Perhaps it’s the anniversary of the moon landings, or perhaps it’s the crazy-arsed nonsense happening down on planet earth, but deep space has been very much on my mind lately. I have not been alone in this preoccupation as I appear to share this with a group of explorative improvising musicians. I was recently on local radio taking about a favourite topic, ‘space dreams and analogue machines’ and it occurred to me then, that space dreamers have always shaped our other-world view. Frank Hampson (Dan Dare Comics), Gene Rodenbury (Star Trek) and musicians like Eddie Henderson (Sunburst), or Sun Ra (Space is the Place). Humans have always looked to the stars for inspiration but only writers and musicians have the courage to describe what others cannot yet imagine.
For the second time in a month I attended a space themed gig and this time it was titled Phobos the scary moon’. Phobos circles Mars and it was only discovered in 1877. It is a small moon, but since its discovery it has exerted an outsized influence on the human imagination. The Greek god Phobos is a god of a fear associated with war. The word Phobia comes from this. For those with open ears and a love of adventurous grooves there was only joy to found here. Nothing about Cam Allen’s Phobos gig required the listener to seek Freudian analysis afterwards. This was an enjoyable night and the scariest part came later as I was walking back to the car and heard an off-key wail from a nearby karaoke bar.
The band – intergalactic warriors all; Cam Allen on saxophones, gongs and percussion, John Bell on vibes and horn, Julien Dyne on drums, Eamon Edmudson-Wells on upright bass and Duncan Cameron on keys. I rate John Bell’s Aldebaran quartet highly and for similar reasons I rate this band. This type of improvised music is still under explored and it is long overdue for more careful examination. It has form but the structure is not beholden to form; it has melody and hooks but not at the expense of mood or texture. The musicians here conveyed real enthusiasm for the project and that enhanced the effect.
Seeing Dyne in such good form was a special treat for me. Later as I reviewed the clips I realised what a powerhouse he is. His rolling polyrhythmic beats reminiscent of the young Alvin Jones. Polyrhythmic drummers often sound as if they are powered by rocket fuel and Dyne did. Allen deftly played three horns (plus gongs) and his nicely open compositional structure permanently altered the time-space-continuum. The clip that I am posting initially took me back to those wonderfully transporting forays of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Keep these space gigs coming people I am up for more.
The gig took place at the Backbeat Bar, K’Rd, 29 August 2018, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club. I am finishing this post just a few hours before I fly to Scandinavia. I hope to experience some music as I travel and will post occasionally. Otherwise I’ll be posting as normal in November. I know that I missed a few posts but I hope to catch up over Christmas. Keep following live improvised music people, your inner life depends on it.
GRG67 ‘The Thing‘; When I obtained a copy of the ‘GRG67’ album, I knew that I would encounter interesting music and some interesting creatures. I instinctively knew that the creatures would not be of the sort populating Facebook memes, but creatures who are often overlooked; in this case, crabs and domestic fowls. Anyone who knows Roger Manins knows him to be an empathetic being and this shines through in both his playing and in his compositions. As with all Rattle albums, the artwork is stunning and I detect the bold strokes of Manins black marker pen (and of course the genius of UncleFranc). GRG67 formed some time ago, primarily as a vehicle for composition, gigging at venues great and small and always encountered with enthusiasm.
The bulk of ‘The Thing’ album was recorded during Manins Doctoral recitals and the remaining few pieces were added later that day. It is the perfect material for such a recital as it adds something distinct and perhaps unique to the Jazz spectrum. Although a chordal instrument is deployed to great effect the music does not lean on it unduly. The harmonies are incredibly rich but what draws you in are the unison lines, the infectious rhythm and the counterpoint. The writing is interesting because melody lines dominate without appearing to – at no point do any of the instruments fall into an orthodox comping pattern behind a soloist – this is a space where everyone speaks in an equal voice and they do so while acknowledging those they share the stage with.
Of course when Manins or Howel solo you sit back and wonder at the inventiveness and the execution. When Cole on bass spins out his bold lines and when Deck’s edgy drum beats rain down on you, every crazy-wonderful moment resonates, but everyone is noticeably present in the mix. This music has a life force, perhaps a west coast life force and it completely owns its asymmetrical musicality. There are also wild shouts and exhortations woven into tunes and this bolsters the sense of immediacy. Again, New Zealand musicians are punching above their weight and I reflect on how blessed we are to have the scene we do.
All of the tunes except one are by Manins (one tune is credited to Cole). I have posted ‘Crab Empathy’ (Manins) as a sound clip as it’s happy crazy vibe captures the ethos of the album best. GRG67: Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Michael Howell (guitar), Mostyn Cole (electric bass), Tristan Deck (drums). Rattle.co.nz
Shem: Everyone on the New Zealand Jazz scene is familiar with Michel and Fabienne ‘Shem’ Benebig. We have long enjoyed Michel Benebig’s warm B3 grooves and Shem’s straight from the heart vocals as they win over an ever-increasing New Zealand fan base. And every time they land they bring with them a part of their small Island, a sultry swinging New Caledonian vibe that warms even the coldest of Kiwi nights. Because Shem identifies so strongly with ‘place’, she often writes tunes about flora & fauna and as she travels, her every note speaks of who she is as a South Sea Islander. In spite of that her vocals are also laden with a French sophistication. Her long years on the road have gifted her the ability to shift seamlessly between moods – one minute a powerhouse soul vocalist fitted for big band, the next, a late night heartbreaker, embracing an audience with a whisper.
Shem has recorded often with husband Michel, but this album is very much her own. She is clearly the guiding force here; a singer/songwriter of considerable talent showcasing her compositions and setting the tone. She opens with the lovely ‘Un oiseau’ a gentle swinger ending with her trademark indigenous New Caledonian styled vocalisations and whistles. Throughout the number, Kiwi saxophonist Roger Manins adds tasteful fills and is perfectly in sync with the vocalist. The title track ‘Kuic’ (meaning yam in the Kanak Nemi Language) is a groove number, strongly underpinned by the beats of New Zealand Drummer Ron Samsom. Track five ‘State Highway’ is my favourite of the selection as I first heard it soon after Shem had penned it. It is a soulful road blues and who better to tell this age-old story than Shem. She owns this song from start to finish.
Her band, all well-known musicians, but on this album, they coalesce into a warm supportive role. The great US groove guitarist Carl Lockett is an astonishing technician and a man of impeccable musical taste. It is impossible to imagine him playing badly and he is heard at his bluesy best on State Highway. Roger Manins and Ron Samsom need no introduction either, both provide the best of what New Zealand has to offer. Lastly, there is Michel Benebig on his beloved B3. When this man solo’s he can mine a groove to unplumbed depths, but when he accompanies Shem’s vocals he reigns in his bravura impulses and provides her vocals with the caressing comping they deserve. AMJBCA
While pop music briefly looked up and saw satellites and Rock music headed for the dark side of the moon, Jazz musicians lifted their vision further, aiming beyond Voyager and reaching for the farthest corners of deep space. Exploring those regions is the beautifully realised Aldebaran Quartet, an ensemble which pleases me greatly. It’s not often that I encounter a band like this and I can’t wait for them to record.
I first reviewed them in March of this year, hoping that this would not be a one-off project and thankfully it wasn’t. They are fresh, modern and original while conjuring up memories of an era that I am still passionate about. 70’s Modal Jazz – Space Funk, Alice Coltrane, Bobby Hutcherson, Bernie Maupin and Eddie Henderson. This was an era of space dreams and old analogue machines. It stretched the imagination beyond known horizons and in so doing, encapsulated the true ethos of improvised music. Happily, this band is true to the original mission directive; reach beyond fearlessly.
Aldebaran is an Arabic word meaning follower and it refers to the giant orange star Aldebaran which follows the Pleiades Constellation into the night sky; sitting somewhere to the left of Orion’s Belt. It has long exited the human imagination. The Egyptians, Greeks Persians and others were particularly fascinated by its presence as it is the largest entity in the Taurian configuration. It is a mere 65.3 light years away from Earth and 7 billion years old. It is therefore entirely fitting that an improvising unit pays reverent homage to the ‘Watcher of the East’.
We caught a piece of luck when vibist John Bell returned to our shores and that was reinforced by the return of drummer Steve Cournane. It also coincided with the return of the pianist Phil Broadhurst who had been sojourning in Paris for a while. Add in either Eamon Edmundson-Wells or on this gig Cameron McArthur on bass, and you have a winning combination. At the Wallace Arts Trust gig, we heard new compositions by Bell and one each by Broadhurst and Cournane. We also heard the premiere of a new Bell composition ‘Corona’, a suite in four parts. I have posted the last two parts as the entire suite nears 20 minutes in length. It is so beautifully composed that ‘Corona’ could easily be extended even further without ever taxing an audience.
If you get a chance to catch this band, do so. The journey that they will take you on is very worthwhile. This was only their second public performance and judging by their form to date, we can look forward to what follows with happy anticipation. The Aldebaran Quartet on this gig was: John Bell (vibraharp), Phil Broadhurst (piano), Steve Cournane (drums) and Cam McArthur (bass). The gig was held at the Wallace Arts Trust 19 August 2018.
The decision to review these two albums together makes sense for a number of reasons. They were both released on the Rattle Label earlier this year and both are quite exceptional. I predict that both albums will be nominated for Jazz Tui’s next year, it’s a no-brainer. Once again, Rattle has served us up a tasty fare. Albums that are beautifully presented and which compare favourably with the best from anywhere.
‘Eat Your Greens’ is an album by to the popular Wellington pianist and educator Anita Schwabe. It was recorded at the UoA Kenneth Myers Centre in Auckland during her recent tour. Her band also performed live before a capacity audience at Auckland’s CJC Creative Jazz Club and it was immediately obvious that they were in great form. Schwabe normally plays with Wellington musicians and regularly with the Roger Fox Big Band. The idea of recording in Auckland was formed while sharing gigs with Roger Manins earlier and it was with his assistance that the Kenneth Myers Centre was made available for recording.
The semi-muted acoustics in the KMC auditorium work well for smaller ensembles and especially when John Kim captures them. Schwabe is a delightful pianist and her swinging feel was elevated to the sublime by the inclusion of Manins on tenor saxophone, Cameron McArthur on upright bass and Ron Samsom on drums. Having such fine musicians working in sync is the first strength of the album; the other strength is the compositions.
The album is a hard swinger in the classic post-bop mould, and in spite of the references to past greats, the musicians insert a down to earth Kiwi quality. The compositions are superb vehicles for momentum and improvisation and the band wastes no opportunity in exploiting those strengths. In light of the above and unsurprisingly, a track from the album. ‘Spring tide’, won Schwabe an APRA Award for best New Zealand Jazz composition this year. As you play through the tracks you will be grabbed by Manins bravura performance during ‘Anger Management’ or by his sensitive playing on the lovely loping ‘The way the cards Lay’ (Manins is Getz like here); at how beautifully McArthur pushes that little bit harder in order to get the best from his bandmates or how finely tuned Samsom is to the nuances of the pulse (plus a few heart-stopping solos).
It is, however, every bit Schwabe’s album and it is her playing and her compositions that stay with you. I am particularly fond of ‘There once was a Time’ – a fond smile in Bill Evans direction and evocative from start to finish. That such a fine pianist should be so under-recorded is a mystery to me. Thanks to Rattle that may well change. This is an album that Jazz-lovers will play over and over and each time they do they will find something new to delight them.
Anita Schwabe: (piano, compositions), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums). Released on Rattle
‘No Dogs Allowed’ is the follow-up to the acclaimed 2015 Jazz Tui winning album ‘Dog’. The earlier album set such a high standard that it was hard to contemplate that offering being improved on. This, however, is not a band to rest on their laurels and the restless creative forces driving their upward trajectory have resulted in another album that feels like a winner. This time around there is an Australian in the mix, as they have added the astonishingly gifted Adelaide guitarist James Muller as a guest. It was a brave move to mess with a winning combination and to expand the quartet to a quintet but anyone who has heard Roger Manins play alongside Muller will know that this addition was always going to work to their advantage.
While Muller has chops to burn and manifests a rare tonal clarity, you will never hear him deploy a note or a phrase needlessly. Here you have five master musicians speaking a common language and communicating at the highest level. Although each is a seasoned veteran and bursting with their own ideas, they harness those energies to the collective and the result is immensely satisfying. It must be hard for gifted musicians to set ego aside this way, but these five did just that.
While the album is the perfect example of Jazz as an elevated art form it is never for a moment remote or high brow. As with the 2015 album, the core Dog members shared compositional duties. There are two tunes each from Manins, Field and Holland and three from Samsom. Their contributions are different stylistically but the tracks compliment. Place Manins, Field, Holland and Samsom in a studio and the potion immediately starts to bubble. Add a pinch of Muller and the magical alchemy is complete. When you are confronted with a great bunch of tunes like this and have to pick one it’s hard. In the end, I chose Manins ‘Schwiben Jam’ for its warm embracing groove. The album and particularly this track connects your ears directly to your heart.
The Album is released on Rattle and was recorded in Adelaide at the Wizard Tone Studios. DOG: Kevin Field (piano and keys), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Olivier Holland (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums) + James Muller (guitar).
It is not often that you attend a gig where a set list covers such a range of styles but still pays due respect to each. If anyone could pull off such a gig; traversing the heights of Monk, Murray McNabb, Frantz Casseus, Bill Frisell and Ornette Colman it was these two. In lesser hands, the trajectory would have faltered, the items come across as disembodied. Here, the connecting threads, however improbable, made perfect sense. The centre held and the arc of the journey was a joyous adventure.
Neil Watson is a musician who musicians flock to hear. He breaks rules and strikes out in directions where few dare to follow. Everyone from Sharrock to Montgomery is referenced in his sound; with a generous pinch of Ribot thrown in for good measure. He sometimes hides in pit bands backing dancing fools, tours with famous country stars, opens for people like Marc Ribot, but whatever he does, he does convincingly. In recent years he purchased a pedal steel guitar and that is now an essential part of his repertoire. He exudes real warmth on stage, both as a storyteller and a musician.
