This is pianist Mark Donlon’s second appearance at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club). On this visit, his Shadowbird Quartet featured Aucklanders Roger Manins on Saxophone and Cameron McArthur on bass. The gig also brought Wellington drummer Lance Philip to the CJC for the first time. Both the bass player and the drummer have previously recorded with Donlon. The British-born pianist, educator, conductor is the senior lecturer at the New Zealand School of Music in Wellington
Mark Donlon is a highly competent musician and much praised by luminaries such as the UK’s John Fordham. When you hear him play, working his clever compositions, you hear why. As much as I appreciate technical skills it is the human connection I look for and I found it in two Donlon compositions. Making such connections is about locating musical intersections – the place where energies and paths meet. When audience and artist reach for that elusive space, communication happens. The artist creates, the audience gives back. For that instant, time and the music are outside of self and the performance more than the sum of its parts.
Every good tune has a back story. Sometimes the banter provides a map, enabling the listener to probe deeper. It is especially so with new compositions. At other times, the meta-data of a tune embeds in its DNA as with a standard or a contrafact. A standard takes you to a place you have been before, but a new composition asks us as listeners, to imagine. While melody, pulse, and harmony draw us in, a few well-chosen words can conjure additional imagery. Active listening is about more than sound; context matters.The first tune of the second set was ‘Nibiru’ and it was rich in narrative and melody. A thing of strange and compelling beauty. The piece began with a repeating pattern on piano, a pattern which shifted harmonically as it progressed. Over this Manins began by stating the melody – seldom straying far from the matrix in the opening stages. McArthur on bass intensified the mood by establishing a counter pattern and then repeatedly plucking at a single note, Philip free to add colour and texture – and he did. I liked this piece very much as it sounded both old and new (a nice effect if you can pull that off). The story behind it added another dimension entirely. ‘Nibiru’ is an imaginary planet beloved of conspiracy theorists, the ones who wear tin-foil helmets when venturing outside. The ones who see an absense of smoke as conclusive proof that the fire is well hidden. The planet evidently reveals itself to the chosen few and is the home of lizard people. I’m not so sure that the believers deserve a tune this nice. The tongue in cheek rendering of this odd belief is anything but ‘end of times’.
The other tune I liked was ‘Otzi’. It referenced a 4000-year-old ‘Ice Man’ mummy found on the alpine border between Austria and Italy. I had followed this story from the day of his discovery in 1991. Although it struck a deep chord at the time I had forgotten the Ice Man’s nickname. What Donlon captured so effectively was the melancholia. The story of a human ancestor from pre-history, who wandered into our modern consciousness after a long time lost. Apart from Tutankhamun, no figure from that era has touched us so deeply. Otzi trails echoes of sadness in his wake. A palpable sadness which his family must have felt, never knowing what become of him. I think Otzi would have loved this melancholic piece; as much as the modern harmonies would have puzzled him.You would expect a group of musicians of this calibre to play well and they did. There are two Donlon albums out shortly and a few earlier ones available. Support local music by experiencing this artist or the bands various iterations. One place to do that will be at the Wellington Jazz Festival in early June.
A few facts about Otzi: Although Otzi came from the Italian side of the alps, he has 19 known descendants living in Austria today. In spite of suffering from some mobility limiting health issues, he set out on his journey well equipped for alpine travel (better than many trampers of today). He had tatoos from head to foot (the earliest known inker) and his last meal consisted of pollen, grain and goats meat.
The Shadowbird Quartet: Mark Donlon (piano, compositions), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Cameron McArthur (bass), Lance Philip (drums). CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Albion Hotel May 11th 2016.