Kiwi Jahzz ~ from the underground basements of Aotearoa

Last month, a new Kiwi record label was launched and if the first releases are anything to go by, it will surely become a popular destination for ‘out’ improvised music fans. The Kiwi Jahzz label is a significant addition to the Aotearoa recorded music scene, and like Budweiser, it reaches places that others don’t

The music found in these underground basements has long been a magnet for adventurous listeners, and especially for younger musicians who often cut their avant-garde teeth there. With the arrival of the pandemic, lockdowns followed suit and clubs took a hit. One of those venues was The Wine Cellar under St Kevin’s arcade. A popular home for independent music. 

A hundred yards away in a nearby uptown basement, Jeff Henderson devised a plan. Why not move the Audio Foundation gear into the Wine Cellar. This included recording equipment and a ready-made audience. Out of that has come a string of recordings and a desire to make the music available to a wider audience. This is what musical freedom sounds like as the gigs are captured live. These recordings are street raw and bristling with energy, the sounds escaping from dark basements. 

Henderson is known for taking his time over a piece and for letting the moment dictate pace and length. A groove or vamp can run for as long as it needs to and with each utterance informing the direction of travel. It is music often liberated from harmonic distractions or from predictable pulses, so as it wends its way, it draws on a lifetime of experience, with each moment revealing yet another nested story. 

With the double trios recorded so far, the pieces have been shorter and this is perhaps a concession to the medium. In a darkened club you are more attuned to longer pieces, at home there are distractions. All but one of the initial releases features the Trioglodyte Trio. The core Trioglodyte lineup being Jeff Henderson, Eamon Edmundson-Wells and Chris O’Connor. It is perhaps more accurate to describe these albums as Trioglodyte led double trios because most of the releases to date feature a guest trio as well. A mixture of well-known musicians and enthusiastic up and comers. 

While Henderson is not a musician to blow his own trumpet, his baritone saxophone could flatten the walls of Jericho. He is the guiding force behind the growth of the improvised ‘out’ music scene in Aotearoa and his determination has built a sustainable and vibrant presence.  A saxophonist, composer, producer and visionary, someone formidable.

Rated X (Davis)

With him in the Trioglodyte trio are Eamon Edmundson-Wells on bass and Chris O’Connor on drums (and percussion). O’Connor is a legend across many genres and Edmundson-Wells has built a solid reputation in settings like this. The pair are the perfect foils for Henderson, being adept at reacting instinctively and both capable of carrying considerable weight. Edmundson-Wells is a powerful and unfaltering presence and this frees up Henderson to forge a melodic path. Meanwhile, O’Connor does what he is renowned for, delivers his extraordinary pulses in marvellously unexpected ways. 

Vol 1’ is modestly titled but don’t let that fool you, because immediately you click on the arrow, the introductory track comes right at you, delivering hammer blows to the senses. Perhaps there should be a warning upfront; beware there will be no ECM styled five seconds of silence beforehand. That track is titled ‘Bra Joe’. 

Henderson opens with an extraordinary squalling attack as he strides into the tune like a Titan, casting aside all that he deems superfluous. Underneath his saxophone, you are aware of the pumping and scuffling of Edmundson-Wells and O’Connor, followed by the second trio. Crystal Choi on keyboards, Bonnie Stewart on drums and Paul Taylor on percussion and electronics. This may be a short number, but the impact will linger long afterwards.

The second track ‘Bra Joe from Kilamajaro’ is a reimagining of the Dollar Brand standard. Here the pace is slowed and the volume lowered but the intensity is not. The way it unfolds over a long slow vamp imparts something of an Alice Coltrane vibe, with Choi’s keys rippling joyfully beneath the bass. In fact, every track references a Jazz standard (more or less). Some might wonder why an album of adventurous free music features standards, but the music here is as out and adventurous as you might wish. And as with most improvised music, there is an implication of fun, of not taking ourselves too seriously. My favourite track is definitely ‘Rated X’ (Miles Davis). This is a multi-layered sonic feast and everyone gets to strut their stuff here. Miles smiles I’m sure. On this particular track, it is easy to understand why Henderson is held in such high regard. The ideas just bubble from his horn and everyone responds in kind.  And Bonnie Stewart (is this the Irish born Bonnie Stewart, the drummer songwriter, who performs with SIMA in Sydney). I have always been a fan of Choi on keys and this is the proof of the pudding; she was always reaching for this space. And then Taylor, electronics and percussion; his inclusion rounding off the ensemble nicely. This is the way modern avant-garde music has been tracking of late, two, even three drummers, which offers more punch. 