I have only seen David Ward play on the odd occasion but it is always a treat. Like Watson, he is a master of diverse styles and he is particularly noted for his award-winning theatre compositions. He has toured extensively and gained a formidable reputation over the years. In Jazz and alternative music circles, it is the improvising band RUKUS that we mostly associate him with. RUKUS has featured a who’s who of adventurous improvisers such as Chris O’Connor, John Bell, Jeff Henderson, Eamon Edmundson-Wells, Cameron Allen, Finn Scholes & Rui Inaba.
The pairing of Watson and Ward guaranteed that creative sparks would fly. It was always on the cards that they would perform together but until now the opportunity had not presented itself. I am certain that this project will develop from here – logic tells me it has to. The quality of their musicianship was very much on display at the Backbeat Bar. On the three Monk tunes, they either ran unison lines or interwove an intricate counterpoint, and miraculously, the jagged phrases often created a fat Monkish dissonance; each guitarist deliberately landing on different voicings- creating a piano cluster chord effect. This was a quality band as Watson & Ward were backed by Cameron Allen (tenor and Baritone saxophones) Cameron McArthur (upright bass) and Chris O’Connor (drums). Understanding exactly what was required here the three left the lion’s share of the limelight to the guitarists. O’Connor displayed his usual eclectic virtuosity as the drum styles required were many and varied.
At one point Watson played solo, a composition by Frantz Casseus (a folksy classical guitarist who has influenced the likes of Marc Ribot). Out of his Fender came a delicate classical guitar sound – a moment of whispering clarity and magic. The pair also showcased their own compositions and again these contrasted in a good way. Ward’s ‘Mango’, ‘Shebop’ and ‘Hip replacement’ – Watson’s ‘Trash talkin’ (a Western Swing) and his extraordinarily ‘Murray’ – an apt tribute to the lost lamented and much-loved Jazz musician Murray McNabb. Among the tunes, we heard some heartfelt Americana (rare in New Zealand Jazz clubs and it is especially rare to hear Western two-beat Swing).
The high points were many, but I will put up two clips; The first is a Bill Frisell number ‘I am not a farmer’ from his moody atmospheric album ‘Disfamer’. The second up is a short clip where Watson plays a Frantz Casseus tune ‘Improvisations’ solo on Fender.
The gig took place at the Backbeat Bar, K’Road Auckland for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, 15 August 2018.
Chelsea Prastiti was not long back from Cyprus when her band Leda’s Dream appeared at the Backbeat Bar. Prastiti is well known in the Auckland improvised music scene and especially so at the avant-garde end of town. She’s a compelling vocalist and composer who approaches her craft as a free spirit, unfettered by others expectations. When she sings she dives deep and puts herself out there fearlessly but her risk-taking is not a mere academic exercise; it cuts to the very heart of what it means to be a thinking, feeling human. Her compositions are therefore always interesting and out of that a raw beauty and an honesty arise. Although the ensemble played material that we have heard before, they sounded incredibly fresh – even different. Crystal Choi confined herself to accompanying vocals (no keys), Michael Howell stepped further into a measured chordal role and Callum Passells on alto and voice effects was the archetypal minimalist (saying a lot more with less). This felt very right and the re-configuration gave the ensemble a lot more freedom. They stretched out as the spirit took them and the first two tunes filled the entire first set. The voices, in particular, were liberated by the change and this gave wings to the melodic lines and mood. The harmonies were there in spades but that was not what drew you in. It was ‘mood’ and the pictures that those moods created. Prastiti’s is a brave path and I would expect no less from her. This is a musical space that is sparsely populated and more’s the pity. Think Sera Serpa (duos or trios), Think Norma Winstone (Azimuth 85) or perhaps the brilliant Nordic vocalist Sidsel Endresen (Endresen live with Jan Bang). In this ensemble, she has the musicians to give her the freedom she deserves. Passells, who is unafraid of soft trailing notes or of minimalism, Howell who can follow a vamp to eternity and make it sing, Choi who instinctively makes the right moves, and Eamon Edmundson-Wells and Tristen Deck who know when to lay out and when to add colour or texture. The music drew from free improvisation, standard Jazz and deep Folkloric wells. It did so without undue introspection. The band brought the audience along with them and the bouts of enthusiastic applause proved it. For some reason, and it was partly their attire, the gig felt like a postmodern version of a Pre-Raphaelite tableau. Oh yes indeed, that always works for me.
Leda’s Dream: Chelsea Prastiti (vocals, compositions), Crystal Choi (vocals), Michael Howell (guitar), Callum Passells (alto sax, sound effects), Eamon Edmundson-Wells (upright bass), Tristan Deck (drums), Backbeat Bar, 8 August 2018
Tomasz Stanko died two days before the Eamon Dilworth gig and I was feeling the loss. I don’t know why this particular musician’s passing affected me so much but it did. Perhaps it was the untimeliness, a great artist gone too soon. It was as if a vital soundtrack to my life had been placed on pause. As I moped about the house, playing Wislawa and The New York Quartets, I remembered that Dilworth was playing soon and I cheered up immediately. I had reviewed the Viata album a month previously and loved it. I knew that it would be a balm and I knew that it would connect me to that place which Stanko took me. It did.
The Viata album had an astonishing array of gifted musicians on it, Dilworth, Alister Spence, Carl Morgan, Jonathan Zwartz and Paul Derricott. When Dilworth flew into Auckland he was only accompanied by the pianist Spence. The rest of the Auckland lineup would be local pick up musicians. Dilworth has a very distinctive sound and hearing his tunes played on different instruments or by other musicians was going to be interesting. Replacing Morgan on guitar was tenor player Roger Manins, on drums Andy Keegan and on upright bass Wil Goodinson. Manins needs no introduction to Australasian audiences and I was looking forward to hearing him in this context. People associate him with burners and that is his shtick, but Manins is also a master at blowing in these spacious atmospheric situations. I hadn’t seen Andy Keegan for a while but I rate his playing – he thinks through what he’s doing, listens carefully and responds appropriately. The last of the New Zealand players, Wil Goodinson, is a gifted newcomer with big ears, a terrific sound and with great things ahead.
This was the first time that I have heard Alister Spence. He is truly an extraordinary pianist and I could hardly believe what I was hearing. A minimalist whose voicings gave power to the spaces – leaving behind in the wake of each note, a gentle otherworldly dissonance. There were long ostinato passages, often a single chord, which shifted the focus imperceptibly. He crafted minute changes without once losing the ostinato vibe. Floating arpeggiated chords, at times Debussy like – as if Terry Riley had appropriated a Debussy moment and made it airy as it floated heavenward. And all of this creating the perfect platform for Dilworth.
It is a brave musician who explores space with such lightness of touch. Dilworth is exactly the right person to do this. His playing and compositions create dreamscapes, warm interludes from the harshness of the post-truth world. This allows us to rise far above the mundane. It is as much about his worldview as it is about sound. He is a musician who thinks about life and then forges a sonic philosophy out of those musings. It is unmistakably, the sort of sound that ECM thrives on. It is time they profiled an Australian. Here, all is subordinate to mood, with the harmonies often implied; the tempos are measured, nothing is hurried and the melodies are miniatures; elided and markers on an interesting journey. Dilworth utilises the extended techniques in his trumpet playing but there is nothing ostentatious on display. Every whisper of air or long-held note is a story in itself.
We heard most of the album during the night and a tune from his earlier Tiny Hearts album. It was hard to decide which tune to post as a video, but I chose Toran which is the last track on the Viata album. To get the most out of it, sit down, slow your breathing and close your eyes. This is a masterclass in subtlety and well worth the effort. The gig took place at the Backbeat Bar, K’Road, Auckland for the CJC Creative Jazz Club.
There are a number of things that should be on every music lovers bucket list. Experiencing a Basie Orchestra gig live is one of them. This band has the history of modern music in its DNA and after 83 years on the road, they are in their prime. Goodman was always referred to as the ‘king of swing’ but in my view Basie was a better contender for that title. His brand of swing had it’s nascent stirrings in 1927 when Basie joined Bennie Moten. When that band folded he took many of the musicians with him to form the Basie Band in 1935. The Basie band possessed a unique sound, fueled by a nine-piece line up featuring legendary greats like Lester Young, ‘Papa’ Jo Jones and Walter Page. Johnny Hammond heard them in 1936 and invited them to New York where at his suggestion they expanded to become a thirteen piece jazz Orchestra. At this time they were joined by Freddie Green and others. Skillfully, they incorporated the nimbleness of the Kansas City small ensemble swing-feel into a new sound.
When we listened to the Orchestra in Auckland a few nights ago, every iteration of their 83 years was touched upon. Early and contemporary charts, the gorgeous highly arranged charts from Neil Hefti, Frank Foster and Quincey Jones ‘second testament’ era, some newly arranged material, plus a fabulous tribute to the Basie/Amstrong/Fitzgerald collaborations. Giving added weight to that celebration was the inclusion of vocalist Carmen Bradford. Bradford was originally hired by Basie himself and so she has a long association with the orchestra. Hers is a big voice and an instrument perfectly suited to Ella’s songbook. She is a Jazz vocalist in the traditional sense and it is no wonder that Basie gave her a shot. At times she sang duets with various of the band members, but it was when she and Scotty Barnhart got together that the sparks really flew.
Barnhart, a two times Grammy winner is the musical director of the Basie orchestra and a featured soloist. His Louis Armstrong tribute captured not just ‘Pops’ but the great man’s contemporaries, an often overlooked cohort who deserve to be examined more often than they are. Modern trumpet styles are a long way removed from the street rich dirty growls and blues-infused storytelling of those times. A sound which always communicated a world of raw emotion and deep humanity. As the tribute tunes moved through the era, we heard everything from the lighter-hearted ‘A Tisket a Tasket’ (a traditional nursery rhyme), to Gershwin classics like ‘A Foggy Day in London Town’ or ‘Summertime’. Some of the numbers predated the Basie bands like ‘Struttin With Some Barbecue’ (Armstrong 1927) while others were more contemporary like the gorgeous arrangement of Stevie Wonders ‘Ma Cherie Amour’.
Among the most enjoyable moments were the sensitive trio rendition of ‘Hello Dolly’ (Herman) and the ever wonderful and always compelling Hefti arrangement of ‘April in Paris’ (Duke/Harburg). Doug Lawrence the tenor soloist astounded as always (I was sitting next to a young tenor player and his jaw dropped in amazement during Lawrence’s solos). These musicians are so tight that an atomic blast couldn’t separate them and they swing like crazy. I guess 84 years on the road will do that. I have seen this orchestra before and with any luck, I will see it again and again. There is only one thing you can say in summing up a Basie Orchestra performance; “ONE MORE TIME – please”.
The concert took place at the Aotea Centre, Auckland City, New Zealand, July 30, 2018
This project was bound to happen sometime and it was long overdue. On the night of the bands first gig, the pent-up energy that had long been building found a voice. As they kicked off, the room filled with potent energy and the enthusiasm of the band was met in equal parts by the capacity audience. Steve Sherriff is fondly remembered from Alan Browns Blue Train days and he brought with him an interesting group of musicians. Most of them were compatriates from earlier bands and their familiarity with each other musically paid dividends.
On keyboards, was Alan Brown and this was an obvious and very good choice. Brown has a long history with Sherriff and this was evident as they interacted. On trumpet was the veteran Mike Booth; a musician more than capable of navigating complex ensemble situations and delivering strong solos. Ron Samsom was on drums, another well-matched band member, ever urging the band to ever greater heights as he mixed organic grooves with a hard swing feel. Then there was Neil Watson on pedal steel and fender guitars and Jo Shum on electric and acoustic bass. When you put a group of strong soloists and leaders together there is a degree risk, but these musicians worked in perfect lock-step. As in sync as they were, Sherriff was the dominant presence on stage and no one doubted who the leader was.
Sherriff is a fine saxophonist with a compelling tone on each of his horns. On this gig, he alternated between tenor and soprano (though he sometimes plays alto in orchestral lineups). He has an individual sound and it is especially noticeable on tenor ballads and on tunes where he plays soprano. His other strength lies in his compositions. He and Brown contributed all of the numbers for this gig, but in future, other band members will be contributing also. This was small-ensemble writing of the highest order – tightly focused – melodically and harmonically pleasing. The faster-paced numbers were reminiscent of hard bop – the ballads memorably beautiful. Brown and Sherriff set a high compositional bar.
It was Watson though, who took the most risks and the audience just loved it. At times he appeared to be stress testing his Fender as he bent strings and made the guitar wail. At other times he was the straight-ahead guitarist in Kenny Burrell mode – then on a ballad number, he would gently coax his pedal steel guitar and play with such warmth and subtlety that you sighed with pleasure. It had been a while since I’d seen Jo Shum perform and this was a setting where she shone.
Although the band was only formed recently, they will be ready to record sometime in the near future. The material and the synergy of the band is just too good to squander.
Steve Sherriff (compositions, leader, saxophones), Alan Brown (keyboard, compositions), Mike Booth (trumpet), Neil Watson (pedal steel and Fender guitar), Jo Shum (upright + electric bass), Ron Samsom (drums). The gig took place at the Backbeat Bar, K’Road, Auckland, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, July 25, 2018.
I have a special connection with this band and specifically with the recording that this gig was reprising. It felt like something of a milestone at the time, as the New Zealand scene was hungry for a fresh take on classic funk. This was a sound that many had been waiting for. Guitar and Rhodes rich with a punchy e-bass and modern drum pulse. A sound which hinted at classic prog-rock or the soaring fusion of Focus. Some listeners were reminded of the heady days of funk’s urban dominance while others felt reconnected with High Street of the nineties; a decade of danceable Jazz crossover. It was, however, considerably more than a glance into the past; it effectively leapt into the space opened up by the release of Aaron Parks, Invisible Cinema. It scratched many itches at once and it was loved by forward-looking Jazz audiences, Funk aficionados and Rock audiences alike.
