Griffin / Chisholm / Meehan

Norman Meehan and Hayden Chisholm are always well received when they perform at Aucklands CJC Creative Jazz Club. There have been various iterations of their line ups over recent years and all of them compelling in different ways. The Unwind quartets attract big audiences and rightly so. This particular band was co-led by Chisholm, Meehan and Griffin, with Julien Dyne and Cameron McArthur rounding off the quintet. I was particularly delighted to see Hannah Griffin on the bill, as she occupies a unique and interesting musical space among improvising vocalists. The gig showcased iconic twentieth century New Zealand poets and Griffin’s impressive vocal skills were exactly what was required.   

Jazz lovers of a certain age often categorise vocalists according to how well they enunciate their lines. Whether that is important or not is debatable and it depends very much on context. I am generally more focused on phrasing and time feel and I like to hear a word stretched to fit an interpretation. If it’s a standard, then we know the words and having them messed with is part of the joy. I also listen to a lot of wordless vocal improvisors like Sidsel Endresen. 

When it comes to interpreting poems though, the clarity of the words does matter and Hannah Griffin gave a master class in balancing the many aspects of vocalisation. She does not merely intone a poem, she is part of the band and her melodicism is paramount in the mix. She can enunciate and still pay phrasing its due.

The first thing about this band is the way they respond to each other, sometimes finishing each others musical sentences. This seamless interaction is especially evident between the three leaders. Meehan is a master of understatement and his gentle swing can quickly bring a smile.  His default minimalism always serves the music well but it is on reflection that you realise just how powerful and judiciously placed those chords and sparkling runs are. He doesn’t require a percussive touch to make a big statement. I suspect that most of the arrangements are his as well. 

Chisholm always takes your breath away and from the first note, the emotional content in his playing is quite unmistakable. This is the sort of gorgeous alto playing seldom heard and you dwell on each note and phrase, marvelling at the purity of tone and the compelling story telling. His ability to deploy his multi-phonic technique, simply jaw dropping.

The other thing which grabs you is the sheer beauty of the bands sound. By that, I do not mean just pretty for it goes well beyond that. All of the emotions are engaged and the effect on a room is noticeable. Dyne is a popular local drummer who works across genres and who is sought after  around town. He has played with Meehan and Chisholm previously. Griffen has appeared predominantly with Meehan and in gigs similar to this. McArthur was the new-comer to this particular lineup but you wouldn’t think so. His reading abilities and his intuitive grasp of the music maintaining his usual high standard.   

At the previous Griffin, Chisholm, Meehan gig the band had Bill Manhire on stage, and as icing on the cake he introduced the poems. Gigs like that are hard acts to follow, but fast forward to 2020 and the band more than pulled it off. By extending the range of poets and poems our interest was engaged in new ways. My greatest pleasure was hearing more poems by the much lamented Dave Mitchell. More gigs like that please. You can purchase albums featuring these artists from Rattle Records at rattle-records.bandcomp.com

JazzLocal32.com was rated as one of the 50 best Jazz blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association. 

Porter / Rozenblatt @ CJC

It is seldom that we encounter a critically acclaimed New York Jazz Trumpeter with an Auckland tour itinerary, but this week the drought was broken. Charlie Porter is a versatile musician and one with impeccable credentials. He is a Grammy-winning artist whose star is on the rise. When you check out his bio you learn many things of interest, for instance, that he has parallel careers in Jazz and classical. The inclusion of Auckland was partly down to bass player Mat Fieldes (and of course Roger Manins). Fieldes is a popular musician who has recently returned from a long stint in New York and he has worked with Porter previously. Sharing the top billing was Grammy-nominated New York drummer David Rozenblatt.  Rozenblatt is another musician who works across genres and like Porter, his Jazz chops are something to behold. 

Charlie Porter

I arrived early and watched the brief rehearsals, noting that Porter exhibited a focussed down-to-business demeanour on the bandstand. The sort of discipline you need to survive in New York. As soon as he was satisfied he smiled and thanked the musicians, then moving among those setting up the club, he introduced himself, friendly and relaxed. These are the hallmarks of the professional. Playing with an unfamiliar rhythm section may be commonplace in Jazz but pulling together a good performance while on the road, and with pick-up musicians requires a good leader. Porter and Rozenblatt share a history, performing together often. The remainder of the group were Mat Fieldes (bass) and Dixon Nacey (guitar). The latter was meeting the two New Yorkers for the first time.

David Rozenblatt

Porter possesses a fulsome clean tone (think Brownie), but his rich strong sound can change in an instant when he swoops to the lower register, his trumpet emitting a dirty growl and rises as the bell emits a cascade of fluttering squeaks.  While the growls and flutters are not dominant features of his playing they add vital splashes of contrast and colour. You can hear the deep south in his sound, and especially New Orleans, but on upbeat numbers, he can edge closer to the second Miles quintet. The elided phrases, the sting. His compositional strength was on show as well and although there were a variety of moods there was a logical arc to the setlist.  His eponymous new album has the same logical progression and on that, there is an even greater stylistic variance. He is not a slave to style or even genre and perhaps this why he sounds so fresh.

Dixon Nacey

When performing before an audience Porter exudes easygoing confidence, that belies his years. Such confidence is usually found in older musicians, but check out his story and all of the above makes perfect sense.  He was trained in classical trumpet and won a Fulbright scholarship to study in Paris, he was mentored by Winton Marsalis and is connected spiritually to the music of the deep south. During the evening he played one or two numbers which referenced New Orleans (particularly Rhumba for Sticky) and on his album, the tune ‘Morning Glory’ caught my attention. I have just returned from New Orleans and Morning Glory connected me back to Henry Red Allen.  

David Rozenblatt’s drumming fascinated me. It was joy-filled, wildly exuberant but purged of unnecessary clutter. Many of the younger drummers I hear are time tricksters, and while this is impressive it can also clutter up a sound canvas. Rozenblatt had something of the swing drummer about him, but overlaying that was a colourist sensitivity, the warmth of a great rhythmic conversationalist. Fieldes was also right on the money. His melodicism and lovely time feel filling out the sound without getting in the way. We export many great bass players from New Zealand, but having Fieldes back on home ground is our good fortune. Dixon Nacey needs no introduction to either Aucklanders or to wider New Zealand. He is rightly regarded as one of our finest guitarists and consequently, his work schedule is frantic. Because of the many projects he juggles, he has less time to perform in local Jazz venues but happily, he was available for this. He is a favourite with club audiences and a draw in his own right. We have come to expect the best of him over the years as his trajectory is ever upward. He has long been noted for his Sco-like credentials but as we saw last Wednesday, he can adapt to a variety of improvising situations with ease. 

I have posted a track from the gig titled ‘divergent paths’.  It was the first up and it set the tone for a crackling evening to follow. To purchase the album go to www.charlieportermusic.com (digital downloads, CD’s and vinyl available. The posted track was supplied by Charlie Porter. 

Mat Fieldes

Alex Ventling Trio (Switzerland)

The summer break seemed endless with its hot nights, warm breezes and parchment dry days.  Nature shrivelled as the birds stopped singing and the trip to the Hi-Fi became too onerous. There is something about a prolonged heatwave that makes you both lazy and restless at the same time. This is also the time of year when Aucklands premier Jazz club takes its Christmas break and so the resumption of the gigs was happily anticipated.  The first gig of the year was the Alex Ventling trio and what a great way to ease into February. Ventling is a New Zealand ex-pat, but one who settled in Switzerland many years ago. He and his fellow musicians are all from Basel, a part of the Swiss Confederation and speakers of a German dialect.  I passed through there once but all that I can remember was a recommendation from a friend. Stop there if you can, Basel is a jazz city.

This was Ventling’s first gig for the CJC Creative Jazz Club and it attracted a large audience. They poured through the doors escaping the evening’s heat; needing cool and finding it. The venues piano is not without its challenges but on this night it sang sweetly. Partly because it had just been tuned but it was mainly because of Ventling’s sensitive touch. Many pianists tend toward the percussive in a larger room, but this programme required subtlety, room to breathe. The set-list tunes were well crafted and with a heavier touch, the expressiveness would have been sacrificed.  We don’t get too many piano trios through and this trio operated as the best of them do. The musicians listening to each other, reacting, and playing as if they were one entity. It is almost impossible for this level of communication to occur unless a trio has been together for a time, and in this case, they were not only long term bandmates but on the last stop on the tour.

Most of the tunes were originals, but two were interesting reharmonisation of Jazz standards. For instance ‘All Blues’ which hinted at Mehldau Americana voicings;  the astonishing reharm of ‘Someday My Prince Will Come’; the latter truly delightful, surprising, and decidedly edgy. The original melody cast to the four winds as new joys were plucked from the changes. The originals were captivating and especially ‘Expecting the Unexpected’ and ‘Vorfreude’. The later title, one of those uniquely precise German words meaning the joy you feel when looking forward to something. Whatever the German word is for looking back with pleasure, that was the emotion the audience was left with at gigs end. The interactions throughout were impeccable, reminding me of a Pieranunzi trio. The bass player James Kruttli and the drummer Phelan Burgoyne were as riveting as the pianist. This was a trio where your eyes and ears moved constantly from one to the other. We watched in utter absorption and for two hours we forgot the swelter looming ominously outside.

