The Briana Cowlishaw/Gavin Ahearn gig is the second CJC gig featuring international artists in a month. For those who follow Australian improvised music, these are familiar names. Both have rock solid credentials as both have traveled extensively with their music and attracted glowing critical reviews. This is a fortuitous musical pairing, and it is particularly obvious during duets. There is a mutual awareness of space and nuance and an understanding of just where interplay works best; neither over-crowding the other. There are a lot of pianists who accompany vocalists convincingly, but the true art of accompaniment is rarely seen. Ahearn is a fine accompanist and soloist. Unusually, you could say the same for Cowlishaw – an aware musician who watches and listens to her collaborators carefully – works with what she hears. Never greedy to hog the limelight and making every line count.For an artist barely past her mid twenties Cowlishaw has achieved much. Performing at festivals all over the world and being nominated for prestigious awards along the way. She has studied with top rated teachers in three continents and it shows (including Gretchen Parlato, Aaron Goldberg, Kurt Elling). Her confidence, compositional abilities and musicianship shine through on the bandstand. Hers is a modern voice and more importantly a fresh young voice. What worked so well so well for Gretchen Parlato also works for her; a clean delivery, imaginative interpretations and an interesting approach.The first set saw Cowlishaw and Ahearn performing as a duo. This format gifts artists with a degree of freedom and it was well utilised. As they took us through a mix of standards and originals, we saw just how attuned they are. The Cowlishaw compositions are particularly interesting, with words, wordless vocalising and interesting harmonic underpinnings from Ahearn – a subtle weave, blending threads to create evocative soundscapes.Both have visited Norway and the sparse honest northern sound was particularly evident in their first set. A recent collaborative album recorded in Norway arose out of an earlier trip there. More recently they performed at the Hemnes Jazz Festival in that country. As Cowlishaw said of these compositions, “After spending a lot of time on the road and in big cities, I found myself in the Fjords. The wild lonely freshness was so appealing that the thought arose – was this a place that I would want to live in one day”? Arising from that proposition came the compositions on their ‘Fjord’ album. Cowlishaw is obviously keen on the outdoors. She told an audience member that she intended to explore a few of New Zealand wildness places as the chance presented itself.The second set swelled the bands numbers to a quintet – joining the duo were Mike Booth on trumpet, Cameron McArthur on bass and Adam Tobeck on drums. All fine musicians and well able to rise to any challenge. The expanded unit gave her much to work with and Ahearn in particular jumped at the opportunity; utilising a more aggressive hard-swinging style. There were more standards in this second half and Cole Porters wonderful 1943 composition from ‘Something to shout about’ – ‘You’d be so Nice to Come Home to’ stood out as a rollicking swinger. The other memorable standard came from the duo – Michel Legrand’s 1932 composition ‘You must believe in Spring’. To Jazz audiences this means one thing – The achingly beautiful Bill Evans Warners album of that name. The rendition was remarkably beautiful – Cowlishaw tackled the number as Norma Winstone might, while Ahearn stamped his own authority on the ballad while allowing Evans to shine through.
I strongly recommend ‘Fjord’ – it is simply exquisite and the delicate renditions of the originals and standards will stay in your head long after the last note is played – as well as the rarely heard ‘Estate’ (Bruno Martino) there is a version of Herb Ellis’s ‘Detour Ahead’ which won me over completely. For the ‘Fjord’ and ‘Detour Ahead’ tracks alone, the album is worth double the asking price.
Briana Cowlishaw & Gavin Ahearn – Cowlishaw (vocals, compositions), Ahearn (piano), Mike Booth (trumpet & flugel), Cameron McArthur (bass), Adam Tobeck (drums). performing at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) Britomart 1886, Downtown Auckland 24th February 2016.