I will state my personal connection up front. After hearing the ‘Between the spaces’ recording and the band live, my partner and I hired them for a house party. It is not an event that I will forget in a hurry. We rolled back the carpets, chilled the beer, carved the roast and warned the neighbours. Seeing a band like this set up in your living room is a special feeling. It creates a deep connection on a very personal level. As they played into their first tune the air sizzled with electricity and everyone drifted in from the other rooms, the garden and the deck. One by one the neighbours started to turn up – some were definitely not Jazz fans but before long they were dancing along with the rest and feeling amazed that they had discovered a new genre of music. Some danced, most smiled, and everyone was mesmerised by the groove.
My partner Darien was a Labour MP then and that attracted other MP’s to the gig. The then recently elected back-bencher Jacinda Ardern (our current Prime Minister), Chris ‘Chippy’ Hipkins (now Minister of Education and house leader), David Shearer (then opposition leader and now a senior UN diplomat protecting the most vulnerable in Africa). But most of all I remember that our dear friend Helen Kelly flew up for the party. She loved the band and purchased a copy of the album. We lost her a few years later – New Zealand lost her – so yes, these memories are very personal.
The band at the Backbeat Bar featured most of the original core band, Alan Brown on keys (playing an Arturia KeyLab 88), Andy Smith (dusting of a semi hollow-body for the occasion), Jono Sawyer (drums) and David Hodkinson (electric bass). Hodkinson often appeared when the original band performed live, but Marika Hodgson was the bass player on the album. The Backbeat Bar CJC gig was right up to the mark, as the band had lost none of their spark. You could tell that they still loved playing this material and the audience, a mixture of old and new fans, were clearly delighted with what they heard. While the gig reprised many of the older numbers we also heard some interesting newer material. I have it on good authority that Alan is seriously considering a Between the spaces two. I certainly hope so – the original album was long ago integrated into my life’s soundtrack.
The gig took place at the Backbeat Bar for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, July 18, 2018. For copies of the original ‘Between the spaces’ album or for subsequent Alan Brown albums, you could try your local record store, but the best place to purchase is through Brown’s Bandcamp site, which is at AlanBrownBandcamp.com
Karangahape Road and the precincts around it are a natural home for adventurous and alternative music. If you walk the length, you are assailed by sights and sounds at variance to each other. Taken in their entirety they are oddly compatible. The jumble of colour and the bursts of noise as you pass a Karaoke bar or an uber cool eatery is counterbalanced by the languid notes from Shanghai Lils or the soft chatter emanating from Hookah smoking Kebab shop doorways. Woven into this oddness of streetwalkers and urban cool, are the alternative music joints. Down in basements, under the street or up narrow stairways. Thirsty Dog, Anthology, Audio Foundation, Wine Cellar. And at the top end of the strip, next to the old Jewish graveyard is the Backbeat Bar. High-quality alternative improvised music resides here on Wednesdays.
Takadimi is the brainchild of the gifted tabla player Manjit Singh and the CJC featured his band last Wednesday. This is a fusion band in the very best sense of the word as it fuses styles and complex rhythms with apparent ease. The music’s origins are clear but the tunes are not unduly anchored to them. We are living in an age when classical forms are not nailed down and in the west, the whole notion of musical purity is frequently overstated. The higher purpose of music is to connect on a human level and not to impress by showing off technical prowess. Takadimi connected deeply and spoke directly to our senses. They played improvised music but worked into the complex structures of Indian Talas. It felt as if both forms were respected.
The tunes were all introduced by the leader Manjit Singh, who would establish the rhythm by chanting a tala (or taal); then he would guide the ensemble into the open and freer air of jazz harmonies where collective (or solo) improvisation occurred. I have seen this band before and this felt like a step up. The soloists, in particular, showed a readiness to work with and enjoy the challenges presented by the complex polyrhythms. All of the musicians held the line and made it appear easy – it certainly was not.
Underpinning everything were the rhythms and colours provided on the Tabla – an instrument long embedded into the Jazz repertoire. Anyone who has heard John McLoughlin, Jean Luc Ponty and Zakir Hussain together will understand how profound the association can be. It is therefore great to have such a fine tabla player in our midst and it our good luck that he is up for cross-genre collaborations.
The last time I heard Takadimi was at the Thirsty Dog; way down the other end of K’ Road. On that gig the lineup was different, this time the band had no guitar and the pianist Alan Brown had joined them. Singh could not have chosen better. Brown is well versed in the output of East European wunderkind Tigran Hamasyan. Hamasyan often counts in with talas and his beautiful Armenian styled rhythms are at times, very close to Indian forms. Brown is a master of complex rhythmic structures and capable of executing them without ever losing the groove. There were many fine performances but a standout was from Lukas Fritsch. His alto danced expertly through the tunes and for a young musician, he handled the complexities like a veteran.
The clip that I have posted is a beautiful composition by the guru Ustad Fazal Qureshi and arranged by Manjit Singh. The Taal is Mishra Jaati – rendered as a polyrhythmic 7 over 4/4 time. On this track, Brown plays a synth instead of piano.
Takadimi: Manjit Singh (leader, tabla, arrangements), Alan Brown (piano, keyboards), Lukas Fritsch (alto saxophone), Denholm Orr (bass), Daniel Waterson (drums). The gig was at the Backbeat Bar, K’ Road, Auckland, CJC Creative Jazz Club, July 11, 2018.
There is an inescapable charm surrounding any Besser performance and Wednesday’s Zestniks gig at the Backbeat bar was no exception. While his music has many strands feeding it and although it can be hard to categorise, it is never the less rooted in the Jewish musical traditions. Besser is somewhat of an icon in Arts circles and deservedly so. The arc of his work has a momentum that few could emulate. As it alights on various styles or genres it borrows their raiment, and seemingly without compromising what lies at the music’s heart; gathering what is necessary and no more. Over the years he has collaborated with leading conceptual artists, filmmakers, symphony orchestras, electronic adventurers and Jazz musicians. The Zestnics performance reflected much of this fascinating journey.
I am always drawn to performers who leaven their gigs with an appropriate portion of banter and Besser’s comments and asides were delightful. They were delivered with a deadpan expression and consequently were nicely understated. As with music, timing and delivery are everything. Many of the tunes were from his ‘Gimel Suite’ and a quick investigation of the word leads you to a cornucopia of meanings. It is the third letter of the Hebrew alphabet, it is a letter imbued with special qualities and it this case it is a footing or foundation for composition. This is an ancient to modern music and I suspect that those listening will have conjured their own associations. Because I have recently travelled through eastern Europe, I heard the warp and weft of Polish or Czech street music.
The other ensemble members came from a variety of disciplines and this was fitting. Caro Manins on vocals with her deep knowledge of ancient Sephardic Ladino music; Nigel Gavin, an adventurous ‘World music’ musician who ignores artificial boundaries; John Bell, a Vibes player from the free to groove or ‘World’ end of town; Eamon Edmundson-Wells on bass, a versatile bass player and also frequently seen in avant-garde settings; Alistair Deverick on drums, navigating those exhilarating rhythms. Lastly were two from the expanded Black Quartet; Peau Halapua on violin and Sophie Buxton on viola – popular classical musicians and sometimes seen with Jazz or ‘World’ ensembles. Besser, of course, was on piano.
Some of the tunes were nostalgic or even mournful, some were brimming with joy – all were enjoyable. The tunes never strayed too far from the notation, but there were some brief improvised sections which balanced things up nicely. I have posted the last number of the gig and while I am not sure of the title, I know that it brought the house down.
The gig took place on the 4th of July, 2018 at the Backbeat Bar, K’Road, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club.
The pleasure of experiencing great music in small venues is inestimable. Sure, we love it when the famous cats blow through town, rush to get our tickets for the town hall concerts, pay the hefty price tag gladly and listen; watch the tiny figures way, way down on stage. I have attended many such concerts over the years and regarded them among life’s high points, but now I am not so sure. As great as these concerts are and as amazing as the visiting musicians are, the experience is filtered through layers of complexity and as a result, one essential ingredient is often missing, that feeling of warm intimacy.
I have heard road-wise musicians talk of a virtuous feedback loop, the way artist and audience feed off each other until the music becomes bigger than the sum of its parts. Large civic venues are by their very nature redactive and the end result is often a performer facing a passive sea of listeners. Anyone who has been tapped on the shoulder during a performance and been told by an usher to sit still will get my point. Sitting still and mute is difficult for seasoned Jazz lovers. We know when to hold our breath and we know not to chatter, but we also understand when to vocalise our joy or when to exhort a soloist to greater heights. And bodies will sway and feet will tap – that’s the fine point of engagement. When the music is visceral it radiates a life force and even at the most fundamental level of existence, atoms collide and shift. If it lives it moves.
Some of us, the lucky ones, have experienced an artist of international stature performing in a small cosy club. If it’s a pianist and if a very good piano is located in the venue, then it’s a recipe for unbounded enjoyment. A few days ago Barney McAll played at a sold-out venue at the Wellington International Jazz Festival. Thanks to his close friend Jonathan Crayford he stopped off for a day in Auckland on his return journey. There had been some discussion about this possibility a few months ago and JC assured me that it would happen. Because I had a prior warning I waited and when the tickets appeared I swooped like a hawk. Only the lucky few got to attend this gig.
The eye-catching online notification featured an attractive sketch and a poster which read; ‘Barney McAll plays Gospel solo piano at Freida Margolis, limited tickets available’. In the fine print was the word, Steinway. Together this spelt seismic. When you hear McAll you experience more than just music, you experience dreamscapes and multiple histories. The first thing to grasp about McAll is that he can reference many styles and genres and while this is disconcerting to some, it is an essential part of his output. Cutting edge contemporary improvised music, Orchestral Jazz, alternative popular music, standards, soul, free or Gospel. While his projects can feature any of the above styles, each is laid down with the utmost integrity and each bears his unmistakable hallmark.
What we heard were mostly Gospel hymns – the sort you would hear in a Harlem church. They were hymns, but not presented in the way you’d hear them in a New Zealand or Australian church. They were improvisational vehicles and the voicings of some old-time Jazz greats shone through. I have heard such voicings from the likes of Hank Jones and this is hardly surprising. Musicians like Jones came up through the black gospel church experience. What is uncommon, is to hear this from a white Australian musician. His eight years of playing in American Gospel churches left its mark of authenticity on him.
During the night he invited Jonathan Crayford and Bella Kalolo to join him. Crayford accompanied on piano, free improvising, while McAll played an unusual guitar-like instrument, imparting a sitar sound or prepared piano sound. Kalolo was obviously delighted to be accompanied by McAll and even though she was unamplified and therefore low volume the two of them had strong chemistry. While they approach the tunes differently, Gospel is clearly something both artists understand.
McAll also played Necter Spur from his ‘Mooroolbark’ album and ‘The Nock Code’ from his recent ‘Hearing the Blood’ album. Both albums garnered multiple awards and significant praise. Unencumbered by a band, he ranged freely over the numbers and found exquisite asides to explore in-depth. This was music to be experienced from three metres away. This was a love letter to the classic Steinway ‘D’ series and Freida Margolis was the perfect backdrop. I had mounted the camera up high and it was surrounded by tiles which brightened the sound – but that piano – those tunes and those musicians found the magic and gave us a gig to remember.
Barney McAll (Steinway D, stringed instrument), Bella Kalolo (vocals), Jonathan Crayford (Steinway D) – for McAll albums visit Extra Celestial Arts on Bandcamp.
So many great improvising artists gig on our New Zealand and Australian club circuits that we could easily become complacent and we shouldn’t be. This golden age for hearing hi-quality live Jazz is the result of hard work behind the scenes, and a dedicated few, mostly volunteers, make this happen for us. They deserve our thanks and above all, they deserve our commitment to the cause of live music. This year and last year were especially interesting at the CJC, as the breadth and quality of the music hit new highs. What the performing artists put into these tours or gigs is beyond estimation – but we, the audiences are lucky; all we have to do is climb out of our chairs, throw on a coat (yes it is cold out but warm as toast in the venues) and experience the magic.
For the second time in less than a month, we had a pre-eminent and award-winning Australian vocalist in our city, Michelle Nicolle. A quick perusal of her YouTube clips or pages is quite enough to reel you in; experiencing her quartet live is a great Jazz experience. Nicolle has a big voice and a voice with an astonishing vocal range. In spite of that, she is remarkably expressive, even at a whisper. Her quartet has a long history together and because of that, the accompanying musicians know how to react to the vocalists every nuance. Good accompanists know when to hold back and when to answer a phrase and they did. They gifted the tunes a spaciousness, allowing the notes or phrases to breathe and their good judgement caused the lyrics to flow with ease.
The setlist was a mix of originals and standards, many of the standards being Ellington or Strayhorn tunes. Her own compositions although different in flavour were a bridge between past and present, updating the sentiments that Strayhorn often expressed, but dressing them in modern clothing. ‘Drop that smile’ being a good example. There was a very tasteful interpretation of Cole Porters ‘So in Love’ and a great rendition of Ornette Coleman’s ‘The blessing’, but as good as those tunes were, it was her Strayhorn that captivated.
On guitar was the impeccable vocal accompanist Geoff Hughes (reputed to be an expat Kiwi), on upright bass was Tom Lee and on drums Ronny Ferella. No wonder the quartet received a Bell Award in 2017. The clip is ‘The Days of Wine & Roses’ from an earlier MNQ tour and possibly with a different guitarist.
The concert occurred during the days immediately proceeding the Wellington International Jazz festival and it was cold and wet outside. In spite of that, those who were still in town wrapped up and made their way to the Backbeat Bar and everyone who braved the cold was very glad that they did.
MNQ: Michelle Nicolle (vocals, composition), Geoff Hughes (guitar), Tom Lee (bass), Ronny Ferella (drums). The gig took place at the Backbeat Bar, K’Road, Auckland, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club. June 06, 2018.
