Crystal Choi ‘Skogkatt’ @ CJC

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Crystal Choi Skogkatt 098I looked forward to the ‘Skogkatt’ gig because Crystal Choi is a young musician with plenty of interesting ideas. She recently graduated from the UoA Jazz school and this project is largely drawn from her output as a student. Her arrangements and musical ideas show an evolving musician and her performance skills speak of energy and a growing confidence. When you speak to her there is a hint of shyness, but this evaporates the minute her hands touch the keyboard. At the piano her touch is decisive and the thinking behind the pieces is strongly communicated. She has grasped an important truth, how to play with space. One minute she is playing boldly with both hands raining down on the keys, the next dropping back to a gentle whisper or laying out. Her choice of project was a brave one as it tackled areas well beyond the usual Jazz orbit. Writing for strings and an unusually configured horn section an indicator of where she could be headed.Crystal Choi Skogkatt 101Her compositions and charts were of particular interest as they evoked more of a Northern European, or South American ethos than a North American one. While all Jazz arises from American roots, there are other forces at work in a globalised jazz world. As musicians from different ethnic backgrounds embrace improvised music something fresh is added. It is right that New Zealanders, Northern Europeans or people from other regions bring something of their own life experiences to the music. Jazz from the outer rim is particularly interesting at present.Crystal Choi Skogkatt 090There were solo, trio, sextet, septet and tenet pieces. Her writing for the ten piece band was notable. Although an uncommon configuration of instruments these oddly configured, medium-sized ensembles have been a feature in modern classical music since Saint-Saens ‘Carnival of the Animals’ (that was an eleven piece). In Jazz since the late 40’s. Having a front line with two violins and cello alongside trumpet/flugel, bass-clarinet, clarinet and flute/alto saxophone worked well. The unusual textures gave depth and interest to the composition. The slightly tart voicings of the Bartok like string section contrasting nicely with the woody richness of the woodwind horns. These sort of excursions are not embarked upon lightly but I feel Choi pulled it off. My only quibble, and it is a small one is that the ensemble needed to tighten up somewhat in places.Crystal Choi Skogkatt 087Another side of Choi is her singing. While certainly not a big voice it has charm and originality. Like many improvisers she sings while digging into a solo. These are wordless songs of the sort that you would hear on a Norma Winstone album. At times there is a Debussy feel to her solo and trio compositions.Crystal Choi Skogkatt 096This project while far-ranging begs developing further and perhaps recorded at some future point. It had a Kiwi ECM feel to it. I hope that she works with the material and refines it further. It is well worth doing.  Note: The Skogkatt is native to the forests of Scandinavia and the original Maine Coon cat.Crystal Choi Skogkatt 094

Crystal Choi – ‘Skogkatt Project‘ : Crystal Choi (piano, compositions, arrangements), Eamon Edmunsen-Wells (bass), Tristen Deck (drums), J Y Lee (alto sax & flute), Eizabeth Stokes (trumpet & flugel), Asher Truppman Lattie (clarinet, tenor saxophone), Sean Martin-Buss (Bass clarinet & tenor sax), Charmian Keay (violin), Milena Parobczy (violin), Yotam Levy (cello).

CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland 24th June 2015

Mathias Eick – ‘Midwest’

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Midwest2Before hearing the first note, I knew that I would like ‘Midwest’. Mathias Eick is a unique communicator and his compositions gift us with particular ways of experiencing places we have not yet visited. Sound is transmuted and we see what he is seeing. As I listened to the album I was drawn deep into a world of vast open spaces, history and complex human emotion. The connection was visceral as the music brought the plains of the Midwest into the range of intimacy. I sensed the wild grass running between my fingers as I listened. The last album to evoke such a strong sense of place for me was Tomasz Stanko’s ‘The Soul of Things’. ECM is the home of such evocative albums.

This is an outsiders look at the Midwest of America and a fresh take on Americana. The emotions and melodic intensity are what they are; expressions borne of the heart, devoid of apparent preconception, arrow straight in their delivery. Few bands are as suited to realise this as Eick’s and for the task he has assembled the ideal collaborators. All of the elements are there. The hint of sadness in the gentle slurs of Gjermund Larsen’s violin, the sparse beauty of Jon Balke’s piano, the folksy bass lines of Mats Eilertsen and the colourist pulsing percussion of Helge Norbakken. Above all the soft-edged well modulated soulful trumpet; a trumpet that sounds like no other.MidwestWhere I live in the South Pacific, Jazz musicians sometimes pose the question; Do we have our own sound, a unique quality that we tap into? As our scene grows the answer is increasingly yes. This uniqueness of ‘sound’ is evident among Scandinavian improvising musicians and especially so among Norwegian trumpeters. In this case the identity is multi faceted. It is Norwegian and Americana.Midwest 3The Midwest is both mythical and real, we feel that we know it intimately. Endless tales arise from the indigenous peoples (who respected it best) and the hopeful European settlers who spread across it looking for a new home. It struck a particular chord with Eick as the peoples of Norway were prominent among those settlers. The writer Lawrence Durrell explains this best when says that certain places transcend reality and become ‘less a geographical entity than an idea’. ‘Midwest’ is an embodiment of this principle. Midwest by Mathias Eick is out on the ECM label.

Rebecca Melrose to Montreux @ CJC

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Rebecca Melrose 085The last time I saw Rebecca Melrose perform was at a CJC gig, not long after her graduation from the UoA Jazz School. That was well over a year ago. Since then she has made her way as a vocalist, exploring several musical genres and recording an EP (yet to be released). This gig was straight ahead Jazz; her interpretations of various Jazz standards. I remember being impressed by Melrose the last time I heard her as there is a rich quality to her voice and she knows how to play with lyrics. At the last gig she took risks with her choice of material and it paid off. This time the sets were more mainstream but she exuded an easy-going confidence; the sort that comes with time in front of audiences.Rebecca Melrose 092Accompanying her were three graduates from the UoA Jazz Programme. Crystal Choi on piano, Eamon Edmunson-Wells on bass and Jared Devaux de Marigny, drums. CJC audiences have seen a lot of Edmunson-Wells over recent years and increasingly we are seeing Choi. Desvaux de Marigny is not seen as often. These are all fine musicians. Additional to the core lineup were guest artists Callum Passells (alto) and Liz Stokes (trumpet).Rebecca Melrose 087

The rhythm section worked well as accompanists and stood out during the brief solo spots (when they functioned as a trio). In this space Choi stood out in particular, her piano work showing edge and maturity. For a recent graduate she shows enormous promise and her own gig (to follow this) will be one to catch. I have put up the clip ‘Afro Blue’ (Mongo Santamaria) as it has a modernist feel about it. Her take being closer to the Robert Glasper/Erykah Badu version than the original.Rebecca Melrose 086Melrose has been selected as a semi-finalist in the prestigious Shure Vocal Competition (the only Australasian/Pacific finalist). She will fly to Montreux shortly to compete in the finals at the 2015 ‘Montreux Jazz Festival on Lac Lemon. This gig and other events are to help her get there. I wish her well.Rebecca Melrose 093

Rebecca Melrose 090Quartet: Rebecca Melrose (leader, vocals), Crystal Choi (piano), Eamon Edmunsen-Wells (bass), Jared Desvaux de Marigny (drums).

CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, 17th June 2015

‘Wave’ – Antonio Carlos Jobim

JazzLocal32:

Many years ago as a brand new blogger I posted this. It is still a frequently visited post, so I freshened it up a little and sent it around again.

Originally posted on JazzLocal32.com:

Cover of Cover of Wave

It was always easy to love Tom Jobim‘s music as it captured the very essence of cool; the exotic new Brazil of the 1960’s and 70’s.   While the music may not have captured the grim realities of the barrio’s, it spoke powerfully of the hope and dreams of a new generation; of educated hip, urban Brazilians.

The media showcased endless white-sand beaches, beautiful bikini clad girls and lost love under palm trees, but this was the era of ultra exciting modernist architecture. Best evidenced in the wonderfully executed, delightfully surreal Brasilia city.  This city was the revolutionary vision of three men of genius and they carved it out of of the jungle in a mere four years.

The President’s futuristic dreams were eventually overrun by greedy money men, a military dictatorship and powerful elites, but the legacy of Brasilia remains. These visionaries were President – Juscelino…

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Reuben Bradley’s ‘Cthulhu Rising’ @ CJC

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Cthulhu Rising 085H P Lovecraft died under appreciated, but it didn’t curb his output. His imaginings took him to darkly strange and exciting places. Places that few of us dared contemplate. While he reached deeper than writers like Edger Alan Poe and further into the human psyche, his wildest dreams could not have prepared him for Wednesday night. Reuben Bradley, time traveller and keeper of lost grooves has wrestled with the spirits and brought Lovecraft to life again.

If anyone was up to this interesting challenge it was Bradley. An original drummer who moves across the kit with balletic fluidity and whose focus and musicality enhances any undertaking. He possesses superb compositional skills and these are fed by a fertile imagination. There is another quality to Bradley and perhaps this is the key. He has a highly developed sense of the absurd. A good humoured irreverence that is never far from the surface. This time his attributes were given full rein and he has excelled himself. Cthulhu Rising 091This is a truly exceptional album and it is no wonder when you consider the source material and the musicians associated with it. Bradley, Penman and Eigsti are a deadly combination and their interplay is crisply on the mark. Matt Penman is dear to our hearts in New Zealand. One of our finest Jazz exports. An expat from Auckland who conquered the American improvised bass scene in ways that few others manage. His work with James Farm, the San Francisco Jazz Collective, Aaron Parks, Kurt Rosenwinkel and a long list of luminaries is instructive. That he still appears with the best of our local artists and on local recordings is our immense good luck. An imaginative and wonderfully musical bass player who holds the groove and manages to tell interesting stories without distracting us from the overall focus of the piece. Few bass players could do this better than Penman.

Last but least is Taylor Eigsti on piano and keys. The New York based Eigsti is also an original stylist. While his name is often associated with the likes of Eric Harland, Joshua Redman, Ambrose Akinmusire, Julian Lage and Gretchen Parlato he deserves evaluating in his own right as leader. For a number of years now the Jazz community has singled him out as an exceptional talent. His back story and youthful entry onto the world Jazz scene is fascinating, but it is his mature output that continually amazes. He is well recorded, well reviewed and getting better with each passing year. At times you can hear influences but they are not the predominant voice. This is a wholly formed original artist and what he brought to Cthulhu Rising was priceless.Cthulhu Rising 094The judicious use of sampled ‘Lovecraft’ readings in several places adds to the atmospheric feel and doesn’t detract from the overall musical experience. Every note played and every voice-over is well placed. Yet again Rattle Records have excelled themselves here. The secret of ‘Rattle Records’ tasteful Jazz catalogue must surely be seeping into the wider world by now. ‘Rattle’ is the ‘ECM’ of the South Pacific. This album was recorded at the ‘Bunker Studios’ in New York, Engineered by Aaron Nevezie and mixed and mastered by Steve Garden at ‘The Garden Shed’ Auckland.Cthulhu Rising 088There was a change of personnel for the CJC ‘Cthulhu Rising’ release gig and for the Australasian tour to follow. Respected bass player Brett Hirst took Penman’s place and this was a sound choice. Hirst, another expat Kiwi, is well established on the Australian scene and frequently employed by visiting artists. He is a gifted musician and perfect for high end gigs like this.

Throughout the New Zealand leg of their tour they were enthusiastically acclaimed and no wonder. The project is well conceived and well realised. In spite of the incredible strengths of his band mates, this is still very much Bradley’s album. We are seeing more drummer led albums lately and the sheer exuberance and depth of this one is proof that the New Zealand improvised music scene just gets better and better.

Cthulhu Rising: Reuben Bradley, Taylor Eigsti, Matt Penman – on tour Brett Hirst – purchase the album from Rattle records or in stores

Live Gig: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand

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Doug Lawrence plays the CJC

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Doug Lawrence 090Doug Lawrence is every bit the archetypal southern tenor man, from the top of his tall frame to the bell of his brightly shining tenor. His sound is fat and down-home-cooking rich, whether playing softly or at volume. He has more cut through than a diamond headed drill-bit. Lawrence has such considerable credentials that it is beyond my reach to enumerate them all here (google him).

He arrived in New Zealand several weeks ago as lead tenor player for the Basie Band. It was a sellout concert in the Civic and we marvelled at the tightness and punch of their sound. Eighty years on the road will do that. Kansas City swing is a wonder of the universe and seeing Lawrence solo in front of that famous orchestra told us that we were in for another treat. Unbelievably our CJC Jazz club had booked him to appear in a few days. At first we wondered how this came about, but we were soon to learn of a long-standing connection between him and the CJC’s Roger Manins. A wonderful Jazz back story informed this gig and we were the lucky beneficiaries.Doug Lawrence 2 089Lawrence is tall and as he performs he stoops slightly, forming a classic old school playing pose. Slowing bending his knees inwards before stretching and lifting his horn to the ceiling. His speaking voice is rich like his playing, a southern Louisiana drawl adding to his considerable charm. The first number was ‘End of a love Affair (Redding) and the audience whooped in delight as the band took the changes at a good pace. The rhythm section propelled by the tidal waves of sound emanating from the tenor. It was that sound and the power of delivery that grabbed you from the get go. The intonation and phrasing revealing influences which although readily identifiable, transformed them into a new sound. This was pure alchemy. It was like having Gene Ammons and Dexter Gordon on the same band stand.Doug Lawrence 092It is during ballads that the skill of a musician is often tested. In this case we saw something close to perfection. It wasn’t just Lawrence, but his Kiwi pickup band as well. Spurred on by each other, they dug deeper and deeper. A night and a vibe that we will remember for years to come. There was an obvious rapport between pianist Kevin Field and Lawrence. I gather that he found Field’s harmonic approach interesting and perhaps this is an indication of our own development as we grow our standing. Lawrence’s intonation was the thing that grabbed you most and this made his solos particularly enjoyable. Long held notes ending in breathy flurries or else bending the note ever so slightly before delivering a short heart stopping burst of controlled vibrato.  With Holland and Samsom also finding their sweet spot this was a dream band.Doug Lawrence 093

There were a few evergreen Basie numbers like the swinging ‘Shiny Stockings’ (Foster) and ‘Jumping by the Woodside’ (Basie) but the biggest surprise came later when Lawrence invited Roger Manins and Nathan Haines up to join him. Leaning into the microphone he announced ‘Impressions’ by John Coltrane. This was a change of pace devoured by club audience and band alike as they dove deeper and deeper into the crazy off the grid modal grooves. Its true what they say. Cats like this can do anything when the spirit moves them. The spirit was sure among us that night.Doug Lawrence 2 096Here is the back story: 17 years ago a younger Roger Manins hit the New York streets, where he learned to scuffle in the time-honoured way of Jazz musicians. Because he possessed the hunger to learn he approached many established horn players. One of these was Doug Lawrence and traces of that time are still evident in Manins sound. All of those years ago Manins subbed for him and here is a Face Book extract that Lawrence posted once he returned to the USA. Doug Lawrence 097Roger has matured into a GREAT player and MAGNIFICENT teacher! All of his students have a SOUND and they are all inspired to play, because of Roger. The curriculum at the University of Auckland Jazz Department is second to none, and I am going to use it as my model when conducting masterclasses at other universities around the world. Roger and Ron Samsom and the rest of the faculty have got it right at the U of A and I’m going to suggest that each and every University I teach at check it out. Cheers ROG! You are doing it ALL right brother! I hope to see and play with you soon mate!”  That says it all really.

The last phase of the evening is best described as Tenor Madness. At times three tenors played in unison, at other times Nathan Haines keening Soprano took up the challenge.  When Manins and Haines (plus Haines father Kevin) took to the stage we found ourselves in 1940’s Kansas City.  Witnessing the good-natured, but no holds barred tenor battles of old. At the end of the second set the audience nearly rioted.  No-one wanted this night to end. Lawrence asked for another drink and picked up his saxophone again. “My plane for the States doesn’t leave for five hours, lets play on”, he said. And they did.

You can purchase Doug Lawrence’s ‘New Organ Trio album’ from iTunes, Cactus Records or from Amazon. Please show your appreciation for these amazing artists by purchasing their recordings.

Who: The Doug Lawrence Quartet – plus guests: Doug Lawrence (Tenor Saxophone, Kevin Field (piano), Olivier Holland (bass), Ron Samsom (drums) – Guests: Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Nathan Haines (tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone), Kevin Haines (bass).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand 3rd June 2015.

Nathan Haines sings & plays – The Little Big Band

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Nathan LBB 092Nathan Haines is a master of the melodic and the model and he has a beautiful and distinctive sound on all his horns (and winds). He has a strong following around the world and it is no wonder when he turns on gigs like this. His following crosses genres, attracting younger and older audiences equally. He also cuts through media blind spots in a way that few other New Zealand improvising musicians do. It is good to have him on home soil for a while and good that he is focussing on fresh local projects. What he does is always exciting and this gig was no exception.Nathan LBB 097The talented and hard-working, Haines always thinks through his projects. Hot on the heals of his successful award-winning Jazz albums ‘Poets Embrace’ and ‘Vermillion Skies’ he has again teamed up with arrangers Wayne Senior and Mike Booth. The decision to include more Jazz vocals is a welcome development. There’s a paucity of male jazz singers in the modern world and they’re a rarity in New Zealand. The set list was an interesting mix of Haines originals and a few Jazz standards seldom heard live. Like his recent Jazz projects, these tunes evoked and reinterpreted the classic era of the 50’s. Consequently they oozed cool. Nathan LBB 094With Michal Martyniuk on piano, Kevin Haines on bass and Ron Samsom on drums he was already on solid ground. This is also where Haines excels. He is a bandleader who choses his musicians well. Martyniuk made his presence felt and soloed beautifully while never over playing. It was exactly what these charts required. Kevin Haines is a highly-respected, tasteful bass player with an impeccable CV. During the sets smiles and friendly banter flowed between father and son; further enhancing the mood. The highly experienced Samsom was on drums throughout. He is new to Haines lineups. His approach to the kit springs from a confident inner logic; more organic than Haines usual drummers. It was interesting to watch their interactions as they sparked off each other. Samsom giving Haines a different platform to work from.

The first few numbers were quartet only and the gorgeous and evocative ‘The Night Air’ opened the set. This is a lovely composition by Haines, with the warmth and vibe of a classic Impulse vinyl album (see clip). His tone is unique and especially evident when doing this material. It Nathan LBB 100immediately took me back to hearing Pharoah Sanders for the first time. When Haines plays these modal pieces, there’s a spiritual joy that comes across. This is a strong suit for him and for those of us who love that era a balm.

