The Dreamville gig was aptly named for a number of reasons but not least because there were no defined sets, no breaks between numbers. Like a dream, the gig moved forward under its own internal momentum. Surreal themes constantly dissolving until exhausted, forms shifting without seeming to. What made this journey so evanescent, but so compelling, was that certain motifs remained deep in our consciousness throughout; totems of sound embedding themselves. Like the images in a dreamscape, the music stroked the chords of memory; familiar yet ungraspable. As each new realty claimed the preceding one, you realised that musical osmosis was at work. A band filtering its own ideas until only the essence remained. This was especially evident with the recurring melodic themes. It was best to let these themes be, to let them wash over you without over-analysing.
For nearly 2 hours we sat transfixed, subsumed by a musical force quite unlike any other. At times the sounds were primal, even brutal, then as sweet as a summer breeze. I have put up a clip which encompasses two segments from the gig. In the clip a theme developed by Henderson on C Melody Saxophone (the instrument and the melodic theme takes us straight back to Ellington, perhaps even further back to Trumbauer who played with Bix Biederbeck). The C melody Saxophone, a non-transposing instrument, is a rare beast and in the right hands, it quickly reveals its earthy warm tones. The vibraphone and guitar lay down simple repeating patterns, while the saxophone weaves its melodic way through the soundscape, expressing a deep soulful longing. Even here all is not what it seems. A surreal quality still pervades this section, the sixth sense as you edge towards the chaos that is to follow. There is a Mingus ensemble like quality at first, then the bass solo unravels the theme, drawing you into a less certain world; you are suddenly in Zorn territory. e
At this point Henderson moved into the light, his C Melody horn put aside, a throaty baritone in its place. Tah-tah ta ta, tah-tah ta ta, tah-tah ta ta–taa taa states the baritone and the volume and the intensity were swiftly increased. The music had turned on a dime and everyone reeled back, momentarily overpowered by the mood shift. Henderson sensing this, advanced toward the audience honking and squealing, carving up the room, not letting the moment pass. This was musical theatre at its best and it served the purpose well. One thing I have learned over the years; avant-garde music is always best experienced live.
There is a rawness and a primal quality to it, a strong sense of performance. Who would prefer a recording of an Arkestra or an Art Ensemble of Chicago performance over a live show? This was all jazz and all music decoded, not for the cocktail party. The next day I was watching the 1956 Jean Bach film ‘Great Day in Harlem’ and there was Roy ‘Little Jazz’ Eldridge squealing out high note after high note on his trumpet. Again and again, he pushed out a flurry of wild free multi-phonic sounds. Even in the swing era, this had a great effect.
I am always impressed by John Bell and he was superb in this quintet. His approach to vibes is percussive and he avoids clichés. He leaves plenty of space between his lightning runs and the accents and his improvisations have their own compelling logic. The guitarist was quite a revelation. I had not heard Phil Dryson before and he impressed me deeply. Never once did he overplay (a failing of some guitarists), letting his unmistakable chops serve the collective purpose. Once again the solid-body guitar earned its stripes in an improvised music setting. It felt like he incorporated a fusion era approach with Marc Ribot’s. Zorn favours edgy, open-eared guitarists like this; he would love this guy.
On drums was Chris O’Conner (a favourite drummer of mine). His kit was highly unusual but perfectly suited to the gig. At times we heard him as a percussionist, extending the possibilities, clicks, bell-like sounds and a multitude of edgy beats from the various toms. Ethnic polyrhythmic effects arose, especially when Henderson beat an oversized bass drum. The bass player Eamon Edmundson Wells was great. He fitted into this setting perfectly and it is surprising how quickly he has assimilated the vocabulary of diverse musical styles. In Cameron McArthur’s absence, he has stepped up without equivocation. Hard work and the Auckland University Jazz program have obviously set him up well.
This was a sound super-nova created by dangerous visionaries. There were no leaders identified in the blurb and the band acted as one entity. All played to the peak of their ability and with unity of purpose That said the powerhouse presence of Jeff Henderson and John Bell was quite unmistakable. I could especially feel Henderson’s guiding hand throughout. This is the space he occupies musically and he is the titan of this realm. Although my ears rang for days afterwards I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.
What: ‘Dreamville’ – Jeff Henderson (Baritone, C Melody, Alto saxophones), John Bell (Metalophone), Phil Dryson (solidbody guitar), Eamon Edmundson Wells (upright bass), Chris O’Connor (traps drums, percussion).
Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand, 24th September 2014.
Footnote: This is one of the last recordings of Phill Dryson RIP