Wednesday 30th May was the Auckland launch of Sumo’s second album titled ‘Shiko’. I am reliably informed that Shiko is a stamping motion which Sumo wrestlers perfect during training. The action drives away evil spirits and when you hear the band, the descriptor strikes you as appropriate. Suspense and surprise are hallmarks of this unit and as in Sumo wrestling, you get theatre, tricky moves, tradition and a degree of inscrutability. Above all, they showcase quality improvised music.
The compositions were the first thing that interested me. Some were warm ballads, but mostly they were propulsive tunes with a compelling forward momentum. Sumo is billed as a quartet, but they regularly invite guests to perform with them and they encourage the guests to bring original compositions to the bandstand. This concept always works, as the best, improvised music arises out of challenges and tensions. Complacency is death in Jazz. The guest on this night was the talented Christchurch guitarist Brad Kang. I had heard his name mentioned by visiting musicians, but I had never heard him perform. He has a real presence on the bandstand and his effortless post-Rosenwinkel runs are jaw-dropping. He made it all look easy when clearly it was not.
The core group is Gwyn Reynolds on tenor saxophone, Darren Pickering on keys, Mike Story on bass and Joe McCallum on drums. During the evening we heard compositions from all of them and their different compositional approaches made the sets interesting. I like bands that exude human qualities rather than mechanical ones and underpinning this group was a warmth and an interconnectedness. Together they have a great sound and it is no wonder that Roger Manins had been trying to lure them north for some time. If there were any lurking bad spirits around that night they stood no chance of survival.
Sumo: Gwyn Reynolds (tenor saxophone), Darren Pickering (keys), Mike Story (upright bass), Joe McCallum (drums) plus Brad Kang (guitar). The gig took place at the Backbeat Bar, K’Road, Auckland for the CJC Creative Jazz Club. May 30, 2018.
Viata: When the Eamon Dilworth album ‘Viata’ was delivered, I was just about to head off to a gig. As I pulled out, I fed the CD into the car sound system and was immediately captivated. Some albums grab you like that, cutting through the dross of everyday life and commanding your fullest attention. The next day, freed from distraction I played it again, and as I listened, the power of the music was evident; a private world where carefully layered soundscapes revealed themselves in an unhurried fashion. I have heard Dilworth live and listened to his recordings, but this is ‘one out of the bag’. Over the years I have learned to expect great things from Australian improvisers and this certainly reinforces that well-earned reputation. ‘Arrow’ was a great album but ‘Viata’ is quite exceptional.
Arrow and Alluvium, were broader canvases – more eclectic; but these compositions are pastoral rather than urban landscapes. Revealed are breathtaking aural vistas of the kind you would expect from ECM artists; pristine spacious northern European landscapes. One of the tunes is titled ‘Eich’, a clear homage to Norway’s Matias Eich and it is beautifully realised, but as you work through the album the unmistakable dreamy warmth and gentle slurring of Tomasz Stanko is evident. Jon Hassel helped shape the direction of Scandinavian trumpeters and perhaps via the Nordics, Australian trumpet players also. These are not the only influences evident here and the vast Australian landscapes cannot be overlooked. In spite of its influences, the album stands strongly on its own merits. The quintet utilises the skills of notable Australian musicians; Alistair Spence (piano), Carl Morgan (guitar), Jonathan Zwartz (bass) and Paul Derricott (drums). With these heavyweights accompanying Dilworth, he couldn’t lose. This is an album I really enjoyed. If you listen carefully it is possible to hear a distant Bell beckoning.
Zephyrix: There is nothing that piques my interest more than receiving news of an impending Barney McAll project. His projects are seldom announced in conventional ways but they creep into your consciousness like portents. You see an image or hear a rumour and know that something is unfolding. A few months ago I noticed a mysterious image appearing below a McAll tweet. There was no explanation, just the word Zephyrix and an image of a man-bird. Because he paints on a vast canvas and because he is a master of subliminal, the image was the message; leaving you with the sense that something extraordinary was about to appear. This how McAll works his magic. By communicating on many levels at once. You always get great music, but embedded in that music and in the related media are archetypes. This album exemplifies his approach to creating art and it touches on his philosophy.
A few weeks after I spotted the image I received an email from Melbourne’s Monash University, inviting me to attend the launch of McAll’s Zephyrix album as a guest. The work was commissioned for the prestigious Monash Art Ensemble, a fifteen-piece Jazz orchestra. The work had six parts and was conducted by the well respected Paul Grabowsky. A few years earlier I had interviewed McAll during his Peggy Glanville-Hicks composers residency in Sydney. The work was composed at around that time.
Although unable to attend the launch I received a copy of the album and as I played it that familiar question arose. How can one artist have such a diverse body of work and yet achieve such excellence in everything that he creates? The answer lies partly in McAll’s work ethic, but above all, it lies in the way he views life and the creative process. The integrity of his vision is never subordinated to the commercial imperatives which often grind artists down. In spite of that (or because of it), he has a large following and wins award after award (he just collected three further Bell Awards for ‘Hearing the Blood’).
As you listen to Zephyrix you enter a world of textural richness with surprises at every turn. Mythical and exotic creatures populate the imagination, only to disappear as another, takes its place. McAll’s work is always strongly allegorical and in this case, the allusions touch on the fundamental struggles of existence. Beginning with the Greek God Zephyr (God of the west wind ) and followed by the voices of Black Crow, White Swan, Peacock, Pelican, Zephyrix and Phoenix. The odd creature out is the most interesting, one of McAll’s creations, the Zephyrix. This is a fusing of the Phoenix and Man – the man wearing business attire, the phoenix perhaps his better self.
As you listen to the album you detect the spirit of Stravinsky, but the touchstones go beyond orchestral Jazz or modern classical music. Even though the references to the past are there, this work sits comfortably among the best of forward-looking orchestral works. It is a journey well worth taking and I am eagerly awaiting McAll’s next project.
Two weeks ago the CJC Creative Jazz Club profiled two more emerging artists; Seungeil Thomas Hwang and Kathleen Tomacruz. Hwang and Tomacruz are both guitarists but with quite different approaches to their craft. Hwang leans heavily toward the fusion and rock end of the spectrum while Tomacruz, although adventurous, sits comfortably inside the tradition. Both underscore the value of the University of Auckland, Jazz programme; a programme which prepares musicians in the best possible way; fitting them for whatever musical path they choose.
Some, go on to become high-skilled ghosts in the machine of popular music. Others follow their dreams and journey deeper into the sublime and multi-faceted world that is modern improvised music. They arrive on the scene ready to learn from the gig life, but with enough knowledge to make them adventurous. I see them in Indie Rock bands and I see them in the experimental avant-garde ensembles – I see them in audiences listening carefully to Dixen Nacey, Jonathan Crayford, Roger Manins or Jeff Henderson. Long may that quest for lifelong learning and the striving towards excellence continue. I can only hope that the current short-sighted obsession for pruning back the humanities, doesn’t touch the UoA Jazz Course; a programme that enriches us culturally and delivers well.
Hwang finished his Masters at the UoA Jazz School in 2016 and this is his first gig with his fusion band Finesse. He is a formidable and ‘chopsy’ guitarist who makes fast and furious look easy. His set showcased his various musical interests and in spite of their divergence, he never looked phased at any point. With Crytal Choi, Wil Goodison and Adam Tobeck at his back he had the bases well covered.
During the second set, Tomacruz emerged as a thoughtful and confident performer. Her big personality overshadowing her physically diminutive presence. I have seen her perform in other’s lineups but this was a new and commanding Tomacruz. She engaged with the audience and joked with the band; turning on a well rounded and imaginative performance. Again we saw Choi on keys and the talented Goodison on bass – with the addition of Lukas Fritsch on Alto and Ron Samsom on drums. Choi is such a delight to hear in these situations; so in-the-moment and adventurous. Keep them coming UoA Jazz course.
Finesse: Seungeil Thomas Hwang (guitar, compositions), Crystal Choi (keyboard), Wil Goodison (bass), Adam Tobeck (drums).
Kathleen Tomacruz Quartet: Tomacruz (guitar, compositions), Crystal Choi (keyboards), Wil Goodison (upright and electric bass), Lukas Fritsch (alto sax), Ron Samsom (drums).
When Kristin Berardi, Sean Foran and Raphael Karlen started to play I knew exactly what I was hearing. It was modern and original and it rekindled fond memories of the Winstone/Wheeler/Taylor group Azimuth. A world of beautifully crafted harmonies communicating their message with effortless clarity; the individual voices of the musicians hovering in the air like free spirits but interconnecting in profound ways. There was also a contemplative essence to their music which took us deep inside the music, a quiet centre that emanated strength and vibrancy. This fine balance of opposites was evident throughout – it was a performance to remember for its soul touching beauty.
This was the band’s first stop on a whirlwind tour of New Zealand and as soon as the weather gods realised that Queenslanders were approaching they behaved capriciously. As Brisbaneites, imagine the shock of leaving 24-degree temperatures, only to be greeted in Auckland by an unseasonable 13 degrees. Berardi told us that her under-utilised ‘warm coat’ was finally getting an outing. The temperature shock certainly didn’t hold the trio back, and those who braved the wet and cold were well rewarded for their perseverance.
Berardi, Foran and Karlen are well-respected musicians in their own right. All are well recorded and between them, they have many significant music awards. This project is their first collaboration as a trio and their recent album titled ‘Hope in your pocket’ was available at the gig. That album has a particular theme as it captures the dislocation and poignancy of Australian family life during WW1: a mothers letter to a 15-year son who had enlisted far too young, a soldier struggling to comprehend the wasteland of the European battlefields, a nurses story, a family holding fast to hope.
Many of the tunes were based on actual letters written at the time. All of them moving and all disquietening. Perhaps to leaven the mood, a few older or more recent compositions featured. For example, the first number of the first set, Berardi’s ‘Revolving Doors’. I have posted that clip here as it was simply stunning. Later when talking to the pianist Foran I mention Azimuth and he acknowledged the trios debt to that music. He was once a pupil of the lost lamented John Taylor and very familiar with the northern European Jazz scene. Foran is a gifted educator and a pianist with a beautifully light touch. He has interesting things to say musically and his minimalism is exactly right for this trio.
The vocalist Berardi is highly regarded in Australia. Among her successes are two Bell awards and the best vocalist award at Montreux. On a subsequent Montreux visit, she accompanied Al Jarreau and George Benson. She also completed a project with the inimitable Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra. The saxophonist Raphael Karlen is another gifted musician – also the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships. Together they are formidable. For those in Wellington or Christchurch about to attend the gigs, savour it. For those who are tossing up whether to go – make the effort. You won’t regret it.
Kristin Berardi (compositions, vocals), Sean Foran (compositions, piano), Raphael Karlen (compositions, tenor saxophone). The performance was at the Backbeat Bar, CJC Creative Jazz Club, May 23rd, 2018.
Jeff Henderson is a freedom warrior from outside of the perimeter fence. On the 9th of May, 2018, he marched barefooted into the Backbeat Bar with a ragtag army of irregulars. The audience had come well prepared and a pregnant air of anticipation hung over the bandstand during setup. Unusually, there were no lower ranks in this army, all were battle-hardened veterans (or anti-heroes depending on your viewpoint). All had impressive service records, an advance guard who took no prisoners. Jonathan Crayford is arguably the most famous of the troop, a decorated hero who swiftly commandeered a C3 organ (an ancient analogue machine decorated by psychedelic art and reminiscent of a Haight Asbury weed shop). Beside him sat machine gunner Steve Cournane, a rat-tat-tat freedom fighter recently returned from Peru. The remaining soldier, battle scared and bleeding, was Eamon Edmundson-Wells (his Viking surname tells it’s own story).
The first set was a powerhouse of inventiveness. An outburst of raw energy cradled cunningly in a cocoon of warm grooves. This one step closer-than-usual to Jazz approach may have surprised some, but certainly not me. I have witnessed Henderson doing this time and again. He can pick over the bones of anything from heavy metal to folk music. He is fearless in his appropriations and he always transforms base metals without fear or favour. This was pure alt music alchemy. Henderson is the real deal, a musician with a calculated irreverence, a sound jocky with an inside-outside approach. A man who dives so deep inside his artform that few dare to follow. As he traversed the various moods and tempos, you could hear his trademark multiphonics; nothing lingering too long. There were too many fresh ideas ahead and no time for a tea break.
The compositions were wonderful and each in a different way. It was inspired that Henderson surrounded himself with such a warm groove. Drum beats that either dove into a 70’s groove or even took a Buddy Rich turn. A warm as toast Crayford tinged B3 sound and a solid blood dripping bass line. That sort of surrounding could have been a straight jacket for an avant-garde player but in Henderson’s hands, it was a liberating vehicle. He worked off the others constantly and they, in turn, gave him clear air without deviating from their given roles. This was one of those special nights where every musician shone a light, cutting through the mundane and dispelling all hints of mediocrity. They were so deep in the music that they were doubtless ‘oblivious’ to the rows of open-mouthed listeners. I must, however, raise an eyebrow at the name, there were clearly more than eight band members on that bandstand.
Auckland is the richer for Henderson’s presence. We should count our lucky stars that he jumps the perimeter wire from time to time. This was an eight out of eight performance. Jeff Henderson (baritone & alto sax, compositions), Jonathan Crayford (C3 organ), Eamon Edmundson-Wells (upright bass), Steve Cournane (drums) – June 9, 2018, Backbeat Bar, CJC Creative Jazz Club, K’Road, Auckland.
After a year of living in Paris the Auckland educator and pianist Phil Broadhurst and his partner, Julie Mason, have returned. The Broadhurst Quintet has been a regular feature on the Auckland scene for many years. The unit is fueled by a constant stream of great compositions, an unchanging line up of fine musicians and three critically acclaimed records (one of them a Tui Jazz Album of the year winner). Broadhurst’s ‘dedication trilogy’ set a high bar compositionally, but his pen is always crafting new compositions. After last weeks gig, I suspect that another album capturing the artistic soul of France might be in gestation. Broadhurst, as many will know, is unashamedly francophile. Out of this deep appreciation and finely honed perception flows terrific creations.
