When you listen to Matt Steele, you quickly realise that he is in the middle of an interesting musical journey. In a trio setting, there is not an ounce of hesitation about him, no sense that he is micro-analysing his performance; he plays for the joy of it. This in-the-moment absorption has moved his playing to another level and best of all he carries the audience with him. While Steele is still in his honours year at the Auckland University Jazz School, it is obvious that gigging about town has added something extra to his performance. A wider awareness, an openness and a hunger for what is just out of reach. You can’t develop those attributes merely from formal lessons. The spade work for this ongoing development as an artist has been in the hands of competent teachers and foremost among those is Kevin Field. Although the club was dimly lit, I could make out Field sitting quietly in the audience; after the set he moved forward to congratulate Steele. There was an unmistakable look of satisfaction on his face.
As Steele sat at the piano and counted in the first number you were immediately aware of movement. Pianist, bass and drums, swaying and bending into the sound; moving as if governed by an unseen force. When musicians are able to sync to the rhythms, move to the ebb and flow of the music, it can enhance a performance. When a pianist moves well it is like watching a prize boxer; the keys stung by blows or else stroked teasingly. Not all pianists move like this as approaches to the instrument are many and varied. In this situation Steele was definitely more like Kenny Kirkland than Bill Evans.
Most of the set were original compositions by Steele, some new, some reworked. All sounded fresh, as an equal vigour infused the older numbers (like ‘Holy Moly’) and the newer ones (‘So Retitled’). Steele has brought several trios to the CJC and this time his band featured Richie Pickard on bass and Andrew Keegan on drums. His instincts were spot-on as Pickard and Keegan dug in and delivered for him. They worked well together and Steele’s insistence on approaching each gig as a democratic exercise worked. His second number (and probably the only non original) was a piece by Sun Ra. This was bound to please me, as I love Sun Ra in all his out-crazy glory. It was brave and it worked well as a trio piece.
The second set was the Alex Ward Trio. Ward (an Honours graduate from the NZSM) has been on a scene for a few years now and his Aero Jazz Quartet, formed over a year ago, often performs about town. He recently completed a stint on a cruise ship with Trudy Lile and reports from that gig were overwhelmingly positive. He is the Jazz Programme Coordinator for the NZ School of Music (Albany Campus) and involved in music Education in the private sector.
Wards set showcased interesting material. Some of the tunes he drew from lessor known Jazz sources, while his own compositions also featured. It was good to hear him playing Tigran Hamasyan’s ‘Leaving Paris’, an engaging waltz. It is from Hamasyans’s ‘New Era’ album and it is surprising that it is not heard more often. Ward executed this gently swinging piece perfectly. Another standout number was a tune by the Welsh pianist Gwilym Simcock.
On bass was the always pleasing Eamon Edmundson Wells. He is a capable player able to shine in diverse settings. On drums was Ivan Lukitina-Johnston. I have only seen Johnston on two previous occasions and find his approach on traps thoroughly workman like. The one blight on the evening was the sound from a loud upstairs band which bled through into the quieter moments. It made counting-in and the quieter intros a challenge for the musicians.
Who: Matt Steele (piano), Richie Pickard (bass), Andrew Keegan (drums)
Who: Alex Ward (piano), Eamon Edmundson-Wells (drums), Ivan Lukitina-Johnson (drums)
Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand www.creativejazzclub.co.nz