Left to Right:
Wil Sargisson – piano, keyboards
Willy Qua – alto sax, percussion
John Conley – double bass, guitar
Richard Booth – tenor sax, sop sax, flute, electric bass, steel drum
Rodney Ford – drums, vocals
It was still daylight and there was a queue outside the Brisbane Jazz Club on Annie Street, Kangaroo Point, Brisbane.
Full house then? I asked. “Yep. Oh, you’ll like these guys.” Pam and Don were in front of me. “We’re from Toowoomba. [That’s about 125 km away]. We’ve come all the way to see them. They’re a great band, and have been around for years. Not the original guys, of course.”
The doors opened.
“We’re not the original guys, of course,” drummer Rodney Ford said, when I went over to say hello. Blimey, just how old is this band?
About 40 years.
The Duck, as the band is fondly known, has been in its present form for about 5 years. Although originally a Sydney band, three of its members now live on the Gold Coast, and just two live in Sydney.
They didn’t have a song list but kindly started to write a few titles for me. “What are we doing first? Sharkey On The Prowl, isn’t it?” “Nah it isn’t. That song’s called Stoner’s Island.” “I thought it was called Drug Taker’s Piece Of Land In The Middle Of A Body Of Water.” “It is. Stoner’s Island.”
I wished them a good gig and walked to the bar. Any bottled beer?“We have loads, what would you like?” The bartender said.Something local and nice, please. She gave me this, no glass needed thank you. Burleigh Heads HEF wheat beer. It was lovely, like a German or Belgian ale. Chilled, and perfect on a warm Queensland night.
I sipped and listened to Neil Gracie play the piano while patrons ate, drank and chatted. Neil’s a regular help at BJC. He had a 70s thing going: some Billy Joel Piano Man, Just The Way You Are; Bob James Angela the theme to Taxi; Carly Simon It’s Too Late.
I watched an old-fashioned ferry glide by on the Brisbane River. A jewelled skyline pierced the night sky. What a classy backdrop for a jazz gig. Neil wrapped up with Tequila (Wes Montgomery?) and BJC’s sound man Mark Smith put a funky soul track through the speakers. Modern-sounding keyboards meandered through the club. “That’s Wil Sargisson,” Mark said. “What, the guy that’s playing tonight?” “Yeah. I’m playing this,” Mark said. “Aaron West is Australian.”
“There are local guys on it and they recorded it in New Orleans. Wil lives on the Gold Coast. Jim Kelly (guitarist from fusion band Crossfire) mixed it. Diggler Shannon Marshall plays trumpet, he’s from Queensland, and Matt Christiansen is a saxophonist, from Queensland. The rest are American musicians. The local guys are playing here April 21 to launch the album, so I thought I would play it.” Got it folks? April 21.
It was time to sit down. Neil showed me to my table. Wow! “You’ll love these guys,” he said. I sat with my mate John Stefulj. As the Duck set up, John said, “The first time I saw these guys, I was about 12. They played Stevie Wonder’s Isn’t She Lovely, and it was the first time I saw a sopranino, live. I didn’t see another one, until I bought my own.”
Galapagos Duck showed us why they are the enduring name in Australian jazz. They opened with a big, bright sound. The melody moved between alto and tenor with the familiarity of a longstanding affair. All the musos took little
solos early: Rodney Ford’s drums punctuated the air; Willy Qua gave us a touch of frenzy with high, bending alto notes; Wil Sargisson made oddly winding, pretty runs on the piano keys.
They’re jokers alright. Ford slowed the song right down…then stopped. We all clapped. Then they continued for one more round before ending properly. So what was that song called? lt doesn’t matter. Maybe that’s what it’s called. Oh dear.
The next song was called Cuban No.1, and clearly so! Willy Qua and Richard Booth took the melody together between the saxes, drums kept the whole thing tight, Qua’s alto did some melodic warbling over Sargisson’s solid and unerring Cuban-style piano changes. They chopped it up in the middle eight. Booth picked up a flute and flew it up and down like a little bird. Piano and drums exchanged phrases and there were some big piano octave runs, with a 1950s flourish. This was Cuba after all. Daiquiris for everyone!
“This is a Fats Waller song, and it features… everyone in the band!” Qua left the alto and went to drums. Ford left the drums and took the mic. With a warm, smiling voice, he sang I Can’t Give You Anything But Love. John Conley played a fat, walking bass, and there was some classic stride piano reminiscent of the era.
Booth played a long solo on a very small saxophone. I asked John, who said, “It’s a curved soprano saxophone.” Booth then introduced us to his steel drum, which was originally the base of an oil drum, reshaped, pounded out, delineated, and played with aluminium sticks with rubber bands on the ends. He said he picked this one up in Trinidad and Tobago, where he also learned how to play percussion.
The band played Like Trinidad, and Booth played the melody with some harmonic dissonance which somehow sounded sweet coming from that instrument. Amazing.
Bassist Conley said, “Our next song is When I Grow Too Old To Dream, which is just about now.” This bouncy tune was a hit. Whimsical Conley’s tongue-in-cheek bassline, a big, bold tenor solo, and happiness bursting through their seams. The audience loved it, and there was a big applause to see it out. “We never knock back a request, and we must have played this one about 400 times.”
Qua took up his alto, and the band played Grover Washington’s Winelight. This time, Booth left his saxes for electric bass. Conley left his double bass for electric guitar and did a bit of Lee Ritenour. Sargisson played a little synth before letting rip on the piano keys.
I asked John, “Am I hearing him (Qua) play alto and tenor sax?” “Yes,” John said. “He’s using effects pedals.”
“We would normally play this one on Sundays… Well, put it this way, we’re hedging our bets just in case we really are going somewhere else. This song is called Revelation.” It was a full, joyous gospel song, and the audience started clapping at once: Praise the Galapagos Duck! For about 6 minutes Booth’s tenor sax took us into the heavens, Wil’s synth choir voices scatted singularly and in harmonies. Both saxes had the melody to finish up, but they took their time, wandering around the musical universe to take in a little Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring and other musical motifs before finally coming to the end of the first set!
“I think they had a big influence on me,” John said. “The way they double their instruments.” John plays woodwind, brass, guitars, electric and double bass, and percussion. Plus rubber chickens and radiator pipes, and the like. “That first time I heard them, they were deciding what to play out the first set with. I heard them saying: Yeah alright let’s do that one, and I knew it was going to be a blues. They decided to call it Dirty Rotten Smelly Stinking Fish In The Garbage Can Blues. I really liked that.”
What’s with the naming of these songs? Galapagos Duck only knows, and Amen to that.