When people talk about the Auckland Jazz scene, the name Phil Broadhurst always comes up. His constancy has been a bedrock and an enabling presence. He is an exemplar of quality mainstream Jazz. When I looked back over my posts I noticed that this particular Quintet was first reviewed by me in 2012 but I have no doubt that it predates 2012. When so many people crowd into a small club it makes the sight-lines difficult, but I have managed to capture a number from his gig.
The tune in the clip is called ‘Stretched’ and it is from his ‘Flaubert’s Dance’ Album. One of Phils newer compositions was titled ‘I’m Busy’ (dedicated to Jacky Terrasson). We also heard two lesser-known Jazz standards from Julie Mason. The first was ‘You taught my heart to Sing’, a tune by the pianist McCoy Tyner; the second, ‘Speak no Evil’ by Wayne Shorter from his classic album of the same name (incidentally, a great album to play on a road trip as you plunge into the black of night).
The quintet personnel are Phil Broadhurst (leader, composer, keyboards), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Mike Booth (flugelhorn), Oli Holland (bass, composition), Cameron Sangster (drums). The gig was at the Backbeat Bar, CJC Creative Jazz Club, May 02, 2018.
Roger Manins and Oli Holland have just returned from an extended overseas trip. While there, Holland recorded an album with Geoffry Keezer and others (incl. Roger Manins). From what I hear, a real treat is in store for us when that album is released.
This is the second appearance of Flightless Birds at the CJC Creative Jazz Club and the audience flocked to hear them. The band is a history lesson to the initiated and an initiation to those unversed in Jazz history. They presented a programme that was both clever and accessible and therein lay its charm. The band specialises in contrafacts and especially those of the bebop and swing era. The inside joke is that many of those tunes were once contrafacts themselves; new and often frenetic tunes written over the changes of familiar ‘songbook’ standards. In the bebop era tunes like ‘Cherokee’ (Noble) became Ko-Ko (Parker), ‘I Got Rhythm’ (Gershwin) became ‘Dizzie Atmosphere’ (Gillespie). Musicians like Charles Mingus took things a step further by introducing a wry political humour into titles, exemplified in his contrafact ‘All the things you could be by now if Sigmond Freud’s mother was your wife’ was ‘All the things you are’ (Kern). A throwaway favourite of mine is ‘Byas a Drink’ (Don Byas) which is ‘Stompin at the Savoy’ (Sampson).
The above examples are more than a play on words, they are fiendishly clever compositions and sometimes as famous than the tunes they arose from. This was not cleverness for cleverness sake but a bold in your face statement arising from the ongoing struggle of African American Jazz musicians who were tired of being sidelined for jobs, or sent to the back door of the hotel. Especially at a time when many of the inferior white bands cashed in doing the same material, often rising to superstardom. It was also about having fun and mocking the incredulity of the music press. They did it because they could and they were extraordinary musicians who used their intellect to brand a new music. This band is a modern antipodean successor, DNA intact.
The Flightless Birds took this concept a logical step further and not only created contrafacts out of contrafacts but they hinted at or altered the embedded ‘quotes’ and references. It was done with a smile but it was also done with a certain reverence. The times that these tunes arose from were acknowledged, but the joy and eternal spirit of Dizzy et al shone through. Here are a few of the gig tunes and their origins: ‘Stephen Thomas’ (Tom Dennison) is over the changes of ‘St Thomas’ (Sonny Rollins). There is a world of referencing right there (posted as a YouTube Clip). Stephen Thomas is, of course, the gifted Auckland drummer. ‘Buy a Car’ (Passells) utilised the changes of ‘Take the A Train’ (Strayhorn), ‘J Y Lee’ (Passells) was naturally ‘Donna Lee’ (Parker), ‘The Punisher’ (Sinclair) was a great new arrangement based on the changes of ‘In a Mellow Tone’ (Ellington) and so on. This was a fun night. Passells announcements were entertaining (as they always are) and above all the band looked as if they were enjoying themselves. We were also.
Flightless Birds: Callum Passells (alto saxophone, Compositions), Ben Sinclair (tenor saxophone, compositions) Tom Dennison (bass, compositions), Adam Tobeck (drums). The gig was at the Backbeat bar, K’Road, Auckland, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club on April 25, 2018.
This particular group is an uncommon thing on the Auckland scene. A Jazz guitar trio formed by three of our best musicians and each of the musicians in it for the long haul. Samsom/Nacey/Haines have been playing and recording together for a long time and the commitment has remained constant throughout. Their longevity is clearly about musical chemistry, but also about their combined approach to composition. Each band member writes in their own style, but each instinctively understands how the others will react to the chart. This is how mature bands operate; the familiarity enabling the collective to dive into the heart of a composition and extract the best from it. While their original compositions form the bedrock of their output, they also tackle standards; especially when performing live.
Their approach to standards and the arrangement of them is flawless; leading you away from the familiar, while somehow retaining an essence of what you know and how you remember it. This ability to interpret while mixing comfort and risk in equal parts is a gift. It requires a degree of expertise that younger bands seldom possess. Samsom, Nacey and Haines know a thing or two about focusing the attention and on challenging audiences to listen more deeply. They have recorded three acclaimed albums already and a fourth is almost certainly lurking in the wings.
There were a quite few new compositions (some as yet untitled), some familiar tunes from earlier albums and a tasteful assortment of cleverly arranged standards. Three of the standards grabbed my attention: Nica’s Dream (Horace Silver), In Your Own Sweet Way (Dave Brubeck) and Detour Ahead (Herb Ellis/ Johnny Frigo). I have posted a clip of the Brubeck number as it typifies the adventurous nature of the trio. True improvisers often extract gold from this composition, a case in point being Brubeck himself. He seldom played it the same way twice and on a 1964 Belgian clip, he exposes the bones while Desmond lays down a new tune entirely (a miraculous example of melodic re-invention captured on film for posterity).
Anyone of the musicians could have introduced these tunes, but the duties fell to Kevin Haines. His easy-going banter struck just the right note. He was engaging and above all funny. I have often observed how easily this comes to the more seasoned performers. Years of standing at the microphone teach them that a few well-chosen words can enhance any performance – especially a good performance.
Samsom/Nacey/Haines are – Ron Samson (drums, compositions), Dixon Nacey (guitar, compositions), Kevin Haines (upright bass, compositions). The gig was at the Backbeat Bar, K’Road, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, on April 18, 2018.
Every Jazz club needs a Monk night on their calendar and when it comes to Monk the local go-to person is definitely the well-known drummer Frank Gibson Jr. Gibson and the various iterations of his bands have long made a point of keeping the Hardbop era and Monk firmly on our radar. While the setlist was not exclusively Monk, the Monk tunes chosen were a solid mix of seldom-heard compositions and old favourites.
A good example of the former was Eronel which memorably featured on the Criss Cross album. I heard Jonathan Crayford play this number solo a few weeks ago and I recall thinking then – why is this wonderful tune not played more often? We also heard the tune Criss Cross, the title track from that album. ‘Criss Cross’ with its atypical rhythmic displacement is an interesting and bold composition and one which took Monk into new territory. It occurred at the height of his fame. Another lessor known tune was Light Blue, which appears on Thelonius Monk in Action (at the Five Spot). Others like ‘Rhythm-a-Ning’ and ‘I Mean You’ are well-known all were enthusiastically received.
Among the other tunes played were ‘Bessie’s Blues’ by John Coltrane, ‘Beatrice’ by Sam Rivers and an interesting Harold Danko tune titled ‘Tidal Breeze’. The band featured veteran guitarist Neil Watson and Bass player Cameron McArthur, but a newcomer to this particular lineup was Cameron Allen on tenor saxophone. Allen added that nice earthy-brass touch that Monk gigs benefit from. The gig occurred during an intense and devastating storm. Surprisingly, the audience braved horrendous weather to get there, navigating their way through fallen trees, power outages, flooding and through the debris which littered the city streets. It is always right to head for the music in troubled times and Monk is a force of nature in his own right.
Multi reeds and winds player Jay Rodriguez recently released an album titled ‘Your Sound’ and it could not have been more appropriately titled. It is an album which conveys the warmth of the man and his interesting musical journey from Columbia to New York; it lays bare his openness and his heart on sleeve humanity. It is a life and times offered up for appraisal, it is richly diverse and contemporary. Above all, it offers us joy. Put simply, ‘Your Sound’ is the sound of the Jazz life and it delights from start to finish.
I have heard Rodriguez perform in various live settings and he is, without doubt, one of the most engaging performers around. His warmth and personality are encapsulated by his sound in interesting ways. Importantly, he is not confined to just one sound – he has many and each has his stamp on it. When I hear his bluesy alto in a random playlist I say to my self – ‘oh that’s got to be Jay Rodriguez’; whether on tenor, bass clarinet or peppery Latin flute he traverses the history of improvised music – he has a distinction. When you examine his life story you realise that all of the above is borne out of a life lived at the heart of music; a life of working tirelessly at his craft, his every note conveying that personal touch. He is so busy as a sideman that he records as leader infrequently; after hearing this album I hope that will change. He is also one of a select group of musicians who doubles on a wide range of winds and reeds – unusually, he sounds really terrific on all of them.
Joining Rodriguez for this recording were an extraordinary group of musicians and man did they deliver. Billy Harper (tenor saxophone), Larry Willis (piano), Eric Wheeler (acoustic bass), Billy Martin (percussion) and J.T. Lewis (drums) – all well-known musicians and all with very impressive discographies. On some tracks, two tenors play in unison but with Harper always cutting his own clear path – his honest take no prisoners approach giving depth and contrast. Like Rodriguez, Harper has a strong connection with Kiwi and Australian improvising musicians and ears prick up down under when his name is mentioned. He is regarded with reverence in the Jazz world.
Larry Willis is another musician who needs little introduction. He has worked alongside artists as diverse as Jackie McLean, Carmen McCrae, Carla Bley, Groove Homes, Blood Sweat & Tears and Nat Adderly. He has also released twenty-four albums as a leader. His touch is deft here and his diverse abilities a boon. Whether playing free or bluesy he is right on the money. Bass player Eric Wheeler is a professional musician from DC and again he has worked with the who’s who of the jazz and classical world (killing). Lastly, there’s drums and percussion, J T Lewis and Billy Martin, another highly experienced pair who gave their best on the bandstand. Both have impressive credits to their name and they meshed perfectly. With this group and Rodriguez leading, something special happened. Track 7 Spirits from the album is embedded below with Rodriguez on alto.
The opening number is titled ‘Ghost Dancer’. Establishing itself over a vamp and edgy Latin rhythms, drawing you deep inside an exotic sound-forest. Then the mood and tempo change, allowing the flute to dance like a bird of paradise. On this, the flute is Peppery and alluring. As we get into the album, standards appear like ‘Golden Earrings’ (Victor Young) or ‘Lover’ (Richard Rogers); all sitting comfortably alongside the spellbinding Rodriguez originals like’ Ghost Dancer’, ‘Your Sound’ or ‘Spirits’ (the latter is a tribute to the ghosts in Rodriguez life). There are Ornette referencing tracks, ballads and plenty of soulful storytelling. Underpinning this rich diversity are some very skilful arrangments.
Jay Rodriguez: (Leader, tenor, alto & soprano saxophones, flute, bass clarinet), Billy Harper (tenor saxophone), Larry Willis (piano), Eric Wheeler (acoustic bass), Billy Martin (percussion), J.T. Lewis (drums). The album was recorded live at ‘Dizzy’s Club-Coca-Cola’ in NYC and it is released on Whaling City Sound. It is available for purchase from whalingcitysound.com or from the usual outlets like Amazon or iTunes. Highly recommended.
After a long gloomy week of intense storm weather, 200 kph winds, polar darkness and zero electricity, I am finally back in front of my computer. A few days before the storm I was sitting in the warm, well-lit, electricity charged Backbeat Bar and listening to the Kim Paterson Band – by far the preferable option. Jazz trumpeter, Paterson, has been on the New Zealand Jazz scene for as long as I can remember and his name is forever associated with legendary figures like Mick Nock. When I was a teenager I knew many people that he knew and he always seemed to lead an exciting life: gigging in Australia or further afield and travelling to India on a shoestring (our generation regarded that as an essential rite of passage). Out of that rich life experience and long years of devotion to his artform, has come a book of marvellous compositions. These compositions were the focus of his CJC gig and his bandmates gave them the respect they deserved. It is hardly surprising that Paterson selected his bandmates well, all experienced musicians and all with a feel for the texturally rich, open-ended compositional structures. I was particularly delighted to see Lewis McCallum on the bandstand, having missed an earlier gig of his and regretting it. He played tenor and soprano and the unmistakable influence of Coltrane’s conceptions shone through. Although not the leader, McCallum was a powerful presence. It was obvious that he regarded this project highly and his guiding hand was repeatedly acknowledged by Paterson. His tone was biting, but not harsh; his ideas were communicated with clarity.Keven Field was on Rhodes and as always his contribution was impeccable. The Rhodes was exactly the right keyboard for this project and Field, the best keyboardist to bring out its strengths. Somehow he always manages to tease hidden beauty from a Rhodes. Cameron McArthur was on bass and like Field, a first call musician. McArthur is so well established and well respected that no one is surprised when turns out a stellar performance. The remaining band member was Stephen Thomas and again a very fine musician. Thomas works across a number of genres now, but his Jazz chops and good taste are always on show.
These compositions are long overdue for recognition. They were mostly composed in the late sixties and seventies and they certainly have that feel about them; an era of Jazz that I have a great affinity with. One title references Patterson’s earliest trip to India and the other titles give us clues as to the overall vibe: Invocation, Tariqat, Kabir, Mani etc. Paterson, although better known as a trumpeter stuck to flugelhorn on this date and doubled on percussion. The complexity of rhythms on a few of his Latin-infused pieces, enhanced by his percussion. I was glad to hear these tunes and they were well received. There was enough warmth in them to see me through the brewing storm.
Kim Paterson: (flugelhorn, Compositions, leader), Lewis McCallum (tenor & soprano saxophones), Kevin Field (Rhodes), Cameron McArthur (bass), Stephen Thomas (drums). The gig took place in the Backbeat Bar for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, Auckland. 4th April 2018.
