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Shamin - Fine Gnaw (2019)



Shamin is the cleverly titled collaboration between percussionist Benjamin SHAnnon and pianist Sophie MIN (get it?). The duo began playing together in Martin Kay's wonky third-stream jazz ensemble Forage, splintering off last year to focus on personal composition.

I've since caught a few of Shamin's shows and they were totally unhinged, in the best way possible. The group's templates covered everything from glacial chord suspensions to syncopated rhythmic thunderstorms and lopsided melodic funk. After watching Ben and Sophie workshop these pieces for recording, I wondered how their fiery live performance would translate to a digital format.

Nine odd tunes make up debut fine gnaw, refining Forage's off-kilter chaos into something more focused and direct. Shannon's tumbling grooves scatter and form beneath Min's erratic swathes of tonal colour. I mentioned compositions earlier on but sparse, improvised soundscapes are a large part of Shamin's DNA. Distinguishing what's written or improvised often feels impossible, creating an atmosphere of anxiety-inducing tension as Sophie and Ben sit sonically at each other's throats. fine gnaw thrives here, where two improvisers revel in the uncertain.

Though what's tension without a pay-off? Shamin's duality is that of delicate textures ruptured by atonal clusters and visceral polyrhythms. That might sound messy on paper but there's a certain freedom enjoyed by improv-heavy duets. For a non-jazz listener it's best compared to conversation. Three, four, or even five friends can comfortably have a discussion, but nuance and flexibility is lost as more people join.

Jazz duets are heartfelt confessionals with your close friend. A fluid exchange of ideas that allows Shamin to weave webs of unresolved tension while coordinating cathartic release. Some of these payoffs fall disappointingly flat though. returning and round sight are clouded by Ben's obsession with irregular rhythm, relentless syncopation distracting from crucial interplay. Thankfully these moments are far from common and most of fine gnaw's 50 minute runtime remains rather impressive.

It's also worth highlighting Min's unbelievable virtuosity from front to back: constructing lush, textured ambience before unleashing manic, Cecil Taylor-esque outbursts to tear it all down. I'll give Ben credit as well for his use of found percussive objects to create strange timbres during slower sections. I was a bit underwhelmed by this live but the recording's intimacy and quality help bring his ideas to life.

While I'm talking about recording quality,  fine gnaw's mastering is great. It's easy to isolate Min and Shannon's solo contributions while the faint gap between stereo mixes leaves them ample room to combine. Although a lesser mix wouldn't have been detrimental, it's just a cherry of polish atop an already strong release.

All in all, I'm proud to have Shamin as part of our local jazz scene. I've previously been less engaged by Sophie and Ben's other projects despite their obvious talent, but hearing them play together was a revelation. Although fine gnaw isn't exactly accessible, the sheer skill level on display should guarantee an interesting listen regardless of your taste.

Personally though? It's hard not to be excited by Shamin, and I'm ready to call fine gnaw one of Australia's strongest experimental jazz releases in years.


Originally published 17/4/19 on 4ZZZ's New Releases Show 


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