As the set progressed the ensemble doubled to include a four piece horn section. There were distinct tonal and textural qualities to this ‘Little Big Band'; differing from his ‘Vermillion Skies’ horn section as that had French horns. The line up of trombone, tenor Saxophone, Alto saxophone and trumpet/flugal worked well. From ‘Vermillion Skies’ we heard J. J. Johnson’s ballad ‘lament’ and the vocal ‘Navarino Street’. Wayne Senior and Mike Booth had worked on the arrangements and few in New Zealand can match their arranging skills. Perhaps the greatest pleasure was hearing an arrangement of ‘Boplicity’ from the 1949 MilesNathan LBB 089 Davis album ‘Birth of Cool’. Few bands tackle this and more’s the pity. The octet horn section were Mike Booth, Roger Manins, Callum Passells and Hayden Godfrey.

It’s always good to hear Haines singing and I think we will hear more of that in future. That said, as long as Haines puts a tenor saxophone to his lips he will draw audiences because his tenor playing infects us with joyousness. There’s a real warmth to his playing and if you have listened to Jazz for as long as I have, your memories will quickly conjure the days of Coltrane, Lateef or Sanders. On nights like this you feel the best of your yesteryear listening captured, then gifted back to you. As I filmed I noticed the famous artist Billy Apple sitting beside me. He leaned forward smiling and said, “This is wonderful, the vibe is just like a New York Jazz club of the 50’s or 60’s”. He is right.

Who: Nathan Haines Quartet & Octet – Nathan Haines (tenor, saxophone, vocals, compositions)- Michal Martyniuk (piano), Kevin Haines (bass), Ron Samsom (drums), Mike Booth (trumpet, flugel, arrangements), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Callum Passells (alto saxophone), Hayden Godfrey (trombone), – conductor arranger Wayne Senior.

Where:(CJC Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, 27th May 2015

Carnivorous Plant Society – Finn Scholes @ CJC

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Finn Scholes CPS 085 (1)Music has a million functions, some of them mysterious; it is the soundtrack to our lives. One of those functions, should not be underestimated, is to bring fun into our day. In this age of multi-media music performance the use of film and theatre is generally ceded to heavy metal or pop. That is a shame because Jazz audiences can react favourably to music when accompanied by these various forms of media. This works well at the Golden Dawn. Sometimes when the CJC is held upstairs, we get random film and images playing across the musicians as they perform. Who can forget the crazy brilliance of ‘The Grid’ (see earlier post). While happenstance can work; truly effective interaction needs working into a performance and be way slicker than a silly strobe light or an embarrassing disco chandelier. The Carnivorous Plant Society presented a coordinated performance and it enhanced the music on offer. Finn Scholes CPS 093This is very much a Finn Scholes project and it has been around for some time. Scholes is primarily known as a trumpeter (often playing the avant-garde end of town). Increasingly these days he is a keyboard player and showman. Last year I saw him with this group; belting out his signature brassy Mexican trumpet sound while playing an analogue synth with his left hand. The performance often tipped into the surreal because Scholes wore a Mexican ‘night of the dead’ wrestling mask. Not an image or a sound I will easily forget. Finn Scholes CPS 087The Carnivorous Plant Society is a quintet but there are many more instruments, pedals and electronic devices than there are band members. Scholes plays trumpet, tuba, piano, numerous keyboards, electronics – Siobhanne Thompson, vibraphone, violin, percussion, pocket trumpet – Tam Scholes, electric guitar – Cass Mitchell, Electric Bass – Alistair Deverick, drums, electronics. With use of loops, wizard like gadgets and Siva like arms, a number of sounds are generated at once. Finn Scholes CPS 094The occasional use of voice-over samples was far from being gratuitous as the ‘Max Headroom’ like humour often lay in these samples. There were strange Stephen King like stories of robots taking over the world and oddly quirky adventures relayed. The latter as if being recalled by deadpan 1950’s radio hosts. Many of these performed against brightly coloured cartoon graphics that played over their heads. The graphics were brilliant and although I have no evidence for supposing this, I presume that someone in the quintet (or a close friend hip to the project) created them.

Finn Scholes has been to the CJC often, but it has been a long while since we saw the fine bass player Cass Mitchell (probably with the Andy Brown band nearly three years ago). The rest of the group are new to the club as far as I know. Billed as ‘cinematic fantasy Jazz with a Mexican twist‘. An absolutely truthful advertising descriptor. As a Zorn, Sun Ra and Zappa fan I can hardly object. Finn Scholes CPS 085

Who: ‘Carnivorous Plant Society’ – Finn Scholes, Siobhanne Thompson, Tam Scholes, Cass Mitchell, Alistair Deverick.

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, 20th May 2015

Julie Mason Quartet @ CJC

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Julie Mason 087It has been a while since Julie Mason performed as leader. Mason is a pianist/vocalist who over the years taught and influenced a number of younger musicians. After a difficult few years battling health issues she has now started performing again and her new project titled: ‘compositions by piano playing Jazz Musicians’ is what she brought to the CJC. Most of these tunes are not standards in the American song-book sense and so they often lack wider recognition. That’s a pity because the tunes written by these musicians are some of best to come out of the last 90 years. It is always good to delve into this material. Julie Mason 088A perfect example of a composer/performer who deserves wider recognition is Enrico Pieranunzi. He is all too often overlooked outside of Europe. This formidable Italian improviser has performed with artists like Charlie Haden, Art Farmer, Kenny Wheeler, Chet Baker, Jim Hall and dozens of others. His output stands favourably when compared to the finest of the American Jazz issues.  Of particular note is ‘Live in Paris’ and ‘Don’t forget the Poet’. The latter is a tribute to Bill Evans. Mason performed the title track from that album beautifully. She captured the lyrical quality of the piece.Julie Mason 086she has performed with these musicians for many years; Lance Su’a (guitar), Alberto Santarelli (bass) and Frank Gibson (drums). Her partner, the well known Jazz Pianist Phil Broadhurst sat in while Mason did a vocal number. The set list was split between vocals and instrumental pieces. The number Broadhurst accompanied her on was the fabulously evocative ‘The Peacocks’ (Jimmy Rowles/Norma Winstone). It is one of those tunes that is so aligned to Evans and Rowles that musicians tend to shy away from it. That’s a pity in my view: it was nice to hear it performed live. Other artists featured as sources were Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Billy Childs and Jacky Terrason.

Julie Mason 085

‘Hip Without Borders’ (poem for Gil Scott Heron)

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header 085The world is full of crazy shit at present and it’s time to organise. It’s time to form an organisation; deployable at short notice. ‘Hip Without Borders’ will have no membership card and it will not stand under any flag. ‘Hip without Borders’ will not require you to be a passport holder, because the corruption of nationalism could hinder your passage. Members will know each other on sight; no secret handshake necessary. Members will be subversive poets or out-cat musicians. They will know Miles Davis solo from Boplicity or of John Zorns tribute to William S Burroughs. They will not be able to name one contestant on X Factor or care that they found god afterwards. “Hip without Borders’ will be a proscribed organisation because they will infiltrate the security intelligence services. Members will not believe that the security intelligence services are either intelligent or secure. Members will value bitter-sweet dissonance over a pretty melody; knowing that it is a mirror held to the human condition. They will love mankind unconditionally; in spite of mankind’s fucking stupidity. They will confront power with trickster jokes. “Hip Without Borders’ requires your service. – John Fenton – Winter 2015 –

Michael Howell & Kenji Holdaway @ CJC

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Howell Holdaway 075 This was ’emerging artists’ night and you wouldn’t have thought so. The club had packed to capacity and the performances were far beyond what you’d expect from students. The artists approached their sets differently, but the end results were equally satisfying. Both study at the Auckland University Jazz School and if that institution is turning out students of this quality it certainly reflects well on the faculty. Howell Holdaway 077Michael Howell is from West Auckland and for some reason a number of excellent guitarists emerge from that quadrant. Growing up in the Waitakere ranges seems to have gifted his playing with an expansiveness and it is not hard to imagine big vistas and tree-clad hills during his ballad numbers. Howells set opened with a ballad and edged into the faster tempos later. His thoughtful opening took us deep inside the music and this was a good way to start a set. As well as his own tunes he featured compositions by Ben Monder, Sam Rivers and John Scofield. When a guitar trio doesn’t use an organ or piano there is more space to work in. This was well utilised by Howell although he is also adept in larger group situations. I heard him a few days later when he sat in with a number of very experienced musicians and he stepped into that space effortlessly. There were two numbers with piano and fellow student Crystal Choi sat in for these (also adding a vocal line). The other musicians were Eamon Edmundson-Wells on Bass (who also played bass in the second set) and Tristan Deck on drums. These former UoA students have already made their mark on the scene.  Howell Holdaway 081Kenji Holdaway led the second set and his approach was quite different. Most of the tunes he chose favoured collective improvisation and they draw upon diverse genres. His bandstand presence and the way he approached tunes oozed confidence. He had also chosen some former UoA students to accompany him and his choice was right on the money. J Y Lee is a gifted alto player and he can work the spectrum from avant-garde through to the lyrical ballads that give sentiment a good name. His musicality shone through during this gig and he just gets better and better. On Rhodes and piano was Conner Mcaneny and he often pushed the group into a freewheeling fusion space. Once again It impressed me how well his playing served the music as it was far from formulaic. When the others were playing his comping chords acted as clever punctuation; urging them to reach further and deeper. Another surprise was Tom Legget on drums and perhaps I have not been paying proper attention. I recall him sitting in during the CJC Jam Sessions of 2012.  Now he is a fully formed drummer. His contributions tasteful and decisive. Eamon Edmundson-Wells was on bass once again and he showed what a tasteful player he is.  While the band was good it was Holdaway who dominated. It was not that he injected himself into others solos for he would regularly lay out respectfully. It was his impressive command of the guitar, that and the sense that he was really across this gig. Howell Holdaway 078

Spammerz, Silent Observer and Ambient Adventures

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Spammerz 076Spammerz is a fascinating group and there is an interesting conceptual approach underlying their ethos. The quartets approach to improvisation is organic; more than might than might be supposed at first encounter. What they play is familiar but at the same time intangible. Constant organic shifts occur underneath the momentum and these apparent contradictions are not accidental. The music while eminently danceable is remarkably free of constraints; there is form, but it is not always fixed. The music has groove but it is cleverly purged of the familiar licks and hooks that usually inform groove music. There are interesting dynamics but these are not based upon loudness or showy pyrotechnic displays. It is ambient, but not in the accepted sense. It is enjoyable.

The leader of the quartet Dan Sperber once described his compositions as ‘unterhaltungsmusik’ (easy listening). This tongue-in-cheek description belies the reality and it hints at his quirky approach to writing charts. Background music was certainly not what the CJC or Golden Dawn audiences heard. They either danced happily or sat mesmerised as the friendly grooves filled the room. Perhaps ‘trance music’ comes closer?  Spammerz 074This opens up an interesting conversation about the many forms of ‘ambient’ music being explored at present. These forays are mainly by musicians on the improvised and experimental music scenes. Along the way the term ‘ambient’ is garnering new meanings and it can no longer be confined to the vernacular definition. It implies subtly, depth and a strong sense of being coupled to wider sensory experiences. The difference being that the senses catch on silken threads and not on steel shackles. There is also an illusive quality to this music and to understand the genre better, a good starting place would be Miles Davis ‘In a Silent Way’ or Brian Eno and Jon Hassell (‘Fourth world volume one, possible musics’). For an up to the minute vantage point go to YouTube and locate Elvind Aaset and Jan Bang’s ‘And Poppies from Kandahar’. Spammerz 071Unlike ‘easy listening’ there are deep emotions engaged by this type of music. Like all trance music cunning voodoo tricks draw you in and as you relax into the mesmerising grooves, you fall deeper into the web. This is music evoking mental pictures and imaginary worlds. This is music that is often served up with dissolving visual images accompanying a clip. The filmic qualities are inescapable.

The Spammerz band is Dan Sperber (guitar), Alan Brown (Crumar keyboard), Ben McNicoll (saxophones) and Jason Orme (drums). Because the musicians have been experimenting and playing with the grooves, the music is constantly evolving. The CJC gig was great, but the Golden Dawn gig just a few nights later was even better.  Spammerz 073Alan Brown is an asset to any unit and especially so when you consider that this is a crossroads between ambient and groove (both specialties of Browns). Ben McNicoll is a strong presence and his reading of these shifting grooves is always apposite. It is nice to hear such bluesyness purged of cliche. Jason Orme is a veteran of the groove scene but he sounds great in any situation. Spammers music calls for a tight groove but there is also a need for subtlety. Orme is more than up to the task. The leader Dan

The leader, Dan Sperber is best known for his role in ‘New Loungehead’ and the ‘Relaxomatic Project’. In spite of having such strong band mates on this project he is centre stage. His disarmingly quiet persona belies a strength of purpose.  A nice guitarist with interesting things to say.  Spammerz 077In the same week that Spammerz appeared at the CJC Alan Brown released his ambient album ‘Silent Observer‘. This album has long been anticipated. Anyone who knows Brown will be aware of his longtime interest in the works of the new Scandinavian ambient improvisers. Trumpeters like Arve Hendriksen, Nils Petter Molvaer, Guitarists like Arvin Aaset, vocal innovators like David Sylvian or Sidsel Endresen and electronics wizards like Jan Bang. This is a new frontier open for wider exploration. These artists draw huge audiences in Europe and increasingly audiences from beyond that continent.

While Brown has laid down more soul-filled grooves than most, he is also capable of thinking outside of the square. The concept of this project was clear when he sat down at the lovely Steinway D piano in the Town Hall Concert Chamber. Creating gentle music that is unconfined. This is spontaneous composition informed by place, by the moment, the artists vision and the instrument. With ambient music the spaces between the notes are where much of the music lies. These are like shared dreamscapes and a stream of mental images flows through the mind as we participate.

There is an oversupply of unsubtle loud incessant music cluttering up cyberspace and it is all too easy to forget the importance of silence and subtlety. This music is best enjoyed through headphones or at night in a quiet room. Ambient music is not background music, but the sounds we have forgotten to hear.  A child’s heartbeat or the rustle of a tree are the most ancient of ambient sonic archetypes. This album reminds us that hearing is selective and when we enable it as deep as the ocean.

While the piano paints gorgeous motifs there are often subtle synth textures underpinning the pieces. The judicious use of synth adds to the sense of wistfulness while not detracting from the piano. There are also samples folded into certain tracks and these are perfectly chosen. The Robert Graves poem (read by Dylan Thomas) and the whisper-quiet polyglot prayers in 40 languages serve the the project well.

Headland Glow: Alan Brown/Silent Observer – 

Spammerz – Dan Sperber (guitar), Alan Brown (Crumar Mojo keyboards), Ben McNicoll (tenor saxophone), Jason Orme (drums). Gigs at CJC (Creative Jazz Club) & Golden Dawn 6th & 10th May 2015

Silent Observer – Alan Brown (Steinway D Piano, Synth) – purchase the album from Alan Brown.co.nz

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McAll – #ASIO Mooroolbark

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Barney McAll 2 071 (1)Mooroolbark is a place, an album and a state of mind. It is an intersection of worlds and a testament to Barney McAll’s writing skills .

There is a special place where artistic expression transcends the immediate, a place where archetypes become manifest in varied and subtle ways. This is a place where unexpected journeys begin. Where the eyes, ears, touch, smell and feel guide you inexorably toward ancient and modern shared memories. Jung spoke of this as the ‘collective unconscious mind’ (or the ‘universal mind’). This is a mysterious well of ‘unknowing’ and the best improvising artists navigate its depths. McAll is a musician eminently qualified to navigate this journey.

He is a storyteller and a fearless explorer. Revealing seemingly endless worlds as the patina of time and space reveal new layers note by note. The trick of this is the subtle cues left along the path. If the listener comes with open ears and mind, new depths unfold. In truth these are ancient devices, long the preserve of poets, painters, improvisers and prehistoric cave artists. McAll and ASIO use these subliminal cues to confound, tease and cajole. All is revealed and all is not what it seems. We listen, we enjoy, but there is always a Siren to lure us deeper. ASIO tantalises with motifs that sound familiar, but which often dissolve into something else upon closer examination; echoes from the future as much as the past. These are the archetypes of sound and silence.  Barney McAll 2 072 (1)#ASIO stands for the Australian Symbiotic Improvisers Orbit, but even in the title the story deepens? Another ASIO comes to mind, as hard-won Australian freedoms vanish in the eternal quest for security. At a pre-release gig in Sydney’s Basement the band donned high-viz vests with #ASIO stencilled on them; high visibility music juxtaposed with secretive worlds. This #ASIO has some answers. The landscape of McAll’s new album ‘Mooroolbark’ is littered with these potent images and if you let your preconceptions go, they will come to you. These musical parables are modern ‘song lines’; age old stories told afresh. ‘Mooroolbark’ completes a circle. A return to familiar physical and spiritual landscapes. A reappraisal of the journey with old musical friends.

McAll is a thinker and perhaps a trickster as much as he is a musician. To quote from Jungian sources “In mythology, and in the study of folklore and religion, a trickster exhibits a great degree of intellect or secret knowledge and uses it to play tricks or otherwise disobey normal rules and conventional behaviour.”

While his previous albums have featured New York luminaries like Kurt Rosenwinkel, Gary Bartz, Ben Monder, Josh Roseman, Billy Harper and others this is mostly an Australian affair. The one exception is percussionist Mino Cinelu. McAll’s collaborations with Dewey Redman, Fred Wesley, Jimmy Cobb and others have brought him much deserved attention. Now the story moves to his home country. The Mooroolbark personnel are McAll (piano, compositions, vocals), Julien Wilson (tenor, alto clarinet), Stephen Magnusson (guitars), Jonathan Zwatrz (bass), Simon Barker (drums, percussion), Mino Cinelu (percussion), Hamish Stuart (drums), Shannon Barnett (trombone). These are well-known gifted musicians, but everyone checked their egos in at the door.  Barney McAll 2 071This unit performs as if they are one entity. Every note serves the project rather than the individuals. The sum is greater than its considerably impressive parts. I have seen McAll perform a number of times and his sense of dynamics is always impressive He can favour the darkly percussive; using those trademark voicings to reel us in, then just as suddenly turn on a dime and with the lightest of touch occupy a gentle minimalism. On Mooroolbark everyone’s touch is light and airy, open space between notes, a crystal clarity that surprisingly yields an almost orchestral feel. Avoiding an excess of notes and making a virtue out of this is especially evident as they play off the ostinato passages (i.e ‘Non Compliance).