I have listened to John Bell over a number of years and I have always marvelled at his inventiveness. Bell (along with Jeff Henderson), is widely acknowledged as the experimental music guy, the free improvisation guy. He is a musician who takes risks as he aims for clear skies; a musician who involves himself in interesting cross-cultural collaborations, a vibraharp player who doubles on brass instruments. He is an artist who you always associate with innovation – consequently, other musicians look up to him.
In spite of his wide-ranging credentials, I had never seen him perform this type of material and I anticipated it keenly. His latest project, the Aldebaran Quartet, dove into the explorations of a specific era. The warm modal music of the late sixties and seventies. A time in Jazz when the behemoth of Rock dominated the airwaves and filled record shelves – eclipsing everything else in view. It is unfortunate that audiences looked away just then because out of that era came a heady brew of fresh ideas. Hidden in plain sight were improvising trailblazers; laying down wonderful music, incorporating new freedoms, and embracing a quasi-secular space age spirituality. This was the era when Bobby Hutcherson and Herbie Hancock took a new direction with ‘Oblique’ – when Chick Corea cut ‘Tones for Jones Bones’; both albums featuring the scandalously underrated drummer (and vibes player) Joe Chambers: an era when Eddie Henderson released ‘Sunburst’, Bernie Maupin ‘The Jewel in the Lotus’, and when Alice Coltrane and Don Pullen broke new ground. And all the while looking toward some distant star system or an inner world; all bringing a new flavour to the improvised music scene.
This was a gig filled with mesmerizing soulfulness, but underneath the shimmering sound lay some very clever compositions and great musicianship; referencing a time when modal music stepped free from the formulaic. An era ripe for further exploration. This was complex music made to sound simple; a visceral music that took you to its heart without the need for pointy-headed insider knowledge. The track I have posted is a good example, the lessons of eastern and western music, absorbed, expanded and all without a hint of contrivance. Melodic patterns over a crisp undulating drum pulse, piano and bass picking up the pattern, in unison or in response, freeing the vibraharp to explore the possibilities as they opened up space. The tune in question ‘Atagato’ (Bell) is a wonderful composition. It resonates deeply, the complexity artfully hidden behind simple themes, throwing up a melody line that is merely implied. The clever musical devices employed were endless but for the listeners, that was not important – it was the immediacy, the resonance which touched us. Bell is a true tintinnabulist and we are lucky to have him home.
When Vibes and piano play together they often take a different tack from that of guitar and piano. Occupying the same tonal range is avoided in the latter case but with piano and vibes, a unison approach is frequently employed. When either piano or vibes are comping the chords can become mirrors – reflecting each other but varying fractionally to add texture; completing each other through the harmonics arising from their different timbres. In this respect and others, the pianist Phil Broadhurst was superb. Again, I am very familiar with his output, but I had never heard him in this context. His solos were in the pocket and his sensitive comping concise, supportive.
Bass player Eamon Edmundson-Wells was just right for this gig. Like Bell, Edmundson-Wells has a firm foothold in the avant-garde scene. The more I hear him the higher my regard for his musicality. He is an extraordinary young bass player and capable in any given situation. The remaining quartet member was drummer Steve Cournane. From the first few beats, he stamped his authority. His rhythmic feel interesting and a little different from other drummers about town. He lived in South America for some time and it’s really good to see him back on the scene. There is something of the classic Jazz fusion drummer about him but more besides (he sometimes reminds me of Peter Erskine or perhaps Lenny White). Together they form a great unit. I hope that they record this material and perhaps exchange the keyboards for an acoustic piano when they do. These compositions and this unit are far too enjoyable to disappear from earshot.
John Bell: Aldebaran Quartet – Bell (vibraharp, compositions), Phil Broadhurst (keyboards, compositions), Eamon Edmundson-Wells (upright bass), Steve Cournane (drums). The gig took place at the CJC Creative Jazz Club, Backbeat Bar, K’Road, Auckland March 2018.
In keeping with the longstanding CJC tradition of keeping twice yearly slots open for emerging artists, late March featured two such sets. First up was a group led by bassist Denholm Orr. Orr has appeared in lineups a number of times, but this was his first appearance playing his own material and as a leader. His recent compositional work has placed increasing focus on arco-bass and consequently, the charts reached into that territory. Arco is not the default style for Jazz bassists but I am seeing a lot more of it lately and I welcome that.
Orr opened with a piano trio and as the set proceeded more players were added. The larger formations tackled ambitious arrangements and this is a hopeful sign of things to come. Emerging artists should reach beyond their comfort zone – being challenged is where growth happens. On piano was the ever-reliable Nick Dow and on guitar Michael Gianan (who wowed us all with his first CJC gig a few months ago). Misha Kourkov was on tenor and new to me was Charlie Isdale on alto and Jack Thirtle was on trumpet. Daniel Waterson was on drums. Kourkov is shaping up to be a presence on the scene and Fritsch is grabbing attention with each fresh appearance. As most are still studying and given their ages and experience, it was a good start.
Lukas Fritsch headed the second set and again this featured ambitious material. Fritsch’s set had a tighter focus and perhaps because he had a few seasoned musicians in the ensemble ranks, the set sang joyously from start to finish. When Fritsch completed his finals, a buzz quickly circulated; that the recital performances had been something special. I had not attended, but my attention was certainly piqued. The arrangements were superb and the musicians well focused, but the inclusion of Chelsea Prastiti and Crystal Choi gave the set that special something that lifted it beyond the ordinary.
Choi is fascinating to behold as her trajectory is pointed ever upwards – a pianist who understands how to get inside the music and make it part of her story. Prastiti likewise is an innovative trailblazer, who takes the path less ordinary. The front line was Fritsch on Alto, Asher Truppman-Lattie on tenor and Kathleen Tomacruz on guitar. On bass was Wil Goodinson and on drums Tom Leggett. Fritsch writes interestingly and his performances are well thought through and engaging.
When Michal Martyniuk left Auckland for Poland last year, it was hot on the heels of a successful appearance at Java Jazz; the biggest Jazz festival in the world. It was always on the cards that Martyniuk’s Auckland trio would fare well, as they are the epitome of an inventive, high energy unit and all of that is wrapped up in a very European sound.
While it was obvious to Kiwis and to the enthusiastic Java Jazz festival goers, I wondered how Martyniuk would be received in Europe. I have travelled there often and there are thousands of good Jazz musicians and many fine trios vying for attention. Jazz is valued there, especially in the northeast, and audiences are inclined to be very discriminating. I got my answer shortly after Martyniuk’s arrival, as notifications of media events, club gigs, radio and TV interviews started appearing. He had broken through the clamour and received acclaim in his birthplace. His co-released warm as toast Jazz-soul-funk album ‘After ‘Ours’ and his Jazz gigs, equally acclaimed.
The journey back to the country of his birth had been important for Martyniuk and he has returned with heightened confidence, exuding a sense that anything is possible. This was evidenced by the trio’s live performance at the Lewis Eady showroom. Many New Zealand improvising bands have a laid back organic feel as that is generally our thing. In contrast, this band is tightly focussed, but without that in any way detracting from its appeal. The tunes by Martyniuk are melodic and often rhythmically complex. This is counterbalanced nicely by Samsom and McArthur who create contrast and interwoven texture. The first set was a mix of old and new tunes. His older tunes like The Awakening and New Beginning, familiar in the same way standards are – always pleasing, always yielding up something fresh. His more recent compositions a mix of burners and ballads.
The Lewis Eady gig was augmented by the addition of visiting Polish saxophonist Jakub Skowronski. Skowronski has a beautiful even tone on tenor and like Samsom and McArthur, he’s the perfect foil for Martyniuk. While he made it all look effortless, his solos took us deep inside the music. These guys were made to play together and I hope they remain a unit. They have a lot more to tell us yet and with any luck, we will get to enjoy the continuing story as it unfolds. Those who wish to be part of this journey can contribute via a recently set up ‘Kickstarter’ campaign following this link. There was some really exciting new material recorded in Poland over the last year and the Kickstarter campaign is about getting that released into the world. No one ever regretted supporting great music like this.
Michal Martyniuk (piano, compositions, leader), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums, percussion) + Jakub Skowronski (tenor). You can follow this band and order albums from Empire Agency Co. Bands / Michal Martyniuk Trio
Brian Smith is a legendary figure in New Zealand Jazz, achieving career highs that few others attain. Normally artists of this stature settle overseas and are seldom seen after that. It was our good fortune that Smith moved back to New Zealand and in consequence, we get to hear him perform locally. It’s a moot point whether good musicians ever truly retire (luckily, the answer is seldom). Not so long ago he formed a quintet and since then he has been performing at venues around town. While Smith is a regular at the CJC, this is the first time that we have seen the current quintet in action. The event was predominantly a standards gig and a band of veterans is the right vehicle where standards are concerned. When you bring a selection of loved tunes back into orbit, comparisons are inevitably made. Therefore it pays to choose well and to perform them well and that’s exactly what the Brian Smith quartet did.
Smith possesses an authoritative air on his horn, the end result of considerable experience and his well-acknowledged chops. Consequently, he always sounds great and always looks comfortable on the bandstand. Behind him in the darkness was Frank Gibson, Jr on drums. Gibson and Smith go back a long way and he is exactly the right drummer to lift these warhorse tunes to glory; most of them coming from the hay-day of Jazz. While Gibson has many strings to his bow, this is his forte. Up front was multi brass and reeds player Chris Nielson. It was good to hear Nielson again and especially on trombone, a horn that has sadly been disappearing from small ensembles since the 60’s. Nielson also brought other horns with him, favouring an American cornet, an instrument which in his hands, produced a strong rounded tone. On bass was Bruce Lynch, a highly competent electric and acoustic bass player who is well-known as a music producer and as a former member of the Cat Stevens band. Almost hidden on the right side of the bandstand was Dean Kerr on guitar. His guitar work was strongly chordal and supportive of the others, providing well-placed contrast for Smith and Neilson as he comped.
Among the standards were ‘In Walked Bud’ (Monk), Stolen Moments (Nelson), There is no Greater Love’ (Jones), Freddie Freeloader and All Blues (Miles), Killer Joe (Golson), St Thomas (Rollins). I have posted a clip of the perennial favourite ‘Softly as in a Morning Sunrise (Romberg/Hammerstein). There was also a nice tune by Smith which think is titled ‘Short Shift.
The gig took place at the Thirsty Dog for the CJC Creative Jazz Club on March 7, 2018. Brian Smith (leader, tenor saxophone), Frank Gibson Jr. (drums), Chris Nielson (trumpets, flugelhorn, trombone), Dean Kerr (guitar), Bruce Lynch (upright bass).
Rarely, do we get to experience something truly sublime and for this to occur a number of planets must be perfectly aligned. Art at this level cannot be forced as the realization is dependant on both tangibles and intangibles. The musician might be in peak form, but if the room or the instrument is mediocre then the fine edge of perfection is blunted. It is harder to achieve in a capacious concert hall; easier in a well-appointed studio or an intimate vibing Jazz club. There is no manual to guide us to the point of departure. It is a divine alchemy pure and simple.
When I heard that Jonathan Crayford would be touring the country with a Steinway D Concert piano and one with considerable provenance, my first inclination was to doubt. This was no small undertaking. The piano in question was special, played by luminaries such as Lily Kraus, who signed it. It was formerly owned by a branch of the Guggenheim family and if Crayford had not asked a friend to purchase it, we would have lost it to an offshore purchaser. The friend, surprisingly, agreed and said, “Now use it”. Crayford is one of the few musicians who could pull this off.
The piano and Crayford travelled up from Wellington a few days ago and the first concert took place on the day of their arrival in Auckland. The lovely Uxbridge Arts Centre in Howick was the first venue; a pleasant, modern 100+ seat auditorium with good acoustics (especially for a piano) and an intimate cosiness. I arrived early as I was videoing and sat quietly in the darkness; watching Crayford and his magnificent piano get acquainted.
Crayford approaches pianos with reverence and sensitivity. I watched as he played a few phrases – then he paused when a particular voicing took his attention. Putting his ear close and playing it again with a look of delight. He was learning the secrets and subtleties of the instrument. Later during the concert, he gently tapped out a note which had taken his fancy. “Listen carefully”, he said to the audience, pointing to a particular key. A soft harmonic-rich sound reverberated gently through the room – revealing a warm golden timbre. As he shared these insights we felt privileged. Crayford treats fine pianos as living entities; beings to be understood, curated, exalted. When he finished a piece he would gently lift his hands and time would stall as the slow decay of chord or phrase created new harmonics and textures. Sound bouncing off wood, frame and room until it faded into infinity.
He opened with a composition of his own, a reflective piece of deep spacious improvisation, perfectly realised and just the right length to reel us in. The awed hush from the audience said it all. This concert was special and everyone there swiftly grasped that. Next, we heard his take on an obscure but unmistakable Monk tune, the familiar jagged lines morphing into new shapes as he went. There was no set playlist, no charts to guide him; just a small black notebook with dozens of possible tunes written down and in no particular order. The piano and his musician’s instinct informing him of the journey as he went. Tunes were chosen or rejected on the fly. His programme consisting mainly of reflective material but with a few faster-paced tunes to balance these out. A tune from the Spanish civil war attributed to Garcia Lorca was an example of the latter. On the slower reflective pieces like a Satie Gymnopedie, he left space for the music to breathe – space for the spirit of the piano to sing through. He would often play three pieces together and then rise from the piano to quote a line from Shakespeare or to offer an insight into a piece. He is a fascinating speaker and his enthusiasm utterly infectious. Nothing was out of place, everything he did conveyed the magic of the moment.
I urge music lovers to clear their calendars and attend these extraordinary concerts as Crayford travels throughout New Zealand. It is seldom that we get to experience projects like this and extremely rare to hear them in such intimate spaces. The most difficult gig in Jazz is the free-ranging improvised solo piano concert. When it works (and this certainly did) it is the most rewarding. This was deep improvisation, sensitive interaction and piano/sound curation at it’s best. It paid respect to the solo art form and above all to a very special Steinway piano. It was Jarrett like (but without the abuse). It was Crayford at his best and that is enough to satisfy any music lover.
