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Reuben Mantis

After the success of ‘Mantis’ and ‘Resonator’, Auckland audiences were keen to see a Reuben Bradley band perform again.   Reuben is one of those musical drummers that Wellington seems to specialise in and he clearly has an eye for an epic project.  For ‘Mantis’ he engaged some real heavyweights.  Roger Manins (tenor), Matt Penman (bass), James Illingworth (piano), John Psathas (arrangements) and the New Zealand String Quartet.  The tunes were all Drew Menzies originals, with arrangements by Reuben Bradley and John Psathas.

Mantis is a celebration of the works of Drew Menzies, a highly respected bass player in both the Jazz and Classical spheres and whose compositions had never been recorded before.  What is well communicated during this project is the connection that the musicians have with the material and what also comes across is Reuben’s obvious affection for his departed friend.  Reuben’s liner notes give us a fascinating account how the pieces came back to life, drawing us into a kaleidoscope of quirky lead sheets and a musicians world.  In some cases the tunes re-evolved from embryonic beginnings, coaxed by Reuben’s pen.   I urge everyone to buy the album.  The tunes are fresh but at the same time strangely familiar and this quality anoints them as being timeless, potential local standards.

While no added incentives are needed to purchase ‘Mantis’, it is worth pointing out that the proceeds of the sale go to the Drew Menzies Memorial Scholarship for young New Zealand bass players.  ‘Mantis’ was featured as a key event at the recent Wellington Jazz festival and this week it was a highlight of the Nelson Jazz Festival.  Credit to Creative New Zealand for funding such an important project and to Rattle Records for the album.  It is hardly surprising that musicians of this quality delivered so royally, but a nod to John Psathas and the New Zealand String Quartet is appropriate here.  No matter how experienced a classical string quartet, there is always a challenge when playing Jazz compositions.   The quartet’s unmistakeable chops and John Psathas airy charts took this exactly where it needed to go.

Having Matt Penman aboard was a huge coup.  This expat Kiwi bass player is now one of the real heavyweights of the North American scene.  His work with the San Francisco Jazz Collective, James Farm, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Kenny Werner, Joe Lovano, Fred Hersch, plus his own ground breaking albums, mark him out as one New Zealand’s greatest Jazz exports.  His Bass playing on this album is simply wonderful and no superlatives can do it justice.   Drew would have been extremely pleased.

Reuben won the Tui Best Jazz Album of the Year with his ‘Resonator’ album in 2010.   Roger Manins was also on that album and these two musicians work together whenever possible.  Both of the above albums are adventurous and in their different ways lay down benchmarks for what’s good and original about New Zealand Jazz.

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When Reuben came to the CJC on the 31st July, the working unit was pared back to drums, tenor sax and bass.   On Sax was Roger Manins who has shown time and again that he can give of his best in any configuration.  This sort of trio is wide open for possibilities and the lack of any chordal underpinning leaves the musicians open to risk, but completely free to explore melody and form.  None of the trio were strangers to this format.

I have often watched Roger stepping free of the boundaries, like an anarchic motorist on some long empty highway who has just realised that the normal road rules will not apply there.  I was also delighted to see Roger using his Radio Model, Cigar Cutter Selmer for the first time.  A sleek silvery goddess of bygone years which oozes charm.  In Rogers hands it purrs dangerously like an ancient vixen, brought back to life to seduce us all.

Brett Hirst is a popular Australian bassist and a list his former band mates would read like the who’s who of Aussie Jazz.  He has a big sound and an instinctive rhythmic feel which lent itself perfectly to this gig.  In their usual fashion Australia has claimed him as their own but he is originally from New Zealand like so many artists doing well across the Tasman.

Reuben, Roger and Brett work extremely well together and so it was fitting that they should tackle the work of Drew Menzies from a fresh angle.   While there was a tune or so from ‘Resonator’ in the set list, the bulk of the material played was from ‘Mantis’.  It is Reuben’s hope that these tunes will become mainstays in the Kiwi Jazz repertoire and I hope that this comes to pass.  I have heard at least one rendition of ‘Ladies Man’ played recently at a gig and so the trend may gather steam.

Who: Reuben Bradley Trio – Reuben Bradley (drums) (arrangements), Roger Manins (tenor sax), Brett Hirst (bass).

What: ‘Mantis’ (and ‘Resonator’) both available from Rattle.

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club) Brittomart 1885 Building downtown Auckland

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