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Pianist and composer Mark Isaacs has a rapidly growing international reputation and we were lucky to get him here.  Once again it was down to Roger Manins, who has wide connections in the Jazz world and we are eternally grateful for it.  Mark Isaacs has toured the world extensively and not only fronted a number of prestigious Jazz festivals, but also recorded with many world-renowned Jazz musicians.  Artists like Kenny Wheeler, Roy Haines, Adam Nussbaum and Dave Holland have appeared on his albums but as if that were not enough, he has two parallel musical careers.   Mark is also a classical pianist/composer of some stature and the conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy said this of his extraordinarily beautiful ‘Children’s Songs’.  “This wonderful cycle is highly inventive and inspiring, accessible to children and adults alike.  Very enjoyable and touching“.

The first thing to strike you about Mark is his intense passion for music, but his focus and drive have not in any way deterred him from exhibiting a cheerful, often extroverted demeanour.  He engaged easily with the CJC audience and his level of report with the band and especially Roger, made the gig all the more enjoyable.  Even though he had not played with drummer Frank Gibson Jr or Bass player Cameron McArthur before it felt like an established band.  He and Saxophonist Roger Manins go back a long way and perhaps because of this long-standing connection, what was billed as a standards gig, soon became so much more.  IMG_8456 - Version 2 (1)

The set kicked off with ‘Gone With the Wind’ (Allie Wrubel – 1937).  By coincidence this once popular but seldom heard tune was performed here by Mike Nock only months earlier.   Both artists appeared to briefly reference the brilliant but somewhat obscure Brubeck version, but each approached the tune in very different ways.  Mark Isaacs is another musician who has the history Jazz piano under his finger tips and as he worked his way into the tune I could hear brief echoes of the past greats.  I love this tune and especially when interpreted this well.

As the set list unfolded I realised that most of the standards were from the 1930’s.   It is not hard to fathom why, as the Great American Songbook tunes written in this period were second to none.  The gig,  subtitled as ‘Pennies From Heaven’, was later explained as being an inside joke.  Roger and Mark had embarked upon just such a project a decade ago and in their view the title scared off the potential audience.  More fool those who failed to turn up because this number in their hands was fresh, funny and satisfying.  ‘Pennies from Heaven’ (Johnny Burke/Arthur Johnston) is also from the 1930’s.

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The tune that I have posted is the perennial favourite ‘Someday My Prince Will Come’ (Frank Churchill – 1937).  Although non Jazz audiences would only associate this tune with Disney, it has a long and distinguished Jazz history.  Among the 100’s of well-loved versions are those by Oscar Peterson, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly and Grant Green.  Playing a classic standard like this to a savvy Jazz audience can have its pitfalls as comparisons are inevitable.  The audience however lapped it up and from the stating of the melody through to the open-ended interpretation near the end, it was fabulous.  With Roger egging the band on and Mark responding in kind it could hardly be otherwise.

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There was a very nice solo by Cameron McArthur who astonishingly just keeps improving between gigs.  Frank Gibson Jr met Mark years ago but in spite of them trying to organise a gig it never happened until now.  In the event it was a happy confluence of inventiveness, exuberance and great musicianship.  Roger Manins was on form as usual, delivering fiery energised solos in a post Coltrane manner.

Mark Isaacs has the technique and the hunger to continually reach beyond.   Whether gently comping under a melodic bass solo or unwinding the melody to explore what lies beneath he engages us.  His probing left hand often pulls slightly back on what his right hand is playing and the tension created gives added impetus.  While his Classical compositions are informed by Jazz, the opposite is also true.  He will surely continue to do well in both worlds.

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As I left the club I picked up a copy of his Resurgence band’s ‘Duende’ album and put it on during the drive home.  It is an album of his own compositions.  What was immediately apparent was how well crafted the compositions were.  It was the sort of album that ECM might have released and the quality of the recording added to that impression.  As I listened on I heard some beautiful guitar work, not over stated but clean, inventive and crystalline.  Then I heard a human voice, wordlessly singing arranged lines as part the ensemble.  Easing over to the curb I picked up the album cover and flipped it over.

The personnel list would stop anyone in their tracks.  Mark Isaacs (piano), James Muller (guitars), Matt Keegan (reeds and percussion), Brett Hirst (bass), Tim Firth (drums), Briana Cowlishaw (vocal).  Matching this dream line up with those compositions was a masterstroke.   Muller and Isaacs communicate so very well.  It all made sense, the Kenny Wheeler connection, the skilled arranging and the promise of what may follow.   Mark Isaacs has the ears to absorb and the smarts to compose what works best for him.  This album certainly does.

Who: Mark Isaacs (piano, compositions, leader), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Frank Gibson Jr (drums).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart, 1885 Basement, Auckland, New Zealand on 2nd October 2013.

Album and contact details: ‘Duende’ (Gracemusic GROO4)

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