Move Records, 2023
Australia’s guitar resurgence continues apace. John Williams put the instrument on the international map in the 1960s, but in more recent decade an extraordinary growth of interest in the guitar has occurred in this country, out of which Slava Grigoryan and his brother Leonard have forged a reputation as one of the world’s finest guitar duos.
Who would have ever thought that another brotherly duo would appear of equally high distinction? From Melbourne, Ziggy and Miles Johnston are rather like the Grigoryan Brothers in sound and artistry but only in their mid-20s; and it comes as no surprise that they learned from Slava and regard the Grigoryans as their ‘biggest heroes’. Later, they were given the rare opportunity to study at New York’s renowned Juilliard School.
Hear all about this in Emily Sutherland’s interview with Ziggy and Miles on Kaleidoscope, July 26.
Sidekick, their debut album, was recorded in New York earlier this year for Move Records ahead of their current Australian tour, which saw them briefly appear in Adelaide – this was at Anne-Marie Grisogono’s Wayville House Concerts on 22 July. Oddly, the brothers were not programmed into this year’s Adelaide Guitar Festival, but their crowded itinerary might have been the reason behind that. In any case, audiences might remember Ziggy and Miles from previous appearances at this festival and recall that Miles, the youngest brother, won its top prize in 2018.
A disc of great flair and technical accomplishment, Sidekick shows complete mastery even at this early stage of their career. The brothers Johnston excel in works by Rodrigo, Granados, Bellinati and Australian composers Ken Murray and Nigel Westlake. In addition there’s a lovely arrangement of Debussy’s Clair de Lune which they have arranged themselves.
The album gains it title from a delightfully humorous piece that occurs midway through. Written for Ziggy and Miles by young Welsh composer Katie Jenkins, ‘Sidekick’ illustrates the brothers practising and jamming around, as Jenkins herself witnessed them while the three were at Juilliard. Entertainingly, the guitars wander off in their separate ways in quasi-improvisational sprees, clashing sporadically, and coming together in moments of affectionate unity. Perhaps no other piece of music describes the fraternal bond as characterfully and truthfully as this.
The opening piece may be unfamiliar to many, but it appeals immediately with tunefulness and vivacity. Paulo Bellinati’s Jongo (1989) depicts African slave workers in Brazil’s coffee plantations breaking out into song and dance: dark times of servitude are turned into joyful celebration. The brothers play it with infectious rhythmic verve.
Rodrigo’s Tonadilla is steeped in Iberian atmosphere and exhibits the brothers’ outstanding command of flamenco style. This work, in three movements, owes its name to a genre of Spanish comedic song of the eighteenth century that Rodrigo elevated to high art. Colour and rhythmic energy abound, and the brothers’ timing through its numerous switches of tempo is immaculate.
The Valses poéticos of Granados from a century earlier make an apt Spanish companion. Written for piano but here arranged for guitar, this is song-filled music of exuberance and tender emotion that reminds one distantly of Schumann. Ziggy and Miles lend it a full lyrical character and place its melody eloquently.
Later on, we encounter a new work by Ken Murray that was inspired by birdcalls that he heard while walking through Melbourne’s Trin Warren Tam-boore wetlands during the COVID lockdowns. The brothers respond to its evocation of natural sounds with gentle intimacy.
Written for John Williams and Tim Kain in 1994, Westlake’s Songs from the Forest are one of his most memorable guitar compositions, and again their approach is delicate and thoughtful, making especially clean work of its interplay between the two instruments.
This is a most wonderful and impressive disc. Standing out all the way through are this young duo’s deeply considered musicianship, immaculate care and superlative technique. With their already complete package, Ziggy and Miles look poised to make a major impact on the guitar world.
Move Records’ website (www.move.com.au) gives details of how to procure it.