A recent album by the Alex Ventling Quartet was on sale at the door and it is stunning. ‘Alex & the Wavemakers’ has a different lineup and features a vocalist Yume Ito. This is closer to the ECM esthetic and is Jazz Art Music at its very best. The fourth track ‘Trailblazer’ was to my ears furthering the blissful journeys begun by Norma Winstone, John Tayler and Kenny Wheeler. You can find Alex Ventling on Bandcamp or at http://www.alexventling.com.

JazzLocal32.com was rated as one of the 50 best Jazz blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association. 

Emma Gilmartin & James Sherlock

Gilmartin Sherlock.jpgI was barely off the plane and my brain was full of dense fog, no doubt a legacy of San Francisco Karl who had been circling me like a spectre for a good month. I gamely fought the malaise off and because I am a creature of habit, dutifully made my way down to Auckland’s CJC Creative Jazz Club. In my experience, it pays never to miss a live improvised music gig, because if you do, you risk bitter regret. Believe me, I often lie awake lamenting a missed chance to see John McLaughlin. 

Last week the Australian Duo, Emma Gilmartin and James Sherlock were on the bill accompanied by Christchurch Bass player Michael Story and Wellington drummer Mark Lockett. Lockett, who helped organise the tour, is a mainstay of the Wellington Jazz scene and offshore musicians like this arrive due to the skilful tour-on-a-shoestring wrangling of his ilk. We get to hear these Aussie, European and American bands in our New Zealand Jazz clubs, largely because of the work put in by a handful of dedicated musicians like Roger and Caro Manins (and Lockett). These organisers pitch in uncomplainingly as they lock down the events and we benefit as a result. Consequently, New Zealand has developed a rich improvised music circuit and a debt of gratitude is owed to the organisers (and to the volunteers who quietly assist). 

Emma Gilmartin is a Melbourne based vocalist, composer and teacher and it was her first time performing in Auckland. She has received praise from the Australian music press and is one of an increasing number of gifted vocalists emerging out of the Australian Jazz scene. She is pitch-perfect and her appealing voice finds the corners of a room with ease. Like all good Jazz vocalists, she imparts a mood of engaging intimacy. Her co-leader on this tour, was guitarist James Sherlock, a notable musician and the perfect foil for a vocalist. An accompanist who understands how to enhance vocal performance by offering challenges and he knows how to comp without getting in the way. He is a gift to any vocalist.  On solos, he also excels, at times bringing to mind earlier greats like an Oscar More (behind Nat Cole). Christchurch Bass player Michael Story rounded off the quartet nicely and it was obvious that he was enjoying himself. Again, he was the right person for the ensemble.

The program was a mix of tasteful standards and interesting originals. I have put up a clip which demonstrates the strengths of the quartet – witness the tasteful musicality of Lockett’s drum solo as the band digs into a swinging version of ‘Nica’s Dream’ by Horace Silver.  Gilmartin appeared to be relishing her time in New Zealand and she announced that she would try and return next year. We hope so.

Emma Gilmartin (vocals), James Sherlock (guitar), Michael Story (bass), Mark Lockett (drums). The gig took place at Anthology, K’Road, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, 4 December 2019

Ocelot

OcelotA while ago the program director of the Creative Jazz Club, Roger Manins mentioned that he had booked a great young group from Christchurch to appear in the emerging artist’s slot. He went on to say that many of these young emerging artists were so good that he was considering renaming the slot, something like ‘young guns’. He was right. Ocelot exuded easy-going confidence, uncommon in younger players and by the second number they owned the bandstand; navigating some slippery lines with disarming ease and swinging. This was a tight unit and it was obvious that they had put in the necessary work beforehand. That gave them the freedom to relax into the music and the results were evident.

While a little hesitant at first, they progressively engaged with the audience. This has been a theme of mine in recent months, a desire to sense the person behind the instrument. It is not about exhibitionism but about something infinitely more subtle. Something that tells a live audience that they are an essential part of a performance triangle, instrument, musician and audience. Seasoned Jazz audiences are fine-tuned to detect enthusiasm on the bandstand and likewise, they can detect disengagement.  Ocelot got that and was well received. 

The setlist was nicely thought through as it balanced originals with tasty tunes by established and lesser-known artists. Bravely, and to their credit, they played a Jazz arrangement of Prokofiev’s (Concerto No 2). These forays can be fraught with danger, but this interpretation was handled with ease as was Jonathan Kreisberg’s ‘Strange Resolutions’. The latter required them to navigate some tight Tristano-like unison lines in the head and emerge swinging. They did, and to see a young band do this with apparent ease was pleasing.  I have posted Strange Resolutions in the YouTube clip.

 

The originals in the setlist were penned by the bass player and guitarist and a tune which took my fancy with its danceable Klezmer vibe was titled ‘Rakia Nightmares’ (Jonah Levine Collective). The bar is being lifted all the time, as our various Jazz Schools flourish, but what is most encouraging about this, is that they are not producing clones. 

Ocelot: Finley Passmore (drums), Mitchell Dwyer (guitar), Finnzarby Richwood (piano), Callum McInnes (bass), Cheena Rae (alto saxophone). The gig took place at Anthology for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, K’ Road, Auckland CBD, 23 October 2019

  

 

Dixon Nacey ~ The Edge Of Chaos

 

Nacey.jpgThis Dixon Nacey album has long been anticipated and although Nacey has previously recorded as co-leader, this is the first album to be released exclusively under his name. Nacey is firmly on the radar of Jazz loving Kiwis, but his fan base extends well beyond that. He is a professional musician of considerable standing, an in-demand teacher and in recent years the musical director of CocaCola Christmas in the Park. To up and comers he is a guitar legend and on this album, they have something to aspire to; twenty years of experience distilled into excellence.     

The material arose from his Master’s degree which focused on advanced compositional techniques and which was completed last year at the UoA Jazz school. In the process, he gained important realisations and applied these to his art. As listeners, a music degree is not needed as the album has visceral appeal. Just follow your ears and you will get to the heart of things, and that is the point of compelling Jazz performance. 

I have caught many of Nacey’s performances over the years and they never disappoint. I have also gained a sense of the man. He is generous, open-hearted, enthusiastic and very hard working. He takes his craft seriously, but never at the expense of his human qualities. All of the above are evident in his warm playing. The man and his music are not separate. He was aiming at a modern sound here and he has achieved this beautifully and done so without a hint of contrivance. This is how guitarists sound post-Rosenwinkel or Moreno, but he has made the sound his own. A more exact equivalency would be to place him alongside the top-rated Australian guitarists. Price (1).jpg

On the album, he is accompanied by former colleagues and friends and it reminds me how lucky we are to have such musicians in our city. Keven Field on Rhodes and piano, Roger Manins on tenor saxophone, Olivier Holland on upright bass and Andy Keegan on drums. One track features Chelsea Prastiti and Jonathan Leung on vocals. With friends like this to help him realise his vision, he has received an added boon. They are all in peak form here and Rattle Records has also done the artist proud. Steve Garden and UnkleFranc you are extraordinary.

The launch at the CJC Jazz Club, Anthology room had Alan Brown on Keys and piano instead of Keven Field. I looked into my database and learned that it was exactly six years ago to the night that Dixon Nacey led a band at the CJC, and as it was last Wednesday with Alan Brown on keys. It was a great night filled with enthusiastic applause as everyone bathed in the vibe; and the soaring runs which glissed and glowed like silken fire. As well as numbers from ‘The Edge of Chaos’ album we heard a few earlier Dixon compositions like ‘Sco’ and ‘The all Nighter’. I have posted a video of The all Nighter from the gig – how could I resist. To listen to a sample of the album go to Rattle Bandcamp where you can order a hard copy or download it in any format. Try a sample track and you will certainly buy. And while you are at it, take time to reflect on our extraordinary musicians. 

The gig took place at Anthology for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, K’Road Auckland, 16 October 2019. Purchase the album from Rattle Records Bandcamp

Keith Price ‘Upside Downwards’

coverCanadian Jazz guitarist Keith Price is a welcome addition to the Auckland scene. He brings with him fresh ideas and a musical connection to his hometown. Manitoba is associated with Lenny Breau and Neil Young who both grew up there. Perhaps it’s the proximity to the open spaces which echo in the music, that wide-open sound (and in Young’s case an overlay of dissonant melancholia)? Whatever it is, it certainly produces distinctive musicians. Lenny Breau is an important Jazz guitarist and one who is sadly overlooked, Hearing Price’s respectful acoustic homage on Wednesday, cast my ears in that direction again.  

Before moving to New Zealand, Price recorded a collaborative album in his home state of Winnipeg and that material formed the basis of what we heard last Wednesday. While the album features Canadian musicians, it was released on our premier Kiwi label Rattle. ‘Upside Downwards’ is a terrific album and from the first track, you become aware of how spaciousness informs the compositions, a note placement and phrasing which allows the music to breathe deeply. This feeling of expansiveness is also underscored by a certain delicacy. In the first track especially, you marvel at the touch; the skilfully deployed dynamics grabbing your attention, but it is the artful articulation of Price’s playing that is especially evident. Listening through, it impossible not to feel the presence of the open plains and of Lenny Breau. 

The co-leaders are perfectly attuned to each other throughout; playing as if one entity. There are no ego-driven flights here and in that sense, it reminded me of an ECM album. I had not come across either the pianist or the drummer before but they impressed deeply. From Jeff Presslaff, that delicate touch on the piano and the ability to use a minimalist approach to say a lot. The drummer Graydon Cramer a colourist and musical in the way Paul Motian was.  