Oli Holland is one of the leading bass voices in New Zealand. He formed Jazz Attack just over a year ago and since its inception, he has been writing new charts and expanding the lineup. Holland writes interesting charts; often complex but always compelling and his last gig showcased a number of these. This was an expanded lineup – adding three of Auckland’s heavyweights for a quartet segment in the first set. His bass is a powerhouse presence and his ringing melodic lines always distinctive. During solos, his vocalised unison lines fleshed out the tone, drew us deeper in – perhaps even influencing his improvisational choices. It is well established that vocalising while improvising on an instrument, fires up the human brain in new and interesting ways.
This is predominantly a young band but nicely balanced by two seasoned regulars (Holland as leader and Finn Scholes on trumpet). Adding a segment featuring Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Kevin Field (keys) and Ron Samson (drums) provided an interesting contrast. When Misha Kourkov joined Manins in the first set we saw this exemplified. After the head, the two tenors each took solos, Kourkov’s was thoughtful with a nice sense of space while Manins dived in and let his long years of experience and no prisoners approach guide him. The two solos worked very well together and it was nice to see a two-tenor spot which avoided the formulaic line-for-line battle formation.
While the Holland, Manins, Field, Samsom, segments stung with intensity, the core band used the charts to flesh out the compositions. Nick Dow on the piano was interesting in this regard. His solos short but perfectly formed and his often understated comping lightening the density of the ensemble. Michael Howell on guitar also took a thoughtful approach – both chordal instruments providing depth due to their approach. The two main horns were Kourkov and Scholes (foundation members). Kourkov is rapidly maturing into a fine player and I really enjoyed his contribution. Scholes is always interesting and capable of a great variety of expressions. On this night, his solo’s achieved edge and warmth in balance.
As always with Holland, there were a number of funny stories preceding the tunes, improbable seques which hinted at his motivation in naming them but inviting us to fill in the gaps for ourselves. Holland is widely recorded and has recently recorded in Europe with leading musicians. Any gig featuring Holland is well worth attending and this was no exception.
I have posted a clip titled ‘Van Dumb’. The gig took place at the Thirsty Dog for the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) on the 28th February 2018.
The eponymously titled album ‘Lucian Johnson+5’ was first released in 2016 and has recently been re-released in Japan on vinal. I have only encountered Johnson performing once or twice as he has spent a lot of time outside of New Zealand. He was born in Wellington, but led an interesting life elsewhere, travelling the world with various innovative bands and living for long periods in Paris. I first encountered him when he toured with ‘The Troubles; a delightfully anarchic folksy ensemble he co-founded along with Scottish Jazz drummer John Rae. After hearing Lucien Johnson+5, I will be paying close attention to his futures offerings.
I became aware of the album’s existence soon after its release, but carelessly lost the Bandcamp access code when I changed computers. I finally regained access, listened and was immediately impressed. This is a mature piece of work with real depth. Given the diversity of experience, the musicians bring to the project that is hardly surprising. Johnson’s musicianship and compositional abilities are well known – pare him with these five musicians and you get something special. Any project involving Crayford, French, O’Connor, Van Dijk and Callwood is going to grab the attention.
There is a certain mood emanating from this album, a palpable sense of the Iberian Peninsula. It is more than just the track names – it cuts far deeper than that. You will not hear overt Jazz Flamenco or Moorish tunes. You will hear reflective ballads, Latin, hard swing and all with fine arrangements (arrangements which evoke the hay-day of the classic Jazz ensemble). The album warmly invites us to engage, and the deeper we engage the greater the reward. The musicians were clearly onboard with the project and each of them gets a chance to shine. There are many wonderful solos, none that are too long and each solo harnessing to the spirit of the collective. Brilliant musicians all, but with no egos on display.
‘Light Shaft’ has a dancy Latin feel with French and Johnson reacting to Crayford’s rhythmic accenting; Crayford later tying it all together with a masterful solo. ‘El Cid’ is another great tune, again with a Latin American flavour, this time Afro Cuban. The clave aside, it evokes the Reconquista hero perfectly. El Cid’s is a tale well worth the re-telling; especially since modern scholars discovered that his antecedents were actually Moors, the very people he fought with such evangelistic fervour – a modern parable. ‘Zapata’ is another delightful tune and with plenty of meat on the bone. It opens with O’Connor beating out a Krupa like rhythm on the toms, the ensemble comes in next, navigating a skillfully arranged head with nimble ease. Van Dijk and Crawford follow with stunning solos, but everyone is superb. This is a great piece of ensemble playing and above all it is fun. Here is Zapata:
My favourite from the album is ‘Asturias’. This track has a thoughtful quality and as many layers as a ripe onion. In spite of being a sextet, the ensemble sounds like a nonet at times – capturing the vibe of 50’s Gil Evans. This lies mainly in the skillful writing, as space and texture are maximised. The rich voicings of the horn line are also of importance, as they somehow manage to convey substance and airiness at the same time. Nick Van Dijk in particular, utilising the opportunity to shine through. Crayford and Callwood also have essential roles – Crayford creating a strumming effect, as Callwood did in the opening bars. Asturias is a region of northwestern Spain and also a Flamenco guitar style (a style often adapted to other instruments). Albeniz wrote in this style in the 19th century, The melody over a strummed pedal chord (the thumb playing the melody line).
When we listen to evocative music, we bring our imagination to the experience. Whether intended by Johnson or not, this album took me back to Spain. I have travelled extensively in Andalucia and rekindling those memories through this music was a pleasure. The artwork is also superb and that is credited to George Johnson. The best place to source this album is on Bandcamp or via the Lucien Johnson website. lucienjohnson5.bandcamp.com
The heart of the modern improvised and experimental music scene is always an interesting place to be. Audiences tend to be open-eared and accustomed to music from a wide variety of sources. Improvising musicians have always drawn on diverse influences and it is a narrow-minded few who whine about dilution or the good old days. We should never undercut the deeper purpose of music, which is to share stories, communicate on a primal level, interpret. We tell stories to live and how we listen or react to music speaks to our musical maturity. When Simona Minns performed in Auckland last week, she brought with her a variety of influences. and all were approached with integrity.
She is billed as a Jazz Singer, composer, arranger and artistic director, and she is unafraid to mash up or blend genres. All of the above descriptors were on show when she performed at the Backbeat Bar and everything she did, communicated an innate sense of fun and adventure. She is a natural performer, but behind that lies careful preparation. Her easy-going confidence disarms, but it arises out of hard work and commitment. A good example of the care she brings to her art lies in her charts. The musicians all commented on how beautifully they were crafted and judging by the solo’s, they were not constrained by them. We heard Jazz standards, old Lithuanian folk songs, tunes from her musical ‘A Hunger Artist’ and some jazz-mashed classic rock. The audience loved it all and got the musical jokes embedded therein. The fact that she was cleverly comedic in her introductions, enhanced the overall effect.
I first read Franz Kafka as a 14-year-old, and once read, his tales cannot easily be forgotten. They are dystopian and thus disturbing, but a mature reading reveals clever questions, posed for our consideration. Kafka’s ‘A Hunger Artist’ is just such a tale – disturbing, yet raising important issues for all times. Issues which cut to the heart of performance art itself.
The tunes from Minns musical were delightful, and the fact that she could frame them without overdoing the pathos reminded us of the deeper questions posed. Her choice of standards appeared commonplace until you heard them and then they took on a life of their own. All were either re-harmonised or arranged in unique ways. As if to underline this point of difference she created mash-ups from them – blending classic rock and Jazz; often dancing as she delivered her lively performances.
She had a very fine Jazz unit backing her – a truly superb band and ideal for the task. Alan Brown on keyboards, Cameron McArthur on bass and Stephen Thomas on drums. She also played a classic Lithuanian harp (the Kanklas). While it is a small instrument, it is capable of producing extraordinary melancholic sounds. The sort you hear throughout the eastern block (and even down as far as Turkey or Greece). My favourite number was her mash-up of Gershwin’s Summertime. The band really broke loose on that number and the effects were electrifying. An Alan Brown band in full flight is a wonder to behold indeed.
Simona Minns was born in Lithuania where she obtained a music degree, later moving to Berklee (Boston, USA) where she obtained a degree in composition. She also founded ‘Syntheatre’ a performance company in Boston. Her albums can be sourced from her website or from iTunes or the various streaming platforms. Her website is simonaminns.com The Performance was at the Backbeat Bar in K’Road and presented by the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) and the Auckland Fringe Festival on Tuesday 20, February 2018.
I have posted a short clip of her performing a song from the Kafka inspired ‘A Hunger Artist’ – where she plays the Kanklas.
Good Music always says something interesting; it’s a form of communication where a musical statement begins a process and a listener responds. With any innovative musical form, we need to bring something of ourselves to the equation. The more open our ears the better the experience. Gifted improvisers of all cultures understand these fundamentals and because of this they mostly tell old stories in new ways. Rarely and bravely, musicians hit us with stories not yet fixed in the popular imagination. Steve Barry and his collaborators have a foot in both camps. While this is adventurous material, it is also approachable to anyone with open ears. What we heard at the CJC was innovative but the archetypes of all music were located deep in the compositional structure. A careful listening revealed trace elements from composers like Stravinsky or Bley and perhaps even of indigenous music.
The first piece they opened with was titled ‘Grind’ – a composition inspired by Sydney traffic (much as Tristano utilised every street sound that floated through his NY window). The piece began as journeys do with determined momentum – a degree of clarity followed by a more frenetic stop-start feel as the piece progressed – then reflection. It appealed to me greatly and twelve minutes in, I knew that I was hearing something similar to the approach used by Bley/Guiffre/Swallow in ‘Freefall’. There are moments in musical history when profound change is signalled and that album was one of them. The critics of the time hated it of course but modern Jazz audiences have caught up. The new Barry album ‘Blueprints and Vignettes’ will not be regarded as controversial but as vital and forward-looking. Back then clubs took fright and closed their doors but no club owner worth their salt would miss booking this group.
Barry is an interesting pianist and composer and this project may be his best to date. At the CJC he was confronted with a basic upright piano, but he somehow transformed it into a new instrument entirely. Many in the audience were fascinated and approached him afterwards to enquire how he achieved this slight of hand. Clever miking and a constant repetitive damping of the soft pedal was evident, but I suspect that his rapid-fire staccatissimo touch contributed as much to the effect. I know that Barry has also explored Bartok and the classical modernists and this may hold some clues as well. Whether by happenstance or contrivance, the overall effect was enormously pleasing. There were set patterns and themes, but these altered, developed, as fresh ideas arose from them.
I was delighted to finally catch up with Dave Goodman (PhD), having heard him last at the 505 in Sydney (along with Mike Nock, Rog Manins, James Muller and Cameron Undy). Goodman is an enormously versatile drummer and a popular educator. His role here is varied, but often that of ‘colourist’. Rolling his sticks over the drum heads, or providing contrast with irregular taps on the snare or a muted ride cymbal – and entering these interesting conversations as an equal. The other trio member was Jeremy Rose on reeds (his horns, the alto saxophone and bass clarinet). He was just superb and every bold sound or whispered breath added new dimensions. It is seldom that we hear a bass clarinet and to hear one in a trio setting of this kind is even rarer. The clarinets woodiness and rich harmonics added texture, the alto, a hawk awaiting its moment then swooping purposefully. In spite of the varying tempos and moods, the album imparts a delicacy from start to finish. Live, they got the best out of the acoustics and venue piano. What a perfect sound palette Barry has chosen for this project and whether live or recorded, how satisfying the realisation.
The album ‘Blueprints and Vignettes’ is available from stevebarrymusic.bandcamp.com or from retail and online sources (I recommend Bandcamp). The album features Max Alduca on bass. The live gig took place at the Thirsty Dog for the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) – February 21, 2018.
It was a good way to begin a year of music, a good way to breathe life into two enervating steamy nights. Hayden Chisholm was back in the country and around him formed various duos, trios, and quartets. He performed two gigs in Auckland and the first was at the Audio Foundation in Poynton Lane. The venue has long been an important source of innovative music and each time I descend the stairs to the sub-basement I find interesting changes to the clubs configuration. It really is an excellent venue and perfect for what it offers. At first glance, the two nights appeared quite different. One free improvised and the other a set of reflective ballads. In reality, both gigs were reflective, melodic and approachable. The open-hearted humanity and communication skills of the participants made it so.
When Norman Meehan, Paul Dyne, and Hayden Chisholm appeared last year in the UoA Jazz School auditorium, the audience was taken aback by the sheer beauty of the performance. The alto saxophone is heard less often than its fatter sounding big brother the tenor and it is seldom heard like this. There was something about that particular performance that stopped people in their tracks. The beauty of the tone and the way the sound informed the improvisational approach. It’s not as if we had never heard an alto and piano before, but the unusual clarity and the perfect juxtaposition between horn and Meehan’s tasteful minimalism made it special. Unsurprisingly there were good audiences at both of the 2018 Auckland gigs.
At the Audio Foundation, there were no charts and only the briefest of interactions between musicians prior to the performance. The sets were mostly duos – one with John Bell on vibraphone, followed by another with experimental vocalist Chelsea Prastiti and lastly Jonathan Crayford on piano. Chisholm also recited prose and played over a drone on his Sruti Box. The final number of the evening was a quartet made up of all four musicians.
I have never witnessed a free gig quite like that as the communication was so exquisitely personal. More than musicians finishing each other’s sentences. More than the flow of fresh ideas; there was a sense of musicians revealing something intangible. From out of the fading harmonics and the quiet spaces came that extra something. The quiet revealing something on the edge of consciousness, something we often miss. Arising from – evocative like a Rilke poem – or a haiku. Bell stroked his mallets across the bars or responded with staccato – or soft taps and clicks, Prastiti offered cries and bell-like utterances, framed as wordless questions, Crayford explored resonant possibilities by using extended technique or by mesmerizing with darkly descending chords – opening up a dialogue which was met in kind – sometimes gentle, at other times like a flow of coloured sparks.
