Auckland Jazz Festival, Beyond category, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Concerts - visiting Musicians, Guitar, Large Ensembles

Auckland Jazz Festival 2017

akljazfst2015The fourth Auckland Jazz Festival was appropriately launched at the Thirsty Dog Tavern in Karangahape Road. A welcoming venue, nestled among ethnic food joints, strip clubs and private art galleries. It is timely that we pay tribute to the Thirsty Dog, who a year ago, generously offered the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) a regular Wednesday night slot. This occurred when the club most needed it. It is a good performance space and many visiting musicians have remarked on the rooms warm vibe.ZeaThe first festival gig I attended was the Jennifer Zea group. The last time I saw her perform I liked by her Latin interpretations of the standards, but I particularly liked her rendering of the songs particular to her region (Cuba/Venezuela). She introduced more standards this time but it was the second set; a set of Venezuelan and bossa fused music that had the audience enthralled. These tunes were so infectious that they followed me home. I even woke up with one of them singing in my head the next morning. ‘Moliendo Cafe’ (Blanco/Perroni) has been popular in Venezuela (and the wider world) since 1959. Everyone from Jose Feliciano on has benefited from it. As Zea sang this wonderfully infectious tune, she danced to its rhythms, and along the back wall, a chorus of her countrymen and women sang along in unison. We seldom hear music like this and it is her forte. I have posted a bolero, Lagrimas Negras (or Black Tears – by Matamoras) a Cuban tune from the 1920’s. She was ably assisted by Kevin Field, Mostyn Cole and the wonderful Miguel Fuentes on percussion.buttery

The next night was the Guy Buttery gig, a World musician who appeared at Backbeat. Buttery is a renowned acoustic guitarist from South Africa and a distinctive stylist. His musical influences are varied but always harnessed to his own vision. Although he played a six-string guitar (a truly beautiful instrument), he often reminded me of Egberto Gismonti (or perhaps Ralph Towner). His mastery of the instrument was simply astounding and his choice of material perfect for the occasion. He memorably played a saw at one point and accompanied the piece with a delightful story. Evidently, the piece has been adopted as a theme by a group of Roswell styled ‘alien watchers’.  There were many devoted fans in the room and some who had travelled a long way to hear him. His gift is sound shaping, every harmonic given voice, every note sublimely resonant. The sounds he coaxed from his instrument were at times orchestral. All who came were delighted with the performance.

Two days later I picked up the Belgium pianist Jef Neve and his crew from the airport.  I spent the next three days with them and wrote about the experience in my previous post. I got home at around midnight on Saturday after sitting through nearly 5 hours of rehearsal and a two-hour concert. I loved every second of it. If that makes me an improvised music geek then so be it. jazzlocal32.com/2017/10/18/jef-neve-spirit-control/

Marj (2)On Tuesday, Marjan appeared with the ‘Experience Band’ at the Auckland Jazz and Blues Club. The Experience Band is an 11 piece ensemble and consequently, it provided a very different flavour to her appearance with a quartet at the CJC last month. Her voice has real power and she’s a compelling performer; easily able to adjust to the bigger sound. The audience loved her. Her set list was skillfully tailored to the room as the audience was older than the CJC crowd. In particular, her cheeky take on ‘Making Whoopie’ brought the house down. At one point she paid tribute to her high school music teacher, saxophonist Markas Fritsch, who was in the front line of the ensemble. She credits him with steering her towards Jazz – something we should all thank him for.Marj (3)On Wednesday, the third headline festival act was presented at the Thirsty Dog. It has been over a year since the world-renowned bassist David Friesen was in New Zealand. During last years tour, his trio was recorded at the 1885 venue. The night was captured perfectly in the newly released Rattle album ‘Another Time Another Space’. Frieson is an improvised music celebrity and it was good to have him back. He has a unique approach to composition and performance and he caps that off with his engaging and witty bandstand banter. He was again accompanied by Dixon Nacey on guitar and Reuben Bradly on drums. This trio communicates superbly, reacting to each other like old friends. The recording is amazingly good, especially so considering that it was captured in the 1885, which is an acoustically lively space. Nacey’s singing lines blend perfectly with Frieson’s – the sort of woody resonance that high-end luthiers aim for.CMB (1)On Friday the Chris Mason-Battley band returned to the Thirsty Dog. I really like this band with their predilection for tasty modal grooves. There is no one in New Zealand who plays quite like the Mason-Battley – and as an entity, the group have a distinct footprint. I have written about them recently and I suggest you check them out if you get the chance – they are not heard about town very often and more’s the pity.  As with the last gig; on the keyboard was David Lines, on electric bass Sam Giles and on drums the innovative Stephen Thomas. There is now talk of a new CMB project and perhaps one with more electronics? Friday nights are the hard-yards for Jazz musicians and this one was no exception. Throughout the performance, you could hear two blokes yakking, obviously pleased to be catching up and seemingly unaware that this was a listening gig. A number of ray-like stares were beamed in their direction but they proved quite impervious to hints. Loud chatting seldom happens on a mid-week night where listeners and improvisers own the space.Jim L (2)The last gig at the Auckland Jazz Festival was Jim Langabeer’s ‘Secret Islands’ album release’.  This is another Rattle album and the musicianship is stunning. A project which arose out of Langabeer’s multi-phonics explorations at Auckland University. There is a lot that is referred to as fusion these days and most of it is not. In this case, the term could be a good descriptor. Indigenous instruments, multiple reeds and winds; pedal steel guitar and fender; beautiful melodies placed in Mingus like settings.  While the album sits comfortably on the Jazz spectrum, the material takes us way beyond that. With the authoritative elder statesman Langabeer at the helm, and assisted by Rosie Langabeer, Roger Manins, Eamon Edmundson-Wells, Neil Watson and Chris O’Connor, what else would you expect. For this and other ‘Rattle’ recordings, go to www.rattlerecords.net/