Because they work in such a unified fashion it is almost a sin to single out solos. Inescapable however are the solos by McAll on ‘Nectar Spur and on the dark ballad ‘Poverty’; which has incandescent beauty. Wilson on the moody atmospheric ‘Coast Road’, and above all Magnusson and McAll on ‘Non-Compliance’. I am familiar with this composition and I love the new arrangement here.  Barney McAll 2 071 (2)A transformation has occurred with ‘Non Compliance'; morphing from a tour de force trio piece into an other-worldly trippy sonic exploration. All of the musicians fit perfectly into the mix and this is a tribute to the arrangements and to the artists. Zwartz (an expat Kiwi who has a strong presence here) holds the groove to perfection and the drummers and percussionists, far from getting in each others way, lay down subtle interactive layers; revealing texture and colour. Barker on drums and percussion is highly respected on the Australian scene (as are all of these musicians). Adding the New York percussionist Mino Cinelu gives that added punch. On tracks 6 & 7 noted trombonist Shannon Barnett adds her magic and Hamish Stewart is on drums for the last track.

A sense of place may pervade these tunes, but there is also a question mark. This is not a place set in aspic but a query. Places or ideas dissolve into merged realities like the music that references them. Layers upon layers again.

This is art music, street music and musical theatre of the highest order. Everything that you hear, see and experience serves the music in some way. It is a bittersweet commentary on the human experience. A scientist on New Zealand National Radio said that exploring the dark unseen areas of space is the new magic. I think that he is right. This album is replete with trickster references but the intent is deadly serious. This music turns the arrows of listening back on us like a Zen Koan.  Barney McAll 2 072Barney McAll is an award-winning, Grammy nominated Jazz Musician based in New York. He was recently awarded a one year Peggy Glanville-Hicks Composers Residency and he currently resides at the Paddington residency house in Sydney, Australia.

I would urge you to buy the ‘Mooroolbark’ album at source rather than purchase it on iTunes. The cover art and the messages are a trip in themselves. Available June 5th.

For two sample tracks on ‘Soundcloud’ go to: https:\\soundcloud.com/barneymcall

I took the photos of Barney McAll during a two-hour interview with him in Sydney April 2015.  I chose not to use the traditional question and answer format as this begged a different approach. For better or worse getting inside a story Gonzo style is what I do.  The first and last pictures are from the ‘Mooroolbark’ album artwork by Allan Henderson & Jenny Gavito and Andre Shrimski. The bird is the wonderful Frogmouth Owl (shedding the old New York skyline from its plumage).

The Album: ‘Mooroolbark’ – Barney McAll (piano, compositions, vocal), Julien Wilson (tenor sax, alto clarinet), Stephen Magnusson (guitars), Jonathan Zwartz (bass), Simon Barker (drums, percussion), Mino Cinelu (percussion), Hamish Stuart (drums [8]), Shannon Barnett (trombone [6, 7]) – released 2015 by abcmusic

Purchase information: http://extracelestialarts.bandcamp.com/

Biographical information @ www.barneymcall.com

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Mark Isaacs 2015 @ CJC

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Mark Isaacs 072Mark Isaacs is an important and highly respected Australian musician and it was a pleasure to see him in Auckland again. It was October 2013 when he last visited and since then he has been busy with the presentation of his symphony and a number of other noteworthy projects. He is a celebrated Jazz and classical musician and he continues to excel in both genres. Musicians like this are rare, as the two disciplines require very different approaches. When you talk to Isaacs you realise that he is passionate about both. He respects the art forms far too much to settle for anything less than his best. In either genre.

I once recall naively asking a visiting musician whether the ability to perform at the highest level on an array of difficult instruments was a unique skill. I have never forgotten the answer. “No it’s the outcome of hard work and an exponential increase in practice time. Every instrument you play is practiced equally and intensively’. I am certain that the same would apply to working across different genres.  That said, I suspect that attitude and aptitude are still somewhere in the mix.Mark Isaacs 071 (2)

Nothing annoys musicians more than being told that what they do is the result of a gift. It implies that the results come easily to them. Having great chops is only the starting point, as there is more to a successful Jazz musician than technique. Deep level communications are necessary and for a performance to work well, everyone must connect. Musician to musician and musicians to audience. Having something original to say and saying it well is something Mark Isaacs understands. Those performing at this level bring something unique to the equation. Something of themselves. An essence drawn from experience and an intuitive understanding of how time works. No matter how good a pianist, bass player or drummer, a piano trio is still a collaboration. Isaacs must have been happy with Holland and Samsom. They are two of our best musicians. Mark Isaacs 072 (2)

Isaacs comes from an exceptional musical family with a lineage stretching back to the Stephane Grapelli band and probably beyond that. Knowing the depth of his classical and Jazz heritage gives an added perspective to his multifaceted career trajectory.

I missed the first few numbers and arrived at the CJC just as the trio were warming up. The first number I heard was Kenny Dorham’s ‘Blue Bossa’. A much-loved standard that has remained extremely popular. Good improvising musicians extract gold from compositions like this (and often without needing to deviate far from the traditional chart). This was a night of wonderful standards played to perfection. Hearing a superb pianist and a solid rhythm section performing in such an intimate space is something Jazz fans live for. Everyone there experienced the warm glow. A warmth that only nights like this can impart. I truly wish Isaacs lived a lot closer. My appetite for his playing is far from being satisfied. Mark Isaacs 071 (4)My late arrival was due to a previous gig and as I walked in, the sound enveloped me completely. Before I had settled Ron Samsom had grinned in my direction, Oli Holland had poked out his tongue and Mark Isaacs had given a quick wave (mid solo). With those brief gestures the realisation swept over me that this club and these musicians are family. A. J. a club regular grabbed me in the break and said tongue in cheek, “Thank god your here man, the universe has realigned”.  Ron Samsom the drummer added, “Yeah it took us a while to settle because there were two strangers in YOUR chair and you were nowhere to be seen”. I guess I am like the guy who lives perpetually on the bar stool of his local bar.  Sort of Jazz furniture.

A performance of Mark Isaacs ‘Symphony’ has been professionally filmed and it was recently purchased by the ‘SKY Arts’ channel. It plays in New Zealand on the 10th June at 8pm.  Please support this important work by watching and perhaps writing to SKY Arts and saying how much we appreciate seeing material like this (The same for the recent Mike Nock/Contemporary Dance film on SKY Arts). These are important artists and landmark events. We live in a crass market-driven world where the Philistines try to dictate our taste. Without our support these amazing artists can struggle for wider recognition. Writing to encourage the purchase of such films is the least we can do by way of thanks. Remember, this works best as a collective enterprise and all of us have a role to play in this.

What: Mark Isaacs Trio – Mark Isaacs (piano), Oli Holland (bass), Ron Samsom (drums).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand, Wednesday 22nd April 2015

Jonathan Crayford – Making Pianos Sing

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Jonathan Crayford Interview  (part one)

Jonathan Crayford 071 (2) When the luck runs your way, an interview with a musician will mysteriously transform itself into something more. If you know how to read the signals and respond appropriately, you find yourself traversing musical galaxies; places where words and musical ideas merge. I was acutely aware of this when I interviewed Jonathan Crayford recently. He is the ideal person to spend time with if you like to explore the improbable connections between seemingly unrelated things. It was an interview where the rhythms of the moment guided what we discussed and the best part of a day flew by before I knew it. This cerebral world is where Crayford prefers to live. He is perpetually on the road, dreaming up and shaping musical projects as he goes. His life is truly the troubadour’s life. As I probed him for insights, one episode in particular threw light on how serendipity and happenstance can guide him.

While living in Paris a few years ago, he reached the conclusion that the time had come to move on. Around this time he met a Catalan photographer and she invited him to perform at a Catalonian arts festival. When he asked how well it paid, she replied that they had no budget, but offered him a jar of marmite. Impulsively he packed up his belongings and moved to Spain. That began a fruitful creative collaboration that led to the photographer and Crayford doing gigs together in a number of European cities like Vienna.Jonathan Crayford 073I asked him why this type of project drew him so strongly. “I’ve been travelling for years and it’s the excitement of new projects and the risks associated with being in unfamiliar places that lures me. I like being in a new place, an exotic place, somewhere outside of my life’s experience. It is like a rebirth. New loves, new sounds new smells, new food and a new vantage point from which view life. The grist of creativity comes directly out of this”.

I had recently attended his concert at the Te Uru Waitakere Gallery where he was one of the featured artists in the ‘Black Rainbow’ concert series. I asked him about that and the carved piano, but as we talked the topic shifted to his quest for the perfect piano. His sense of reverence when talking pianos was palpable and he needed no encouragement to elaborate. “The acoustics of the room worked well for solo piano and the instruments bones are high-end Steinway. Here is a paradox though; the musician in me is always uncomfortable with carved or painted pianos. I understand that this is a wonderful piece of art, but the piano is already the ultimate piece of furniture. It is perfect in form and highly functional. Any alterations or adjustments should serve the sound. 

Pianos sing for me and I can hear when pianos are sad. I feel their sadness and work with it, but it still troubles me”.

He talked of pianos so reverently and I wanted more on this topic, so I asked him about some of his favourite types of piano; the special ones. “I find the Australian made Stuart & Sons piano extremely interesting. With such a presence of upper harmonics you really need a different approach to playing. That was my impression of the one I played. A wonderfully crafted instrument. A few months ago I travelled to Australia to meet up with Barney McAll who is back from New York. He is currently artist in residence for a year, having been awarded a Glanville-Hicks residency. They have a custom made Stuart & Sons piano there. It’s a wonderful instrument. Of course I love the high-end Steinways, Bosendorfers and Fazioli. I have also played a wonderful Schimmel.

(Note) The Stuart & Sons Piano is innovative, a breakthrough in mechanical design. The piano has more keys and possesses amazing harmonic accuracy at the high end. No one has managed to change the acoustics and range of a piano in a very long time. Many pianists who have played the instrument claim that Stewart and Sons have done just that.

I couldn’t resist teasing this theme out further; wanting his reaction to a strange story of piano destruction, so I asked. “I recently saw a short film of a man playing a nice Steinway piano beside the Red Sea. ‘Red Sea, Dead Sea’ it was called and I suppose it was an allegory for the conflict in the Middle East. After five minutes a hooded man appeared out of nowhere and started smashing the piano with a sledgehammer. What do you think of artists who smash a piano to make a political statement?”

”A momentary look of surprise crossed his face as he pondered on what I’d said. “What is that destruction shit about man? I just don’t get it. The point of a piano is to be played and played well. Played by someone who understands what a piano is about. I once saw a pianist slowly, respectfully and carefully dismantling a piano at a concert. As each piece was removed he would tap it or pluck it. Each section had a very distinct sound, a note, resonance. This was a deconstruction, but I understood that because it was an exploration of the instruments capability, not an act of wanton destruction. That piano was still singing. That particular act of dismantling was a musical chart”. Jonathan Crayford 072

Smashing pianos for political ends is definitely not Crayford’s thing.

During the afternoon we traversed everything from Pythagoras to planetary formation. The relationship between harmonic intervals and physical objects was especially fascinating to him, as was higher mathematics. “I will compose a piece based upon prime numbers one day”, he said. He also talked of constructing a new ‘mode’ map. His love for stories about quirky historical characters and for mathematics came together in his latest album ‘Dark Light’. ‘Galois Candle’ tells of a hapless mathematical genius and his struggle for recognition. The poignancy of the tale is reflected in every note. I have heard this played in a trio setting and solo. It is sublime either way.

Crayford’s ‘Dark Light’ album was a finalist in the New Zealand 2015 Vodafone music awards. The album is simply stunning and it deserves to be heard more. Crayford feels that the album has legs and he hopes that it has a way to run yet. These days it is not the quality of the music, but distribution and exposure problems that hold an album back. This album certainly deserves wider recognition.Jonathan Crayford 071On April 15th Crayford returned to the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), but this time without bass or drums. The gig was billed as ‘solo piano’ with special guest. Roger Manins joining him for the final numbers of the second set. This was a first for the CJC as the club has never hosted a solo piano gig before. Interestingly a slightly higher entry fee was placed on the door, but far from deterring people it signalled that something special was to occur. You could have heard a pin drop during the performance. This audience really listened and they were amply rewarded for their attentiveness. This highlights the growing sophistication of CJC audiences and above all it demonstrates the deep respect that we have for Crayford as a performer.

I have seen Crayford perform many times and his approach to performance is to step free of ego. He described it to me as ‘diving into the sound’. Crayford treats performance like a Zen monk treats a ‘Koan’. His musical puzzles are not solved by wrestling with them, but by absorption, by letting go. Living in a musical moment devoid of superficial baggage. While a modernist in his approach, he also touches upon something timeless. Perhaps Crayford is best described as a cosmic troubadour?

Solo performances are high wire acts and the freedom afforded by the format allows an artist to take us where they may. We heard probing thoughtful interpretations of seldom-heard Jazz compositions, original pieces and compositions from unlikely sources. One moment we were at the edge of the modern classical repertoire and at other times following the fabulous, choppy, stride-infected swing of Monk. Nothing sounded out of place and everything was explored with the same vigour. Crayford’s environmentally referencing composition ‘Earth Prayer’ was simply profound. The musical narrative enveloped us in its utter clarity. Such was its impact that time stood still while audience, piano and artist seemed to breathe as one.Jonathan Crayford 072 (1)The duo numbers with Roger Manins also worked well. These are master musicians and they know how to make the most of freedom and space. When a piano and tenor saxophone perform in duo, certain unique opportunities arise; the musicians must be acutely aware of nuances and the subtleties of interplay. What we heard was a deftly woven tapestry of sound, a respectful satisfying interaction. The duos started with a burner and ended with the perennial favourite ‘The ‘Nearness of You’ (Washington/Carmichael). During the last number there was a flood of noise from the upstairs bar. In spite of that the audience yelled for more; wishing that the gig could go on for ever.

(Part Two of this post to be posted later)

Who: Jonathan Crayford (piano) – guest Roger manins

Where: Interview in Waitakere – Solo Piano gig at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland 15th April 2015 – Solo Piano, Te Uru Waitakere Gallery.2015voter-button

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Chris Cody @ CJC + Tauranga

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Chris Cody 071 (2)When I saw that pianist Chris Cody was coming to New Zealand I immediately recognised the name. For a moment I couldn’t fill in the blank spots of memory but I sensed that the connection was both Australian and international. My CD collection is huge and I knew that the answer lay buried somewhere in the unruly muddle of music lying about the house. Then it came flooding back; Cody recorded a great ‘Chris Cody Coalition’ album in the nineties. The first international Jazz NAXOS recording titled ‘Oasis’ and produced by Mike Nock; an innovative exotic project brimming with warm middle eastern influences. Some quickChris Cody 077 research told me that the Chris Cody Coalition was still an entity and what equally excited me was to see the name Glenn Ferris on several of the albums credits. ‘Oasis’ featured the Australian Trombonist James Greening and on several of the later Coalition albums Cody features trombonist Ferris (an utterly distinctive player). His whispers, growls and smears are at times otherworldly, but also mysteriously human. Cody works especially well with trombone players and his writing reflects this on the latest album.

I trawled the Paris Jazz clubs in the nineties and recall seeing Ferris perform. Later I picked up an album by Henri Texier ‘Indians Week’ and loved it. Ferris has appeared on 179 albums; everyone from Stevie Wonder (‘Songs in the key of life’), to a co-led album with Chico Freeman and an Archie Shepp album (‘Meeting’). The new Chris Cody Coalition album ‘Conscript’ is enjoyable from start to finish. An accessible album that bathes you in warmth and light. There is real intimacy about the recording, a feeling that you areChris Cody 073 (1) in the front row and this is as much about Cody’s writing skills as the strong confident performances. It is also about the recording quality which is superb.  I strongly recommend this album. I first heard the quartet at the Tauranga Jazz Festival. A CJC Jazz stage showcased the finale and the Jazz Tui Awards presentation. I spoke to Cody in a break and quickly learned that he had New Zealand blood running in his veins. Born in Australia of Kiwi parents he studied music before moving to Paris. Based there ever since and gaining a strong reputation on the wider scene. He has very recently move back to Australia but he intends to return to Paris to work periodically.

It is the diversity of life experience that makes for interesting Jazz musicians and Cody has the aura of Paris cool about him. While he Chris Cody 072 (1)often draws on very American sources like Jamal, he is also in the mould of pianists like Jacky Terrasson (also a Parisian). Cody’s compositions are well thought out and replete with interesting asides. We heard many of these at the CJC and the album ‘Conscript’ is all originals. I am a sucker for a Cole Porter tunes and when he opened with ‘I love Paris in the springtime’ I couldn’t have been happier. Happy because I love the song and above all happy because the quartet played it so well. I have posted a video of the CJC performance and the title track from the ‘Conscript’ album with Ferris (the latter an official video release).Chris Cody 071 (1) His pick up band are the familiar and popular Roger Manins (tenor), Oli Holland (bass) and Ron Samsom (drums). In the rush of the Tui awards there was little time to rehearse, but it didn’t show. This is 3/4 of DOG and they are the 2015 Jazz Tui winners after all.

Who: Chris Cody Quartet – Chris Cody (piano), Roger Manins (tenor sax), Oli Holland (bass), Ron Samsom (drums). Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand, 8th April 2015 #jazzapril #jazzappreciationmonth http://www.jazzapril.com

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The JAC @ CJC & Tauranga

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JAC 11-3-2014 071I first heard the JAC two years ago and I liked what I heard immediately. Their sound has textural complexity, but the charts are so well written that the band manifests as if it is a single organic entity. As they move through the pieces, rich horn laden voicings appear, shimmer and fade seamlessly into the next phrase. In spite of the heavy punch of the front line, the band can float airily over passages. This affords them choices that are seldom realised by larger ensembles. They have a real nimblenessJAC 11-3-2014 075 and this is surprising considering their large musical footprint. A bigger footprint than the size of the band would suggest. The really good nonets and octets achieve this.