The Thirsty dog gig on the following night featured the trio of Chisholm, Meehan, and Dyne (adding drummer Julien Dyne in the second half). Late last year the core trio released their album titled ‘Unwind’. Many of the tunes we heard last Wednesday and last year are on the album – plus a few new compositions. The album is released on Rattle Records and is highly recommended. If you like thoughtful, beautiful music with integrity, this is for you. The compositions are all by Meehan and Chisholm (with the exception of an arrangement of Schumann’s ‘Sei Gegrusst Viel Tausendmal’ (arranged by Chisholm). On Wednesday we also heard a delightful composition by Paul Dyne the Bass player. Adding the younger Dyne in the second half changed the mood and again the contrast between the duo, trio and quartet added to the whole. Julien Dyne is a fine drummer and I wish he appeared more often.
I must also comment on Chisholm’s playing over the Srusi Box drones. I love to hear good musicians playing over a drone and the quieter and multi-harmonic effects of the Srusi Box provided subtle wonders. Several times while the drone was sounding, Chisholm took the saxophone away from his lips and appeared to blow across the reed from a distance. As he did, a disembodied whistling sound emerged from nowhere – adding to the fading harmonics of the drone. I have no idea how he did this but it was spellbinding. To a microtonal pioneer, this is probably bread and butter – to an entranced audience it was no less than magic. I hope to put up a clip from one or both gigs later – check back in a few weeks.
As Alan Brown moves in new directions, he is leaving some extraordinary musical documents in his wake. Hot on the heels of his recent Alargo collaborations he releases a second solo album, ‘Composure’. Again, this is an ambient album and like Alargo it is meticulously crafted. It is a solo piano album but much more. Here, the minutiae of the sonic world are revealed and important ambient sounds which are often overlooked. In our busy modern lives, we drown in sonic overload. Here in Composure, the very essence of sound is explored, nurtured, curated, given wings. There is an incredible floating quality to these tracks and the effects are otherworldly, but this is a world beginning at Brown’s fingertips. A world that exists inside a Steinway D piano, an empty concert chamber; in places overlooked. There are faint sounds of the street present and other ‘found’ environmental sounds. These are present as breakthrough sound, loops or drones, adding texture and depth.
It is tempting to think that the pieces arose from written charts or pre-existing motifs, but they didn’t. This is spontaneous composition and formed in reaction to the sounds and the atmospheres of the moment. With the exception of the Scape drone effect on ‘Form of a Dream’, all other effects have been added after the exploration. The material in this album was recorded at the same time as ‘Silent Observer’ and this is a worthy successor. This music has no preconditions attached and the listener should engage in whatever way they wish. There are incalculable benefits from slowing our lives down and when we do we become deeper listeners, more nuanced in our approach to the frenetic world about us.
I have added the first track ‘Form of a Dream’ as a Bandcamp sound clip. I urge everyone to set up a free Bandcamp account – I do much of my listening there. You can buy physical albums, get high (or low) fidelity downloads, or stream. The artists also get a greater share than with other platforms. The Composure album is available from alanbrown.co.nz or from alanbrown.bandcamp.com
It was a foolish oversight on my part – I hadn’t visited Melbourne in fifteen years. I had seen quite a few Melbourne improvisers perform in Sydney or Auckland but failed to track them back to their native habitat. The last time I was there, Bennett’s Lane was still a thing, but closed for two weeks. That was the week between Christmas and New Year; that arid Jazzless desert in the live music calendar. With family now residing in Melbourne, I decided to atone for my sins and I headed off while the Jazz calendar was over-flowing with tasty offerings.
My first stop en route was Sydney where I met up with Mike Nock. That evening we caught a gig at the Foundry 616 where Nadje Nordhuis and James Shipp were playing. When Nock enters a venue the room rearranges itself. You immediately become aware of people in the dark interior, gathering quietly to pay their respects. It was great to see him looking so well and to hear about his new projects. We miss him in Auckland as he has not played here for over a year. I had previously seen Noordhuis perform when the Darcy James Argue band came through Auckland. She is a member of both the Darcy Argue and the Maria Schnieder ensembles – Shipp is a vibraphonist percussionist and ‘synthesisist’ and well-known in New York. The gig opened the Sydney Women’s Jazz Festival and it was well received. I was also delighted to catch up with Thomas Botting who played bass for that particular gig. A robustly healthy and startlingly fit Botting. After a few days with my daughter and grandchildren, I headed to the domestic airport and Melbourne.
To my delight, I was greeted at Melbourne Airport by large signs reading – ‘Welcome Home from Jail Granddad’. Aussie humour is unique and often intentionally embarrassing. Hiding behind false sensibilities is not an option. If you don’t like good-natured piss-take humour – go elsewhere (Kiwis get this). It is no accident that our lost, lamented and beloved Kiwi comedian John Clarke and the actor/comedian Bruno Lawrence settled there. A larrikin world-view runs through the music as well. There is a unique openness about much of Australian improvised music. It is of course informed by the Jazz roots of America, but strangely unbeholden to it. The musicians are liberal-minded and many are unashamedly strident in their political views – this can feed the music as well. New iterations of the Liberation Music Orchestra are forming in Melbourne and that makes perfect sense.
There were quite a few Melbourne musicians on my list and at the top was Barney McAll. It is no secret that I am fascinated by the depth and scope of McAll’s music and interviewing him is always an interesting experience. Some musicians go to great lengths to hide from personal scrutiny, believing that their music is all you need to know about them. That is an entirely valid viewpoint, but a curse if you’re a biographer or reviewer looking for context. When I review, I try to avoid armchair appraisals; attending live music whenever possible; eager to know something of the musician, the thought processes, philosophical leanings; hoping to look behind the mask. Possessing a stubborn belief that an artist and the music are two sides of an alchemic essence.
McAll texted me his address and I ventured out into the heat, trying to make sense of the train system. I got off somewhere in the outer suburbs; prophetically, somewhere near Mooroolbark. There was a bing and I looked at my phone. The text read, ‘Round the back your grace – ignore the dog’. McAll greeted me warmly and we went inside for a Vegemite crumpet. As he was wearing military-style camouflage, I didn’t dare tell him that Kiwis only eat Marmite (look up the great Marmageddon debate which erupted after the Christchurch earthquake). It is always a pleasure talking to McAll, but unforeseen things occur when your guard is down. He played me some new compositions, showed me a video he was working on and we discussed the coming year’s projects. Then unexpectedly, I found myself the subject. Being interviewed about my poetry and the duty of creative artists to get their work out there. As we talked, and as if it were the most natural thing in the world, he handed me a grinning ventriloquist’s dummy and sat another in the next chair. The discussion continued, was filmed in real time; two child-sized puppets and me; and the McAll directing it Fellini fashion. For more about McAll’s recent ‘Hearing The Blood’ album or his catalogue, go to iTunes, Spotify or www.extracelestialarts.bandcamp.com – read my recent blog post, December 4, 2017.
While I was there, McAll phoned Julien Wilson to find out his gig schedule for me. There was a gig of his on in Northcote and so I dashed back to the Jazz Corner hotel before heading out into the warm Melbourne night. It was an auspicious night to be out and about in Melbourne as the divisive and ill-considered same-sex marriage plebiscite had delivered a resounding yes vote. Whole inner suburbs were closed as revellers partied. Adding to the celebratory mood, a significant World Cup qualifying match was underway (which the Aussies subsequently won to the chagrin of Kiwis who lost their qualifying match). All of the above spells happy chaos in an art and sports-mad city. And I had music happening – lots of it. A scarfed man sitting opposite me on the tram was laughing and crying in turns. He was so drunk that his eyes revolved in opposite directions. Someone asked him if he was anticipating a win and he nodded chuckling, then just as quickly he cried inconsolably – ‘Cats are bastards’ he mumbled – ‘I just fell over one and hurt my arm’.
Jules Wilson is a tall friendly man and he plays like he lives with his heart on his sleeve. I have followed his Facebook posts and listened to his music for years; no-one is ever left wondering what his worldview is. Like many musicians, he loathes injustice or inequality and you can hear this manifest in his sound. Not in an angry way but in an earnest cajoling way, demanding that humanity ups it’s game. Creating original improvised music taps into a deep well of experience and with mature players, their character oozes through the notes. A lot of modern saxophonists have a raspiness to their tone and often produce a vibrato-less sound. Wilson has a rich full-bodied sound and it touches on an era when the tenor giants ruled the world. Appropriately there is often some breathy vibrato at the end of a phrase. This is not to say that he is an old-fashioned player because he isn’t. It is rather that the history is in that tone – ancient to modern.
There is another factor which could influence his tenor sound – he doubles on clarinet. The clarinet is the first horn he mastered. While many saxophonists treat that horn like a difficult inlaw, Wilson perseveres, regarding it with a begrudging affection. I was stunned by the beauty of his clarinet playing and how modern the instrument sounded in his hands (he played a fast-paced bop classic, not a ballad). I asked him in the break how he felt about the horn – “it’s a punishing unforgiving instrument, but I can’t bring myself to abandon it” he told me.
Wilson came sharply onto my radar with McAll’s extraordinary Mooroolbark album but he has long been one of Australia’s most successful Jazz Musicians. Winning the National Jazz Award in 1994, The Music Council of Australia Freedman Fellowship in 2006, The 2008 Bell Award – Artist of the Year, a Bell Award trifecta in 2014 and the APRA Art Music Award for Excellence in 2016. I have recently been listening to his back catalogue which is available on Band Camp (some CD albums are also still available). His output is diverse and all of it interesting – an edgy album with Jim Black, Mark Hellas and Steve Magnussen – several recordings with his popular trio (Stephen Grant on accordion and Stephen Magnusson on guitar) – an extraordinary couple of albums featuring Barney McAll on piano, Jonathan Zwartz bass and Allan Browne on drums. There are around twenty albums in all. All are worth a listen but his ‘This is Always’ album is an absolute gem (the live ‘This Narrow Isthmus’ which followed, likewise). The former harks back to a specific era in the best possible way – not as a tribute album, but as a rekindling of a bright flame.
The story behind the album is instructive as it takes us to the heart of an in-the-moment creative process. The musicians wanted to capture the vibe and style of the famous Prestige Meeting Sessions. McAll and Wilson swapped a few charts but had no detailed discussions – no rehearsals were scheduled. On the day of recording, the four turned up at the studio with a ‘first-take’ approach. No baffles and no headphones were used. This allowed for a sense of immediacy and real-time heightened interaction. McAll reimagining the piano styles of the era in passing – some Evans like intros and even using the locked hand’s style briefly. Wilson sending forth a flurry of swoon-worthy fat warm tones. None of this sounded contrived – it sounded like the present and past fused into a cohesive whole. The album is an important milestone in Australian music and no antipodean Jazz lover should be without a copy. It should not be regarded as a trip down memory lane, but as a testament to the eternal now. The unsuspecting will believe it to be a loved classic album of the Prestige-era and scratch their heads to place it.
When Bennetts Lane passed into history, the Melbourne club scene rose to the challenge. The Bennetts management (or some of them but minus the name – it’s a complicated story) opened a new club in the industrial heartland of Brunswick. The JazzLab is a stunning venue. Situated in a basement, it has all that old-school Jazz Club vibe but not at the expense of good taste. It is comfortable but not over-decorated (I have seen some shockers in other countries, trying so hard to be cool that they end up as museums to kitsch). More importantly, the sight lines are good and the acoustics great. I attended the JazzLab with expat Auckland musician Matt Steele and my son Jeremy and the gig was a treat. It was the album release of ‘Finding The Balance’ by the Paul Williamson Quintet. This was a solid unit with an inexhaustible array of talented firepower and good tunes. All were new to me except Jamie Oehlers, who I see perform regularly.
The unit had swags of punch and plenty of textural contrasts. It was big enough to sound like a larger ensemble at times, but the writing allowed individuals to shine. Oehlers was on fire, hitting sweet spot after sweet spot during solos – carving his path through the air like a titan. Closer to earth, but equally attention-grabbing was the leader Williamson – his sound control impressive – his trumpet speaking a very human dialect. I had not encountered Andrea Keller before, but her tasteful minimalist approach also caught my attention – it contrasted nicely with the fulsome horns. The remaining musicians a six-string electric bass player Christopher Hale and a very tasty drummer James Mclean. It was a great launch in an interesting venue – what could be better.
Keller, in particular, intrigued me, so I looked through the gig guide to see if she was playing elsewhere. My luck was in as she was leading an interesting trio at the Uptown Jazz Cafe in Fitzroy. The next night, was a warm one, and I walked to Fitzroy, pausing to eat street food on the way. Finally, I stumbled up the stairs to a very warm Uptown Jazz Cafe. The venue was not air-conditioned and ill-lit, but the gloom and the heat added to the ambiance. As the band set up, a shaft of dim orange light beamed on them, illuminating the trio as ghostly orange specters – enlarging and distorting their forms as it projected them onto a screen. The music bordered on avant-garde and the setting was therefore perfect.
The trio of piano, violin, and electric bass didn’t disappoint. Keller’s serialist credentials were very much on-show as she spun out a filigree of wonderfully intricate patterns. At first, appearing to be repeating motifs, but a more careful listening revealing otherwise. Finely detailed changes to the underlying structure guided the ear into a finely wrought lace work of notes. In this, I detected the influence of Riley or other adventurous souls. The violin and bass meeting the challenge, adding colour, texture, and melodic contrast (I didn’t catch their names). I had recently been listening to Terry Riley’s ‘Lazy Afternoon Among the Crocodiles’, so this gig was very pleasing to my ear.
I saw other gigs during the week, but the standouts were those mentioned. Melbourne is a city of the arts and a very European styled city. It is therefore not surprising that Jazz flourishes there. I have traveled through many of the worlds great cities in the past year, but this city is as Jazz rich as the best.