Thanks to the CJC and the Auckland Jazz Festival 2017 for the music
Billy Collins

An appropriate excerpt from a Billy Collins poem ‘1960’  – out of ‘The Rain in Portugal’ – a recently published volume of verse by Collins.

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Auckland Jazz Festival, Concerts - visiting Musicians, Piano Jazz

Jef Neve – ‘Spirit Control’

 

Neve (8)This piece was almost titled ‘my career as Jef Neve’s Driver’, but in the end, I shied away from that. In truth, my tenure as a roadie/driver was brief (although fulfilling). The term roadie was perhaps a bit of a stretch also because I only lifted one suitcase (and that was with help). I decided early in life that my ideal job was working as a roadie for a Jazz pianist. I figured that the obligation to lift heavy things would be minimal and that I could consume endless supplies of live improvised music. With regard to the first point, I was woefully under-researched. In Europe, Neve actually travels accompanied by his piano, but luckily for me, the airlines are reluctant to accept a piano as stow-on luggage. The Auckland airport pick-up went flawlessly (apart from the suitcase to person ratio which was resolved by Neve who is used to fitting notes into improbable spaces). As we drove, I chatted; easing my way into the story in true Gonzo journalist fashion. So there we were jammed into my car like Hanseatic cod; Jef, Pieter, Dieter and me; heading for a piano, a rhythm section and a string quartet. This was going to be fun.Neve (3)I met Neve once before and I have followed his career over the years. He is a major artist and a household name in Belguim. A year ago I passed through his beautiful city of Ghent, and I vividly recall a young woman behind the hotel counter asking me what I knew about the city. It was actually Robert Browning who introduced me to Ghent, but I replied Jef Neve. Oh yes, he’s famous she said. When I told her that I had once interviewed him, she was obviously impressed. In her eyes, I was no longer some grey haired tourist but a guy who had met Jef Neve.Neve (7)The KMC is a venue with good acoustics; not too dry – not too wet. It was once a television studio and before that the principal home of radio in New Zealand. Now it houses the UoA Jazz School and the School of dance. I found a swivel chair and slid my self across to the listening sweet spot as the trio rehearsed. Then, the string quartet turned up and the work began in earnest. Into that darkened space the music spirits descended; channelling themselves through Neve’s fingers and entering the musicians one by one. I sat there through four and a half hours of rehearsal; soaking up the sound; awestruck and utterly engrossed from start to finish. Cam McArthur was on bass and Ron Samsom on drums. Both are very fine musicians – on this gig they manifested as truly great musicians.Neve (6)Experienced improvising musicians are quick to read cues; usually conveyed by a brief glance. Things can change in a moment as new ideas develop; it is a core skill – the ability to interpret subliminal signals and react accordingly. For a classical string quartet, it is different. Cues are generally pencilled into their charts or perhaps conveyed by a conductor. The Black Quartet tackled these difficult charts with vigour, questioning Neve throughout and writing in minute changes or subtle expression marks. I heard Neve remark afterwards how enormously impressed he was with their musicianship – “I would be happy to work with these musicians anytime”, he said. Throughout the day the musicians rehearsed the knotty bits and acclimatised themselves to function as an ensemble. Watching music like this take shape is a joy.Neve (4)Concerts like this are underpinned by hard work and it usually takes a number of rehearsals to achieve tight ensemble playing. Occasionally I get to observe bands in rehearsal or in a recording studio and as the hours go by you can feel the energy shift. An evolution occurs as the music is properly understood and internalised. So it was with this ensemble and after hours of concentrated work, they breathed in unison. The key to this was Neve who is a gifted communicator and patience personified. When energy is harnessed in this way it becomes spirit. Neve had two assistants with him and as the ensemble poured over the charts these two quietly wove their magic. Both sat at consoles and throughout the day they tweaked, miked-up and fine-tuned the sound. The string section was miked to perfection, giving out a sweet woody sound but subtly amplified to exactly the right place in the mix. An audience is seldom aware of the hours a good sound technician puts in (that is unless they do a poor job). This was sound mixing as an art-form. The results were perfection.

