Experiencing a Mike Nock band playing in an intimate club setting is quite different from catching his act in a large concert hall. In one sense it doesn’t matter, as this cat can whip up a whirlwind of energy in any space, but seeing Mike in a small intimate club is as cool as it gets. The immediacy of being up-close to a band like this is electrifying.
I had arrived early with a friend, but the club was already at near capacity and there were no available seats. We were happy to stand as no one wanted to miss this night. I leaned against the side of a leather couch crammed full of people while up front Roger adjusted his mouthpiece and Ron positioned his kit. Then we saw Mike and Brett and the lighting was lowered. As the band began to play it was obvious that they would not need any warming up because they were clearly as up for the gig as we were. The opening number ‘Hop Skip & Jump’ was up-tempo and Roger just tore it up from the start. To those who of us who love Mike Nock compositions this music was somehow familiar, but this was also the ‘sound of surprise’.
I am convinced that we could not have seen better in any New York club and in down town Auckland we soaked up the groove feeling lucky to be alive. In the soft lighting you could almost see the sparks of energy flying between the band members and the washes of blissful sound permeated every corner of the room. This was seriously good shit.
Next up was ‘Komodo Dragon‘, a moody number that developed from a beguiling tune into an altogether more profound entity. The placement of chords under Mikes hands is always a revelation as he knows how to mine an idea for deeper and infinitely subtler meanings. His chords were sometimes bluesy, but then he would toss in an oblique voicing as if to bring about a subtle shift in the cosmos he was conjuring. It was like watching an onion being peeled by a master chief.
I was also pleased to see Ron Samson (d) using a mix of mallets, sticks and brushes, as the sound palate that night demanded a more textural approach. Like all good drummers he knew when to blend into the mix, as a loud overly showy drummer would have been out-of-place. Roger Manins (ts) is simply a phenomenon and we are extremely lucky to have him resident in Auckland. He lifted the intensity on ‘Komodo Dragon‘ to such a fever pitch that I actually stopped breathing at some points as the tension was building so much. Roger is the master of tension and release and he can nimbly shift into double time and then some. Brett Hirst (b) has been playing with Mike for years and it shows. He is a terrific bass player and his solos and note placement that night were magical. The band members were all great soloists but what is better they were able to act as a perfect ensemble.
The second number of the second set was a tune called ‘Homage’ and it began with a familiar chord progression (probably based on the changes of ‘All blues’). Where it went next is hard to adequately describe, but this was one of the highlights of the evening for me. Mike developed the theme quickly and as he did so he showed every ounce of his mastery on the key board. He was tossing in fourths while his right hand darted over the keyboard. I was immediately put in mind of the middle movement of ‘A Love Supreme‘. The band was so deep in the groove on this number that the music reached heights beyond the sum of its parts. To hear Roger playing with such strength and in such an ecstatic state was to be reminded of how Coltrane-like he can be. As Roger played, Mike continued to ramp up the groove with his Tyner like chords and an overlay of chromaticism. The band was apiece on this and it was a perfect moment – fresh ecstatic music that paid homage without actually being captured by the past it referenced.
Afterwards I had the chance to speak to Mike about his music and about the scene. Mike is an easy-going cat off the band stand and he comes across as somewhat of a Jazz philosopher. He has also retained a very Kiwi sense of humour which delighted me. As soon as he has made a successful album Mike seems to reach beyond that for the next idea; never one to settle back and rest on his laurels. Already knowing the answer, I asked him if he was still restlessly reaching beyond the now for newer musical ideas, or would he relax a bit? He told me that it was his nature to search for a deeper meaning in the music and that he could not do otherwise. “Some younger musicians than me sound a lot older than I do as they have settled into a safe fixed in time style. That is not where I ever want to be”. I told him how much I enjoyed the ECM ‘Ondas‘ label and he observed wryly , ” yeah man, everyone loves it…. now. Is it even still in print?”. He said that Manfred Eicher often told him how much he loved that album but as was often the case, it was way ahead of its time. We also discussed his writing on the recent ‘Meeting of the waters‘ album which is a favourite of mine. He told me that he felt good about that album but that distribution had been a problem (when was that not the case with Jazz). Mike has hopes of bringing his ‘Accumulation of Subtleties‘ trio here soon and I would urge fans to grab a copy of that double album.
We talked briefly about the Auckland Jazz scene of our youth and he told me how pleased he was that Caroline, Roger ,Ben and Mike were now running the CJC. He also said that he was grooved by the young cats wearing ‘pork pie’ hats, but that when he had gone to buy one had found that his head was too small. “Age will do that” he said. I quickly jumped in with information from a new longitudinal study which showed that humans actually reach their greatest analytical potential between the ages of 62 and 70 years of age. He looked at me dismayed and said, “man you could have extended the time frame by a few years. I am past 70”.
The set list was ‘Hop Skip Jump’, Komodo Dragon’, Gospel Dog’, ‘Joy Remembered’, ‘Transitions’- 2nd set – ‘Afternoon in Paris’, ‘Homage’, ‘Speak to the Golden Child’, ‘Triflin’ Jon’.