‘Zen Dogs’ unleashed by Neil Watson

There are any number of moods that a band can capture when fronting a Jazz gig and all are valid in their way.   Where this band is concerned fun is the most obvious descriptor because Neil Watson’s ‘Zen Dogs’ were clearly there to enjoy themselves.   Everyone was soon drawn in and the enjoyment was palpable throughout the club.

The band had a loose feel and that is not to say that they were casual in their approach to the music because they nailed every tune and then some.  I am sure that the Zen Dogs name is tongue-in-cheek, but that in-the-moment relaxed approach brought the music home in a very Zen-like way; ‘stop trying so hard and suddenly you are there’.

From the onset Neil bantered with the audience and band in that good-natured way that jazz audiences love.   After the second number he told the audience “We are the Zen Dogs and we wear small emblazoned gold rings with secret symbols inset.  We form a circle and touch these together before playing, in order to charge each other with Zen power’.    To that the saxophonist Lewis McCallum asked nervously, “What did you say we had to touch together”?

The first tune up was ‘Booga Gee‘ (Watson) which communicated that Lou Donaldson Boogaloo feel.   The jive walking pace and accented beats set the night up perfectly.    Next was ‘Lime House Blues‘ which took us back further to the earliest days of two-beat Jazz.  That tune was written in 1922 (Furber/Braham) and had a famous 1930’s film was named after it.   Many have showcased this popular Jazz standard; Louis Armstrong, Sydney Bechet, Ella Fitzjerald, Les Paul (the latter with Chet Atkins).    While it is possible that the tune has been played before on a (Mexican) Fender Telecaster, I am unaware of it.   What is certain is that we heard a fresh and spirited interpretation on Wednesday.    This version was true to the original, but riotous and filled with the joyous abandon – a ‘mad and bad’ blues as the lyrics state.

Also among the offerings was a tribute to Wes Montgomery called ‘Wes de Money‘ (Watson), an astonishing evocation of Charles Mingus on ‘Meters to Go‘ and a Jelly Roll Morton tribute titled ‘Jelly Roll‘.    Throw in Monk’s ‘I Mean You‘ and a few more originals and you have the set list.   To play such an eclectic mix of tunes was a bold move (drawing as they did from the entire Jazz spectrum).  In the hands of this band the choices knitted together and not every band could have pulled this off so convincingly.    The key to attaining such cohesion was three-fold; they communicated their enjoyment of the material, their musicianship was superb and they held the audience from start to finish.

The band were Neil Watson (guitar, leader),   Louis McCallum (alto sax, clarinet & electronic effects), Olivier Holland (bass), Ron Samsom (drums).

Neil handled his slim necked Fender as if it was an extension of his own limbs.    This effortless skill has been gained from his many years working as a professional musician (both here and overseas).   There is the hint of rock-god in his act but it is delivered with a cheeky grin.   This guy does not take himself too seriously but he does invest everything into the music.   A friend of mine recalls seeing him play at the Tauranga Jazz festival when Neil was barely a teenager and he was impressed back then.

Louis McCallum played straight alto sax, clarinet and at times his alto sound was electronically altered by a small Korg analogue box.   Rather than choosing a modern synthesized saxophone he had purchased a $3 mini microphone and strapped it below the mouthpiece.    This simple approach produced interesting effects, but unlike the synthesized sax the effects can be turned off and on at will.    Using his clarinet in juxtaposition to Neil’s Fender gave ‘Lime House Blues’ the feel of being ultra modern while remaining respectful of a trusty old war-horse.  Louis also demonstrated an ability to deliver the BeBop and Post-Bop lines that some of the tunes called for.

Oli Holland is a fine bass player and he performed extremely well in this line-up.  He is certainly no mere journeyman as he showed amply during the night.   At times he would feed lines back to Neil and his performance on the Charles Mingus number is something I won’t easily forget.  Only an artist deeply versed in the history of Jazz could have captured the Mingus bass lines in the way that he did.   He also told the Mingus story in fresh way.  The Mingus oeuvre is interesting, as it sits slightly outside of the mainstream.   Hints of the anarchic and loose nature of that music were communicated well and I wish more bands would do this material.   Perhaps it is just too hard?

The remaining band member was drummer Ron Samsom.   If a band wanted to explore a wide spectrum of music and still retain a modern feel then he would be the drummer of first choice.   That is because he is freer, looser in style and more open than many drummers.   Because he has the ears of a seasoned professional he is able to respond well in any given situation.   To hear him play on ‘Lime House Blues‘ and ‘Jelly Roll‘ was to hear a modern stylist demonstrating that he could channel the two-beat style of a Baby Dodds or Poppa Joe Jones.   On the Mingus number he ‘dropped bombs’ and sat on the ride cymbal.   Ron never sounds complacent on the kit and perhaps that’s what sets him apart.    To have Ron and Oli together in a band is to add an x-factor.

The night had been billed as psychedelic jazz swinging by the early days of the music.   That is a fair description as it indicates the entire Jazz spectrum traversed.     The oft used phrase serious-fun is all that I can add to that.   The band have been recording this material and will lay down additional tracks early in the New Year – the album when it is completed will certainly be on my wish list.

One thought on “‘Zen Dogs’ unleashed by Neil Watson

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