The solid four-part horn line is the power house of the unit, while guitar and piano balance out the sound. I have to mention Cameron Allardice at this point as he is so integral to the JAC’s sound mix. I have heard them play with and without Allardice and with him is my strong preference. He has grown so much as a performer and soloist over the last year that I hardly know where to start. He is not a loud player but his authoritative solo’s and fills just sing. He gives a soft but penetrating edge to the mix.JAC 11-3-2014 072

I watched him at the Tauranga Jazz festival and he approached his solos like Rosenwinkel. Not so much in phrasing but in energy as he gained momentum during solos; lifting free of the earth as the sound flowed among us, like water over a spillway. And all the while maintaining an absolute clarity of purpose. These high wire acts require courage and confidence and he showed these attributes in spades.  He is also one of the main composers of the group and his charts are stunning.

This is an ensemble of stars and leader, altoist Jake Baxendale is certainly one them.  He can deliver searing heart stopping solos and then drop into the mix in an eye blink.  He is the other contributor of compositions (and arrangements) and his principle guidance that moulds the unit. His ‘Thieves in the Night’ is a masterpiece of composition. Their album ‘Nerve’, recorded early in The JAC’s life has wide appeal. Since its release they have been on the road (or gigging) almost constantly. The time on the road has sharpened them considerably and that must show in the new album; The recording session takes place in a few weeks and judging by the material that we heard at the CJC gig (and at The Tauranga Jazz Festival), an already polished band will jump up another notch.JAC 11-3-2014 076Every player is integral to this project but trumpeter Lex French certainly stands out. He arrived back in New Zealand from Montreal a seasoned performer; his credentials are impeccable. He is a strong ensemble player and during solo’s he pulls off feats of brass bravura that New Zealand audiences seldom hear. He has chops and ideas and the confidence to pull them off. I have at times worried about the meagre numbers of high-quality trumpet players on the local scene. French may well address this as he will certainly inspire others.

Daniel Millward on piano (and keys at Tauranga) gave impressive performances as did Chris Buckland (tenor) and Mathew Alison (trombone). Millward is a fine pianist but for some reason, probably the sound mix, he shone through more on keys at Tauranga. Buckland gave some stunning solos and again the Tauranga performances come to mind. Last but not least are bassist Nick Tipping and drummer Shaun Anderson.  Behind every solid group are musicians like these.  Tipping is the most experienced of the JAC musicians and he instinctively understands how to keep the groove. Linking rich and complex harmonies like these to the rhythmic flow requires just such a musician. Anderson likewise performs strongly.  Working with Tipping and bringing that big band drum feel to the unit. JAC 11-3-2014 074

If you love to hear well written charts played to perfection, referencing everything from fifties jazz up to modern times, purchase the JAC’s albums.  Once again we must acknowledge Rattle here. Without a quality local label like this, such albums would have less chance of being released. The JAC were deservedly nominated as finalists for the Jazz Tui 2015. Expect to see them nominated next year.

Who: The JAC – Jake Baxendale (alto, compositions, flute), Lex French (trumpet), Chris Buckland (tenor), Mathew Allison (trombone), Callum Allardice (guitar, compositions), Daniel Millward (piano, keys), Nick Tipping (bass), Shaun Anderson (drums).

Where: The CJC (Creative Jazz Club) Britomart 1885 Auckland 1st April 2015 and The Tauranga Jazz Festival Easter Weekend 2015.

Additional: Rattle Records  and  Tauranga National Jazz festival

‘Hardbopmobile’ (with Carolina Moon)

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Hardbopmobile MONK 11-3-2014 059Frank Gibson Jr’s ‘Hardbopmobile’ has been around for a number of years and the band always delivers uncompromising hard-hitting performances. Gibson and Watson see to that. This no nonsense approach guarantees that Hardbopmobile’s music, even while traversing well worn standards, is fresh. This particular gig was titled ‘Hardbopmobile plays Monk’ and with the interesting addition of vocalist Caroline Moon (Manins) on vocals, it gave us much to enjoy. Familiar and lessor known Monk tunes appeared as the evening progressed. While all of Monk’s recorded material is perennially interesting and seemingly beyond caveat, in the right hands vibrant new interpretations are possible. This is the nature and Monk, the Picasso of modern Jazz; a modernist movement in perpetual progress.Hardbopmobile MONK 11-3-2014 069Ted Gioia pointed out in his book ‘The Jazz Standards’, that only two composers of pure Jazz standards remain in ascendency.  One of these is Monk whose stock has risen steadily for many decades now. The other (and that has occurred more recently) is Billy Strayhorn. Both of these composers had an astonishing modernity about them. In spite of some beguiling melodies, neither offered the listener simplicity. What you get with Monk is often jagged and quirky compositions, but for all that his hooks snag deep. Listening to Monk you hear the sounds of New York. The broken lines andHardbopmobile MONK 11-3-2014 066 startling dissonance are echoes of traffic and street life. Very human sounds and offered from his unique vantage point. In spite of the difficulties life threw at him the music is somehow tender.  Monks was essentially a humanist voice.

Frank Gibson, Neil Watson, Roger Manins, Caro Manins and Rui Inaba gave us an enjoyable evening. At times boisterous and loud, but occasionally gently reflective (e.g.Ruby my dear). I was delighted to hear ‘Ask me now’ as it is all too often ignored by modern Monk interpreters.

Gibson has a driving incessant beat that never flags and this spurs on Watson who loves nothing better than asymmetric lines and chords that drop like IED’s. He told me that he finds Monk liberating. Roger Manins and Rui Inaba were the newer band members. Inaba kept the pulse secure while Manins adopted his usual approach which is always dangerousHardbopmobile MONK 11-3-2014 067 and wild.

Monk has been interpreted by vocalists before and most notably by Carmen McCray.  The last time anyone sung Monk at the CJC was Susan Gai-Dowling and that was three years ago. Hearing Carolina Moon (Manins) doing these interpretations I wonder that it is not done more often. Moon has re-written the Monk arrangements, adding vocal lines. Her ‘Carolina Moon’ (Monk/Moon arr.) is irresistible.  When this was composed in 1924, composers Burke & Davis must have hoped for a hit.  It rose in the charts twice and never more so than when Connie Francis sang it in 1958. I bet that they never saw Monk coming though. Turning the song on its head (no pun intended)and giving it that crazed bebop makeover.  Hardbopmobile MONK 11-3-2014 061

There was also a marvellous interpretation of ‘Epistrophy’. This also featured Moon who had cleverly added some slow rap into the mix. During her preparation for the gig she listened to a famous live performance of Monk doing ‘Epistrophy’. Her attention was immediately drawn to a number of irritating audience members, talking loudly through the solo. She then transcribed the banter and it is now integrated into the tune. This is not only clever but it is fitting and cathartic. Monk would have loved to see these talkative ghosts exorcised. Gibson asking Moon to join the band was inspired. More please.

Who: Hardbopmobile – Frank Gibson (drums), Neil Watson (guitar), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Rui Inaba (bass), – guest Carolina Moon (vocals)

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand 25th March 2015.

Harry Himself visits the CJC

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Harry Himself 11-3-2014 074I often detect a unique quality in New Zealand improvised music, but when it comes to defining it, the illusive essence dissolves before I can grab hold. ‘Harry Himself’ has brought me one step closer, connecting me with a tangible manifestation. This band is the perfect example of improvised ‘Kiwiana’. At first hearing you detect a melange of the familiar; elements of World, Fusion, Straight ahead, Post bop, Post millennial Jazz and all served up with a generous dollop of classic country. Listen more closely and you will get strong South Sea references, flashes of musical memory permeating every bar. Everything from Bill Sevesi to the ancient sounds of New Zealand indigenous music. Even song titles revolve around Kiwiana themes .  Many of the tunes belong to a place, to the Islands we live on and to the immense swath of sea that surrounds it. Like the harbours and oceans that surround us, this is a mosaic of glittering fragments. A familiar yet unknown music to gladden the heart.  Harry Himself 11-3-2014 058 (2)Above all this is a good-natured band, oozing charm and character. The array of instruments and the judicious use of loops and pedals more than doubles their range.  The only constant in the sounds are the six string bass and drums. The leader Kingsley Melhuish is sometimes seen in the company of adventurous avant-gardists. He can also be found among the free ranging Ponsonby Road improvising bands. His use of pedals and loops is tasteful and it serves the music not a whim. His pedal effects and electronics are not added randomly, nor for the sake of it. He is an accomplished horn Harry Himself 11-3-2014 070player, switching seamlessly between trumpet, flugelhorn, tuba, trombone and lately, a vast array of conch shells. Melhuish often sets up loops and then he plays over them with different horns.  This layering of sound is achieved well and the real-time harmonic overlay enables him to add considerable texture and breadth. Neil Watson does likewise, as he frequently moves between Fender guitar and pedal steel guitar. The day after the gig I called into the MAINZ recording studio to grab a few shots of the group laying down an album. I overheard the recording technician asking the band after a take, “How do you feel that went; do you want to listen before moving on”?  Immediately a voice came from the studio speaker, “No, I think we’ll do that one again. The Fender and the conch will work better together than the pedal steel on this track”.  A huge smile crossed the technicians face, “I’ve never heard that said in a studio before” he said.  They were Harry Himself 11-3-2014 068right and it reinforced a long-held view of mine; that no instrument is beyond the reach of Jazz and that no sound should remain un-pillaged. I always appreciate Sam Giles electric bass playing and I am always left with the feeling that he is scandalously under-utilised. Solid and groove based was what the band needed and solid and groove based was what they got. On drums was premier drummer Ron Samsom. He worked these beats like he always does, purposefully, skilfully and making it look second nature. I’m glad the band is recording this material and I have a feeling that the album could grow legs with the right exposure. I hope so, they are fun. Harry Himself 11-3-2014 059I have added two video clips of the band, which demonstrate the diversity of their material. While diverse, it never-the-less hangs together nicely. The fist clip is ‘Cy’s Eyes’ a tune composed for one of Melhuish’s children. The second tune is the wilder freer ‘Zornithology’. A tribute to John Zorn (with an obvious play on the title of a Bird tune). There was one tune I wish I’d captured on video and that was ‘Rose Selavy’ by Enrico Rava.  Man, what a hard-edged powerhouse romp that was.

Who: ‘Harry Himself‘ is Kingsley Melhuish (trumpet, flugel, tuba, trombone, conch’s), Neil Watson (Fender guitar, Pedal Steel guitar), Sam Giles (six string e-bass), Ron Samsom (drums).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand 18th March 2015

The Circling Sun

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Circling Sun 11-3-2014 063Any astronomer worth their salt will tell you that it is paradoxical for a sun to embark on a circular orbit. The last time this happened was during the Spanish Inquisition. On Wednesday the paradox increased when the Circling Sun departed their orbit to play at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club). This gig had been a long time coming and we welcomed it. Hearing them away from the babble of the hard-drinking Ponsonby Road crowd was a treat for us. The Circling Sun always give of their best, but this time we could hear the quirks and subtleties unfiltered. This is a band with a vast soundscape and the Jazz club echoed to the sounds of doogan, Tuba, analogue keyboards, digital keyboards, piano, trumpet, flugel horn, flute, tenor Circling Sun 11-3-2014 066saxophone, upright bass, drums and electronics. This is the type of music that sits well with me.

In spite of the name, the Circling Sun is not solipsistic. Not locked into an inwards gazing spiral. A dictionary definition tells us that Solipsism is a spiralling madness that no-one else can enter. Theirs is an inclusive madness of serendipitous happenstance. A band where personnel changes are as seamless as flowing water and where the only truly unchanging thing is the name. A band that can appropriate sounds and recreate them into new musical forms and all achieved without fear or favour. Another-world to experience.

The group cited influences as far-flung as Alice Coltrane, Yusef Lateef, Randy Western and Tom Waits. Although the link is possibly fanciful on my part, perhaps the influence Cosmic Jazz/Funk is present, an obscure genre close to my heart. They are chaotic, loose and free atCircling Sun 11-3-2014 074 times; then out of nowhere come tasty arranged melodic heads. Deftly extracted from the frequent mesmerising groove laden vamps.

Cameron Allen should be heard more often in settings like this. He is a gifted saxophonist and winds player with great musical ideas, often imparting a raw energy. He is also drawn to home-assembled electronic wizardry as many in this band are.  Finn Scholes on horns is another who doubles atypically (including tuba, keys and piano). He has recently been overseas and since returning I have seen him perform on a number of occasions.  His articulation is always interesting and he has a rich sound. Tinged with the vibrato of the mariachi trumpet. A sound which he owns and one that fits the bands vibe perfectly.  Circling Sun 11-3-2014 070

Neil Watson like Cameron Allen is a mainstay of this band. His classic fender, augmented lately by pedal steel guitar. The latter adding colour and texture and above all adding that warm embracing feel of country. Anyone who has followed Frisell’s journeys, fusing Jazz with country americana will get this. Rui Inaba on bass is often encountered with Watson and frequently in this lineup. Here he sits solidly at the heart of the storm, maintaining the rhythmic groove unfazed.  Circling Sun 11-3-2014 062The most powerful presence is drummer Julien Dyne. A versatile gifted artist who has travelled and recorded widely. His beats while often referencing his multi genre background, urge the band to greater heights. It is a privilege to see drummers of this calibre and I hope that he continues with open-ended Jazz projects like this. I have heard him on numerous occasions and I like what I hear.  As a unit, this combination takes no prisoners and the audience were glad of it. The first guest to join them was J Y Lee who quickly settled in on baritone saxophone. He often plays with the Circling Sun and is a popular addition.Circling Sun 11-3-2014 075During the second set a great gig got even better. Jonathan Crayford arrived and without too much persuading, sat in on piano. This was met with obvious delight by the audience, as Crayford is extremely popular. He knew none of the tunes as they were mostly originals and there was virtually no sheet music to guide him. It didn’t matter. Someone would announce the key and then a few chords in he would locate the heart of the tune. A musician of his experience and gifts is no stranger to situations like this. The audience, clearly wild about the gig, were by now whooping with enthusiasm between numbers. When Crayford sat in they felt like they’d won the lottery. He doesn’t get home often, but improvised music fans are eager to soak up what ever they can get of him.

Who: Circling Sun – Cameron Allen (tenor sax, flute, keys, doogan), Finn Scholes (Trumpet, Flugel, tuba, Piano, Keys), Neil Watson (Fender guitar, pedal steel guitar), Rui Inaba (upright bass), Julien Dyne (drums, electronics) – guests: Jonathan Crayford (piano, keys), J Y Lee (alto sax, baritone sax).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland 11th March 2015

Phil Broadhurst Quintet + 1

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JL32.com 11-3-2014 060In the coming months there will be a new Phil Broadhurst album released, ‘Panacea’. Broadhurst is an enduring musical presence, a backbone of the Auckland Jazz scene. Running the Massey School of Music Jazz programme in Auckland keeps him busy, but he somehow finds time to write interesting new material and to perform gigs about town. A prolific writer and arranger, he has released a number of albums in recent years and all have done well. His tribute to Michel Petrucciani ‘Delayed Reaction’ garnered favourable reviews here and offshore and his 2014 album ‘Flaubert’s Dance’ was short listed for a Jazz Tui.

On Wednesday, as a prequel to the Panacea album release, we heard the Phil Broadhurst Quintet (plus a friend) at the Creative Jazz Club. The identity of the mystery guest was a JL32.com 11-3-2014 061poorly kept secret, anticipated and not puzzled over. As the band set up, the shiny pedal-steel guitar and the battle-worn fender dispelled any remaining doubts. The band was Phil Broadhurst, Roger Manins, Mike Booth, Oli Holland, Cameron Sangster and of course Neil Watson (AKA the mystery guest).

There were newer tunes and a few familiar ones from past gigs. Most of the new tunes will feature on the Panacea album, which will probably be released in late May. As a writer Broadhurst avoids cliches, but at the same time he manages to avoid the obtuse. there are odd time-signatures but when he delves into complexity the tunes still remain accessible. These are tunes that sound familiar; not because you’ve heard them before or because they rely on well-worn licks. They sound familiar because they tap into a recognisable vibe.  At the heart of his writing is a real warmth. The tunes take you to a familiar place even though you’ve never been there before; carried by rich harmonies and well crafted heads.  JL32.com 11-3-2014 063

Holland Manins, Booth and Sangster have been with the band a long while and that familiarity enabled them to extract the maximum from the material. As many of the tunes were lyrical, Manins showed a gentler side to his tenor playing. While he favours fast burners (where he excels), his ballad work here had depth and feeling. Booth and Manins blend well and especially with Booth on Flugel. Adding Watson into the mix changed the dynamic and his solos on fender had urgency and edge. Watson is a good musician but one who never takes himself too seriously. He brings humour to any bandstand and minor mistakes are fodder for self-deprecatory slapstick asides.

One of the newer compositions made reference to Watson’s pedal steel guitar. Like an elephant, the tune title had undergone a long and difficult gestation. Broadhurst composed it just before going on an overseas trip and promptly forgot about it in the rush to pack. A year or so later he decided to clean up the computer program and JL32.com 11-3-2014 058 (3)began the process of mechanically purging duplicate copies of old tunes. By this point all had been given titles and saved elsewhere. Rescued from the lonely obscurity of the ‘untitled’ nomenclature. As he deleted them one by one he spotted an anomaly. One particular tune was mysteriously labeled ‘untitled-untitled’. He opened it, liked the look of it but didn’t recognise it, so he played it. He recalls wondering who had written it until the penny dropped. ‘Untitled-Untitled’, the tune rescued in the eleventh hour, was later shown to Neil Watson who was wrangling with his new pedal steel guitar. There are so many levers to operate he complained to Broadhurst, who replied, “I think that you’ve just named my lost tune’. ‘Lever’ is a great tune and its improbable genesis gives it that added piquancy.

Who: Phil Broadhurst (piano), Roger Manins (tenor sax), Mike Booth (trumpet & Flugel), Oli Holland (bass), Cameron Sangster (drums), – guest Neil Watson (pedal steel and fender guitars).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club) Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand 4th March 2015.

