A wonderful 4 star review of our album was written by The Sydney Morning Herald’s John Shand 

John McBeath of The Australian newspaper also gave us a fantastic 4 star review. 

At, our good friend John Hardaker had some great things to say about the album, and interviewed Ellen. 


Album Review by David Sampson


By David Sampson, co-presenter & producer On the Corner, weekly jazz show on 2SER Sydney, 1073FM. 22 February 2013

For much of jazz history, it was notoriously difficult for composer/arrangers to earn recognition for creating wholly integrated extended compositions. Influential critics like John Hammond scorned even Ellington’s extended works. Not so now, to the extent that Leo Wadada Smith’s massive 2012 epic Ten Freedom Summers is being lauded as the “Afro-American Ring Cycle”. And in Australian jazz, Stu Hunter’s masterly, award-winning The Gathering of 2011 established itself as a truly world class extended composition. Integrating extended jazz works with poetry or figurative language has been more tricky but the 3LP epic Escalator Over The Hill (1971) with Carla Bley’s music and Paul Haines’ poetry/libretto created a benchmark for the possibilities of the form, even in its wonderfully overblown excesses.

But integrating an extended composition with a spoken linear narrative is an entirely different order of complexity. The problem lies not only in mastering two separate creative disciplines of music and literature and in the danger of spoken words interrupting a musical flow: it is the self-contradictory coupling of the explicit and the figurative; the literality of a spoken word narrative and the metaphorical openness of music.

In seeking to do so, the composer – now composer/author – is crossing a border from demanding to nearly impossible. Look once again at jazz’s greatest composer/arranger. Duke Ellington (mostly in collaboration with Billy Strayhorn) created imperishable extended-form masterpieces from his early American Negro historical suite Black, Brown and Beige, to his Shakespearean suite, Such Sweet Thunder, to his world music reflections of his later years, Latin American Suite and The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse. But in A Drum is a Woman, Duke’s spoken word narrative commentary, often fey and cutesy (let alone its problematic sexual politics), tended more to compromise the music rather than complement it; to enclose rather than enhance.

Ellen Kirkwood, the young Sydney trumpeter-composer has recently recorded her extended composition with spoken narrative, Theseus and the Minotaur, which won her the Jann Rutherford Award of 2012. Ambitious, brave and accessible, it conjoins her musical portrait of the classic myth of Athenian chauvinism with a straightforward narrative of the tale. The adaptation (narrative by Kirkwood and Oliver Downes) is read by Ketan Joshi with its musical score played by Kirkwood on trumpet and kalimba; Paul Cutlan on tenor sax and clarinet; Glenn Doig on piano; Alon Ilsar on drums and Tom Botting on bass. In attempting to wed two formats that embrace her twin passions of music and ancient history, Ellen Kirkwood is essaying a task as perilous as the heroic Theseus. On the evidence of this recording and of several live performances of the work, she has emerged triumphant a self-imposed labyrinth.

Briefly, the classic myth describes the liberation of Athens from the shame of humiliation and vassalage at the hands of the cruel King Minos of Crete. As a condition of surrender, Athens has acceded to the annual sacrifice of its young to the Minotaur, King Minos’s hideous monster, until a heroic Athenian prince, Theseus, resolves to slay the terrifying beast. After sailing to Crete he defies Minos and with the help of Minos’s lovely and principled daughter Ariadne dares to enter the seemingly inescapable labyrinth, home of the Minotaur, selflessly risking death for the sake of Athens. Surmounting his initial fear and then overcoming pity for the monster, a wounded and exhausted Theseus decapitates the powerful but ungainly Minotaur, emerging from the labyrinth to return to Athens with Ariadne, honour restored.

Kirkwood’s composition is divided into five sections interspersed with the narrative. Within those five sections briefer pieces of music and narrative are alternated or interwoven. The star turn is the music. It is beautifully integrated with linking themes and rhythms creating a seamlessly satisfying unity; and an adroit variety of instrumental combinations adding an effective range of timbres, rhythms, emotional textures, narrative progress and drama. Ketan Joshi’s reading of the text is assured, clear and urbane, avoiding melodrama and economically conveying contemporary beauties of the story such as Theseus’s unexpected rush of pity for the monster and his resolution to slay it not out of hatred but from a desire to liberate it from its misery.

