In spite of living at the other end of the Island, Lex French is a regular fixture at the CJC. It is hardly surprising since his popularity with Jazz audiences is ever-growing. There are not many trumpeters of French’s stature in New Zealand and it is our good fortune that he remains. He obtained his Masters from McGill University in Montreal, a university with a strong focus on brass. A university which had an ongoing association with the UK-based Canadian trumpeter Kenny Wheeler while he was among us. I mention Wheeler, because as I walked down the stairs to the club to set up my gear, I heard the unmistakable opening phrase from ‘Smatter’ coming out of the darkness. Just the opening phrase and then silence.It was so Wheeler-like, that I assumed someone was setting up a Wheeler album on the club sound system. As my eyes accustomed to the low light I saw French standing alone – repeating the phrase. French is not a one-trick pony; he is as modern as tomorrow, but at other times, old school respectful. He can punch out high notes or swing hard bop like a Blue Note artist back in the day. This is not a musician to pass up on.
His current working band travelled from Wellington with him, all of them known to Auckland audiences; Matt Steele on piano, Johnny Lawrence on bass and Cory Champion on drums. The set list was mainly French compositions, but in the middle of each set, a standard or two. The standards were well-chosen and contrasted the originals nicely. The best known was Benny Golson’s ‘Stablemates’, a perennial favourite, Kenny Wheeler’s complex tune ‘Smatter’ and ‘Nostalgia’ by Mingus.I particularly liked French’s compositions ‘Kasid’ from the first set. There were many reasons to like this; the musicians innovative explorations of the theme, the evocative middle-eastern mode underpinning it, and the fact that it referenced the wonderful Iraqi poet Abdulkareen Kasid. An achingly beautiful melody tinged through with bittersweet sadness, establishing itself delicately over a quietly incessant bass motif. When Steele came in, his opening chords were Oud like – giving the impression of soft strings jangling sweetly in the night air. I listen to a lot of middle-eastern improvised music and this performance stands beside the best of those. In the background, the drums tap tapped (like stones tumbling in a stream, and every so often swooshes).The poet Abdulkareem Kasid is new to me (and I have a huge collection of poetry). To discover a poet like this is exciting and I thank Lex French for this. What could be better than to experience a night of interesting music, and at the end, find a poet? I finish this with some words from that poet – listen to the piece as you read the lines – I did.
“In my hands / From past and future / I’ll grab two stones / And run with them / Even in the lightest / breeze I’ll fly / Summon a wind, to come / And wipe out every trace / And I’ll sit like an orphan / By the roadside mourning / My two stones”
Lex French Quartet: Lex French (trumpet, compositions), Matt Steele (Piano), Johnny Lawrence (bass), Cory Champion (drums). CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland 23rd March 2016.