Alan Brown Quartet @ CJC 2015

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10407208_849558365101298_5079031482730444727_nThe more I listen to Alan Brown bands, the more I realise just how original his music is. The gig promised to be a reprise of ‘Between the Spaces’ and that was a drawcard which pulled in a good audience. We soon realised however that we were getting a lot more. As well as the familiar there were new compositions and a few that had not made the cut for the album. Brown is an extraordinarily gifted musician and in settings like this he always sounds fresh. The familiar numbers sounded as exciting as when we first heard them and the unfamiliar held the attention with siren like allure. This is music to gladden the heart. 11017509_849558561767945_4632538171974249436_n

There is a definite Alan Brown sound and it is quite unique. Yes there are small nods to familiar groove bands, to prog bands and perhaps even EST, but the sound is unmistakably his. Browns intros often favour the ostinato, with bass and drums working tirelessly across his insistent rhythmic patterns. These woven threads of sound create a layering effect. You are seldom aware of the underlying complexity, the odd time signatures and the oblique shifting grooves. Like many a well composed, well executed jazz tune, an implied centre holds the attention and this is where the ear goes. This is complex music made 10428674_849559058434562_7650093753295645704_naccessible. As the tunes unfold you fall into them, feeling that you are on a journey of logical progression; the enveloping arms of groove guiding you inexorably towards some beating voodoo heart.

The musicians Brown uses are always chosen with care. With arranged music and exacting charts, the having the right line up is important. It was great to see Andy Smith back at the CJC. Like Jono Sawyer he was on the 2011 ‘Between The Spaces’ album. Smith has something of the rock god about him and as his solo’s soar he often leans back, as if giving the notes more room to fly free. He is technically proficient and an interesting soloist; often putting me in mind of Mike Moreno as the sound is similar. His approach is modern but the history of jazz guitar still speaks behind his solo lines. Jono Sawyer is a member of various Alan Brown units and he is very much at home in this configuration. His time feel in these groove based settings is immaculate. 11024767_849558951767906_7151372333629258045_nThe relative newcomer is electric bass player David Hodkinson. He is no stranger to Brown’s bands but he was not on the album.  it would be daunting to step into Marika Hodgson’s shoes but Hodkinson held the groove and punched out a mesmerising pulse.

Alan Brown makes no apologies for referencing the fusion prog Rock/Jazz era. On Wednesday he mentioned the innovative and almost forgotten ‘Focus’ (an admired instrumental group of the 70’s who often featured Jazz guitarist Philip Catherine).  Among a selection of great tunes, my hands down favourite was a prog tribute to ‘King Crimson’ named ‘Crim Kingson’.

The photographs are by Ben McNicoll of the CJC management and the audio clip is ‘Do not track’ from the ‘Between the spaces album’.

Who: The Alan Brown Quartet – Alan Brown (piano), Andy Smith (guitar), David Hodkinson (bass), Jono Sawyer (drums).

Where: The CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand. 25th Feb 2015

Headline News: Nathan Haines meets DOG on Campus

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AK UNI 11-3-2014 059On Wednesday five well turned out ‘men in black’ suspended time at Auckland University. This was a rare event, pairing two of New Zealand’s best known and best-loved contemporary tenor players. The invitation only concert billed as ‘Nathan Haines meets DOG’ kicked off of the Universities 2015 Summer Concert Series. New intake students attending (or viewing the video clip) discovered just how high the standard is; they also realised how lucky they are to have these teachers and these role models.AK UNI 11-3-2014 060The Nathan Haines/DOG line up can rightly be described as a super-group; the cream of New Zealand’s improvising artists. We saw Haines at his best here as he showcased his formidable talents on tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, flute & vocals. He is a multiple New Zealand Music Awards winner and perennially popular in New Zealand and London where he is now based. The DOG band members are all senior teaching staff at the Auckland University Jazz School (Faculty of the Arts). Collectively Ron Samsom (drums), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Oli Holland (bass) and Kevin Field (piano) form a dangerous new breed. The agility and intelligence of the animal has led many AK UNI 11-3-2014 058 (1)to speculate on its lineage; some suggesting Greyhound crossed with Border Collie? We will never know unless the parents own up, but it is beyond dispute that each band member has multiple acclaimed recordings to his credit. DOG is one of three groups short-listed for the 2015 Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards.

Supergroups are not always successful as promoters will tell you. It may seem counter intuitive, but there are many pitfalls in the format. Artistic and stylistic sensibilities can conflict and while less of an issue in Jazz, the rider still applies. Not every configuration gels. Putting two titans of the tenor together is an old concept and it was very popular in the 1940’s and 1950’s. These jousts or ‘cutting contests’ and the so-called battles between Lester Young and Bean (Colman Hawkins) have attained legendary status. There is a lot of mythology in the subsequent AK UNI 11-3-2014 058reportage and most musicians view the exchanges as a chance to collaborate; not cut someone down to size. It is an opportunity to challenge and be challenged; a high level musical interaction between equals. At its best it can bring out something special in both artists and Wednesdays gig achieved just that.

Manins and Haines played classic Selmer Mk 6 tenors but in the hands of each the instruments sounded different (although manufactured just 3 years apart). Their beautiful full-throated tenors blended perfectly and especially during the heads; creating a fat rich sound. The instruments when coaxed by experienced players like these, magnify subtle differences in tone. There is an attractive melodic thoughtfulness to Nathan’s improvisations, while Roger’s explorations can impart a wild edgy heart stopping quality. Both find their bliss and share it with the audience. This pairing on this night, will long be talked about in Auckland.  AK UNI 11-3-2014 061

The band leapt out of the starting gate with a crackling rendition of ‘Cheesecake’ by Dexter Gordon. This classic hard bop tune from ‘Dex’s’ Blue Note era gave the musicians a chance to shine. Both Selmers bit hard and with Field, Holland and Samsom playing behind them it was hardly surprising. The accolades heaped upon this particular rhythm section are unsurprising. Field’s comping was as tasteful as his well constructed solos. Hollands clean punchy bass lines were a beating heart in the mix. It fell to Samsom to control the energy levels and when appropriate he pushed the band to ever greater heights. On the up tempo numbers his facial expressions mirrored each rhythmic flurry as he dug ever deeper.

The set also featured a new ballad by Holland who introduced it with a tongue in cheek reference to the complexity of many modern Jazz compositions, “you will like this. It has a melody and lots of chords”. The remainder of the set featured Haines compositions. These compelling, well constructed tunes are by now familiar to local Jazz audiences. This band gave them fresh legs. Of note was the gorgeous ‘Lady Lywa’ which had Manins on tenor and Haines on flute. Once again the pairing worked to perfection.

Near the end (and to the delight of those familiar with this tune) Nathan sang ‘Impossible Beauty’ from his ‘Sound Travels’ album.  There is a lot to like about this haunting song; Nathan’s voice, the wonderfully evocative lyrics and the way the tune captures that dreamy Chet Baker vibe. To hear it with Roger Manins providing lovely fills on tenor was a treat.  I know that I keep saying this, but Haines needs to sing more often.  He is widely acknowledged as a gifted tenor, soprano and flute player; time to add vocals to the accolades.

As I was leaving I spotted the well-known arranger Wayne Senior. He is especially familiar with this venue as it was once the main studio of Television New Zealand. He has worked on pervious projects with Haines. The National Institute of Creative Arts & Industries (NiCAi) filmed the video and I acknowledge them. Lastly all credit to the Arts Facility, Music Department of Auckland University. This University Jazz programme adds inestimable richness to our cultural life. With the Philistines ever at the gate, you persist in supporting the creative arts.  Thank you.

Where: Auckland University Jazz School, Shortland Street Auckland New Zealand 18th February 2015

Who: Nathan Haines, Roger Manins, Kevin Field, Oli Holland, Ron Samsom

The Jelly Rolls Trio @ CJC

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Jelly Rolls #1 11-3-2014 055Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller and Errol Garner can install a smile on your face in two jaunty bars.  It is the same with Wellington’s ‘The Jelly Rolls’.  Waller and Garner are widely loved but seldom imitated; probably because what they do is extremely difficult.  The original recordings also stand up so well that mere clones would be a redundancy.  The Jelly Rolls have achieved something special by locating the spirit of this cheerful Harlem Stride influenced music; achieving this through a clever synthesis of the leading stylists. For good measure they have thrown in a touch of the more modern Ahmed Jamal and a pinch of Oscar Peterson.  This is the sound of joy, wild unbounded exuberance.  Jelly Rolls 11-3-2014 058

In recent years there have been surprisingly few attempts to honour this era.  A Jazz historian once described Garner as a happy footnote; a blip aside from the mainstream. He was correct in one sense, as there is no Errol Garner school of pianism.  While that is less true of Waller the extent of their influence remains strangely allusive.  Great pianists can influence those who follow in subtle and various ways, but it often requires the fullness of time for their real influence to become evident.  A just released album ‘All Rise’ by the very modern pianist Jason Moran honours ‘Fats’ and names him as a prime influence. This is a post millennial interpretation and speaks in an engaging contemporary voice.  Some years ago a famous and well respected pianist took a different and traditionalist tack.  Although eminently qualified to tackle such a tribute, the album somehow fell short.  I have often puzzled at that.  When approaching ‘Fats’ Waller and especially Garner, the first requisite is having the chops.  The second requisite and perhaps the most important, is knowing when to subvert any sense of reverence and reach for the Joy. This is not music for a dry piano-roll type transcription.

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The Jelly rolls did something special here; they effortlessly took us back to the era of rent parties and speakeasies. To a time when a pianists left hand worked harder than the ‘hoofers’ in the room. The fact that pianist Ben Wilcock’s braces kept falling to his elbows added to the illusion.  It made us feel like we were watching a Willie the Lion or a ‘Fats’Waller; something redolent of a hat tilted at an impossibly dangerous angle or a chewed cigar barely surviving the banter.  On bass was Dan Yeabsley, finding ways round that powerful walking left hand on piano and yet still holding the centre.  On drums was John Rae the iconoclast, playing the old style two-beat rhythms on brushes and sticks as if born to it. The same Rae we know to be madly expressive. The same Rae for whom no complex subdivision of time is out-of-bounds.  Here he was, working the gig like an old school drummer (that huge grin still intact).  All three were magnificent but Wilcock’s piano work must get the grand prize.  When post-bop practitioners like these pull out such performances a truth’s revealed.  Experienced, tasteful and talented Jazz musicians can tackle almost anything and do it well.

During the second set, Auckland’s premier tenor saxophonist Roger Manins came to the band stand. You could see that he was hungry for a piece of this magic and he shone.  Manins always amazes and he had somehow adjusted his embouchure to give out a full-bodied era-appropriate sound.  We were also impressed when Yeabsley put down his bass and played a sweetly melodic baritone saxophone.  After a good sampling of Waller, Jamal, Ellington and Garner, the Jelly Rolls rounded things off with ‘The Sheik of Araby/I’ve got a New Baby’. Just perfect.

There is an inescapable sense of fun about this trio.  They swing like crazy and they radiate mischief. This is especially evident as they shuffle together a few era appropriate licks.  The Jelly Rolls album “Sneaky Weasel’ can be purchased from the site below.

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What: The Jelly Rolls – Ben Wilcock (piano), Dan Yeabsley (bass), John Rae (drums).

Where: The CJC (Creative Jazz Club) – Britomart 1885 Basement. 11th Feb 2015

 

 

Tim Sellars ‘Mukhlisa’ @ CJC

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CJC Feb 5 2014 055I have long been drawn to middle eastern music, having commented on it in earlier blog posts. There are many reasons to like this rich musical stream, but what draws me are the interactions that occur when eastern and western improvised traditions meet in mutual respect. This is often labeled as World/Jazz, but implying that it is new hybrid is somewhat problematic.  Both improvised traditions have deep roots and a successful meeting acknowledges this. The blend of Jazz and middle eastern music is mainstream in the Mediterranean regions but not as well-known elsewhere.  Adventurous artists like Dhafer Youssef, Rabih Abou-Khalil and Anouar Brahem have gained prominence in the west through collaborations with the likes of Kenny Wheeler, Charlie Mariano, Steve Swallow, Tigran Hamasyan, Marcin Wasilewski and others. Jazz lovers in New Zealand and Australia have already experienced the ancient Sephardic music of Spain through Caroline Manins ‘Mother Tongue’ projects.  Also through Kiwi Jazz harpist Natalia Mann’s Turkish projects.  CJC Feb 5 2014 056 (1)Much of this music derives from the Sufi tradition but Sicilian and Flamenco Jazz fusions should not be overlooked either; both having rich Islamic and Jewish sources feeding them.  The Moors ruled Sicily for 400 years and southern Spain for 500 years.  Under the various Caliphates there was great religious tolerance and a spirit of scientific curiosity.  The arts and musical traditions merged and flourished in that benign space.

Tim Sellars is a drummer/percussionist who graduated from Canterbury University Jazz School with honours.  His studies led him to examine the rhythms and tunes of middle eastern music and he put together ‘Mukhlisa’ to further these explorations.  The Auckland line up features two artists who we are very familiar with, Glen Wagstaff on acoustic guitar and Tamara Smith on flutes.  For leader Tim Sellars, and for bassist Michael Story this was a first visit to the CJC.  Of the tunes chosen many were traditional but the largest number were by a modern writer of Middle Eastern music Joseph Tawadros.  His compositions fuse the traditional with Jazz and allow ample room for improvisation. CJC Feb 5 2014 061Watching Tim Sellars on percussion is eye-opening as he coaxes so many complex rhythms and sounds from his array of percussion instruments, that it beggars belief.  At times he used the Cajon (of African/Peruvian origin) but mostly he played frame drums (middle eastern). I love to hear the frame drum as it is the oldest instrument known to man. The genre includes the Riq (tambourine) which Tim played to perfection.  Being an amplified acoustic ensemble the sound worked well in the club space.  The guitar perhaps needed turning up a touch, to give it more bite. CJC Feb 5 2014 056Tamara was her usual impressive self and her control and mastery of the instrument was evident throughout.  She alternated between bass flute and alto flute; the tonal richness of both horns blending perfectly with the upright bass.  Bass player Michael Story understood the cues and worked with Tamara; resisting any impulse to overplay. Acoustic ensembles like this require discipline and subtlety; overly showy solos can dominate and obscure the filigree of woven sound.  Mukhlisa got that right and the solo work although appealing, was rightly subordinate to the overall integrity of the music. Glen Wagstaff is popular in Auckland and his charts for large ensembles have impressed club goers.  It was good to see him in a different context and many of us  eagerly await his album, which is due out in a month or so.

CJC Feb 5 2014 065 There is ample scope for a larger ensemble to grow out of this; perhaps one including arco Cello and Oud.

I am happy to see this music finding a home in New Zealand as it is a metaphor for a wider truth.  We are living through a troubled era when many western peoples are recoiling from Islamic images.  If they are only aware of conflict images or brutality then perhaps they are looking in the wrong places.  In this music resides harmony peace and humanity.

the composition is Phoenix by Joseph Tawadros.

Who: ‘Mukhlisa’ – Tim Sellars, Glen Wagstaff, Tamara Smith, Michael Story

Where: The CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland 3rd February 2015

Kepler, Hubble, Henderson, Bloom, Ra & Maupin

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6b96232502cdec6acaaae7034ce4e9e2This week as NASA’s Kepler orbiting telescope probed deep-field space, wonders beyond the imaginings of most of us came into view.  As it focussed on an inky gap between solar systems, gazed deep into an area invisible to earlier sky-gazers and previously lost in the vastness of space; a new mission. This week fresh data surprised the analysts as new images formed on their screens.  Astronomers could barely believe their luck.  Revealed were four planets circling M-Dwarfs, all of which bore apparent similarities to our own planet. They were near enough to their suns and with the right circumference to place them in the ‘habitable zone'; perhaps even capable of  IDL TIFF filesustaining life. The fact that ‘Kepler 186f’ is in the Cygnus Constellation nearly 500 light years away has not dented enthusiasm.  Kepler 186f is now firmly embedded in the human consciousness. Like the astronomers at SETI we watch, ponder and hope. In my world, this is the intersection where dreams, the cosmos and improvised music collide.

If you know where to look you will find an asteroid named ‘janeirabloom’.  This is significant because Jane Ira Bloom is an American Jazz musician.  This fine saxophonist was the first musician commissioned by NASA and her composition ‘Most Distant Galaxy’ is forever associated with of the space programme. I like improvising musicians who gaze in wonder at the stars.  I don’t mean musicians who occasionally play ‘Fly me to the Moon’ or ‘Star Dust’, but those who incorporate the wonders of the of the cosmos into their improvising. Jane Ira Bloom evidently visualises deep space when improvising.

The most obvious of these star gazers is Sun Ra.  Born Herman Blount, he soon abandoned his earthly name to become Sun Ra.  Anyone who has followed his brave sonic journey realises that his persona and that of the Arkestra is not a mere gimmick.  There is a philosophy and a real social conscience behind the image. imgres  Devotees and band members stay the course.  Ra has long departed this world, but the Arkestra is still voyaging with the astonishing John Gilmore at the helm. The older vinyl albums are now widely sought after, as the cover art was sometimes hand painted by the band members.  Many of the covers are similar to the Hubble images.

Trumpeter Eddie Henderson was a late discovery for me, perhaps because his earlier cosmic funk material was unavailable for a while.  With the re-release of his brilliant Fusion Jazz/Funk album ‘Sunburst’ and the ‘Heritage vol 1,2 Capricorn Years’ we have a treasure trove.  I am deeply imgresimpressed with Henderson’s work and his recent albums like ‘So What’, are tasty-good as well.  ‘Sunburst’ was released on the Blue Note label in 1975 (re-released by Japanese Blue Note recently).   Two albums by Bennie Maupin ‘Moonbeams & Slow Traffic to the Right’ were released around the same time.  The 70’s was the golden age of Cosmic Jazz/Funk and the utilization of increasingly sophisticated analogue synthesizers is a feature of these albums.  These out of production analogue instruments have become highly sought after (Mini-Moog, Prophet, Oberheim, ARP Odyssey etc).

Benny Maupin is one of my favourite musicians.  His multi-reeds & winds playing, innovative arrangements and memorable compositions reveal a clarity of purpose.  Whether it’s his early work with Lee Morgan ‘Live at the lighthouse’, with Miles on ‘Bitches Brew’ or on any of his own albums like ‘The Jewel in the Lotus’, ‘Headhunters (Survival of the fittest)'; there is no-one quite like him.  He also appeared on many Eddie Henderson albums during the 70’s.  The personnel on these seminal Cosmic Funk albums are all important musicians.

