John Bell is an iconoclast, always bringing something new and unexpected to the bandstand. There is also a rich vein of tongue in cheek humour that runs though his onstage banter. Like his music, it takes unexpected twists and turns. That is not to say that his shows lack serious intent as he utilises quality musicians; doing what they do well. It is perhaps best to describe his gigs as full of Zen humour, the sort that Carla Bley is so adept at. The slap in the face accompanying a sly tickle of the ribs. Even Bells instruments are other than the expected. A metallophone instead of a vibraphone (vibes, sans motor and Leslie unit as played by Gary Burton these days). A horn in a gig titled Horn Free (and an obscure tenor horn at that). I was equally unsurprised when I was invited to their live recording date; “Last Modern Jazz Qtet Concert’. Perfect.
To do justice to his music Bells gigs require quirky and talented musicians. Good readers, good time keepers, prepared to veer off at a moments notice into uncharted realms. No genre remains un-pillaged in the source material for John Bells compositions; Korean folk songs, bebop or brass band music. When he announces a standard it is best to think popular Korean TV program theme, Sonny Sharrock or Sankey Hymn. Nothing is what it seems in his Kaleidoscopic world of shimmering sweet and suddenly dissonant sounds. The music is weighed up and re-evaluated long after the event. It leaves an impression hanging in the air for weeks and because of that it is somehow more satisfying than predicable gigs. Perhaps it is in the ears of the listener, but to my ear this was brave and satisfying music. It made me happy.
Watching an animated vibes player is pure theatre. They throw themselves into the task more than other instrumentalists. At times Bell would launch him self forward with apparent fury. His left foot trailing behind him as the energy released. This wonderful two or four mallet dance was a product of the reduced amplification. Body, mallet and instrument interacting with intensity.
The rest of the lineup consisted of guitar, drums and bass. A mix of veterans and up and coming players. Neil Watson was on guitar and he is the perfect foil for Bell. He is at least as iconoclastic as Bell, with wild forays ranging from the joyously punk to fusion bebop. Watson is a respected musician about town and if he has boundaries they are not immediately obvious. Stylistically he is often somewhere east of Frissel, Montgomery and Ribot. He has gradually been adding more slide guitar into his repertoire (and now a pedal steel guitar is part of his bag of tricks). Watson provided one composition to the gig and while different to Bells compositions it was equally enjoyable. A well-known musician sitting beside me whispered, “That is in the time signature of Take Five, but it is way further out”.
Eamon Edmunson Wells was on bass and Cameron Sangster on traps. While Bell and Watson often leave the known universe to explore the outer reaches, Edmunson Wells and Sangster hold the ship intact. I have heard both often, but never in this context. I was extremely impressed by their efforts and my respect has deepened for both. If you do something well in a straight-ahead context that doesn’t necessarily translate into a more avant garde setting. Musicians like Joey Baron show us just how far you can stretch if you are so minded. It pleases me to see younger musicians following this braver path.
The audience numbers were not as good as they could be and that was a pity. This music is a rare treat and it deserves our attention. All you need to enjoy music like this is a pair of open ears. If you listen, really listen, you will soon have a smile on your face.
(an updated audio to clip to be added shortly in this space)
Who: John Bell (metallophone, tenor horn), Neil Watson (guitars), Eamon Edmunson Wells (bass), Cameron Sangster (drums).
Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 1885 Britomart, Auckland, New Zealand www.creativejazzclub.co.nz