Wednesday’s gig was in part an album release, but Price also traversed earlier albums and played a short acoustic set. The album was a trio, but this time he brought four of Auckland’s best to the bandstand. The quintet format worked beautifully and his bandmates were clearly enjoying themselves. These guys always sound good, but it felt like they there were especially onboard for this. In the acoustic set, Price played what looked like a Martin (a Breau and a Young tribute). The other standard was a killing arrangement of Wayne Shorter’s Ju Ju. Why do we not hear that more often?

When setting up my video camera I made the mistake of locating myself near the bar and because of that, there is bleed-through from the air conditioners (the curse of all live recordings). The sightlines are also poor from that end. Never-the-less, I have put up a clip from the first set titled ‘Solstice/Zoom Zoom’. It was worth posting in spite of the defects. I have also posted a sound clip from the album titled ‘6 chords commentary’.  

Album: Keith Price (guitar), Jeff Presslaff (Piano), Gradon Cramer (drums)

Auckland Quintet: Keith Price (guitars), Kevin Field (piano), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Olivier Holland (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums). Anthology, CJC Creative Jazz Club, K’Road, 09 October 2019. Recoding available at Rattle Bandcamp.

Reuben Bradley ~ Shark Variations

SharkPost Trump’s inauguration, improbability is the new normal and in keeping with the mood of the times Wednesday’s gig emerged from improbable beginnings. It began with an international cat rescue mission, an attempt to thwart a ‘catricidal’ former neighbour. Before the mission had even been concluded a subplot had emerged; one involving the inhabitants of three cities, two countries, and assorted sharks. Those familiar with Reuben Bradley will not be surprised at this turn of events as he’s known for his humour, good nature and above all for his ability to turn improbable adventures into really good music. ‘Shark Varieties’ is a drummer led trio and a vehicle which showcases a bunch of the leader’s original tunes. It also showcases a joyful reunion.

The Shark Variations album was released by Rattle in 2017 and it followed a successful tour by the band a few months earlier. Bradley was in the process of moving to Australia at the time and he was keen to record with longtime collaborators Roger Manins and Bret Hirst. He needed to do this while they were all in the same place and this was his best window of opportunity. Hirst is an expat Kiwi who lives in Sydney, Manins is based in Auckland and Bradley was at that point, about to head for the Gold Coast. Because of their shared history, the musicians knew exactly what they were aiming for; an open-hearted collaborative and spontaneous expression of their art form. That they realised this vision will be apparent to those who listen to the album.

As a leader, Bradley never shies away from an opportunity to leaven his gigs with humour. He tells jokes against himself (the trademark of all good Kiwi humour) and as you peruse his tune titles you find a plethora of throwaway lines and in-jokes. During live gigs, the titles become hilarious stories and his delivery is always pitch-perfect. Improvising musicians frequently tell an audience that the title came after the composition and that they struggled to name tunes. In Bradley’s case, I suspect the reverse is true; that a series of off-beat incidents have stimulated his already vivid imagination and the incidents become the catalysts for his compositions. ‘Wairoa or L.A.’ ‘Wake up call’ Makos and Hammerheads’ are all examples, the latter giving rise to the title, in spite of the fact that he could only name two shark types (which he felt was more than enough). 

Humour aside, this is seriously good music. Bradley is a gifted and popular drummer and musicians love having him alongside. It is therefore not surprising that he would choose these collaborators. Manins is undoubtedly the best known contemporary New Zealand saxophonist and a musician whose formidable abilities are attested well beyond these shores. Hirst left New Zealand many years ago and is regarded as a bass heavyweight on the Australasian scene. He is frequently found performing with Mike Nock and his resume includes playing alongside James Muller, Greg Osby and other notables. 

The reunion gig took place on a cold wet Auckland night and many gladly braved the chill to get a piece of this. I have put up a video from the gig titled ‘Wake up Call’, which Reuben assured the audience had only the thinnest connection to an actual wake up call. In keeping with the ‘spirit’ of the gig, I miscalibrated my camera and the resulting shot turned Bradley and Manins into ghosts. The album is available from Rattle Records. The gig took place at Anthology, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, 02 September 2019. 

Footnote: The cats were rescued safely and after an unfortunate travel accident they both found asylum abroad.

Louisa Williamson Quintet

Louisa Williamson (1)Louisa Williamson is a gifted young tenor saxophonist who has visited Auckland on previous occasions. This time, and for the first time, she visited as a bandleader, showcasing her beautiful compositions. I have always admired her tone and improvisational abilities, but this was a step up. Freed from the comfort of a band she knew well, she cast herself among an array of experienced Auckland musicians. Stephen Thomas on drums, Tom Dennison on bass and Michael Howell on guitar. The only Wellingtonian (besides Williamson) was pianist George Maclaurin and together as a band they delivered. This was engaging straight-ahead Jazz. 

In the history of this music, only a handful of female tenor or baritone saxophonists have received their due. If Williamson keeps playing like this she will surely inspire others and that is how the music grows. She has already come to international attention when she became the first New Zealander to join the JM Jazz World Orchestra in 2016. She is at present working towards a Masters in composition at the NZSM. After hearing her compositions on this date, the outcome should prove interesting. Her tunes possess an appealing melodicism while underpinned by an unfussy harmonic cushion. It is post-bop mainstream but there is nothing stale about it.  Afterwards, a band member from among the Auckland pick-ups remarked how well the charts were constructed.Louisa Williamson

I have put up the first tune from the first set titled ‘Slightly run-down’.  A tune where the underlying motifs are opened up as the theme develops. It is a story with a beginning, middle and ending and it is told without artifice. Everything felt in balance, the short phrase of arco bass during a changeup, the staccato restatement of the theme on the guitar, and above all the horns careful parsing of the melody.

The keyboardist Maclaurin was familiar with the leader’s tunes and consequently, he was the perfect harmonic anchor point. He also delivered some nice solos. The Auckland contingent of Howell on guitar, Dennison on upright bass and Stephen Thomas on drums took no time in establishing their credentials. I was particularly happy to see Dennison on the bandstand as he is seldom seen at the club these days. A fine bass player who always finds the best notes; a melodicist and a musician who has an impeccable feel for time. Howell and Thomas we see regularly and both are deservedly popular with audiences. I look forward to Williamson’s continued journey as she is learning to show more of herself. Being the leader, she spoke and told stories and I hope she does more of that. Jazz is at its best when it shows some emotion and in live performance, the artist’s engagement with an audience is the X factor lifting the music ever higher.

Louisa Williamson Quintet: Louisa Williamson (tenor saxophone, compositions), George Maclaurin (keyboards), Michael Howell (guitar), Tom Dennison (upright bass), Stephen Thomas (guitar). The gig was at Anthology for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, 25 September 2019Louisa

Stephen Thomas Electric Band

Thomas 2 (1).jpgThe history of music is the history of instrument development and from the earliest of times, musicians have expanded the reach of their instruments. The mother of instruments, Al’ Oud was first documented 3500 years ago, but documenting the development of the drum is a nebulous task. It almost certainly arose in Africa and along the way it has undergone a multitude of modifications. On Wednesday there was another waypoint along the continuum under the forward-looking beats of Stephen Thomas. Thomas is a gifted drummer and percussionist and in his hands, the instrument takes on a new life by transcending the mundane. The gig arose out of his last years Masters recital and the focus was on extended technique; combining physical drum rhythms, electronics via a drum pad, prepared drum heads and samples. 

Improvisers are the masters of extended technique, but even so, it is comparatively rare to hear these effects applied to drums, winds or reeds in Jazz. The most obvious examples occurred during the 70’s fusion era, but post 70s Shorter and Harris, who carved a credible path, only a brave few have followed. In my view, it requires experienced musicians to do this well and Stephen Thomas is well qualified to realise this project. Done badly it can look like a botched attempt to blur technique deficiencies. Done well it is an opening into a brave new world and another set of tools to build on what has gone before.

True to label, The Stephen Thomas Electric Band was wired and utilised effects, including the horn section. There were various configurations from sextet to duo and each configuration teased out a particular facet of the interesting compositions. The full line up was: drums (+ electronics), two saxophonists (+ electronics, one playing alto and the other playing tenor, soprano or Ewi). There was a keyboard player, an electric bass player and two electric guitarists (+ one guitarist playing prepared guitar). The horns often played in unison as did the bass and keyboard. With the octave or chorusing effect deployed, this made for a rich and full-throated palette of tonal colours.

I have posted two very different tunes from the gig, One is MG40 with the sextet and the other a duo between Thomas and Joel Vinsen (the latter on prepared guitar). If you listen closely to MG40, you will detect the echoes of a distant past. An echo from the 1950s in fact when the conductor Leonard Bernstein attempted to explain Jazz to a very young audience. That footage is hopelessly time-locked as the plummy voice of a high-brow white man ‘explaining black music’ overshadows the message. Notwithstanding, I have no doubt that many of the Bernstein Philharmonic attendees would go on to explore improvised music after hearing Benny Golson and the sextet perform. What Thomas does with this piece is both playful and respectful. Bernstein would get it and laugh out loud. MG40 refers to Mark Giuliani – a drummer on the same trailblazing path. 