Milestones (Davis)

Vol 2’ has a different mood entirely. It opens with a moody piece of Frisell styled Americana, with one guitarist playing chords over a soft drone while the other answers. When Henderson comes in, new possibilities open up, and a subtle interplay involving all six musicians takes this into freer territory. Track two has a delightful New Orleans barroom kind of vibe. Again, Henderson leads the way with raw gutbucket blues. It shouldn’t surprise anyone to hear him play like a soulful Texas tenor player (complete with shouts) as there is ample evidence of this on earlier Henderson led albums. As you move through the tracks the Americana theme merges with other influences, a two drummer conversation titled Bonnie & Chris, a short piece titled Eamon & Jeff.  And following that is the blistering and rollicking ‘Impressions’; this last piece is best described as a Knitting Factory styled blues with the drums and percussion setting up the tune. Unadulterated crazy magic. Apart from Trioglodyte, the album features guitarists Kat Tomacruz and Bret Adams plus drummer Bonnie Stewart.

Vol 3’ is not a Trioglodyte album and unlike the other three in the series, it was recorded in Wellington at the Poneke Beer Loft (November 2020). Here Henderson is with bassist Paul Dyne and drummer Rick Cranson. All are heavy hitters and well used to traversing the jagged lines of Monk and responding to the keening cries of an Ornette Coleman tune. As well, the tracklist offers freely improvised pieces and a standard. The liner notes make reference to Henderson’s garrulous saxophone, and while that is accurate, it is also true that we can find a more measured and interrogatory tone from him here. Perhaps because this traverses familiar ground with old friends, the trio decided to take an oblique look at the material. This is particularly evident on the Raye/de Paul war-horse ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’. Together they have recut this diamond and revealed burning shafts of light hitherto unseen, and in doing so, they forged a minimalist route to the lustre. ‘Black ‘n’ White ‘n’ Blues’, dances joyfully over ostinato bass lines and a steady pulse, Colemans ‘Blues Connection’ is delightful and captures the essence of the great man; also, the two Monk tunes ‘Bye Ya’ and ‘Friday the 13th’ refresh and delight. 

Vol 4’ is another Wine Cellar recording and the lineup here is mouth-watering. There is no Chris O’Conner in the core trio this time, but his replacement Julien Dyne slots in seamlessly. Dyne is a marvellous drummer, comfortable in a multitude of settings. He is also responsible for the great artwork on all four of these releases. And as if there were not already an embarrassment of riches, Jonathan Crayford features on Fender Rhodes. The other musicians are J Y Lee on alto & flute (a player featuring in many innovative bands about town) and as in Vol 1, Paul Tayler on percussion and electronics. This album takes in a broader perspective on improvised music. It is filled with interesting cross-genre references and it invokes many moods. Here Henderson deploys a fuller armoury of alto, C soprano, baritone and C Melody saxophones.

The opener has an Afro Beat feel. Powerful propulsive and utilising repeated phrases to amp up the tension. Track two ‘The Rubble’, by contrast, is a dark filmic piece powered by the percussive utterances of Dyne and Taylor and the mood deepened by the arco bass of Edmundson-Wells.  Three is airy and open, wending its way purposefully, led by Crayford as he sets the pace and mood. People unfamiliar with free improvised music often fail to comprehend that this type of music can on occasion be gentle and reflective. It is honest music dictated by the moment. The flute and saxophone are pelagic birds circling above the rolling swells of a vast ocean. A most appealing piece.  

Track four, ‘Milestones’ (Davis) is a wonderful Dewey doing Miles fifteen-minute romp and the best reimagining of the tune I’ve heard in ages. This is so good that I had to put it on repeat play. The two saxophones playing unison lines, then Henderson (and Lee) playing the changes before launch off, Crayford dropping space chords underneath and soloing like Sun Ra’s chosen successor, Dyne, Taylor and Edmundson-Wells lifting the intensity beyond the high watermark. This track is everything you could ever wish from a Jahzz group. No wonder Tony Williams kept begging Miles to keep the tune in the repertoire post Bitches. Again 5 stars. There is one more standard ‘The Girl from Ipanema’.  They have taken a ‘same beach different girl’ approach here. This is completely free and not a bossa beat in evidence. This is a musical territory that the Norwegian electronic improvisers claim so convincingly. It is explorative and anyone with open ears will enjoy the ride. Mood dominates and form is irrelevant.  Having some of our best musicians collaborating on a project like this is a masterstroke. The open-eared must support Kiwi Jahzz and if we do there will certainly be more riches in store. You can find downloads and high quality streaming at Bandcamp on kiwijahzz.bandcamp.com

Footnote: A pointless question is sometimes asked of me, ‘but is this Jazz’. My response is, who cares, followed by, but did you listen with open ears and did the music talk to you? That’s all a listener needs to know about approaching unfamiliar music. Perhaps in future, I will answer by suggesting that they may be confusing Jazz with Jahzz.

Jazz is a catch-all descriptor for a broad swath of improvised music, and like all attempts to define an open art form, it eventually hits a brick wall. Jazz doesn’t require a scholarly explanation because the listener ‘just knows’; or as Pat Metheney put it, ‘you can’t see, touch or smell Jazz (unless you’re Frank Zappa), but a listener can recognise it immediately. Sound is air vibrations passing over the small bones in the inner ear, then it becomes electrical impulses. Jazz is physics fused with alchemy. 

JazzLocal32.com is rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association, poet & writer. Some of these posts appear on related sites