A breakdown of the personnel and the serious kit involved: ‘Sunburst‘ (Blue Note) Eddie Henderson (trumpet, flugal, cornet), Julian Priester (trombone), Bennie Maupin (tenor sax, saxophones, bass clarinet), George Duke (Rhodes, clavinet,synths), Alphonso Johnson (electric bass), Harvey Mason (drums) Bobby Hutchinson (marimba), Buster Williams (bass-6), Billy Hart (drums-6).  On ‘Slow traffic to the right‘ (Vocalion) are: Bennie Maupin (soprano & tenor sax, saxello, piccolo, flute/alto flute, bass clarinet, Oberheim polyphonic synthesizer, Eu synthesizer, vocals), Patrice Rushen (acoustic piano, Rhodes, e-piano, clavinet) Patrick Gleeson (Oberheim & E-Mu polyphonic syhthesizers), Onje Allan Gumbs (Electric piano, Fender Rhodes), Ralphe Armstrong (Gibson G3 bass guitar), James Levi (drums), Eddie Henderson (trumpet, flugal), Blackbird McNight (guitar), Craig Kilby (trombone, Nathan Rubin (concertmaster, strings). On Moonscapes’ Maupin added new synths a glockenspiel and more personnel.  This was the space age manifesting in improvised music.

History tells us that the invention of new instruments is extremely rare. The saxophone faced enormous difficulties in gaining recognition and its inventor even suffered assassination attempts from conventional instrument makers. Against that images background the swift acceptance of the synthesiser appears surprising, but when considered in the context of the times there are compelling explanations.

The late 60’s and 70’s was the era of the space age and everyone with a radio, tuned into the beeps of Sputnik when it passed overhead. On mass we became enamoured with electronically generated sound.  It was the code for modernity.  Boys of the 50’s and 60’s all listened to short-wave radio; often in the hope of hearing cold war spies sending morse code. What we actually heard were the eerie sounds of atmospheric static and beeps from space.  The new sounds of an exciting and limitless world.

As a multiplicity of signals bounced around the earth and reports from radio-telescopes became commonplace, we gradually associated those electronic sounds with the signals from deep space. The arrival of the psychedelic era picked up on this and from then on synthesized sound was a fait-accompli.  Pink Floyd not withstanding, Eddie Henderson and Benny Maupin captured this era like few others. The earthy sounds of black urban funk were deftly fused with out-Jazz experimental music and the new instruments were the booster rockets.   IMG_8963 - Version 2

When the mood takes me, late at night, I check out the NASA or European Space Agency web pages or watch compilations on You Tube of the newest images beamed in from deep or near space.  I travel with voyagers 1 & 11, marvelling that their analogue signals still reach us despite the odds.  Settling in, I cut the sound of the You Tube clips and as the pictures flash by, each more fantastical than the last, I put Eddie Henderson and Bennie Maupin on my stereo. For an hour I am there, a space voyager.

This post is dedicated to the out-musicians and the astronomers who explore new worlds.  To Bob Moog who created new sounds, to Carl Sagan who reminded us that ‘we are star-stuff, billion year old carbon’ and to my son Aish, a computer scientist who manages a machine learning team in Silicon Valley.

Jazz stories that need retelling (2014)

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“What often distinguishes a poetic list from a practical one is only the intention with which we contemplate it’ – Umberto Ecco (The Infinity of Lists).

At this time of year Jazz Journalists post their ‘best of’ lists.  By tradition, this provides a platform for the writers to focus on something that took their fancy (or not). It is seldom an exhaustive analyses of the years musical offerings, but a time to indulge in a few well-honed prejudices with impunity. I make no apology for the antipodean bias.

A look back at some pianists who impressed in 2014:

There has been a lot of ink spilt in analysing Jazz piano over the years and the task is always daunting. In recent years all too many masters of the keyboard have passed on such as the inimitable Hank Jones.  He encompassed a vast era of jazz, ever fresh and endlessly tasteful; bringing with him something of stride, bebop and hardbop and above all the blues.  At the passing of Jones and other acknowledged masters, there is an increased awareness of other great pianists still with us (a good example is the belated and welcome attention being given to George Cables).  Many of these artists have been hiding in plain view and paying them due attention is increasingly important.  As musical tastes mature, and new directions emerge, the field ever broadens.

Jazz fans who live outside of the USA generally have a reasonable awareness of pan-American, European, Scandinavian and (perhaps) Antipodean Jazz musicians.  If you live at the hub of the wheel, the USA, it will probably be less likely.  Pianism is not about how many notes you play, where you come from or the 0000210166_36cleverness your ideas. It is about integrity.  Musical integrity is rare but universally available.

There is a ‘sound’ that belongs to certain locations, perhaps to great cities; where an assimilation of environment occurs unwittingly, coalescing within an artist. This is not planned, as self-conscious cleverness is the road to perdition. The mindless recycling of others cleverness a greater anathema.  Mary Lou Williams once said (to slightly paraphrase): “Once a pianist comes to grips  with the instrument and can master its capabilities, stop taking formal lessons.  Risk taking explorations should occur next”.

Pianists like Mike Nock, Barney McAll and Jonathan Crayford all have a unique quality, one that reflects where they come from.  They are musicians of the world having honed their craft on the road, but distinctly Australasian for all that. No English, Italian, Scandinavian or Australian pianist is going to sound like Randy Weston and nor should they.  Musicians of integrity will bring something of themselves to the mix and a select few will bring a sense of place. The three pianists I have mentioned have lived and worked in the USA (often extensively) but not at the expense of their roots voice.   Each found a groove that only they could unlock. There are 88 notes on the standard piano keyboard, but in the spaces between the notes and in the choices made, there are subliminal messages. That is where the real magic lies.

The Mike Nock Trio. (Aust) Gig at the ‘2014 Auckland Jazz Festival’, CJC (Creative Jazz Club). Mike Nock is one of New Zealand’s favourite musical sons and perhaps the improvising musician we most admire.  Although he has not lived here for many years, he often visits from Australia.  Many will know him from his ‘Fourth Way’ band, his recordings as sideman with people like Yusef Lateef or his long years as a celebrated member of the New York scene.  That said, his post USA work needs better examination and it is in Australia that people can gain a fuller sense of his body of work.  Nock is a truly gifted artist and he goes from strength to strength. “Nock’s ringing iconoclasm pervades all his music, taps a deep well of melody that transcends jazz and informs and ignites his every encounter.” – Fred Bouchard, Downbeat (USA). His live trio gigs are humour-filled and quirky, focussing on an eclectic mix of originals, standards turned upside down and almost forgotten tunes (i.e. Sweet Pumpkin).  The joy that Nock breathes into his gigs is infectious and it Mike Nock SIMA07_01makes you glad that you’re alive. Touring New Zealand with Nock were James ‘Pug’ Waples (drums) and Brett Hirst (bass)’.  These musicians while deeply attuned to each other were always full of surprises.  5 stars. *****

Barney McAll (USA) gigs in Auckland & Wellington NZ – Trio and Solo piano at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) and ‘The Wellington Jazz Festival 2014′.  McAll (an Australian) has lived in Brooklyn New York for many years, but he has never been forgotten in his home country Australia.  His visit to New Zealand won him many new fans.  There is an expansiveness and yet a completeness about McAll compositions. He sounds like no one else and as he digs into those earthy blues filled tunes, you hear the unmistakable echoes of real antipodean soul.  5 stars. *****

Jonathan Crayford, ‘Dark Light’ Trio (USA). It was Auckland’s good luck that the album release gig for Crayford’s ‘Dark Light’ Trio took place at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club).  A few weeks prior to that a local version of his ‘Biggish Band’ featured at the same venue (and at the Golden Dawn). I attended all three gigs. Jonathan Crayford is a peripatetic wonderer and a troubadour of immense talent.  His endless travels in music often bring him home to New Zealand and the lucky get to hear his imaginative projects.  4 stars ****

Other pianists of note: Kevin Field (NZ).  Field on piano or keys is a musical force to reckoned with. His taste is impeccable.  This year saw him record an album in New York with expat New Zealand bassist Matt Penman, drummer Obed Calvaire  and guitarist Nir Felder.  The album will probably be released sometime during 2015 and is eagerly anticipated.  Dark LightJan07_02Whether as accompanist or soloist, Field shines.  His work in 2014 on ‘Dog’, with Caitlin Smith and with the Australian saxophonist  Jamie Oehlers stand out as high points.  Adam Ponting (Aust) (Hip Flask ‘1’ & ’11’).  Ponting is an unusual but compelling pianist.  An original stylist who appears to approach tunes from an oblique angle, at first impressionistic, but leading you into a world of funky satisfying grooves.  This guy is definitely someone I would like to hear again.   It was also great to hear more of Alan Brown (NZ) on piano during 2014. He has some interesting piano and keys projects underway and we will hear more of those soon.   Steve Barry (Aust). Barry is an ex pat Auckland pianist now based in Australia.  He visited New Zealand twice during 2014.  His visits and albums are always received enthusiastically.  Barry is a musician who works hard and produces the goods.  His new album ‘Puzzles’ with Dave Jackson (alto), Alex Boneham (bass) and Tim Firth, lifts the bar for up and coming local musicians.  We had a number of visitors in 2014 and to bring us a European perspective was the Benny Lackner Trio (Germany/USA).  The pianist Benny Lackner has visited New Zealand on several previous occasions and the aesthetic he brings is finely honed. The band has a similar feel to EST.  There is the occasional use of electronics and they quickly find tasty grooves that could only emanate from a European Band.

Alan Broadbent (USA) has had a truly amazing year with the release of a solo album ‘Heart to Heart’ and his NDR Big band album ‘America The Beautiful’. Multiple Grammy 7kofphkhadu-htw5jpjp_zmxkdevwd478h5dat8o4ms winner Broadbent is our best known improvising export and he has spent the last year touring Europe and America to great acclaim.  The solo album was given a rare 5 star rating by downbeat and ‘America The Beautiful’ was recently voted one of the 10th best albums of 2014.

Miscellaneous Gigs and projects:  

Mike Moreno trio (USA) – for sheer guitar artistry and taste, Moreno is hard to beat.  His beautiful (often mournful) sound, compelling lines and clarity of vision left the Sydney audience in awe.  His Australian trio were Alex Boneham (bass) and Ben Vanderwal (drums).  the choice of sidemen was solid, as they complimented and responded to every nuance of Moreno’s playing.  This was a class act all round.  The Troubles (Wellington, NZ), Portland Public House, ‘Auckland Jazz Festival’.  This Wellington ensemble is a machine of wondrous invention.  Its anarchic dissing of powerful institutions, cheerful irreverence and inappropriate humour, carves it out a special place in the hearts of rebellious souls.  Iconoclast drummer and composer John Rae (ex-Edinburgh) had added the heavy weight presence of saxophonist Roger Manins (Auckland) to the mix for recent gigs. That was an inspired choice.  Jeff Henderson’s ‘Dreamville’ project (Auckland, NZ) CJC (Creative Jazz Cub). This avant-garde gig, billed as superconscious Jazzmares, was a triumph by any measure.  Like a dream, the gig moved forward under its own internal momentum.  Surreal themes constantly dissolving until exhausted, forms shifting without seeming to.  What made this journey so evanescent, but so compelling, was that certain motifs remained deep in our consciousness throughout; totems of sound embedding themselves. This gig won many to Henderson’s cause.

Notable local Albums of 2014: (in no particular order)

‘Dog’ (Rattle Jazz) Recorded in the now defunct and much-loved York Street studios Auckland.  This album is the realisation of a project by Manins, Field, Holland &  photo - Version 2 Samsom.  It sizzles, swings and while hinting at the vibe of a bygone era, it still sounds fresh & modern (and very Kiwi).  ‘Dark Light’ (Rattle Jazz) This excellent album is one of two that Jonathan Crayford released in 2014 – Recorded at ‘Systems Two Studio’ NY with Crayford (piano), Ben Street (bass), Dan Weiss (drums).  Don’t expect repetition from Crayford. This master musician takes us on many journey’s, each unlike the last and all brilliant.  Hip Flask 2 (Rattle Jazz)  A funk unit led by Australasian saxophone giant Roger Manins.  Accompanied by Adam Ponting (piano), Stu Hunter (organ), Brendan Clarke (bass) and Toby Hall (drums).  A thoroughly appealing album and a welcome follow-up to Hip Flask 1 (Hip Flask 1 included with the album).

Best Jazz Writing

The Parker Biography (part one): Stanley Crouch’s ‘Kansas City Lightning’ is a great read and a possible game changer.  It has sometimes been observed that Jazz  Parker Imagebiography is the weakest link in Jazz Writing. If that is true then the mould has truly been broken with this work.  Crouch has placed the story of Parker’s early life into a fuller historical context.  In learning things about the times, we learn a lot about the man.  This is a book that could be appreciated by anyone interested in the history of African-American life in the Mid-West.  I suspect that its significance will grow as time passes.  Above all the book is beautifully written and for me that counts.

 Best Jazz DVD

Charles Lloyd’s ‘Arrows to Infinity’ is a beautiful and informative document. It is packed with important music and astute observations.  The filming is tasteful and painterly and Dorothy Darr (artist and long time partner of Lloyd) has been the obvious guiding force (assisted Jeffery Morse).  Lloyd the musician is beyond caveat, but Lloyd the narrator also holds us in rapt attention.  The reborn, Big Sur Lloyd, communicates his deep calm with ease and his spiritual approach to music and life is compelling.  As he reflects honestly on the momentous times he lived through, we feel enriched by sharing the experience.  He sums up his approach to improvising and the duty of sharing his music as follows; “The winds of grace are always blowing, so set the sails high”.

Most anticipated events for the coming months.

Glen Wagstaff & the Symposium Orchestra Project. (NZ) 2015 album release (subject to sufficient funding levels being reached on kick starter).  This young guitarist references the writing of Kenny Wheeler and Brian Blade.  There is a deep melancholic beauty in his charts and the material soars.  The album features many gifted New Zealand musicians.  Christchurch, like Auckland & Wellington, has a deep reservoir of Jazz talent.

The Auckland Jazz Orchestra (NZ) – ‘Darkly Dreaming Suite’ by AJO conductor Tim Atkinson.  I witnessed the recording of this suite and what I heard sounds amazing. While there is a dark brooding quality of the music it is also strangely warm; like a glass of claret held up to stained glass window at dusk.  The album is due out in 2015 and the work marks step-up for the orchestra.

Maria Schneider conducts the Jazz Mothership Orchestra (USA/Aust) Our highly respected saxophonist Roger Manins is to feature with the JMO under Schneider’s batten. I don’t have all of the information yet, but the JMO will certainly be touring Australia.

CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 2015 events. The club had a great 2014 year in spite of the odds and difficulties. This is in large part due to JJA Jazz-Hero Roger Manins role as musical director (aided and abetted by Caro Manins and Ben McNicoll).  The task of keeping a not-for-profit Jazz Club float in a relatively small city is challenging, but Manins has managed to secure a solid programme and he did so while juggling his demanding teaching gig at the Auckland University Jazz School and his numerous live gigs and recording gigs around the pacific rim.   Having a brand new Auckland Jazz Festival (organised by Ben McNicoll) rounded the years events out perfectly.

Biggest Regrets of 2014 – missing the John Zorn gig in Adelaide – The passing of Kenny Wheeler whose music has given me so much pleasure over the years.

Video clips of Mike Nock & Barney McAll – filmed for this blog at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 2014.

http://youtu.be/zBd2yZZdvL4?list=UUvm6sdXjGJULG9k2nYZ9udA

http://youtu.be/m_oA8iLshNg?list=UUvm6sdXjGJULG9k2nYZ9udA 

 

Emie Roussel Trio @ CJC

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Emie Roussel trio 048Any mention of Quebec catches my attention as I really like that part of Canada, so when I learned that a highly rated Montreal piano-trio was coming to town I knew that it would be a good experience.  I had not encountered the Emie Roussel Trio before, but a quick glance at the accolades they have garnered and the numerous You Tube clips that have sprung up over the past year, gave me all the information that I needed.  The group had attracted particular attention at the Montreal Jazz Festival and from what I saw online, deservedly so.

Montreal is a Jazz city and I rate it highly.  It is easy on the eye, friendly, laid back and intensely focussed on the arts. During a recent visit I spent my nights in its Jazz clubs and bars.  As many as I could cram into an Autumn week; anywhere featuring improvised music.  It was not the time of year to catch The Montreal Jazz Festival, so I got to see local bands like ‘Park X’ and the ‘Carl Naud Quartet’ at ‘L’OFF Jazz Festival’.  Emie Roussel trio 065As you move about that city, the familiar and the exotic coexist at every street corner.  I came to realise that this almost subliminal familiarity was the manifestation of a spiritual kinship. The sort that exists between certain special cities, a connection that is not about trade, mayoral visits or geography; a connection of musical and artistic synergies.  Emie Roussel trio 053The Emie Roussel Trio are part European and part American in aesthetic. They are wholly Montreal. Their music has a pulse and a vibe which draws on european classical music traditions and the deep earthy Jazz grooves that arose from the American continent. In the hands of improvisers like Roussel these influences communicate a universal language. As the pieces unfold there is a sense that this band works as an organic whole. What we heard was tight and full of vibrancy or as a musician I spoke to during the break put it. “We are hearing the result of rehearsal, dedication to a project, discipline and road time”.  While I love the free-flowing loose feel of New Zealand improvising bands, I must acknowledge that we seldom hear trio’s which sound like this.

The set-list was a selection from the trio’s recent albums with a few tunes from her new album in the mix. All of the compositions and arrangements were by the leader Emie Rioux-Roussel. Her compositions are well thought out and adventurous; taking sudden twists and turns, but never losing sight of the momentum and the inner logic. The segments are pieces of a puzzle placed by very skilful hands.  As significant as her piano chops are, it was her work on keys that reeled me in. She quickly dug in on the Korg, carving out intense and deeply pleasing grooves with her left hand. The tasteful flurries from her right opening up the possibility of a million directions, all worth taking; her voicings felt original and warm as the summer breeze.  This was an altogether funkier feel and as the beats reflected the changed mood the electric bass thumped out lines that danced in your head.  Emie Roussel trio 045The bass player Nicolas Bedard and drummer Dominic Cloutier never faltered.  They wove in and around the tunes with consummate skill and were the perfect interpreters of Roussel’s music. These men are versatile and skilled and whether on brushes, sticks, upright or electric bass, they knew exactly what would serve the music best.  Emie Roussel trio 046The second set brought us an added treat as the Kiwi trumpeter Lex French came to the bandstand. I have long rated French as one of our finest trumpeters. He completed his studies in Montreal and was already well acquainted with several of the band members. His addition changed the pace once again, opening the way for harder blowing.  As the sets progressed the constantly evolving moods worked well for them, giving the gig real breadth.  Emie Roussel trio 050The trio’s recent album ‘Transit’, includes many of the numbers heard on the tour but with one significant difference; The inclusion of a string section, the ‘Quatuor St-Germain’ and a percussionist Julie Quimper.  Roussel’s charts in the hands of this larger ensemble are very different to the trio.  I particularly like her compositions like ‘L’ attente du chat’ and ‘La timbale et la fourmi’.  The mood of the ballad is cat-like in its grace and time feel. The latter, a delightful shape-shifter of a piece full of contrasts and propulsion.  I look forward to the new album which is just the trio but with some Rhodes tracks as well as piano.