The musical quintet provides a superb range of musical effects whose rich palette belies its limited instrumentation, simultaneously evoking and enriching the narrative. There are many pleasures here: attractive and catchy linking passages by the rhythm section with imaginative textural and rhythmic effects by Ilsar on drums and Botting on bowed and plucked bass; Paul Cutlan’s bass clarinet marvellously evoking the dark, haunting terrors of the Minotaur’s subterranean world; and Ellen Kirkwood’s trumpet, mostly in mid and lower ranges, animating the progress of Theseus’s fears and adventures. Amongst the highlights are Kirkwood’s resolute trumpet at two stages of the opening section, at its introduction and later in expressing Theseus’s commitment to embark on his voyage; in the titanic struggle with the Minotaur when changes in pitch and volume express Theseus’s wounded exhaustion (Section 5); and in the exultant instrumental conclusion, Vexation. Paul Cutlan is always superb, whether on clarinet, bass clarinet and tenor sax.

So effective and assured is Kirkwood’s compositional sense that in many sections one wonders to what extent the narrative passages are necessary. Off-kilter rhythms evoke the Minotaur’s hooved unbalanced walk that ensures his defeat; the music alone is enough to summon the terrors of the winding labyrinth and the echoing roars of the beast. Similarly in its sound-pictures of Theseus’s courage in overcoming his own feats and doubts; the climactic fight to the death and the happy, noble ending. Would the music alone suffice? Its quality is certainly high enough, its ingenious programmatic touches enhanced by a lithe overall spirit of playfulness and joy that eschews any temptation towards a heavy and portentous bow to classicism.

So why tell the tale in words as well as music? Well, it’s a great yarn, replete with courage, uncertainty, pathos, triumph and romance. In a culture obsessed with the new, with junk culture and technological consumerism it’s a welcome reminder of ancient mythology and of eternal questions of virtue and morality. A wild optimist might hope that it portrays an inspiring civic vision, a heroic alternative to the self-serving opportunism of our contemporary politicians. But finally, it’s great fun, which alone should be enough. I’d love to one day see it performed with costumed actors miming the parts: kids and adults would both would have a ball.

Additionally though, the form of spoken narrative with music is occasion for special events and for live presentations. Purely as a recording, the form seems to come with inherent issues. Even a skilful reading of a well-constructed narrative will lack the emotional fires lit by sparks of improvisation. It’s likely that music-lovers who own such recordings will eventually listen less frequently and keenly to the narrative than to instrumental tracks (after Theseus there are 3 other marvellous Kirkwood tracks; Vexation, Dharamsala and Tomorrow I’ll Know, played by the same quintet). While the music of Theseus certainly rewards repeated hearings, it’s questionable whether the spoken word narrative will attract the same repeated attentiveness. But just as Ellington-Strayhorn astutely created A drum is a woman for a special presentation (a TV show), Ellen Kirkwood’s Theseus, already highly attractive as a recording, is especially appropriate for special live performances, its programmatic vehicle supplying a value-added cultural and dramatic experience to music that is never less than expressive, evocative and joyous. One hopes it gets the performance platforms that are merited by its quality and its ambition.

Theseus & the Minotaur: recorded 2012, ABC Studio by Russell Stapleton; produced by Cathy Peters. Composed, written and arranged by Ellen Kirkwood. Text adaptation: Ellen Kirkwood & Oliver Downes. Ellen Kirkwood-tr, kalimba; Paul Cutlan-cl, bass cl, tenor sax;  Glenn Doig-pi; Tom Botting-bas; Alon Ilsar-dr; Ketan Joshi-narration (tracks 1-5).


A wonderful 4 star review of our album was written by The Sydney Morning Herald’s John Shand 

John McBeath of The Australian newspaper also gave us a fantastic 4 star review. 

At, our good friend John Hardaker had some great things to say about the album, and interviewed Ellen.