The other piece I have posted involves the sextet. With Alan Brown on keyboards and Andy Smith on guitar, the piece soars as it morphs into a multi-layered groove piece, one reminiscent of the Fusion era. The overall sound has lots of bottom, with the bass effects and saxophone effects creating a surreal lower register cushion; over which Smith and Brown build towards the heart-stopping crescendo. This was a group of heavyweight performers with Chris Mason-Battley and Markus Fritsch the horn line. And none of it possible without the invention, vision and superior chops of Thomas. 

The Stephen Thomas Electric Band:  Stephen Thomas (drum kit, drum pad + effects, triggered samples, percussion, prepared drums), Alan Brown (digital keyboard), Andy Smith (guitar + effects), Chris Mason Battley (saxophones, Ewi + effects), Markus Fritsch (alto saxophone), Mostyn Cole (electric bass + effects), Joel Vinsen (prepared guitar + effects). The gig took place at Anthology, CJC Creative Jazz Club, 18 September 2019

Spirograph Studies @ CJC Auckland

SpirographThe Melbourne group Spirograph Studies was exactly as described, modern and eclectic. In this quartet, there were no horns to carve out melodic lines. Instead, a guitar and piano spun intricate layers one on the other, focussing more on well-crafted motifs and harmonic development. There was melody but it was mostly implied, nestling comfortably among richly dissonant textures and emerging out of the subtle interplay. It was often voice-led but not as we know it and the overall effect was beguiling.  

The playing was great but what also stood out were the compositions. What we experienced was an unmistakable Jazz Americana vibe. There were no actual Frisell tunes played but the great man’s essence hung in the air; residing most strongly in the interactions between leader Tamara Murphy and her bandmate Fran Swinn; Murphy the enabler and Swinn the ideal vehicle for realisation. As Swinn stroked the chords, the soulful utterances reeled us in; urged on by the bass. With music as delicately layered as this, no band member can afford veer off coarse and none did. This was a disciplined ensemble but in spite of that, the music flowed effortlessly. Their overall sound was warm and yet it tugged on the heartstrings, hinting at a distant sadness. The signature sound of Americana, where every note is weighted with nostalgia.

 

The other core band member was drummer James McLean. A drummer who showed his ability by responding appropriately to the textural subtleties and propelling the gentle swing feel. His brushwork was crisp and his stick-work understated so as to reside inside the music and not all over it.  The pianist on the ‘Kindness not Courtesy’ album was Luke Howard, but on their Australasian tour, his role was alternated with Sam Keevers. I have heard Keevers before as he is a well respected Australian pianist. For a long period, he held the piano chair in the Vince Jones group (a coveted position held before him by Barney McAll).  Having Keevers onboard during the New Zealand leg worked a treat. A skilled accompanist who knows a lot about supportive playing and comping. The Piano and guitar interacting seamlessly and moving in and around each other’s phrases like dance partners.  

The album titled ‘Kindness Not Courtesy’ is available from Bandcamp and the link can be followed here. spirographstudies.bandcamp.com/. The Auckland gig was at Anthology for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, 11 September 2019.

Spirograph Studies: Tamara Murphy (bass, compositions), Sam Keevers (piano), Fran Swinn (guitar), James McLean (drums). 

Eve de Castro-Robinson ~ The Gristle of Knuckles

Eve de Castro-Robinson is Associate Professor of Composition at the University of Auckland. She is well known as a New Zealand classical composer and although widely acknowledged in that field, she is strongly associated with the improvising and experimental music community.  Those who attended the CJC Creative Jazz Club last Wednesday witnessed the scope of her compositional output, with compositions interpreted by a plethora of gifted improvisers. The night was a rare treat.  Last year de Castro-Robinson released an album titled ‘Gristle of Knuckles’ and on Wednesday we experienced a live performance. When introducing it she explained, ‘although I am described as a contemporary classical composer, I am best placed at the ‘arts’ end of that spectrum’. In this space genres, overlap and artificial barriers are torn down. Out of these collisions comes original and vibrant music.

While de Castro Robinson is primarily seen as a composer, she is also an enabler and a canny collaborator; expanding her vision through skilled pedagogy. The above project has her engaging with colleagues from the UoA Jazz school plus a handful of gifted musicians from the diaspora of the avant-garde. The project comes close to being conduction; guiding the improvisers with a feather-light touch, letting them find their truth as her works are re-imagined.  The pieces were composed over a period of years, taking us on a journey from the primal to the avant-garde.       

The first set opened with Roger Manins and Ron Samsom playing ‘Doggerel’. A multi-phonic utterance which set the mood. That was followed by a moving ensemble piece featuring Don McGlashan, Kingsley Melhuish, Keith Price, Kevin Field and Ron Samsom titled ‘The Long Dream of Waking’ (a Len Lye poem). That juxtaposition, duo to quintet, worked well, in fact, most of the compositions were quite unlike those preceding them. These contrasts were an integral part of the ebb and flow and the contrasts worked to the advantage of the whole. There was also another factor in play and it was significant. Between numbers, de Castro-Robinson introduced the pieces, not in the usual way but by telling stories. She has a terrific stage presence and while I shouldn’t be surprised by that, I was. Her talk is peppered with wry humour, that understated self-deprecating Kiwi humour. She quickly had us eating out of her hand and although not playing an instrument, was very much a performer herself. 

Everything was interesting, everything engaged. ‘Twitch’ featuring Kristian Larsen, a piece for piano (but kinetic and expansively sonic),  ‘Passion Flower’ played by Kevin Field, a work inspired by a painting and by ‘The March of Women’ composed by the suffragist Ethyl Smyth. The original is a feminist classic but under Fields fingers de Castro-Robinson’s tune it took on a moody reverential feel. Consciously or unconsciously and deep inside the voicings, it captured the mood of another ‘Passionflower’ the Billy Strayhorn masterpiece; a perfect alignment in my view. ConunDRUMS featured Samsom, Melhuish and Larsen, a delightful percussive exploration, a sculpture. ‘Stumbling Trains’ a fiery piece on cello played by Ashley Brown of NZTrio (and co-composed by him). Check out the embed and above all go to the Rattle site and check out Field’s interpretation of ‘Passion Flower’.

 

The second set opened with ‘Countercurrents’ a solo piece played by alto saxophonist Callum Passells. It began in a stairwell and moved among us, resonating beautifully as the figures and melodies filled the room progressively. ‘Small Blue’ had Field, Melhuish, Price and Samsom paired (a Tuba taking up a bass line), ‘Hau’ featured Mere Boynton on voice and crystal and Melhuish on Taonga Puora. This particular piece was a standout. An ancient-to-modern story of the passing of the spirit and told in a way that evokes New Zealand’s pre-colonial past. I defy anyone to listen to this and not experience a shiver run down the spine.  ‘Trouble Trouble Mind’ brought McGlashan back to the stage with Boynton, Price and Samsom. With two guitars a backing vocal and a raw bluesy feel, this was prime McGlashan territory. The vibe here hinted at a Dunedin punk sound. Rattle records Steve Garden also took to the stage with an array of vocal sounds on ‘The Gild’ (we often spot him launching a Rattle album but we forget that he is a drummer. His percussive vocalisations added quirky additions to the interactions between Samsom and Larsen).

On the face of it, the gig was a collection of interesting compositions, but it also felt a lot like theatre. However you describe it, it was great performance art and the audience loved it. The album can be purchased from Rattle at Bandcamp (as hard copies or high-quality downloads). The musicians were; Eve de Castro-Robinson (compositions and narration), Don McGlashan (guitar and voice), Kevin Field (piano), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Ron Samsom (drums and percussion),  Kingsley Melhuish (conches, tuba, Tango Puora, tenor horn), Kristian Larsen (piano, live sound, gilded cello), Kieth Price (guitar), Mere Boynton (voice, crystal glass), Steve Garden (sounds), Callum Passells (alto saxophone), Ashley Brown (cello).  The gig took place at Anthology, K’Road, CJC Creative Jazz Club, 28 August 2019.

Richard Hammond + Friends

R HammondSubject to availability, Richard Hammond is the kind of bass player that you would consider first for an important gig or recording.  He is known for his musicality, authenticity and above all for his deep groove. His upright-bass chops are immaculate, deep in-the-pocket; his electric bass, as punchy as a kicking mule. It is therefore unsurprising that he works among the elite ranks of New Yorks first-call session musicians. He also gigs around NYC, tours with well-known vocalists and works on shows like Hamilton.  Sometimes, when the luck falls our way, he visits Aotearoa. This time he returned primarily to play bass at Nathan Haines ‘Shift Left’ Civic Theatre gig.  The above show has garnered rave reviews. 

Hammond has real presence and his human qualities shine through all that he does.  I refer there to his warm and engaging persona, his instinctive friendliness and generosity. I mention those qualities because they appear to inform his playing. In his case, the man and his music are as one. Of late this has been a theme in my posts. I find myself increasingly looking inside the music to see if I can locate the human being behind the instrument. Seeking a musicians ability (or inability) to show us something of themselves. Such a manifestation can change a listeners perception and with improvised music, it is the bread and butter of good interactions. Hammond spends most of his time in the studio but he has never forgotten these essential communication skills. In live performance, this can be critical. It could be termed as ‘character’ and inevitably it feeds musical choices. A room filled with notes is one thing, but a room bubbling with musical life is quite another.