I hope that they came back one day as this is a band well worth keeping tabs on.

Who: The Emie Roussel Trio – Emie Rioux-Roussel (piano, keys), Nicolas Bedard (contrabasse), Dominic Cloutier (batterie).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Brittomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand, 17th December 2014.

The Troubles @ CJC 2014

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‘Troubles’ come in many forms and what a proliferation of ‘Troubles’ we have seen in Auckland. In mid 2012 we saw a nonet replete with a sizeable string section (and clarinet). Earlier this year at the Auckland Jazz Festival we saw a septet (strings, no clarinet and with Roger Manins on tenor saxophone as guest artist).  By Wednesday December 10th 2014 all trace of rosin was purged and the sweet sounds and fresh faces of the front line string section replaced by three tall bearded men clutching saxophones (and a shorter clean-shaven trumpeter).  This was a bold and brassy line up; a weightier manifestation, delivering anarchic messages from darker corners.  IMG_3877 - Version 2This was too good an opportunity not to record and Rattle did just that.  Capturing chordal instruments in a space like the CJC is challenging as the sound has a number of hard edges to bounce off.  Recording a live performance of this particular brand of ‘Troubles’ might work well.  IMG_3883 - Version 2Guiding the proceedings with his well-known brand of anti-establishment megaphone diplomacy was ring master John Rae, ‘Troubles’ co-founder.  He shepherded the ensemble through a constantly shifting landscape. His effervescent flow of joyous and often irreverent cries only stemmed by Patrick Bleakley’s timely interjections.  Rae is the supercharged engine room, but Bleakley is clearly the anchor.  Like Rae he’s an original member.  IMG_3872 - Version 2With this Auckland horn section in place, a new front had opened and the tweaked charts took maximum advantage of that. On baritone was Ben McNicoll and his presence gave the sound added bottom. Roger Manins, who had stunned us with his wild death-defying solo’s at the Troubles Portland Public House gig was on tenor again.  Jeff Henderson took the alto spot and that was a significant addition. His ultra powerful unblinking delivery was the x-factor.  Unafraid of repeated motifs but able to negotiate the music without ever resorting to the familiar. That is the Henderson brand, original clear-cut and uncompromising.  In no way diminished by the powerful reed instruments surrounding him was Kingsley Melhuish on trumpet. Melhuish has a rich burnished sound and like the others, he is no stranger to musical risk taking.  IMG_3869 - Version 2Together they evoked a spirit close to the earlier manifestations of the Liberation Jazz Orchestra. Not just the rich and at times delightfully ragged sound, but the cheerful defiance of convention and discarding of political niceties.  Rae’s introductions were gems and I hope some of them survive in the recording.  He told the audience that it had been a difficult year for him. “It was tough experiencing two elections in as many months and in both cases the got it woefully wrong” (referring to the Scottish referendum and the recent New Zealand Parliamentary elections). “there are winners and losers in politics and there are many assholes”.  IMG_3890 - Version 2It wouldn’t be the ‘Troubles’ if there wasn’t a distinct nod to some of the worlds trouble spots or to political events that confound us.  I have chosen a clip ‘Arab Spring Roll’ (John Rae), a title which speaks for itself.  Following the establishment of a compelling ostinato bass line, the musicians build a convincing modal bridge to the freedom which follows.  Chaotic freedom is the perfect metaphor for the ‘Arab Spring’ uprising. The last number performed was the ANC National anthem and as it concluded, fists rose in remembrance of the anti-apartheid struggle.  It is right that we should celebrate the struggles for equality, but sobering to reflect on how far we have to go. The Troubles keep our feet to the flame, while gifting us the best in musical enjoyment.

What: ‘The Troubles‘ – John Rae (drums, compositions, exaltation), Patrick Bleakley (bass, vocal responses), with Roger Manins (tenor sax), Jeff Henderson (alto sax), Ben McNicholl (baritone sax), Kingsley Melhuish (trumpet, Trombone).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland New Zealand, 10th December 2014

Caitlin Smith 2014

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IMG_3770 - Version 2Caitlin Smith is a vocalist who can quickly put a smile on your face or shamelessly tug at your heart-strings.  She always finds a way to connect her audience to the essence of a song; deftly locating that illusive sweet spot.  While there is often power in her delivery, there is also remarkable subtlety. You could describe her voice in many ways; pitch perfect, having an almost operatic range, but there is much more to Smith than chops. In the parlance she owns each song she sings and embeds it with a uniqueness.  Like a seasoned saxophonist she tells beguiling stories in a distinctive way.  IMG_3756 - Version 2There is a well-worn cliché that vocalists hog the limelight and in truth many go through their careers with barely a reference to the musicians that they work with. Caitlin Smith is the opposite. You are left in no doubt that her gigs are a shared project as she interacts with band and audience, picking up on every nuance from either.  She works with a band as a vocalist should and she is comfortable giving them space to solo. There is a generosity of spirit about her persona and this manifests in the music.  I have also witnessed her solid support for emerging artists.  The ultimate litmus test for me, is that gifted improvising musicians enjoy playing in Caitlin Smith lineups.  IMG_3762 - Version 2While Smith is widely acknowledged as a gifted singer-songwriter, it is her Jazz repertoire that is turning heads of late.  Her performance with the AJO at the Tauranga Jazz festival won her many new fans.  She is a wonderful interpreter of Jazz standards and this aspect of her repertoire deserves critical attention. Her vocal gifts and incredible musicality thrive with this space; of particular note is the delightful way she plays with lyrics.  IMG_3776 - Version 2 (1)Smith is a natural performer and there is something wonderfully theatrical and engaging about her stage presence. This gives her gigs an added spark of life.  On Wednesday she included some of her own compositions like the beautiful ‘In between’, but the audience was particularly wowed by her take on jazz standards such as Ellington’s ‘I like the sunshine’.  I have heard her sing Ellington and Strayhorn at other gigs and I am always impressed by the way she freshens these standards up.

Her innate ability to carry off the more difficult of the Ellington/Strayhorn song-book tunes is beyond question. ‘Lush life’ in particular requires real vocal skills to pull it off well and her interpretation is flawless. This affinity cries out for her to record the material.  It would be great to see an Ellington album someday; accompanied by the Kevin Field Trio, alternating with the AJO. IMG_3749 - Version 2Another song from a different genre was ‘River’ (Joni Mitchell).  This classic Mitchell song was recently reinterpreted by Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter.  As Smith delivered her version she phrased it in such a way that I could hear those elided Shorter fills in my head.  Her delivery was crystalline and it brought her two worlds together perfectly.

Who: Caitlin Smith (vocals, arrangements), Kevin Field (piano), Oli Holland (bass), Ron Samsom (drums) (acknowledgement to Dennis Thorpe for the River video)

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, 3rd December 2014

Wellington Mingus Ensemble visits Auckland

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Mingus was the Rabelais of Jazz.  An eccentric humanist who used his musical vocabulary to portray the realities of life as he knew it.  A world filled with great sorrows, blunt speech and joyous abandon; excessive emotions measured in equal portions. Often troubled, frequently combative, but always inspiring.  He brought something unique to improvised music. An ability to impart that Rabelaisian quality, and this was the genius of the man.  IMG_3664 - Version 2  

When the Wellington Mingus Ensemble came to town the essence of Mingus came with them. In showcasing his music they demonstrated that they understood the most important thing: the spirit underlying his music. The cries of delight when at particular phrases and the shouts of exaltation echoing through the sets, a collective sense of engagement, each exhorting the other on. This unerring wild enthusiasm gave the music a power that took it free of the charts.  Mingus pieces are invariably greater than the sum of their parts.  IMG_3680 - Version 2

The set list took us on a high-octane Mingus fuelled journey, with the familiar politically charged ‘Fables of Faubus’ and ‘The shoes of the fisherman’s wife are some jiveassed slippers’, bookended by his lessor known tunes.  There are no poor compositions in the Charles Mingus’s songbook. The Ensemble (a sixteen piece band) is punchy, ebullient and confident. This sense of shared enterprise fed into the solos, as the support was always there. The bass work was particularly noteworthy as Mingus styled bass lines are quite unlike any others. Big ups to the baritone player as well, for making a unwieldily beast sing so heartily.

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Charles Mingus occupies a unique place in the Jazz Pantheon and in Mingus bands like this, he has left us with a legacy which thankfully shows no sign of abating. His legacy is an interesting one and different to that of most Jazz musicians. While a Miles or a Bird tribute band will often be at pains to put distance between themselves and the original for fear of comparison, a Mingus tribute band will unashamedly embrace that Mingus feel. There is a rightness about this approach to Mingus, because what at first appears tangible has hidden corners.  There is always a mysterious looseness which leaves you thinking.  I’ve listened to this piece a hundred times before, but it always sounds different.  IMG_3634 - Version 2

This is a great legacy for musicians and fans alike.  He leaves behind so much more than his recorded output; it is as if these Mingus charts are inexhaustible.  The music is full of contradictions; profoundly gospel-referencing passages, dripping with soul are suddenly overtaken by a brassy cacophony on the edge of free.  Anyone who has listened to his Magnum Opus  ‘The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady’ or ‘The complete Town Hall concert’ (with Dolphy, Collette, Mariano, Sims and many others) will get this immediately. For Mingus-loving musicians, the desire to grab a piece of this quirky magic is overwhelming.  The Wellington Mingus Ensemble has achieved that in spades.

 

What: The Wellington Mingus Ensemble

Saxes: Bryn van Vliet, Eilish Wilson, Jake Baxendale, Garam Jung, Oscar Laven Trumpets: Ben Hunt, Michael Costeloe, James Wisnesky, Daniel Windsor  Trombones: Kaito Walley, Cameron Kidby, Julian Kirgan, Patrick Di Somma        Piano: Ayrton Foote,  Double Bass: Adrian Laird,  Drums: Jacob Randall

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand 26th November 2014

 

Glen Wagstaff + AJO (Auckland Jazz Orchestra)

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Christchurch resonates strongly with Kiwi’s from elsewhere, but the images we bring to mind are fused realities. The best of colonial Victorian architecture, a fading Englishness; blurring into an empty post-quake wasteland or an alpine framed Hiroshima.  Behind the rubble the city’s creative life has continued unabated. This is not about ‘defiant resilience’ or any of those other overused phrases. Creative artists create no matter what the circumstances and no errant fault line can dislodge that force.  It is about being human and it is about the inner life of a city.  Improvising artists are among the best placed to tap into this wellspring.  IMG_3620 - Version 2

With that rich southern burr in his speech, Glen Wagstaff is clearly from the mid to lower South Island.  Like other Jazz musicians from Christchurch he has impressive skills. The Christchurch Jazz School has done well by us, especially evidenced in the fine musicians emerging.  I first heard Wagstaff in 2013 when he came to Auckland with his Christchurch octet.  I was impressed then; even more so now.

The number of New Zealand musicians who write or arrange big band charts is relatively small and there are good reasons for this.  It is time-consuming and very hard work.  To have a younger musician writing so well and to be so adventurous is unusual.  There are two clear influences on Wagstaff’s writing and these are the late Kenny Wheeler and the Brian Blade Fellowship band.  I am a big fan of both and these musicians are evoked in the charts. Similar in style maybe, but with a strong Kiwi focus. While the above influences are detectable, Wagstaff is developing a unique voice.  A voice that imparts a strong sense of place.  Mountains, clear skies, wide-vistas and textured landscapes.  IMG_3602 - Version 2

His small ensemble work puts you in mind of a larger ensemble, while his orchestral work has sufficient space to imply the opposite.  The style (like Wheeler’s) is airy and textured with strong melodic hooks.  In spite of the dark tinged corners, the pieces impart warmth.  IMG_3617 - Version 2

The other part to Wagstaff is his solid guitar work.  This was especially evident during this gig. The ringing clean tone and the strong well paced lines could blend with the orchestra when appropriate.  At other times the guitar led strongly.  Whether as composer or guitarist, Wagstaff was in command.  I have rendered a clip of his composition ‘Firefly’ and the music speaks for itself.  Nothing further I could write could add or detract from this extraordinary piece of music.  IMG_3603 - Version 2

The AJO was a good choice as they are a capable Jazz orchestra.  What they need most are more challenges like this. These charts were not the easiest and the rehearsal time was brief.  What they managed in this narrow window was entirely creditable.  It would be nice to see them record something like this and I believe that they have just such a project coming up with Tim Atkinson’s suite (to be recorded shortly).  Conducting the AJO was Tim Atkinson while Mike Booth (trumpet) and Andrew Hall (alto, soprano) took the main solos.  Matt Steele’s piano worked beautifully with Wagstaff during the guitar dominant passages.

In the octet were: Glen Wagstaff (guitar), Matt Steele (piano), Richie Pickard (bass), Ron Samsom (drums), Andrew Hall (reeds), Mike Booth (trumpet), Ben McNicholl (tenor saxophone), Glen Bartlett (trombone),  The rest of the AJO were; Jo Spiers (trumpet), Oliver Furneaux (trumpet), Mathew Verrill (trumpet), Mike Young (trombone), Darrell Farnley (trombone),Michael Tidbury (trombone) David Edmundson (tenor) Andrew Baker (baritone) Trudy Lile (Flute), Callum Passells (alto, soprano).

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What: Glen Wagstaff + AJO (Auckland Jazz Orchestra)

Where: The CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand 19th November 2014

 

Nick Granville (with Dixon Nacey)

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Nick Granville’s return to the CJC was long overdue and the fact that he’d invited local favourite Dixon Nacey to join him made this an extra welcome return.  Granville is one of the busiest and most versatile guitarists in New Zealand.  Although a Jazz guitarist, he is just as likely to appear with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (the recent Dr Who tour), on TV, with visiting pop idols or touring beside visiting jazz royalty like Joey Defrancesco.   He’s a prolific recording artist, widely travelled and always in demand.  Dixon Nacey is also extremely well-known.  He has been absent from the club recently; touring the Pacific rim and gaining new fans wherever he goes.  Dixon is a real crowd pleaser.

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It is not often that we get two guitars in a quartet gig at the CJC and when the guitarists are Granville and Nacey it is a twelve stringed celebration.  When two guitarists play together, each needs hyper awareness of what the other is about.  Jazz guitar collaborations tend to fall into two camps; either they work extremely well or the musicians crowd into the same space.  These men are masters of their instruments and it was evident from the start that they knew instinctively when to play, comp or lay out.  The cross talk and the support was there without compromising the others space.

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Although there was an upbeat Scofield number and a very engaging Pat Metheny number, the gig gave a distinct nod to the traditional.  It was certainly not the material, as there were no standards; it was the approach.  Most of the compositions were contemporary originals but both guitarists bop roots were on show.  There is appropriateness to that when you consider the bench marks.  To my ears the twin guitar gold standard occurred in 1974 with Joe Pass and Herb Ellis on their ‘Seven to Eleven’ (Jake Hanna and Ray Brown rounded out that quartet).

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Granville is an Ibanez artist and Nacey a Godin artist.  In juxtaposition, under the lights, the gleaming instruments glowed as if in a beauty contest.  A preening mass of highly polished wood tones.   These instruments are things of great beauty and to see them and hear them together is a treat.   In the hands of these two guitarists even more so.  There were a number of Granville’s compositions played during the night but the second up; ‘Somewhere I’ve been’  (which is Granville’s reharmonisation of Shorter’s ‘Footsteps’) burned and crackled with unimaginable energy.   This set us up well for the evening, as we progressed through further compositions by Granville, Nacey, Samsom, plus a Scofield and a Metheny number.   I managed to capture Metheny’s  ‘Question & Answer’ and I have posted it.   This clip speaks well of the musicianship and the genuine interaction between the two guitarists.  IMG_3533 - Version 2

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On bass was Oli Holland and he is in perpetual good form.  With his Doctorate now completed we can expect to see more of him on the band stand.  Ron Samsom on drums played with fiery enthusiasm.  It is always a pleasure to hear Samsom and especially to hear his compositions.  That said, the icing on the cake was catching a photograph of that fleeting signature snarl.  This illusive manifestation of ‘drum face’ occurs all too rarely and only when Samsom digs deep.   I am a great believer in drum face as it often presages rhythmic riches.

Who: Nick Granville (guitar), Dixon Nacey (guitar), Oli Holland (bass), Ron Samsom (drums)

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand, 12th November 2014

Sandhya Sanjana @ the CJC

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If you patrol the margins of the music world you will find inestimable treasures.  Beyond the notice of mainstream media and mainstream audiences there is a joyous revolution underway.   Not an austere revolution but one peopled by astonishing musicians, colourful characters and sonic explorers.  Like a good street protest, it is often bubbling with noise, insistent beats and a multiplicity of messages.  Last Wednesdays gig epitomised that.  The alternative music scene is often denigrated for its imagined ‘high brow’ complacency or its snobbish rigidity.  In this regard the Jazz police and lazy uninformed commentators have done improvised music a grave disservice.  Improvised music has been with us since the beginnings of art and the whole point of it is to shift the focus away from the mundane or the obvious.  The appropriation and assimilation of traditional forms is only a staring point.  Sandhya Sanjana and her gifted ensemble took the shamans path here; conjuring shapes and colours from the ether, re-harmonising, daring us to look at the familiar and the exotic from an entirely different vantage point.  This night cut right to the heart of improvised music.  Different worlds merged and they did so without compromising the integrity of the traditions they came from.  IMG_3487 - Version 2

This was World/Jazz singer Sandhya Sanjana’s night but we have Auckland’s Ben Fernandez to thank for organising the gig.  I had not heard Fernandez play before this, but had long been aware of his reputation as a gifted, successful and multifaceted pianist.  Some months ago he invited me to his ‘Raag time’ fusion gig, but sadly I was unable to attend as I was heading out-of-town.  Later he messaged me to say that he would teaming up with Ms Sanjana in November.  Gigs like this are irresistible to me as I am enthusiastic about all of the great improvised music traditions.  The merging of these traditions has risks, but done well it’s marvellous.  The successful assimilation of middle eastern rhythms and the idioms into Jazz has long been achieved in Europe.  Fusions of traditional Indian music and Jazz are now emerging across the globe and those with an open mind and the right ears are the happy beneficiaries.

