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James Wylie is a respected saxophonist, clarinetist and composer who has played, studied and taught all over the world. He initially studied in Wellington where he attended the New Zealand School of Music. One and a half years ago he moved to Berlin and soon after that to Thessaloniki in Greece.

Those reading the CJC webpages eagerly look out for returning expats, as they very often bring new ideas back with them while still retaining a core of that ‘New Zealand sound’. James played alto saxophone on this gig and he demonstrated why the alto is rapidly becoming a popular instrument again. For years the popularity of the alto waned but happily that is no longer the case. Improvised music often gives the impression of being a ‘blue skies’ horizon where no boundaries exist. All freedom comes from discipline and it is the knowledge of what works best in a given situation that marks players apart. Chops count but musical taste counts too. James showed an intuitive understanding of this.

Tonal and textural contrasts add considerable depth to a performance and in this we were well served. We not only heard the multiple facets of James Wylie’s tasteful alto playing, but we benefited from the addition of Roger Manins tenor. This was a double dose of saxophone magic. The quartet was completed by two Christchurch expats, Richie Pickard on upright bass and Andrew Keegan on drums.

While their first number ‘The Mooche’ (Ellington) got our attention, the second number ‘Just in Time Contrafact’ (Wylie) simply demanded it. It was an outright cooker. Roger Manins particularly shines in these situations and as he and James worked the changes and stretched out, there were enthusiastic cheers from the audience. The sets contained a couple of originals, some well-known standards and seldom played tunes by Jazz greats like Monk. Best of all were the tunes we have never heard in a Jazz setting. ‘Wichita Lineman’ (Campbell-Webb) – [It is a little known fact but Glenn Campbell was one of the original Beach Boys], ‘I can’t help falling in Love With You’ (Elvis) , and a memorable version of the standard ‘For All We Know’.

Nat Cole and Billie Holliday sung this so memorably (and hauntingly) that post 50’s bands often shied away from it. That is a pity because it can still evoke all of the emotions that made it a popular classic. The band approached it in the way that the late 50’s piano-less quartets did. Playing contrapuntally while extracting the maximum beauty from the melody. In this style of playing the bass is pivotal and Richie Pickard was perfect.

While the horns naturally took centre stage I never-the-less had my attention drawn to drummer Andrew Keegan again and again. The quality of New Zealand drummers often amaze and Andrew is a traps player I will keep an eye on. He is not overly busy but he has an in-the-pocket propulsive style. He listens carefully to what the others are doing and reacts in kind.

The last portion of the second set featured James interpretations of traditional Greek songs. My love of Mediterranean infused Jazz is constant and hearing Greek music was a treat. James interpreted the lovely melodic tunes (in crazy time signatures) with an ease that can only signify his deep interest in this music. In this portion he accompanied Greek singer Egli Katsiki. Her voice while a little soft at times resonated perfectly with the keening alto and between them they reached deep into the hearts of the spellbound listeners.

It was nice to have James here and I am keen to see where his musical journey takes him next (back here soon I hope).

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