There are musicians who have the ability to create vibrant pictures out of sound, deftly carving shapes, daubing them with colour, texture, leaving images suspended in the air, as tantalising spectres. Blair Latham is one of these. He brings to the bandstand a tropical exoticism, redolent of the central Americas, but somehow still Kiwi.
I first saw Latham at the Rogue & Vagabond during the Wellington Jazz Festival. The project was to re-create the vibe of the Headhunters album and it certainly did. In the hands of Hayles, Latham and others a wild, hyper-energised brew of sounds radiated among us. They took the brief to its outer limits and for the audience (who were undoubtedly Hancock enthusiasts), it was an immensely satisfying experience. As Latham’s tenor wailed, the milling crowd urged him on, each phase wilder than the last.
The Rogue & Vagabond channeled North American funk grooves, this gig took us a long way south of that, to central Mexico. A Mexico seen through Kiwi eyes, a musicians eyes, the eyes and ears of a careful observer. The energies had shifted as well. A more thoughtful approach was evident. Latham was telling stories that came from the heart, from experience and reflecting the altered light and filtered sounds of that populous country.
As the band started playing there were powerful overwhelming images created. I reached for my note pad and wrote the word Fellini. This is how I heard it, the sounds of a happy and slightly chaotic Mexican circus, peopled by tumblers, clowns on stilts, parading animals and long lazy hours fuelled by Mezcal. A rich mesmerising spectacle that took your breath away. There were no high energy excursions, no roof blasting squalls of sound. This was a journey of measured steps, full of subtleties. At times the trio sounded like a bigger unit and as Latham switched between his rich woody bass clarinet and classic Selmer tenor saxophone, the effect amplified. Each phrase, each line, hung in air long after the breath that created it had subsided. There were a number of Latham’s compositions and some beautiful, haunting Mexican ballads. Emotion and sentimentality are bound up in that world. There is nothing buttoned-up about Mexican music.
Latham is unusual in New Zealand as his principal horns are bass clarinet and tenor saxophone. A handful of musicians double on bass clarinet, few are as proficient as he is.
It often happens that the best laid plans unravel unexpectedly. The trio was initially advertised as Latham, David Ward & Chris O,Connor. The trio we saw was Latham (bass clarinet, tenor saxophone, leader), Neil Watson (guitar, lap slide guitar), Stephen Thomas (drums). I rate both Ward and O’Connor highly but this lineup worked extraordinarily well. It was hard to believe that these musicians had not played together often. The challenge of playing this music, reading these often complex charts, brought out the best in Watson and Thomas. Both gifted musicians. both good readers. Together they merged perfectly and we could see Latham’s pleasure at this.
The drum charts called for a colourist approach, an oblique subtle rendering of rhythms that were as much rooted in Mexican folk music as in avant guard jazz. Thomas was exceptional as he tapped, scraped or made the kit whisper; even his solos were original and entirely appropriate. This guy can tackle anything it seems. Watson is a veteran of the unusual and a superb reader. It was a joy to see him working counterpoint or even unison lines with Latham. He is perfect for gigs like this as his unbridled imagination is not tethered to norms. He moved between lap guitar and Fender solid body, enabling him to move closer to the Frissel like Americana sounds that so clearly influence him.
The word Mexico brings to mind a jumble of exotic but occasionally troubling images. For me the source is literature, films, art, photography and music. The nearest that I got to Mexico was in books like ‘Under the Volcano'(Lowry), ‘On The Road’ (Kerouac) or ‘The Teachings of Don Yuan’ (Castaneda); in films like ‘The Night of the Iguana’, numerous cowboy movies; in crazy photographic images from the ‘night of the dead’ festival of Santa Muerte, in articles about the loathsome human traffickers or murderous drug cartels. I have travelled extensively in Spain and down the Californian Coast, places where this beguiling country felt almost within reach. This gig took me one step closer.
“How’s the mezcal” he said. “Like ten yards of a barbed wire fence. It nearly took the top of my head off. I had a Tequila outside with the guitar hombre” – ‘Under the Volcano’ -Malcolm Lowry
Who: Blair Latham (bass clarinet, tenor saxophone), Neil Watson (guitars), Stephen Thomas (drums)
Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 1885 Britomart, Auckland, New Zealand, 3rd September 2014 – www.creativejazzclub.co.nz