The setlist was a tribute to Hammond’s homeland. Apart from the two tunes written by a US musician, the rest were composed by Kiwis.  It was great to hear these tunes reprised and especially with a fresh and fired-up lineup. The most significant contributor was Kevin Field whose talent for composition and arranging is well known. Nothing appears to unsettle Field. At one point the sound was lost from a monitor (and from the piano). He immediately moved to the Rhodes and as usual, played at the top of his game. I have posted the version of his tune ‘Good Friday’. A familiar tune with numerous iterations but perhaps, never played as joyfully as this; the bass lines from Hammond giving it supersonic lift-off. 

The band were Richard Hammond (electric and upright bass), Kevin Field (piano and Rhodes),  Michael Howell (guitar),  Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Stephen Thomas (drums) and guest vocalist Marjan. Together, they celebrated aspects of New Zealand improvised music’ much of it upbeat and funk orientated. Marjan showcased some of her own tunes plus a well known New Zealand tune ‘Brown Girl’ which had been reimagined as a Jazz tune by Kevin Field (more on that in a future post). 

This is Hammonds third visit home in as many years and I hope that he makes it a regular fixture. We seldom hear electric bass like that.  The gig took place at the CJC Creative Jazz Club, Anthology, K’Road, Auckland, New Zealand on 21 August 2019

Elsen Price (Aust)

Elsen Price (5)Two bass, two drummer gigs while not unknown usually occur in service of a chordal instrument or of a horn line, and when a solo bass concert occurs, an audience is frequently shown ‘cleverness’. On this occasion, the bass of Elsen Price freed the instrument from the narrow confines of the standard rhythm section or the conventional solo bass repartee; instead, exposing the beautiful resonances and the reach of the instrument. This was sublime music and complete unto itself. It celebrated a gifted musician and a wonderful instrument but without displays of egocentricity. The feat was achieved by inviting us inside the music, and into a sonic cornucopia. We listened and we were captivated.

Life is full of unexpected sonorities and if we believe ourselves to be familiar with them all we are deluded. It is a paradox of modern life that popular music, while prolific, is cursed by formula-driven compositions. On Wednesday, Price and his ensemble teased the new from the familiar. Each instrument adding colour-tones and texture. Hands, fingers, ‘broom’ sticks, standard sticks, mallets, all deployed to good effect. Clicks, taps, scrapes on parchment, rim shots, gongs, bells and balloons under cymbals. And Price leading the way; a conduction answered by each musician and often in unison; acts of collective intuition. 

It is rare to hear Jazz arco bass played so well, it filled the room and swelled, but during the pizzicato passages Price was equally stunning. He is clearly a master technician but this was not about chops. He oversaw the ensemble as a true democrat, giving space and responding to the others. The first set was solo bass. Here Price showed us the breadth of his vision. He employed a looper peddle and would set up a drone or a motif. He would play counterpoint, either arco or plucked, sometimes creating a second loop over the first. He did not rely overly on the live samples, but harnessed them for discrete passages and always under his precise control. 

What we experienced in the second set were energised permanences by Price and his ensemble. Each revealing in their own way what lay deep within the music. That particular set ran a full hour and without interruption. It was a composition for improvisation but with no music on display and as far as I’m aware, no prior rehearsal. Price guided them with gestures or by changing pace. For these types of gigs to work well, the combined energies must feed a room. Music like this leans heavily on interplay, an intuitive reading of cues and deep listening by the musicians. Such high wire acts can easily falter, but this didn’t. That the terrain was navigated so effectively is because the right people were in place on the bandstand. 

Besides Price, on the second bass, was Eamon Edmundson Wells. Although the youngest member of the ensemble he is well versed in playing avant-garde situations. He would be among the first you go to for anything adventurous and he always delivers. On drum kit was Ron Samsom and it was pleasing to have him on this gig. Nothing daunts him and he has few stylistic limitations. He clearly relished the opportunity to play in the ensemble and to interact with another drummer. As he initiated cymbal scrapes, tapped with mallets and scuffed the ‘broom’ sticks the textures richened. This was colourist drumming of the best kind; extending the kit beyond the role of mere timekeeping. On hand drums and percussion was Chris O’Connor; the drummer most often seen in line ups like this. His ability to move seamlessly between genres is legendary; in these situations, he adds inestimable value. With O’Connor you get an ‘Art Ensemble of Chicago’ experience; all the tiny bells and gongs and with each one appearing exactly where it should for best effect.

Gigs like this can sometimes be difficult for audiences, especially those unfamiliar with a freer type of music. In this case, the audience showed enthusiasm, obviously enjoying the experience.

Elsen Price (upright bass, looper), Eamon Edmundson Wells (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums), Chris O’Connor (drums, percussion) @ Anthology, CJC Creative Jazz Club, Auckland 14 August 2019

Kushal Talele

Kushal (3)It was four years ago and almost to the day, that Kushal Talele was last at the CJC. Then, as now, he had just returned from a long period overseas. I heard him for the first time then and I was impressed. That was in the cellar of the 1885, a place now a fond but distant memory. A few days ago he returned to the CJC and although he played with a different band, his unmistakeable upwards trajectory was evident. There is nothing unduly flashy about Talele as he radiates calm and absorption. At the microphone, he talks quietly, but there is passion in those subdued tones.  

It is especially evident when he plays, as you are taken directly to melody and it’s heartfelt melody carried on his distinctive sound. There were many influences evident last time, but on this gig one thing was clear. We were now hearing something closer to a modern New York tenor sound; the tonal qualities, the clarity of articulation when in full flow. On ballads, however, there was a hint of vibrato and at the end of phrases, the merest whisper of breath. Taken as a whole package, these stylistic approaches are appealing. 

Talele does not play at high volume, or at least he didn’t on this gig. He stood back from the microphone and this emphasised a number of acoustic subtleties. Small flurries, slight changes in modulation, nothing demanding greater amplification. Playing at lower volume allowed for more interplay and the conversations between instruments were more nuanced. There was however one uptempo number and to everyone’s delight, that channelled a bebop vibe. 

Talele’s compositions were also noteworthy and most of the tunes we heard were originals. In all of those, it was the melodic arc which grabbed your attention. Harmonically, they leaned toward romanticism, but every voicing was in service of the melody. Reinforcing this was his rhythm section, drawn from among the finest that Auckland has to offer; Kevin Field, Olivier Holland and Ron Samsom. Having the piano away from the bandstand is at times a little disconcerting, but Field always makes the best of any situation. He made that white piano sing and because the sound was well mixed, the proximity of the piano was not an issue.

This was an enjoyable gig and I hope that Talele gets to stay a while. New Zealand and Australian saxophonists are gradually developing their own distinct thing. They absorb what they hear elsewhere and bring an antipodean perspective to it. Perhaps a bit of the Chris Potter vibe, so evident in players like Talele will accelerate that process. 

Kushal Talele (tenor saxophone), Kevin Field (piano), Olivier Holland (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums). The gig took place at Anthology, CJC Creative Jazz Club, Auckland 7 August 2019.   

Daniel Waterson / Wil Goodinson

How we hear and process music is the result of endless debate. When a resonant voicing or melodic fragment is freed from the wood, wire or chip, the vibrations refract; entering our consciousness through individualised prisms, and each note coloured by preference, mood and previous exposure. What I heard last Wednesday I can only process through my own lens and how I heard it may not be how it was conceived. The opening number took me directly to a place that I visit often. A warm and familiar place situated in a time before these musicians were born. That place was the early electric Jazz fusion era (I love that shit) and in the second set, to the atypical small ensemble arranging by the likes of Carla Bley, Jimmy Giuffre or French horn player John Graas.

I am not saying that either band were reprising those eras because they weren’t. What they played was freshly minted, modern and innovative. The connection and the intense pleasure both groups afforded me was that meeting place between my point of reference and what they created. This is the eternal triangle of improvised music; musician, instrument and listener. A cycle with an endless feedback loop, which brings me to a second point. The players communicated their passion well; something of themselves. It manifested in the leader’s smiles of delight or in the shouts of mutual encouragement. As young, as they were they had cracked a vital code of musical communication. It is not just chops or clever compositions that push you over the line, but putting yourself at risk, exposing a glimpse of the human being and the joy feeding the music. 

The musicians were mostly from the UoA Jazz Studies programme and the sets were interesting contrasts. First up was the Daniel Waterson Quartet with drums, keys, guitar and bass. The first number was titled ‘Not enough Lithium’ and it was this piece that contained embedded echoes of 70’s fusion. It had various motifs but as it developed, mood predominated. This enabled me to make my own emotional connection to the music. The piece didn’t tell us how to engage but it invited the listener in and I believe that that is important. Some tunes are so nailed down that they feel like a lecture. This was not. All of these musicians are a credit to the Jazz School and I was familiar with everyone except the keyboards player (more on him later). Michael Gianan showed how far he’d come since we last heard him at the club. I last heard Waterson when he played in the Indian Jazz fusion group Takadimi. He is an engaging and innovative drummer and it was good to hear his own compositions.

The second set up was the Wil Goodinson Septet and it was unusual in that it featured bassoon, bass clarinet, cello, bass, guitar and piano.  Goodinson is well thought of as a bass player and it is not unusual to catch him in others lineups. This was a chance for him to showcase his arranging skills and his charts were quite exceptional.  Apart from the first tune by Joe Henderson, all of the rest were his own compositions. All arrangements were his. This was an interesting ensemble and they navigated the charts with ease. The bassoon and bass clarinet were complimentary and their textural possibilities were well utilised (Asher Truppman Lattie demonstrated his skills here and I applaud his work on this lovely under-utilised horn). The guitar, while not dominant in the mix, was essential as it gave brightness, a gently articulated voice to contrast the bass-rich sound. Holding everything together was the bass. We could not see the leader but his cues were evident as he guided the others through the charts.

