood-breaking sprightliness of Conundrum preceding Vale John, a tribute to John Pochee. Some listeners may find such little diversions tangential, as if coming from a different storybook, but this one could be seen as a prelude evoking the ever-ready wit of Pochee, an eminent Sydney drummer and band-leader who died last year. Vale John is a heartfelt lament drawing on decades of friendship, with the Steinway sounding magnificent as notes are left hanging in the air.

The etude-like Re-Affirmation then beckons the first non-Nock composition: Jonathan Zwartz’s delicate And in the Night Comes Rain, a sonic picture that draws out Nock’s exquisite touch and use of the sustain pedal, so the piano almost sounds like a string section. It develops a soulful left-hand ostinato, against which Nock takes flight with typical lyricism.

Now 82, pianist Mike Nock again highlights why he’s an icon of Australian jazz.

Now 82, pianist Mike Nock again highlights why he’s an icon of Australian jazz.

The playful side of his improvising comes out in a fragment called Jacanori, before Accessing the Flow reconnects us to the album’s through line, and leads to the second non-Nock composition in Bernie McGann’s Spirit Song, now part of the folklore of Australian jazz. Nock offers a more pensive reading than the chirping blitheness with which McGann used to perform it, and the piece not only accommodates this but seems made to measure.

After a little circuit-breaking from Square Circles, Nock leads us into the three compositions that form the album’s final chapter: the elegiac Waltz for My Lonely Years, followed by the impressionism and drama of Journey through an Imaginary Landscape and then Windows of Arquez. Fans of Jim McLeod’s Jazztrack on ABC Classic FM will recognise this lush Bryce Rohde composition as the show’s theme music, and Nock sustains all its inherent mystery.

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