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The band members were; Sandhya Sanjana (vocals, leader), Ben Fernandez (piano), Jim Langabeer (flute, reeds), Manjit Singh (tabla & vocals), Jo Shum (bass), Jason Orme (traps drums).  Anyone familiar with the Auckland Jazz scene and the Indian music scenes will know what a great lineup this is.

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Sandhya Sanjana is from Bombay, but based in Holland these days (Ben Fernandez is a Kiwi but he also hails from Bombay).  She has performed with the greats in the World/Jazz field like Alice Coltrane and Trilok Gurtu.   She has an easy confidence about her that informs her performance and under her guidance a seamless fusion of styles occurs.  With Fernandez you get another strong influence as he imparts a distinctly Latin feel.  This classical and Jazz trained musician has chops to burn.  Out of this melange of rich influences a vibrant new music emerges.  It is compelling and exciting to hear.  There is a constant visual and sonic interplay between singer, tabla, traps drums, piano, bass and reeds (winds).  The shifting rhythms creating intricate cycles that pulse and swing.

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Manjit Singh, originally from the Punjab is another Auckland resident and he is an acknowledged master of the Tabla and of Indian music.  I am often reminded of what a rich and diverse drum landscape we have in Auckland.  A world that I am still coming to grips with.  This man is a major talent and it is our good fortune that he is making forays into the Jazz/fusion music scene.  On traps was the veteran drummer Jason Orme and he was well-chosen.  The gig required a drummer who could play quietly but strongly and one who had the subtlety to interact with Singh.  On bass was Jo Shum who has not played at the CJC for some time.  She is an aware bass player and acquitted herself well.   Lastly was the reeds and winds player Jim Langabeer.  Langabeer is well-respected on the New Zealand scene and is one of a select group of doubling reeds musicians who are equally strong on flute (and he swings like a well oiled gate).   This gig had an embarrassment of riches and once again Roger Manins gets a big tick for his innovative programming.

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In the You Tube clip that I have put up, the breadth of Sanjana’s influences are immediately evident.  After a few bars of latin feel on piano we hear a Tala.  I know very little about the technical aspects of traditional Indian music but the rhythmic patterns (or Tala) are generally established early on.  This can also include a vocalised manifestation of the Tala rhythms.   Manjit Singh the Tabla player counted in the Tala and Sanjana responded with Mudras, claps and vocals .  The traps drummer and others responded to the patterns and so the piece built upon itself.  If done well, cross fertilised music is like water; it will soon find its own level.  This did.

Who:  Sandhya Sanjana (vocals, compositions, leader), Ben Fernandez (piano, arrangements), Jim Langabeer (winds & reeds), Jo Shum (bass), Manjit Singh (Tabla & vocals), Jason Orme (traps drums).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand.  5th November 2014

Steve Barry ‘Puzzles’ Tour NZ

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Steve Barry recorded his new ‘Puzzles’ album back in February and after his very successful first album ‘Steve Barry’, there were high expectations for its successor.  In ‘Puzzles’ Barry has returned to the winning combination of Alex Boneham on bass and Tim Firth on drums and he could hardly have done otherwise.  When musicians work this well together and have more to say, the journey should continue.  While essentially a trio album, the gifted alto saxophonist Dave Jackson joins them for three numbers.  There is a sense of shared vision here as the four have worked together extensively.  While familiarity can sometimes breed complacency there is none of that in ‘Puzzles’.  The communication between band members is intuitive, but there is an element of surprise and freshness about the interactions.  All of these musicians are at their peak and while they impress deeply, there is no escaping the fact that it is the strength of compositions that gives this album its edge.

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Barry’s life is an extremely busy one.  He is in the final stages of his doctrinal studies (focussing on composition) and he gigs regularly around Australia and New Zealand.  Last year he won the prestigious Bell Award and was the runner-up at Wangaratta.  Guiding his impressive work ethic is more than just academic or professional considerations; he possesses a deep quest for knowledge.  If you follow Barry’s physical travels you understand something of what motivates him.  He is never a casual tourist.  His engagement with and questioning of the world about him informs his work.   The compositions in ‘Puzzles’ reflect this as they are carefully crafted improvisational vehicles, complimentary in relation to each other but clearly reflecting the learnings gained by Barry along the way.   The sound quality on the album is also superb and the album nicely presented.   ‘Puzzles’ was recorded at the ‘Pughouse Studios’ in Melbourne by Niko Schauble and the cover design is Barry’s.

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I saw Barry on his way through Auckland to perform in Queenstown.  Reports from that gig were positive and over the week he worked his way back to Auckland’s CJC, where he performed with Roger Manins on tenor, Cameron McArthur on bass and Ron Samsom on drums.  The CJC band are highly rated musicians, but you inevitably get a different feel from any band less familiar with the material.  While the numbers on the album sound effortless, the charts are obviously complex.  We heard many cuts from the album and a few new numbers that have not yet been recorded.   In the past Barry’s compositions tended to favour a degree of density, but many of his new tunes have a lighter feel.  They are probably just as complex but like all evolving musicians Barry is mastering the art of making the complex sound simpler.  It would be hard to pick between the tracks on ‘Puzzles’ but for beauty and emotional depth I like ‘Forge’ and for groove the fabulous ‘Heraclitus Riverbed’ (anything involving the ancient philosopher Heraclitus draws me in).  It was interesting to compare Manins (live) with Jackson (on the album).  Manins on tenor was the passionate story-teller while Jackson on alto has a drier sound and evokes the feeling of an intrepid pugnacious explorer.

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After listening to him live and replaying the album for days on end the conclusion is inescapable; Barry is a major talent on an upward trajectory.  I would urge people to hear him live when the opportunity presents itself and above all to support his art by buying the albums.

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The Album: ‘Puzzles’ – Steve Barry (piano, rhodes), Alex Boneham (bass), Tim Firth (drums), Dave Jackson (alto saxophone).  www.stevebarrymusic.com

The CJC Gig: Steve Barry (Piano), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Cameron McArthur (bass), Ron Samsom (drums) on the 29th October 2014   www.creativejazzclub.co.nz

Auckland Jazz Festival 2014 in retrospect

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The 2014 Auckland Jazz festival is over and it is time to reflect on ten days of warm vibes, edgy grooves, good company and above all truly exceptional music.  Auckland is a difficult beast when it comes to festivals.  It is like a smaller version of Los Angeles; a spread out town centre and an urban area sprawling over 600 Square Kilometres.  This contrasts with the smaller Wellington, where the suitable music venues are in close proximity.  While getting festivals off the ground has always been a challenge in Auckland, there are willing audiences out there.  The trick is getting them to pay attention.  It was an ‘underground’ festival and apart from a handful of flyers, some posters in the participating venues and student radio, the publicity machine was Facebook, a hastily created website and word of mouth.  In spite of that people turned up and everyone enjoyed the gigs.  Town halls and large commercial venues are utterly without soul and the decision to stick to smaller venues made good sense.  Because of that festival goers got to experience live music up close and personal.  A woman at the Mike Nock gig expressed delight that she could sit less than a metre away from the band.  Close enough to catch every nuance and smile; to connect with the joy.  To be so close to one of the worlds great pianists is an experience never forgotten.  This sort of intimacy is gold.  This is a solid foundation to build upon and potential sponsors will hopefully see that and come onboard next year.

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Over the ten days I managed to attend five gigs, including the three headline acts.  Like any music lover I wanted to attend more.  Actually there were over thirty gigs on offer for those with time on their hands and that is impressive.  The opening gig was at the Portland Public House in Kingsland which is an intimate entertainment space with a delightfully shabby-sheik decor and great bar food.   ‘The Troubles’ were the perfect act to launch the festival, as their rollicking, anarchic, good time vibe engaged the large and enthusiastic crowd from the first note.  I am a huge fan of this group which is a collective led by Wellington drummer John Rae.  This time, and it was an inspired move, they had included Auckland’s Roger Manins in the lineup.  This transformed a wonderful boisterous freedom loving band into a full-scale riot.   The five piece string section were the perfect foil and they shone.  Neither Manins nor Rae gave any quarter as they hungrily fed off all challenges like musical Pacmen.   The Troubles music bubbles out of a deep well of musicality and exuberance.  It references the sounds of protest, eastern European music, the vibrancy of street life and above all joy.  As the chants, cries, shouts, dissonance and snatches of sweet melody catch your ear, you realise that this is ancient and future music.  It is honest and often deeply swinging.  It is everything from Mingus to now.

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On Monday I got an email.  ‘If I was free, would I be able to pick up Mike Nock and his trio from the airport’.  I truly like him as a human being as there is an irreverence and a sense of fun about him.  Hanging with him is a positive experience and it was also a good opportunity to gain a few insights into the gig.  He has a Zen approach to life and to music; living in the moment and cutting through the bullshit.  He is funny and a great storyteller, but surprisingly humble about his own impressive accomplishments.   Anyone who has studied the history of New Zealand music (and arguably Australian) will inevitably say at some point, “Oh yeah, Mike Nock; this is THE guy”.  At the airport I ran into another returning Jazz Pianist Steve Barry, so we all crammed into my hatchback.   Musicians, personal luggage and cymbals.  “What will you play tonight” I asked on the way into town?  Mike gave a typical Mike reply, “Man I don’t always know until my fingers are on the piano keys”.  When I repeated this to bass player Brett Hirst he laughed, “Yes and I age a year every-time he does it” he said.   “These days whether a standard or an original, all I want to do is reach deep inside until I find the poetry”, added Nock.

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It is this last statement that epitomises his approach.  You watch him seated quietly at the keyboard, calmly flexing his arms and then suddenly he is playing; the melody stated as if in passing, feeling his way to the essence of a tune.  It is always a masterclass for the careful listener.  All of the dross and excess baggage of a tune is dispensed with as the smiling Nock shares his joy with those present.  As he plays he sings quietly or exclaims joyously.  Sometimes pausing momentarily, dropping his hands from the keys, acknowledging a special moment.   In a club like the CJC you get an immediacy like no other venue and being part of a Mike Nock experience is very special.   Nock played a variety of tunes, some well-loved standards, some almost forgotten older tunes and an original or two.   IMG_3208 - Version 2When he played Irving Berlin’s lovely ‘How Deep is the Ocean’ he prefixed it with a long intro, pulling you deep into the mood of the piece and then suddenly swinging madly, the melody dancing with him.  It was as if we were hearing it for the first time.  Next was ‘Solar’ (Miles Davis), which in lessor hands could be viewed as a surprising choice.  The tune was given no quarter.  Nock, Brett Hirst and James Waples (drums) immediately peeled the layers away to reveal an energised core which burned like a super nova.   Life is good when the Mike Nock trio is in town.

The next night featured the Benny Lackner Trio from Germany.  Lackner has played at the CJC twice previously, but this was the first time that he had brought his European trio with him.  He is an interesting artist and his music is very different from that of the Mike Nock Trio.   This music is firmly rooted in the European aesthetic and less rooted in the bluesy traditions of America.  What he offers is something wholly modern and closer to the oeuvre of artists like Esbjorn Swennson and Tigran Hamasyan .   It was a rare chance to hear a type improvised music that I have long followed with enthusiasm but get few chances to hear being so far away from Europe.  Rather than drawing on the blues it seems to appropriate folk music and near eastern song forms.   The tunes though are all originals and they are often lovely to the ear.  The trio uses electronics in the way that EST did, but there is more edge these compositions.  There are complex cross rhythms and pulsing bass lines on the upbeat numbers; probing filigree explorations around the beautiful melodic lines on the ballads.  On upright and electric bass was Paul Kleber and on drums the interesting Matthieu Chazarenc.  This was music to savoured and thought about long afterwards.  Offering complimentary but contrasting artists is at the heart of good festival programming.

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The third headline act was a double trombone lineup.  From the USA was Francisco Torres who is best known for his stellar work with Poncho Sanchez or the award-winning Gordon Goodwin Big Phat Band.   His credits are considerable and everyone from Terrance Blanchard to Natalie Cole has benefitted from his strong playing.   The other trombonist was Wellington’s Rodger Fox who like Torres has an impressive list of credits to his name.  Fox wears many hats, promoter, educator, composer and trombonist.  Neither Torres nor Fox had played at the CJC before and it was appropriate that they were given a quality rhythm section.   On piano was Kevin Field, Bass Oli Holland and drums Ron Samsom.  The gig was therefore titled ‘two bones and a dog’.  The dog reference was about the ‘Dog’ band which features Field, Holland and Samsom.  Perhaps because it was the third headline gig in a row the numbers were down and that was a shame because they played like there was no tomorrow; mostly standards and particularly those with strong trombone associations.   It was nice to hear a tune by the ill-fated master of the west-coast trombone, Frank Rosolino.  I am always overwhelmed by the warmth of the instrument.  In the semi darkness a glow of burnished gold radiated from the horns, reflecting the warmth of the music perfectly.  There were a number of trombonists in the audience, grinning from ear to ear.   Another great festival night.

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The final gig that I attended was at the Golden Dawn.  Recently voted the best bar in town, it is a welcoming place; a venue begging to become your local, no matter how far away you live.  The management have the happy knack of engaging the quirkier bands, showcasing an edge that can only emerge from underground music.  The lighting is particularly appealing, something between a vaudeville dressing room and a prohibition era speak-easy.  The multi hued lighting seeps through dark-toned wood grain and bounces off the bottles behind the bar, losing its intensity on the journey.   Sunday night is jazz night and what better place to finish up a festival.  When I arrived the Alex Ward trio had just set up and they played a short opening set.  We heard Tigran Hamasyan’s ‘leaving Paris’, a Brad Mehldau tune (from his Easy Rider album) and a standard or two.  The number that I most enjoyed was Wards own composition ‘Litmus Test’, which strongly references and builds upon the vibe of 60’s McCoy Tyner.  IMG_3332 - Version 2

The closing set was ‘Harry Himself’ and this under-the-radar band is truly amazing.  It is a hybrid music with enormous appeal, similar to the Jazz from the Nordic countries.  Unusual combinations of instruments, some electronics, loops and an endless supply of deep grooves.   All of the musicians were of the highest calibre and perhaps this is the bands ace in the hole.  When doing something brave and unusual, do it really well.   Leading the band was Kingsley Melhuish on tuba, trumpet, trombone, flugal and vocals (and pedals).  On pedal steel guitar and Fender was Neil Watson, a much admired musician who can subvert and then create afresh like few others.  Sam Giles was pumping out-deep groove electric bass lines and it was good to see him on the band stand again.  At the rear and barely visible, but clearly audible, was Ron Samson, a drummer as respected as he is versatile.  Carried on the pulses of blue light were shimmering outlines, accompanied by mesmerising waves of sound; intensely textural grooves, layer building upon layer.

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At times Melhuish would set up a loop on tuba, tweak the sound and then play wonderful figures over it on trumpet or flugal.  In behind, bending notes on fender or adding fills on the pedal steel guitar was Watson.  This unusual combination of instruments works so well that it should definitely be repeated.  It begs further explorations.  With Samsom and Giles in the mix a pulsing original sound scape unfolded; perhaps best described as a Second Line gumbo meeting psychedelic Americana.  The festival finished up with a Jam session at the same venue.

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Those who attended the various festival gigs were very pleased with what was on offer and those who found out too late cursed their ill luck.   I understand that the notification period will be longer for next years festival, so watch out for it next Spring.

What: The Auckland Jazz Festival  17th to 26th October 2014

Who: The Troubles (septet), The Mike Nock Trio, The Benny Lackner Trio, Francisco Torres/Roger Fox (quintet), Alex Ward Trio, Harry Himself (quartet).

Where: The CJC (Creative Jazz Club), The Portland Public House, The Golden Dawn.

Note: I will add a Torres/Fox video shortly

Trudy Lile @ CJC 2014

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Trudy Lile is always in demand whether it’s cruise liner gigs, winery gigs or bar and club gigs.  Last night she was at the CJC with Kevin Field on piano, Cameron McArthur on bass and Ron Samsom drums.   This particular quartet is a regular lineup for Lile and it is hardly surprising.  Musicians like this are a gift to a leader, as each of them has pulling power, but they operate as a high functioning unit when together.   Lile is also an energetic and engaging performer and the enthusiasm she radiates is always evident in her music.

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As a singer/flutist Lile often favours standards or latin material, as these suit voice and flute so well.   She still surprises though with appealing lessor known tunes or sometimes popular tunes which lend themselves to wider explorations under her coaxing.  She is keen on finding new standards from the latter and we often hear material from sources not usually tapped by improvising musicians.   This use of popular material is becoming more commonplace and another recent example of this was Benny Lackner opening with a number from the latest Bowie album.   Lile also brought some interesting new compositions to the gig.    IMG_3140 - Version 2

The clubs audience numbers could have been better during the last month, perhaps they were saving for the festival,  but Lile being a true professional worked the room and fed off the interaction.   She has an abundance of charm, humorous banter and above all musicality.   The band responded to her lead with enthusiasm, amping up their performances to match hers.   Kevin Field is the sort of pianist who understands the accompanists role, comping sparingly at times and launching into heart stopping solos at others with McArthur and Samsom responding to each nuance.   I have posted a clip from the gig which is a favourite of Lile’s.  An Eliane Alias number titled ‘An Up Dawn’ from the album ‘The Three Americas’.

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Footnote: My ability to comprehend the softly spoken human voice with any accuracy has declined in recent years; probably due to the endless procession of loud gigs in intimate spaces that I attend.   What I heard Lile announce was a tune called “An Up Storm’ and so I labeled the You Tube clip accordingly.  When I saw Lile a few days later she laughingly told me what the actual title was.  Unfortunately I misheard that as well, as ‘An Up Swarm’.  The clip now correctly refers to ‘An Up Dawn’, but I do like my rogue re-titling.   Perhaps Trudy Lile could reharm the tune, utilising my imaginative and thought-provoking title(s)?  I am sure Eliane wouldn’t mind.  There is more than a hint of Chaos Theory in what I had originally settled on;  An up swarm of bees in Brazil causing a storm in Auckland.

Who: Trudy Lile (leader, flute, vocals), Kevin Field (piano), Cameron McArthur (bass), Ron Samsom (drums)

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885 basement, Auckland New Zealand 15th October 2014

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