The drums and piano contributed with accents, pulse and solos and both were well placed in the mix I also have a fondness for cello in Jazz and the instrument was well deployed. When bass and cello played unison arco, the air vibrated as the low notes tugged at the senses. It was the sort of ensemble that ECM might feature, but the originality made it hard to pigeonhole as just that. 

For a few months now, people have asked me, have I heard Joe Kaptein play. Until last Wednesday I had not and after hearing him on Wednesday I admit to being caught off guard. What I heard was a high degree of pianistic maturity; unusually so for a Jazz Studies student partway through his second year. He leaned on no particular style and was as much at ease playing in a freer percussive mode as he was where gentler minimalism was called for. His comping was notable, as was his sense of time. He understood when to play and most importantly when not to; he could lay-out or enter a groove and milk it for possibilities. It felt good to be in on this at ground level and I will watch his journey with great interest. Kaptein and Goodinson played in both sets

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Daniel Waterson Quartet: Daniel Waterson (drums, compositions), Michael Gianan (guitar), Joe Kaptein (keyboards), Wil Goodinson (bass).

Wil Goodinson Septet: Wil Goodinson (bass), Joe Kaptein (piano), Kathleen Tomacruz (guitar), Asher Truppman Lattie (bass clarinet), Karen Hu (cello), Monica Dunn (bassoon), Tom Legget (drums) 

@ CJC Creative Jazz Club, Anthology, K’Road, Auckland New Zealand 31 July 2019

Brad Kang Quintet

Brad Kang @ CJC (1).jpegBrad Kang has previously appeared at the CJC, but this time he was here with his own quintet. It is not too much of a stretch to say that most emerging Jazz guitarists during the last decade have demonstrated a liberal dose of Kurt Rosenwinkel in their playing. It is in their sound and their approach to melody and it was unmistakable with Kang. That clean bright tone and the fluent unison lines as he and saxophonist Louisa Williamson ran through the head arrangements.

His compositions were vehicles for showcasing a formidable technique and the tunes were internalised, allowing him to play the sets with barely a glance at his charts. It is common for older and more experienced musicians to internalise the music, but less common for younger musicians who like to keep the charts close at hand.  Kang’s confident familiarity with the music paid dividends for him.

Kang and Williamson are a natural fit; not only when they run those tight unison head lines, but also during solos. Williamson adding a necessary weight to counter-balance Kang’s guitar, which mostly traverses the higher register. On stage, Williamson tends to hide behind the horn, giving little of her self away. That is, until she solos. Then, she’s suddenly authoritative and an expansive storyteller. Her tone rich and her fluency beyond question.

Unlike Williamson and Kaa, the pianist George Maclaurin was new to the audience as were bass player Hamish Smith and drummer Hikurangi Schaverien Kaa. They hail from either Wellington or Christchurch; part of a nationwide and pleasing renaissance invigorating the New Zealand Jazz scene. 

Since his return from North Texas where he studied previously, Kang has become a fixture on the Wellington and Christchurch Jazz scenes. This New Zealand tour will be his last for a while as he is moving to New York shortly to study at the Manhattan School of Music.  When he returns, his musical journey can be updated and he will no doubt share that with New Zealand audiences.  

Brad Kang Quintet: Brad Kang (guitar), George MacLaurin (piano), Louisa Williamson (tenor saxophone), Hamish Smith (bass), Hikurangi Schaverien Kaa (drums), at Anthology, CJC Creative Jazz Club, 24th July 2019. Photograph by and with thanks to Barry Young.

 

The Melancholy/Stinging Babes

Melancholy Babes (2)Anything that Jeff Henderson is associated with is likely to be intense, mind-altering and extraordinary. No matter how prepared you think that you are, you should understand that your head will be fucked with. When you factor in Tom Callwood, Anthony Donaldson and Daniel Beban the Henderson effect is magnified exponentially. This music is powerful stuff as it sweeps aside genres as irrelevant distractions. When confronted with a gig like this you abandon preconceptions, as the sonic smorgasbord jolts you out of complacency. It is also a visual experience and Fellini would have signed these guys up in a heart-beat.

There was no music on the stands, one break and there were no announcements. The music followed its own momentum and created its own time. In some sections you were confronted with reedy screams, while in others you heard languid whispers; hinting at some lost illusory past; one located just outside the edge of memory. There was of course structure, but that was determined by the music’s inner logic. It reminded me of a recent Wayne Shorter performance where he purged any semblance of song form; removing structures that impeded the flow, leaving the audience with just music; a vessel inside which the musicians could move freely. Intuitive interaction is the foundation of all improvised music. In this case, the music was a river in flood, an elastic entity, following an old course or cutting a fresh channel at will. 

There were two tunes in the first set (one a Parker number delivered with the essence of Ornette presiding). The overall impression was of one piece of music with a number of moving parts. As the parts formed, some felt familiar, but where you ended up was generally somewhere unexpected. This was a chimeric journey and like children watching a cartoon for the first time, we lived entirely in each moment.  Modern music audiences are dumbed down with endless nonsense; the old trope that music can only be swallowed in discrete recognisable chunks. This music made no concessions to that or any other populist view and nor should it. Many who attended last week were unfamiliar with the avant-garde, but they didn’t need to be told what it was about. They didn’t need an explanation, to know that it belonged to this or that genre. The proof was in the reception. People sat there totally absorbed and because the experience was all-encompassing, 2 1/2 hours flew by.

Jeff Henderson plays the role of a dark shepherd on New Zealand’s ‘out-music’ scene. He composes astonishing music and plays many instruments; among them the seldom heard ‘C’ Melody saxophone. He has frequently collaborated with greats like Marilyn Crispell. Next is Tom Callwood who is often a collaborator of Henderson’s. If you needed a peg to hang his bass playing on, then you might say that he has a Charlie Haden sound (early Haden). He is one of the finer bass players I’ve heard and it’s our loss that he doesn’t live in Auckland. Anthony Donaldson is another hero from the alternative and avant-garde music scene. He’s known for his interactive, sensitive and melorhythmic approach (OK, I made that word up). He is acknowledged as one of New Zealand’s finest drummers and his influence is widespread. Joining the above-mentioned artists for the second set was guitarist and experimental musician Daniel Beban. He is the current Douglas Lilburn Research Fellow and is also at the forefront of the Wellington experimental music scene. His ‘Orchestra of the Spheres’ takes SunRa’s approach to a new level.

Melancholy/Stinging Babes: Jeff Henderson (baritone, alto, C melody, tenor saxes, clarinet). Tom Callwood (upright bass), Anthony Donaldson (drums), Daniel Beban (guitar). The gig was held at Anthology, K’Road Auckland, CJC Creative Jazz Club, 17 July 2019. 

A Love Requited~Myele Manzanza

Manzanza1.jpg

The Myele Manzanza ‘A Love Requited’ gig opened with a heart-stopping rendition of his tune ‘Ritual’. As the leader’s beats drove out the grey of winter, it left no room for doubt; this was a drummer gig. He moved his body to the music and rained down rhythms and everyone was mesmerised. As drummers move, their feet and hands blur and dance, but few move their upper bodies like Manzanza. This gig was all about sublime motion; kinetic transportation into pulsing parallel worlds. It was very ancient, eternally present, and futuristic. As he bent close to the kit or circled the snare he looked like a hawk circling his prey. This was different drumming and while it was firmly rooted in Jazz, it also mined deeper timeless roots. It also felt intensely personal.

With him on the New Zealand leg of the tour were genius pianist Jonathan Crayford and the powerhouse Wellington bass player Johnny Lawrence. His bandmates needed to be chosen well, because what was on offer was not your usual piano trio music. Everything about the compositions centred around the percussive and was juxtaposed against compelling rhythms; whether soft or loud, piano or bass. Powerful ostinato patterns established, evolving into figures or melodic lines before turning back on themselves. This had the effect of intensifying the vibe and drawing the audience deeper into the soundscape. The drums on the gig were often loud and at times really loud, but when the quieter more reflective passages occurred the intensity remained.  

Manzanza is the son of a Congolese master percussionist and the name Manzanza derives from beat out rhythms. All of that is implicit in his compositions, but it is also a doorway into a bigger story. ‘A Love Requited’ is also about fine composition and superb arranging. Out of that rich rhythmic brew and long evolving history comes an album filled with surprising subtlety. The album is well mixed and the individual players in the ensemble are given ample room to breathe. There are various arrangers credited and all serve the music well. That said, Manzanza arranging Manzanza is what stands out for me.

The album features a medium-sized ensemble with additional players appearing on certain tracks. This band has connections far and wide but it is mainly an Australasian affair. Manzanza and Jake Baxendale are from New Zealand as is ex-pat Mark de Clive-Lowe. The remaining band members, mostly Australian, feature talents such a Matthew Sheens (full personnel list below) and co-producer Ross McHenry. A number of the above musicians are either resident in or regular performers on the USA scene.

If you get a chance, catch the live gigs. More importantly, grab a copy of the album as it is one that you will want to keep on hand for repeat plays. The best option is to visit Bandcamp, where you can order a physical copy or grab an uncompressed download; available in many high-quality formats. In the nineteen fifties Ellington and Strayhorn penned a suite titled Such Sweet Thunder. They were referencing Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer night dream’; the full quotation being, ‘So musical a discord, such sweet thunder’.  Such sweet thunder certainly applies to this album. 

