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I don’t know as much about the Wellington Jazz scene as I’d like to, but I’m working on that.   Recently an opportunity presented itself; two days in Wellington and a chance to catch up with some musician friends.  I did my homework and learned that ‘The Jac’ would be playing at ‘Meow’.  They had just recorded for Rattle and that made me keen to hear them; knowing that they were initially inspired by the ‘San Francesco Jazz Collective’ all the more so.

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While not a dedicated Jazz venue Meow is a great supporter of the music and a good place to experience live music in general.  The club has regularly hosted class Jazz acts like ‘The Troubles’ (and its various offshoots).  Located on a sharp right angle bend, down a narrow winding alley; intriguing car head-light effects sweep across the band when cars negotiate the turn.  This reminds me of the new Bimhuis Jazz club in Amsterdam, which has brightly lit trains passing right behind the band as they play.  From the first few bars I loved what I heard and was pleased to learn that they would be playing in the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) in Auckland a few weeks later.

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This band ticks a lot of boxes for me with their ancient to modern feel.   I love the Octet or Nonet sound and especially when a brass heavy front line is in evidence.  With ‘The Jac’ the four horns up front assault the senses in the best possible way; solidly augmented by two keyboards, drums and bass.  The original lineup (and the one recorded), features piano and guitar.  With the guitarist (Callum Allardice) overseas a Rhodes was added to replace the guitar.  While I like both configurations I’m particularly impressed by the added colour that the Rhodes brings to the mix.  In the hands of Dan Hayles it often sounds like Vibes and this takes the group closer to the sound-palette of the SFJC.

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There was a good audience at the CJC and ‘The Jac’ were received with enthusiasm.  It is all too rare to see such configurations in New Zealand and I wish more would surface.  There were solid performances from the soloists but the real stars were the stunning arrangements.  The charts sound modern, but implicit within is the Nonet/Octet tradition.  The Birth of the Cool is momentarily evoked but this is not the anchor point.  A modern aesthetic is at work here (listen to ‘Thieves in the Night’ composed by alto player Jake Baxendale and streamed below).

They opened with a tune titled ‘Major,major, major, major’ (to which Jake added – “in a minor key”).  Next we heard ‘New York Axel Man’, an airy free-flowing tune which highlighted the skills of Jake Baxendale (alto) and Alexis French (trumpet).   I was particularly taken with the skills of Lex French, as trumpet players of his calibre are not thick on the ground in New Zealand.  I asked him who his recent teachers were and learned that he had been studying at McGill University in Canada.  His articulation, clean lines and the ability to communicate an idea in a short space took my attention.   In a line up of competent musicians he managed to stand out.

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Jake Baxendale is the predominant soloist and his alto work is interesting.   As one of the writers and the collective’s front man, he rightly garners the lions share of attention.  The other Baxendale composition on the album is ‘Armada’.  A delightful piece with rhythmic complexity and a strong bass line underpinning it.  It is my sense that he is central to the octets success.

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Completing the horn section is Chris Buckland on tenor and Matthew Allison on trombone (Allison is a member of the NZSO).  This is highly arranged music and so tenor, alto, trombone and trumpet need to work as one entity.  As they negotiated the often complex charts they showed just how tight they could be.  This is a big sound, but one with a world of implied space.     

On bass is the talented Nick Tipping who is another well-respected Wellington musician.  Like Jake Baxendale he regularly plays with the Roger Fox Wellington Jazz Orchestra.  Often backing international artists when the come to town.  Buckland replaced Richard Thai (who played on the album) and as alluded to earlier, Dan Hayles on Rhodes replaced the guitarist.  This gave the ensemble two keyboards and the alignment worked extremely well in my view.  On the CJC Club piano was Dan Milward (he played keys at Meow).  The juxtaposition between Piano and Rhodes worked so well because the musicians were able to compliment each other while keeping out of each others way.   Milward took the subtler approach but his presence was never-the-less strongly felt.  IMG_9428 - Version 2 (1)  

Dan Hayles took several solos’ (which the audience loved) but his main role was to augment the mix with well placed fills and to add a sense of depth to the ensemble.   I have heard him on several previous occasions and rate him highly.  The remaining member is drummer Shaun Anderson and his stick work is superb.  A supportive and in-the-pocket drummer who can also breathe fire into proceedings.   It was Anderson and Hayles who took the more organic approach; both regularly stepping free of the charts and to great effect.  Both made the pulse quicken and this balanced out the carefully crafted shapes and forms of the ensemble.

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The compositions on the album are all by Baxendale and Allardice and it is these that give momentum to the project.   In future it would be interesting to hear some of the soloists given additional space, but not at the expense of those gorgeous rich harmonic voicings.  With a label like Rattle behind them this bodes well for future projects.

What: ‘The Jac’ at the release of their album ‘NERVE’ – Rattle Jazz (the album can be purchased direct from Rattle or at retail outlets).

Where: The CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 12th February 2014 and Meow 29th January 2014

Who: Jake Baxendale (alto, arrangements, compositions), Alexis French (trumpet), Chris Buckland (tenor sax), Matt Allison (trombone), Dan Hayles (Rhodes), Dan Milward (piano), Nick Tipping (upright bass), Shaun Anderson (drums) – Album only – Callum Allardice (guitar, arrangements, compositions), Richard Thai (tenor).

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