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Thanks to Roger Manins extensive connections and the ever widening reputation of the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) Auckland now attracts many gifted offshore Jazz artists.  On the 3rd of February Steve Russell (piano) and Leigh Carriage (vocals) each led a set at the CJC.  Leigh is from Lismore in Northern New South Wales and Steve (from Byron Bay) teaches at the Southern Cross University in Brisbane.  Both have worked extensively in the bigger Australian cities.   Steve Russell has appeared with James Morrison and done support gigs for the likes of Wynton Marsalis and John Scofield while Leigh Carriage has performed in many Australian Jazz festivals and at the Monterey Jazz Festival in America.

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Steve Russell opened with a quartet set which comprised himself on piano, Roger Manins (tenor), Cameron McArthur (bass) and Stephen Thomas (drums).   His choice of bandmates was fortuitous as Roger is a phenomenon and the other two are fast establishing themselves as the premier local musicians in their field.  The band was extremely tight considering that the musicians had been holidaying in far flung disparate locations.   I later learned that they had been sent the charts a few weeks earlier and had put in some time familiarising themselves with the music.  Sometimes flying by the seat of the pants works just fine and sometimes a little work prior to a gig yields dividends.  This was the latter.

Steve Russell is highly regarded as an accompanist (which is a specialist skill that all too few master).  He is also a gifted leader, and composer.   It was well that he chose three experienced musicians for his set because the complex time signatures and edgy rhythms of some tunes certainly demanded that.  He began with a tune called ‘Belongil Blues’ which laments the loss of access to a much loved wilderness area around Lismore.   The warmth and soulfulness of this number made it the perfect choice as a starter, because what followed was often edgy and crackling with fire.  Fine musicians like these can always extract gold from well used forms (this tune is a good illustration of that as it is simply lovely.  You can hear it as track 7 on Steve’s fine ‘Dark Matters’ album and in the streamed sample below).

As the set progressed we heard a Caprice, a latin infused tune (Sambol) and several tunes not from the album.   Stylistically there are hints of Evans in Steve’s playing but he is entirely modern for all that.  He is an artist that I will gladly seek out when the chance presents itself.   His compositions, his feel for time and the sheer exuberance of his playing won me over completely.

Roger Manins has been busy moving house over the holidays but he certainly didn’t need easing into giging again.  He hit the bandstand in exceptional form and his solo work on numbers like ‘Sambol’ can only be described as incendiary.  In certain light there appeared to be sparks and coloured orbs emanating from the bell of his classic 60’s Selmer.  Roger Manins is a musician at the peak of his powers and given the right bandmates he burns brighter than the sun.   I had not seen Cameron McArthur for over a month but he is also in peak form.  He’s always worth hearing and never more so than when he is challenged and well supported.   Stephen Thomas is a widely respected drummer and his work across various genres is gaining him a significant following.   He’s a musician well worth hearing because of his originality, chops and the deep intuitive feel for what ever music he’s playing.

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When Leigh Carriage began her set she was accompanied by Steve Russell (her usual accompanist) plus Roger Manins, Cameron McArthur and Stephen Thomas.  A set like this required an entirely different set of skills and the band moved into this supportive role seamlessly.  Leigh Carriage has a voice that reaches deep into your soul.  There is a certain purity to it; a quality that is not always evident in Jazz singers.  What she does with her voice is special, using subtlety and nuance to reveal a thousand colours and shapes.  Leigh Carriage is also a composer of note.  She performed a number of self penned songs from her most recent album ‘Mandarin Skyline’ and one standard ‘Get Out of Town’, which she made her own.   She has also released an album titled ‘Get out of Town’.   There is often a wistful melancholic edge to her songs and the album is largely in that vein.  In the club she added a few upbeat numbers and it was a delight to hear her voice and Roger Manins tenor saxophone merging in unison.   Although she is far from a blues belter, hers is an exceptionally strong voice.  Of her own material ‘I’m not leaving’ stands out particularly’.  IMG_9328 - Version 2

As expected Steve Russell took an altogether different role during the vocal set.   Though his note placement was sparser and his attack more subdued, his strong presence was still felt.

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Who: Leigh Carriage and Steve Russell – with Roger Manins, Cameron McArthur, Stephan Thomas.

Where: The CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart, 1885 building, Auckland  – 5th February 2014

AlbumLeigh Carriage; ‘Mandarin Skyline’ with Jonathan Zwartz (bass), Steve Russell (piano), Matt McMahon (piano), Sam Keevers (piano), Phil Slator (trumpet), Matt Smith (guitar), Hamish Stuart (drums).

AlbumSteve Russell; ‘Dark Matters’, Matt Smith (guitar), Greg Lyon (bass), Scott Hills (drums).

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