I love any music that can be termed ‘Space Jazz’ or ‘Space Funk’. I have no idea if this is a real genre but I follow it anyhow. Living through the era of Sputnik and being caught up in the excitement that followed I was nudged in that direction by the events of the day. After that I zeroed in on space themed music. Some of it was corny (Telstar) and some was grandiose (Gustav Holst’s ‘The Planets’). Not long after this I stumbled across Jazz and the sonic explorations perfectly fitted my longing for a music that evoked the wonders of space while encompassing the quirks of our humanity. Music performed by artists who stood in awe at the edge of the universe and then stepped free of its limits.
The Neil Watson Four is a recently formed Auckland band who have no fear of galactic explorations. With the aid of a doogon (explained later), tenor saxophone, drum kit, upright bass and four overly fertile imaginations, they bent and pulled at the fabric of the universe. This is a band that defies the norms and swallows genres whole. There is no sense of deliberate eclecticism here and no self-conscious navel gazing. It is original and you get the sense that what happens sometimes surprises the musicians.
The feeling is often that of organised chaos, a loose organic vibe that works well because they have entered into a collective state of being. While Neil Watson pilots the ship there is no heavy controlling hand but his benign presence presides. He has gifted his vision and let the possibilities unravel as they may.
Neil Watson is not only a great guitarist but his sense of humour is original. A sort of postmodern Zen; dropping casual asides into the banter in ways that confound. The You Tube clip that I will post is ‘Renamed’. When Neil announced that tune he casually added, “I hated the original name”. This sort of humour leaves you momentarily confused and then laughing out loud. They also played a lot of tunes named after children, girlfriends or spouses. The tunes were all great and particularly ‘Renamed’ (Watson), ‘Eleanor’ (Dennison), ‘Rosie My Dear’ (Gibson) and ‘Theo’ (Allen). There were ballads and country fare as well. their rendition of ‘Danny Boy’ was so poignant that any Scots in the audience would have been fumbling in their sporrans for a tartan hanky.
Neil Watson is an original guitarist and he is at his best when a leader. He brings a rag-tag of interesting sounds and ideas to the bandstand and then knits them together. There is also something akin to Zorn in much of this material. Once the skeletal structure and the overall concept is in place the music is liberated. The interactions between men and machines are fluid and what the audience sees will never be repeated. For this to work well he needs the right collaborators and he has certainly struck gold this time.
Cam Allen usually plays alto but he is also a fine tenor player. I have also seen him manipulate a Moog to great effect. On Wednesday night he played a Buescher ‘Big B’ Aristocrat and it gave out an earthy, and slightly raspy sound. Word has it that it is a tricky beast to play but it sounded just right for this gig. I risk committing heresy here but a Selmer would have been too clean for this music. His interesting modal explorations and his flow of ideas mark him out as a gifted player. This is hardly surprising as he honed his craft on the highly competitive American Jazz scene. In this band he doubled on ‘doogon’. This is very much a ‘Kiwi’ thing and it is best described as an array of electronic and acoustic sound enhancements strapped to a hardware-store hand truck. Resembling a cross between a Dalek and an IED with its glowing blue lights, digital clock console and multiple knobs (many strapped on with duct tape); it can envelop the audience with shrieks that resemble a Banshee at a rocket launch.
All of the instruments including the drums feed into this machine and the effects are astounding. On upright bass was the respected Tom Dennison who used his arco technique to very good effect. This bowing worked well with the Doogon, which under Allen’s guidance resonated in ways that would have astounded the instruments makers. Dennison has a lovely rich tone and we heard plenty of that. What can never be overlooked are his compositional skills (See an earlier post on his ‘Zoo’ album). For this gig he contributed the lovely ‘Eleanor’ which he dedicated to his girlfriend. He seldom appears at the CJC these days and it was a pleasure to see him there again.
Perhaps the biggest masterstroke was adding Frank Gibson Jr into the mix. This inclusion of a drummer most known for his Post Bop chops may have raised a few eyebrows at first, but Gibson is no stranger to fusion. He demonstrated just how perfectly he can execute this material and he showed us all what free and imaginative drumming looks like. I heard a band member saying later that having Frank behind them, lifted the whole performance.
I am an unreformed devotee of music like this and whether you call it Space Funk, Space Jazz, Eclectic Fusion or just wild music I will be its cheer leader. This is an itch that just begged to be scratched and I am glad that Neil gave us a taste of it. Besides the wilder numbers there were one or two ballads to balance out the program. Overall it was a very satisfying experience.
It was somehow fitting that the band performed on the day that NASA verified that Voyager One had left our solar system and entered interstellar space.
Who: The Neil Watson Four. Neil Watson (guitar), Cam Allen (tenor, doogon), Tom Dennison (bass), Frank Gibson Jr (drums).
Where: The CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 1885 Building, Brittomart, Auckland.
Photographs by John Fenton & Ben McNicoll