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Any club that was attempting to present a wide spectrum of Jazz styles would commit a sin of omission if they failed to include some of the more experimental Jazz on offer.    The CJC management have open ears and so on Wednesday they offered up the well-respected Wellington based new-jazz ensemble the ‘Melancholy Babes’ (plus guests).  The Melancholy Babes are: Jeff Henderson (alto sax), Anthony Donaldson (drums), Tom Callwood (bass) – [replaced by Gerard Crewdson (tuba)]. – special guest Eric Boerens (trumpet), John Bell (vibraphone).

The ‘Melancholy Babes’ appeared with guest trumpeter Eric Boeren of Amsterdam, who has long been touring the world and setting audiences on fire with his free ranging improvisation.    Eric has a long history in avant-garde music having played with titans like ‘Malachi Favors and  Roscoe Mitchel (of Art Ensemble of Chicago & AACM fame).   The usual Bass player (Tom Callwood) had been replaced for this gig by Gerard Crewdson on Tuba and a vibraphone was added for the last number (which occupied the entire second set). In Auckland we seldom get the chance to hear such groups, as Wellington is the New Zealand home of the experimental music scene.

In experimental music you are seldom going to get a gentle melodic swinging introduction to a tune and this is perhaps the point of the music.    It will find its own rhythms and develop an organic logic as the pieces progress.   The band opened with an explosion of sound and the force of it was initially startling.  The quick runs on the horns rose and fell, often ascending into squalls of sound or multi-phonic effects.  The insistent propulsive drum beats and the steady pulse of the tuba sent them even further out.     While the music was often wild, it took the sometimes incredulous audience along with it and as the journey progressed we felt ourselves to be part of what was unfolding.

At times the band would mysteriously coalesce into a gentler incarnation of its wilder self and in this reflective space, miniatures or tiny motifs would be crafted.  Perfect creations that stood apart, but somehow augmented the whole.  I was surprised at just how drawn into the process I had become and others felt the same.    We were hearing hints of something vaguely recognisable and intriguing, but for a number or two, just what, remained elusive .    Then it hit me; this felt like the history of Jazz and improvised music unfolding.    Rambunctious would be Buddy Bolden‘s swaggering up an ancient New Orleans street as the crowd egged them on.   1930’s Harlem bands, Hoe-downs & Jigs, raggedy defiant funeral marches.   They were all in the mix and our collective Jazz memory was being teased and refreshed.     I was not alone in arriving at this realisation as my friends Jason and Catherine and Sarah heard similar echoes arising from the music.

Having the Tuba was inspired as it gave the music a depth and a foothold in history that it would otherwise have lacked.   The Tuba nearly always took up the bass line in early Jazz as the bass would not have been heard above the brass dominant bands.   It was not until the advent of better recording techniques and amplification that double bass replaced it.   Tuba player Gerard Crewdson has solid credentials on the experimental scene and he understood exactly what was required.   There was also an element of word Jazz when Gerard intoned the story of the Melancholy Babe, while turning the pages of what looked like a very large comic book.  Like the music this was anarchic and humorous.  Many sacred cows were savaged on this night and if any cobwebs had been hiding in corners of the club they would have been blown away by the night’s performance.

Both Anthony and Jeff are well-known on the experimental music scene and I will hunt them out in Wellington one day soon.    Afterwards I talked to the band for some time and I was surprised to learn just how active the experimental Jazz scene is.   Anthony and I talked about Annette Peacock, the Black Saint label, Hat Art, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Free Jazz music in general.    This sub-genre is certainly very well-respected around Europe, but in the USA it has a stronger following in some cities than in others.    Wellington it appears is solidly in the mix.

The night was fun and it was challenging.   I am glad I went. 

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