For many, music is a distant and pleasant soundtrack which augments their moments of relaxation. Something to wallpaper the background while they chatter over a few drinks. I am wired differently because my normal talkativeness ceases when even a faint echo of good music is heard; an off switch is flicked. This pied piper effect has characterised my life and often made me late for appointments. What is it that makes music so compelling to some and not to others and why is improvised music beguiling to those with that special antennae?
My earliest memory of Jazz is of a Louis Armstrong film. I was a primary schooler and I made my long-suffering mother take me back twice. Louis fascinated me in ways my relatives couldn’t quite fathom but they indulged me with an EP or two. Ours was a classical music household. Three years later I was walking down a street near my home when I heard a trumpet playing. I could see the musician’s outline in the upstairs window as he played, weaving deftly around what I later learned was a Coleman Hawkins solo. I stopped in the street, delighted and open-mouthed. I have no idea how long I stood on the pavement gawking, but I vaguely recall being led inside and offered cocoa by the trumpeters mother. The trumpeter and his mother were Polish refugees and they made me feel very welcome. In the months that followed I called often and absorbed Miles, Lester Young, Dave Brubeck, Sweets Edison, Art Peper, Hampton Hawes, Billie Holiday, Basie, Ellington and more. By the time I had connected with the groove-organ trios of Gene Ammons I was damned. I would bunk off school and play Gene Ammons or Miles all day long, dancing about like a deranged fool. The devils music had me by the throat.
Half a century on the same music gods and their siren songs still exert power over me. Enough to lure me to Australia at very short notice. I had picked up some gossip from Australian musician friends, that my friend Roger Manins was doing a gig with Mike Nock, James Muller, Cameron Undy and Dave Goodman at the 505. I have family in Sydney and so it was a no brainer. Family, grandchildren and Jazz, perfect. When I told Roger that I would be flying over for the gig he invited me to his ‘Hip Flask’ recording session at the famous 301 Studios in Alexandria. I love recording studios and to hear a top rated unit like this recording in a famous studio was too good an opportunity to miss. I applied for extra leave and altered my flight schedule to accommodate the extra day in the 301.
The timing rested on a knife-edge as I had a gig to attend just hours before my flight to Australia. I made the check-out with 4 minutes to spare. The flight over on Virgin was abysmal. I had a headache from lack of sleep and it was like being stuffed into a rubbish tin surrounded by bored, rude flight attendants who acted as if they were in a BBC spoof. An Australian musician later commented that Virgin felt to him like it was piloted by overtired children.
After clearing customs, I poured myself into a taxi and headed directly for the 301. The industrial exterior gave little indication that I was standing outside an important recording studio. The one where EST recorded their final album. They buzzed me in and after navigating a series of corridors I pushed open a heavily padded door to find myself in an icy cool low-lit room with two technicians, a two-man film crew and the five cats from ‘Hip Flask’. They were sitting around the mixing desk drinking coffee and listening over and over to the intro of a tune. It sounded great. This is what I had come for. To capture the very act of creation.
It is a special privilege to follow a creative process through from inception and I felt like a kid in a candy store. This is exactly where I wanted to be and I soaked it up greedily. My headache had vanished at the first note. As the morning progressed the band would troop in and out of the studio. Trying material, listening to it and repeating it if any one member expressed dissatisfaction. Roger outlined his vision and set the tone, but after that he allowed a form of guided democracy to exist. If they strayed from his vision he would talk them back round.
The sessions in the control room were all smiles and banter but a sense of purpose always ran through the proceedings like an unbreakable thread. When they reached agreement they would return to the studio and assume their positions, baffled up and miked to such an extent that the bass drums and piano were barely visible above the wires, cover sheets and portable booths. The band has an unusual configuration for a funk unit, being tenor Saxophone, Hammond B3, grand piano, drums and bass. The saxophone, bass, piano and B3 were in the studio while the drums and the Leslie unit were both in isolation booths. The studio space was big enough to accommodate an orchestra, but this quintet was squeezed into a corner and each baffled from the other in some way.
The quintet had recorded together before and even though their last recording was in 2007, their essence had survived intact. As the session progressed I learnt a new word, ‘shoint’. Roger and the organist Stu Hunter used it often and they would proclaim a satisfactory cut as being ‘Shointy’ or they would listen to the playbacks to see if they had ‘shoint’. As far as I can ascertain the term describes a deep dirty groove that hits the musical ‘g’ spot. While it is accurate to describe the recording as Jazz Funk, it is more than that. The unusual pairing of two keyboards, the intuitive interaction and the quality of the musicianship gifted them with limitless options to draw upon. Over all of this Roger Manins presided like an old time preacher, communicating with gestures, earthy licks on his Conn, diagrams and pithy Rogeresk phrases.
The most interesting moments came towards the end of the session when Roger produced a chart for ‘circles and clouds’. The chart contained a few bars of musical phrases and then a series of symbols. The ideas conveyed were beyond normal logic. On most of the staves clouds were drawn and although these pieces were essentially free, there was a clear purpose underpinning them. Roger had the concept firmly in his sights as he talked them through the vision or let the ideas develop in the studio until the concept was realised. Stu Hunter would play a compellingly dissonant chord and then Adam Ponting and the others would grab a hold of what was unfolding and produce kaleidoscopic shapes, moving and shifting together like interchangeable chameleons. When the idea was realised Roger would take them back into the control room and expand on what had gone before. Roger, “OK you are clouds, circling a vast ocean. Now if you look down you will see dolphins swimming and playing”. One or other of the band then asked if there was a shoal of bait fish swimming near by. The concepts developed and then they would repeat the process until a number of amazing miniatures were cut. This filigree of beguiling patterns had been conjured up in that very hour. Realised without an over reliance on written notation or oral language. This was improvisation in its most profound form and I was lucky enough to hear and experience it.
My earlier question as to why some people fall deep within the web of music, while others let it wash over them unaffected, is not answered here. This listener will never lose the magic and following bands like this guarantees that. I am impatient to see what cuts survive and what is locked way in a vault. When the album comes out and I can hardly wait, I will have heard more than most. Every squeak, false start and profound moment is locked in my memory. John Zorn said, “all sound is valid”. I heard and witnessed an intensely creative process and I feel very lucky.
Who: ‘Hip Flask’ Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Stu Hunter (Hammond B3), Adam Ponting (piano), Brendon Clarke (bass), Toby Hall (drums)
Where: Recording Session at 505 Studios, Sydney Australia.
This post is dedicated to Roger Manins my choice of best NZ artist for 2013. Roger is not only deeply authentic and amazingly creative, but equally important he shares his vision and enables others to follow.