Myele Manzanza Bandcamp

‘A Love Requited’ Auckland: Myele Manzanza (drums, leader), Jonathan Crayford (keys), Johnny Lawrence (bass). CJC Creative Jazz Club, Anthology, K’Road, 10 July 2019

Album: Myele Manzanza, Matthew Sheens, Jake Baxendale, Ben Harrison, James Macauley, Jason McMahon, Adam Page, Django Rowe, Mark de Clive-Lowe, Brenton Foster, Jack Strempel

Talbot/Dunbar-Wilcox @ CJC

Emerging Artists (Wellington) Talbot-Dunbar (1)

As Wednesday nights at the new Anthology venue move into high gear, a tried and trusted CJC programming philosophy remains constant. To provide a quality venue for local and international musicians to showcase their original projects, and to provide a performance space that up and comers can aspire to. As before, two or three gig slots are kept for emerging artists, and this year those slots have expanded to include Wellingtonian and Christchurch improvisers. Performing on Wednesday were Wellington musicians Frank Talbot and Ella Dunbar-Wilcox. Both sets had the same rhythm section; pianist Kevin Field, Bassist Cam McArthur, and drummer Adam Tobeck.

First up was Frank Talbot. A tall tenor player with a clean tone and nimble articulation. Talbot is a recent graduate of the New Zealand School of Music and he is currently completing his honours degree. New Zealand produces many good tenor players and judging by Talbot’s confident performance on Wednesday, he will go from strength to strength. He is certainly making all of the right moves and testing himself in varied situations, so he will certainly be one to watch.  On his setlist, there were all originals and I have posted his interesting tune ‘Inquisition’. I also liked ‘Intervalic’ and a moving tune (which I heard as) ‘Steak and kidney pies, no goodbyes’. The latter was dedicated to his mother who is going through very tough times health wise. A nice heart-felt tribute. Talbot-Dunbar

The second set featured Ella Dunbar-Wilcox. A vocalist in her third year of studies (also at the New Zealand School of Music). Her performance showed considerable maturity as she tackled some challenging arrangements and tunes. Not many emerging vocalists would tackle the more upbeat Coltrane tunes or a tricky stop-start McLorin Salvant arrangement. She navigated these charts with ease. I also liked the balance in her set list which provided us with pleasing contrasts. The cheerful, upbeat (and rarely heard) Bobby Timmons number ‘That There’. This followed her own ballad ‘Lonely Eyes’.  Then there was ‘Night Hawks’, a reference to the Edward Hopper painting and capturing perfectly that sense of isolation and ennui.  I have put up her interpretation of ‘I didn’t know what time it was’.

Engaging a quality local rhythm section for both sets was a sensible move. Field, McArthur, and Tobeck are adept accompanists and used to working with unfamiliar musicians. And more importantly, all have worked extensively with vocalists. This draws upon very different skills and in this regard especially, Field is superb.

Frank Talbot (tenor saxophone)

Ella Dunbar-Wilcox (vocals)

Rhythm Section: Kevin Field (piano), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Adam Tobeck (drums) The gig was for the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) @ Anthology, K’Road, Auckland, 3 July 2019 

Ruckus @ Anthology

When you look up the term Ruckus in the various dictionaries, the definitions are broad. It is generally defined as a commotion, but it can also describe an argument, the joyful noise emanating from a soccer stadium, loud disputation, the general rowdiness of children and even a fight.  With such an array of options at my disposal, I have selected ‘joyous commotion’. This is the term that most fits the bill when alluding to this band. Ruckus has some history in Auckland and especially along the reaches of Ponsonby Road. While the personnel often come and go, the ethos does not. Kicking up the dust in this current melee were David Ward, Neil Watson, Cam Allen, Eamon Edmundson Wells, and Chris O’Connor. David Ward is a central figure in the group and his compositions featured strongly last Wednesday.  

Again, it was encouraging to see the high turnout at the CJC after a month in the new K’Road Anthology venue. The word is clearly getting about that this is the best place to enjoy Wednesday nights. Once you descend the stairs, winter becomes a distant memory. While clearly pulling in the crowds, the band is hard to pigeon hole. The music hints at a number of descriptors and among them, terms like Zappa-esque, improvised Americana, Fellini-esque and Monkish all come close. At times they veer towards the experimental but no matter the direction, they are always fun.

With the exception of an obscure Monk tune, the tunes last week were originals. These were unique arrangements with a textural richness created by instruments full of contrast. A baritone saxophone with a pedal steel guitar plus Fender offers up an interesting sound palette. With O’Connor and Edmundson Wells, the palette is complete. Both have ‘out’ credentials and O’Connor is as much a percussionist as he is a conventional drummer. Allen moved between baritone and tenor and during his solos, but he never departed too far from the over-arching message. This band stands strongly on its collective strength. Ward featured strongly in the heads of the tunes, establishing unusual rhythmic figures then skilfully pulling them apart.  When both Fenders were playing they acted as if in sync, moving in and out without clashing. With the pedal-steel numbers, Watson was adventurous, often using the instrument in unexpected ways.  He, Ward and O’Conner also made wide use of percussive effects; clicks, squeaks, and muted staccato guitar.

There is mileage to be had in these adventurous offings and I hope that they develop the repertoire further. While it may not be what an audience is anticipating, in this case, they lapped it up. Especially when leavened with calypso.  

Ruckus: David Ward (Fender Guitar), Neil Watson (pedal steel, Fender Guitar), Cam Allen (baritone, tenor saxophone), Eamon Edmundson Wells (upright bass), Chris O’Connor (drums)

The Committee (Mat Fieldes)

CommitteeThe original  ‘Jazz Committee’ was formed while bass player Mat Fieldes was still living in New Zealand. Back then he had quite a few fans, and many who remembered him turned out for his recent CJC gig.  Anthology, the new CJC venue, was packed to capacity and that was good news. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since Fieldes left and New York has long been his base. When he arrived in that city 25 years ago he studied at Juilliard. From there he went on to establish a solid career that spans genres and continents. He has played with symphony orchestras, on Broadway and with out-jazz musicians like Ornette Colman. He is a master of fusion and comfortable with Hip Hop. That he is always in demand is a tribute to his abilities as the US music scene is extremely competitive. It is apparent to me, that our New Zealand bass players do very well in hothouse environments (e.g. Fieldes, Hammond, Penman).

It is not often that Fieldes gets back here as he has a busy performance schedule, but this time he was open to doing some local gigs. The vehicle, a collective, was an updated version of the ‘Jazz Committee’ now simply called ‘The Committee’.  In its new incarnation, Fieldes is on upright bass and electric bass, Dixon Nacey on guitar, Roger Manins on tenor and Ron Samsom on drums. The program was fusion heavy or as Fieldes put it, ‘I don’t know if this is Jazz, I’ll let you decide’. Manins clarification muddied the waters further. ‘If you like it then it’s Jazz, and if you don’t, then it’s still Jazz’.

It was a compelling grab you by the collar type of music; it was punchy, improvised and drawing upon many streams; tilting towards an updated but funkier Return to Forever or Electric Miles vibe. Many of the tunes were Fieldes but the others submitted originals as well.  Among them, Samsom’s funk offering, Nacey honouring Scofield and Manins showcasing his wonderful tune, Schwiben Jam (see clip). That tune featured on last years ‘No Dogs Allowed’ album and I am happy to see it in this setlist. Occasionally, I hear a tune that could become a standard or at the very least a local standard. Here it was in a different context and with Nacey and Fieldes steering it into fresh waters. It was immaculate and I hope that I hear it played often (perhaps, with Rhodes fills for additional texture and Nacey as a must-have).  

It’s always interesting when the diaspora of improvising musicians return.  They bring with them the stories of their new home and the influences of those who they’ve played alongside.  It is also instructive to see how they interact with their old bandmates (and some new ones). If last Wednesday is anything to go by, the answer is, very well.  This type of gig is increasingly important in our fast burgeoning scene. We have hit a sweet spot and the audiences are responding. When artists like Fieldes return there is cross-pollination. As a consequence, we are enriched. And just maybe, some of that essence finds its way back into the New York scene.  

Committee: Mat Fieldes (upright & electric bass), Dixon Nacey (guitar),  Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Ron Samsom (drums). The gig was at Anthology, K’Road, Auckland, 19 June 2016

John Pal Inderberg Trio

John Pal InderbergAbout eighteen months ago I was contacted by Jeff Henderson. He suggested, that I might be interested in a gig featuring two great Norwegian musicians who were passing through. I certainly was. The musicians were John Pal Inderberg and Hakon Mjaset Johansen. I was particularly interested because the baritone saxophonist John Pal Inderberg is associated with Lee Konitz and the late Warne Marsh. I make no bones about it, I am an unapologetic devotee of the Tristanoites. During that particular visit, the duo played a number of Scandinavian folk tunes and in their hands, these became melodic springboards for improvisation and a cloak for standards (with local bassist Eamon Edmundson-Wells). The Nordic region has a rich history of improvised music and it is therefore unsurprising that so many innovative US improvisers have ended up living and working there. With artists of this quality to work with why wouldn’t they? Inderberg and his band are great ambassadors. John Pal Inderberg (1)

Last week, John Pal Inderberg returned to New Zealand, but this time with his trio. Accompanying Inderberg was bass player Trygve Waldemar Fiske, and again, Johansen on drums. The gig was superb from start to finish and Inderberg’s trademark humour constantly delighted the audience. What we heard were new-sounding tunes, but inside these were older tunes, and in turn, many of the latter emanating from even older standards. These multilayered ‘reharmonisations’ are the bread and butter of skilled Jazz musicians and especially the Tristanoites. A beautifully modal folk tune became Cole Porter’s ‘You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To’ but with reharmonised Konitz lines adding to the sonic puzzle.  The nearest thing to a straight ahead Jazz standard, and played as written, was their beautifully respectful rendition of the popular Benny Golson classic ‘Whisper Not’.

