A lot’s been written about Mike Nock and he is well recorded. In spite of this there is so much more to say and the unfolding story has come to define Australasian Jazz. It would be accurate to describe him as one of the greatest musicians New Zealand has produced, but Mike Nock deserves evaluation on a much wider stage than Oceania. As lucky as we feel owning him, he is a citizen of the world, highly ranked among the best that global Jazz has to offer.
This was summed up by one of the audience; an American who has been following the international Jazz Scene for many years. He shook his head in amazement and said “That was the best performance I have heard in ages”. He asked about Mike’s history and I gave him a potted version. “Oh yeah” he said. ”Well all of those years in America have given him that deep blues feel that only top players realise”.
I caught up with Mike before the gig and he was his usual friendly self. Over dinner there were jokes and numerous war stories. Because I have attended too many loud gigs my hearing is not quite as good as it was. At one point the drummer James Waples said something to me which I missed entirely. I apologised, explaining that my eyesight and hearing were failing me. Mike leapt on the comment as quick as lightning, saying, “Man don’t worry. That’s exactly what we like in a critic”.
There was the briefest of discussions between the band members about the set list, which ended in Mike saying, “We’ll figure it out as we go and you’ll know when you hear me start to play”. While this is not unusual among Jazz musicians, it was evident that Mike would be digging into some obscure and unrehearsed standards during the evening.
The spirit of Bernie McGann hung over us as he had passed the previous evening. Mike spoke movingly of him and then he played one of Bernie’s compositions followed by ‘Bernie’s Tune’ (Bernie Miller) and the lovely old standard ‘No Moon at All’ (David Mann). ’No Moon at all’ is hardly ever played these days but it was once very popular. It was famously recorded by Julie London, Nat Cole, Mel Torme and Anita O’Day. There are more recent versions by Karrin Alyson and Brad Mehldau. In Mike Nock’s hands this jaunty mid-tempo classic took on a deep bluesy feel and as it unfolded he achieved something that only the Jazz greats can manage.
The tune turned into something else; it was somehow transformed into ‘every tune’. From the first few bars everyone smiled and many whispered in the dark, “Oh I must know this but I can’t recall the name”. Like many probing improvisers Mike hummed and sang as he played. As the piece unfolded something extraordinary happened. People started quietly humming along with the trio; a deep connection was made and it was primal. I’m certain that many in the audience had never heard the tune before, but they thought that they had. Keith Jarrett has often invoked this state of grace, finding a hidden place deep within the music. So has Mike Nock. Several musicians later commented that he had moved in and out of the song form and that the bluesy overlay had been utterly effective. Another delightful old tune that the trio played was ‘Sweet Pumpkin’ (Ronnell Bright).
On Drums was James Waples and he certainly lives up to his reputation. He has featured on several of Mike’s albums and goes back a long way with Mike. There is a subtlety to his drumming that is hard to put into words. He is a powerful presence whether executing the softest brushwork or a driving upbeat tempo. He has a great ear and knows when to push the others or hold back. He is perfect for a multi faceted piano trio like this and I would go out of my way to hear him again.
Many Kiwi’s have forgotten (and many Australians will deliberately overlook the fact), but Brett Hirst is an expat New Zealander. He is highly regarded on the Australian scene and like James he has had a long association with Mike. When these three are in lockstep it is extraordinary. Like the others Brett is a deep listener and clearly at ease in this open-ended format. At one point in the program Mike stopped and said, “What shall we play now, something unexpected?”. Then he added, “Oh I know, I will try this”. Brett asked hopefully, “Can we know?” The number had started before an answer could be given and he was immediately there. Brett was up to handling any curve balls thrown and clearly relished them.
During the second set the trio were ready to take things further out and we sensed that they were in a zone where the communication is telepathic. It is during these explorations that we see another side of their music. Every interplay however subtle conveys layers of meaning and the spaces between the notes communicates a profundity. This is art-music at its very best but for all that it is never far from its blues roots. I have listened to Jazz across the globe and you would never, never hear better than this.
Who: Mike Nock (piano), Brett Hirst (bass), James Waples (drums). www.mikenock.com
Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Brittomart basement 1885 building, Auckland, New Zealand.
When: 18th September 2013