Jazz Journalists Association, Straight ahead

The Baker coordinates

I had been to Amsterdam before but never tracked down Chet Baker. I blame the city for this oversight because it swallows travellers whole, reorders their plans, confuses them with a multiplicity of offerings. You arrive, you drift through the alleys and before you know it, it’s time to check out. This time I was not to be distracted. As soon as I awoke I grabbed an early breakfast, noted down Chet’s address and headed for the red light district. His hotel was located in Prins Hendrikkade, a street on the edge of sanity. A quarter where bored women knit cardigans behind dimly lit shop windows.

At first, I missed the address as the hotel was being refurbished. I wandered up and down confused and eventually stopped for a coffee. After gulping it down I asked the young barista for directions. ‘Oh yeah – Chet’ he said shaking his head sadly. I was amazed that he had heard of Chet Baker as he looked about eighteen. He grabbed me by the arm and led me onto the pavement and pointed to a spot directly above us. A third story window was propped half open- and behind it – Chet in silhouette. “Talk to Pim next door”, he said. “He’s the man to help you”. I navigated my way around a stack of building offcuts and entered a crowded lobby. “Chet Baker”, I said and the man behind the desk beamed in my direction. “I’ll be with you in a minute,” he said, pointing me toward a glass cabinet containing a few items of Baker memorabilia. It was an odd assortment, a copper bugle, secondhand books on Chet, some faux Delftware and two paperweight trumpets.

When Pim was free of his duties he led us to a padlocked door which in turn led us to where the construction was happening. Inside, behind the plywood panels and stacked tools was another smaller door which hid a commemorative brass plaque. “He died right here,” he said, pointing to the ground below the plaque. We all stood silent for a time, reflecting on this gifted but flawed genius and his legacy. The beautiful youth with James Dean looks who morphed into a drug-ravaged parchment skull. The trumpeter who impressed Parker, the melodic improviser, the man with the mesmerizing androgynous voice. The man who could break your heart because he fell in love too easily. https://youtu.be/3zrSoHgAAWo

Looking up at the third-floor window I pondered over the many versions of his untimely death. I ran them past Pim who had clearly heard them all before: (1) he had nodded off in front the open window, (2) he owed money and was trying to escape angry drug dealers by climbing across to the next balcony, (3) he was pushed out the window by the drug dealers, (4) he was locked in his room by mistake and was trying to jump to the next balcony (5) suicide. Pim looked thoughtful for a minute and then spoke, “There’s another credible theory” he said as he paused for effect. We were all ears. “I believe that he was abducted by aliens because he was so uniquely talented, and after they had mapped his brain they tried to return him to his room. At this point, a tragic miscalculation occurred as their coordinates were out by a metre. It is rumoured that one of the younger aliens had forgotten to allow for the warping of time during transportation. A rookie mistake that robbed us of his musical genius”.

As we returned to the foyer I asked him if he would accept a tip as he had gone to so much trouble. He nodded happily and I handed him ten Euros. He held it up to the light, beaming as turned it over. “I like this so much,” he said, “that I will take it on holiday with me next week”. I now favour this new theory. It gives me hope that the aliens, appalled by their miscalculation, are working to correct it, planning to travel back in time and return Chet to his room in the Prins Hendrik. If they do I am certain that Chet and Pim will appreciate each other’s company.

Posted from San Francisco – John Fenton October 21, 2018.

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Backbeat Bar, Beyond category, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Space Jazz

Cam Allens Phobos The Scary Moon

Cam Allen (4)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.  Cam Allen (1)

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.  Cam Allen (3)

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.  Cam Allen

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.

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs

‘GRG67’ / ‘Shem’

 

IMG_2657GRG67 ‘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

IMG_4756Shem: 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

New Zealand Jazz Gigs, Small ensemble, Space Jazz

Aldebaran Quartet @ Wallace Arts Trust

Bell Aldebaran (1)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.  Bell Aldebaran (2)

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.Bell Aldebaran

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’.Bell Aldebaran (3)

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.

 

Australian Musicians, Review, Straight ahead

Eat Your Greens / No Dogs Allowed

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.

IMG_0442‘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

IMG_0441

‘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).

 

 

 

Backbeat Bar, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Post Millenium

Watson meets Ward @ Backbeat Bar

Watson & WardIt 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. Watson & Ward (1)

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. Watson & Ward (2)

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. Watson & Ward (3)

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.

 

 

 

Beyond category, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, experimental improvised music, vocal

Leda’s Dream 2018 – Chelsea Prastiti

Prastiti (1)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.  Prastiti (2)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.  PrastitiPrastiti’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