It was a night of extraordinary musicianship with the players communicating at the highest level. Inderberg is a master saxophonist and his baritone has a tonal quality few could emulate. A number of saxophonists play the ‘Bari’ as a doubling instrument but few make it their primary. In Inderberg’s hands, the mighty beast appeared to float. I recall noticing the same thing when watching a film of Gerry Mulligan, the weighty horn somehow defying gravity and as if imbued with a weightless quality. This lightness of being is, of course, an illusion. One bolstered by the nimble lines and airy tone.  Every so often Inderberg would recite in Norwegian. Norwegian in triple-time, elevating the strangely accented utterances into an unusual form of ‘scat’. The other two, playing straight-men, would roll their eyes. Occasionally, and effectively, the trio would also sing an introduction; softly and movingly.  This was a well-rounded show; free flowing but enjoyable from start to finish.

The bass and drums in a cordless setting are exposed and naked. Fiske and Johansen are great musicians and they demonstrated just how to meet that challenge. This was a master class in how to create a rich tapestry with a handful of well-chosen threads. Beautifully melodic bass lines with innovative solos and at times, singing arco bass. While the drumming was melodic, it was also orchestral; reaching across the entire spectrum of Jazz drumming and without once resorting to cliche (watch the clip). A Trio without a chordal instrument is not the norm, but they do hold a special place in Jazz. It’s about freedom and unencumbered melodic lines. It’s also about the interactions and of course, counterpoint.

There is an ideological synergy between Norway and New Zealand and long may such cultural exchanges continue. Norway is almost an antipodes away, but I sincerely hope the Inderberg Trio returns. This visit, like the last, was a rare treat. 

TTTenor on tour in New Zealand

TTT (1)Andy Sugg’s collaborative album ‘TTTenor’ was cut in Melbourne back in 2006 and rightly, it has garnered praise. In a land of significant horn-players, the tenor triumvirate of Sugg, Oehlers, and Wilson was a standout. Three gifted saxophonists who capitalised on the imaginative charts to showcase their formidable skills. Completing the original sextet was an immaculate rhythm section – Paul Grabowsky (piano), Gary Costello (bass) and Andrew Gander (drums). Since then, Sugg has recorded other albums like ‘The John Coltrane Project’ ‘The Berlin Session’ ‘Brunswick Nights’ ‘Wednesday at M’s’ and ‘Tenorness’.  He has also been involved in numerous International projects (including writing and lecturing). He was an adviser during the making of the John Coltrane feature-length documentary film ‘Chasing Trane’. All of the above have brought him critical acclaim.       

In spite of Sugg’s busy schedule, the ‘TTTenor’ project was never retired. Last week he teamed up with Auckland’s Roger Manins and Canberra’s John Mackey to present a new and exciting iteration of the TTTenor group. To complete the sextet were, Mark Lockett on drums, Kevin Field on piano and Cameron McArthur on upright bass.  This was not a reprise of the older material as new compositions and interesting charts had been created.  This time, the different stylistic approaches from the three tenor players gave added contrast during solos and a rich texture was noticeable during the head arrangements. Three-tenor-gigs are not commonplace and I suspect that writing for three instruments occupying the same total range presents challenges.  Throughout the head arrangements, the skillful voicing was evident. Dense beautiful harmonies which set the mood for the solos which followed. Inviting the soloists to mark out their points of difference in that space.  

Sugg is a versatile artist and on many of his albums, the influence of Coltrane is unmistakable. It is there in spades on soprano offerings but on tenor, there is an added something that perhaps draws on earlier influences. He is a muscular player and the phrases which flow from his horn seem so right that it is hard to imagine any other possible note choices. This fluidity when storytelling is perhaps his greatest gift. Manins while also a muscular player takes a different path. He is a disciplined reader in an ensemble situation and it, therefore, amazes those unfamiliar with his playing when he dives into his solos, urgently seeking that piece of clear sky ahead and reaching for joyous crazy. While there is considerable weight to his sound, he frequently defies gravity when the excitement of his solos bursts free of the expected.  John Mackey was previously unknown to me, but I found him compelling. His approach to solos was thoughtful, leaving lots of space as he backed into a piece. His storytelling developed methodically, taking you with him as he probed the possibilities. His skillful use of dynamics, a softer tone early in his solos and during ballads. His solo destinations were often heart-stopping in their intensity. This Contrasted with the other tenor solos and gave the project added depth.   

The pianist Grabowsky is a very hard act to follow but Field managed to carve his own space with ease. His signature harmonies and rhythms giving the others much to work with. His own solos a thoughtful reprise from the front line horns. Cameron McArthur is a first choice Auckland bassist and he lived up to his reputation on this gig.

Mark Lockett is an original drummer and perfect for the gig as he has worked with Sugg before. He certainly pleased the audience last week, accenting phrases and pushing them to greater heights. Near the end, he gave an extraordinary solo, not a fireworks display but a master class of melodic and rhythmic invention, aided by gentle and occasional interjections from Field and McArthur. 

This was the first gig at the new venue. The attendance was good and everyone appeared wowed by what was on offer. This gig sets the bar high and why not. Australasian Jazz produces some amazing talents. I have put up a clip ‘TTTenor’ playing John Coltrane’s ‘Naima’ – the sound quality is less than perfect as the bass drops right out once the tenors begin – I am working on that – spacious new venues can definitely be a challenge, sound wise.

‘TTTenor’ was: Andy Sugg (tenor saxophone), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), John Mackey (tenor saxophone), Kevin Field (piano), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Mark Lockett (drums).   5 June 2019, Anthology K’Road – CJC Creative Jazz Club

CJC Moves to Anthology K’Road

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The value of having a Jazz Club in your city should never be underestimated as the experience of hearing quality live music in an intimate setting is far superior to anything that you will experience in a concert hall. Even international musicians tell you this although it is against their best interests to say so. What you pay the big bucks for in the concert hall or stadium, you buy for a pittance at a small club doorway. In addition, you get to meet the musicians and best of all experience the music up close.  This post is to remind people that Auckland’s premier Jazz Club, the CJC has moved to Anthology 375 K’ Road, Auckland City. Tonight, TTTenors with Manins, Sugg & Mackey.

The CJC came into being around eleven years ago and since its inception, there have been at least five moves. The audience always follows like pied pipers and I have no doubt that they will make the switch from Backbeat to Anthology seamlessly.  What we have in the CJC is a gift of inestimable value. Its mission is simple. Showcase high-quality original improvised music and provide a place for musicians to play. As a not-for-profit enterprise, it runs on good-will. Underpinning this is the hard work of its founder/administrators Roger Manins, Caro Manins & Ben McNichol.  On hand to assist them are numerous Jazz Students and other volunteers. The final ingredient is the listening audience and keeping the attendance levels high is essential to its continuance.  Tonight, Wed 5th June 2019 sees the new venues launch gig and please note, it’s at Anthology, not the Backbeat as previously advertised. Don’t miss the chance to hear three of Australasia’s top tenor players (with Kevin Field, Cam McArthur, and Mark Lockett as rhythm section) You can get up to date gig information at www.creativejazzclub.co.nzAnthology 2.jpg

If there are Jazz Lovers who don’t love Mike Nock’s music, I have never met them. Should any be located send them to me and I will arrange for remedial education. I have just returned from Australia and while there I caught up with Mike. Over dinner, we discussed, the dismal state of the music industry and the tenacity of musicians – who keep producing great music in spite of that. I read a quote recently by the preeminent Jazz writer Ted Gioia who penned the following; (paraphrased slightly) ‘Jazz musicians get frustrated, even angry, at the lack of opportunity – but they keep playing and in playing at such high-level they experience a rare joy that few people get to experience’. And they share this with us in spite of the poor remuneration and industry marginalisation. As many will know, Mike Nock was badly injured last year when an inattentive driver bowled him at a pedestrian crossing. Anthology 3.jpg

I cannot imagine a world without him performing and amazingly, bravely, he is doing just that. While I was there his Quartet performed at the 616 Foundry Jazz Club in Ultimo and he demonstrated to everyone that it takes more than an out of control 4×4 to keep him down. It is all intact, that Nock magic, the great compositions, the surprises, the deep – deep blues, the unconfined breath of freedom, and that innate swing.  On stage with him were a few old friends – expat Kiwi bass player Brett Hurst (always marvelous), ‘Pug’ Waples (a treat) and for the first time I met tenor player Karl Laskowski – anyone familiar with the Nock recordings will be familiar with his lovely sound and clean lines. When Mike is up to it he will come back and perform for us at the new venue – as he said – ‘Godzone is my home man’.

Keep your ears open, attend the live gigs, buy the albums – this music feeds the soul and is an oasis of sanity in a fractured world.

John Fenton  – Jazzlocal32.com

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