I watched the string section throughout the day as layer after layer of complexity was added to already complex charts. I wondered how they would ever remember it all but they did. The performance sang like the gods had blessed it. After all of that work, they yielded to the spirit control. It is often said that Rock is simple music made to sound complex and that Jazz is complex music made to sound simple. As they played this beautiful music, it flowed with such ease. All of the intricacies and fine tuning of the rehearsal were subsumed into the greater whole. This is Neve’s gift; a master musician who blends genres seamlessly, who breathes life into the notes on a stave and takes others along with him. For me, that sublime performance was enhanced by the journey proceeding it. On that day, I was not only a driver but a music voyeur; the best job in the world.Neve (5)‘Spirit Control’ is a lovely album. It is richly satisfying and with a clarity of purpose that cuts through genre and preconception. There is an orchestral quality to Neve’s piano so when the orchestra comes in or fades out the transition feels seamless. There are so many clever references in this music – often shimmering – mirage-like; Tango, folk, modern classical, Nordic improvised Ambient, even pop. This is, however, Jazz of the highest order. Not drawing on the blues but on the many musical forces of Neve’s continent. Jazz has many homes in the modern world. While most of the pieces on the album were played at the Auckland concert there were also new arrangements and pieces from previous albums. There were also hard swinging trio passages. During these, Samsom and McArthur were astounding, moving from arco bass or colourist drumming to a dizzying, exciting, take no prisoners swing.  The cross-appeal of this album is evidenced by the fact that it appeared on the Belgium pop charts and stayed there for weeks.jef_neve_-_spirit_control

The next day a smaller concert was held at the Lewis Eady showrooms in Epsom. This was a solo piano gig and Neve took a very different tack to the day before. While he played a few of his own compositions, he also played some Jazz standards – Monk’s ‘I mean you’ was a rare treat – with a stride piano left hand accentuating Monk’s delightfully quirky tune.  Strayhorn’s ‘Lush Life’ was moving and Joni Mitchell’s ‘A case of you’ was delicate and beauty manifest. After the concert, we ate tapas in K’Road and then I drove them into the Waitakere hills. We stopped at the highest trig point and later at Rose Hallaby’s cottage. As they looked out over the vast expanse of native bush and the smells of forest washed away the smells of the city,  I saw the amazement and wonder on their faces. When you live in the lowlands views like this are rare. I told them of the many artists and musicians who live in these hills. When your attuned to the creative spirit then life is good.

These performances were part of the Auckland Jazz Festival. Jef Neve is a Universal recording artist and the album and other information is available from JefNeve.com

All photos except the album cover were taken by me during the rehearsal on Saturday 14 October 2017

 

 

 

Auckland Jazz Festival, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Concerts - visiting Musicians, experimental improvised music, Review

Auckland Jazz Festival 2015 – part two

AJO picBy the time the second week of the Auckland Jazz Festival arrived, I began to feel my age. I had already experienced a number of late night gigs and a further week of music stretched ahead of me. This was no time to flag, as some interesting and innovative music lay ahead. The festival programme structure provided audiences with variety. The depth and breadth of the improvising scene was on show and I wanted to see everything possible. The week started well with the Meehan/Griffin/Manhire poetry project (see earlier review for this). That gig brought a new audience and I was still AJO pic (1)buzzing come Tuesday.

On Tuesday night the AJO (Auckland Jazz Orchestra) shoehorned into the CJC for the release of their Darkly Dreaming album. The AJO have a growing fan base and this was an eagerly anticipated event. Having earlier witnessed the actual recording session and a pre-taste performance of the suite, I was happily expectant. With charts as demanding as this, a thoroughly rehearsed band is essential and I knew that they would be. It was clear that this would be the definitive live performance so I couldn’t wait to hear that first swell of sound and to get my hands on the album.  AJO @ Festival (5)I had volunteered for door duty that night, turning up early to help. I enjoy the Jazz orchestra set-up process – in this case nineteen musicians and a conductor configuring a behemoth in an impossibly small space. It was like witnessing Nasa scientists beginning the launch sequence. Instruments and gauges checked, tapped and rechecked, cabling run out; each adding a layer to the criss-cross tangle of shoes, stands and chairs.  Soon there were rows of brassy instruments standing in an (almost) orderly line, with the odd human interloper spoiling their symmetry. Random buzzing sounds came from warming up lips; and all punctuated with honks and plucked notes from far-flung corners of the room. this is the counterfactual of the sounds that follow.  AJO @ Festival (7)Band leader Tim Atkinson composed and arranged the suite. He has carefully shaped this ground breaking project as befitting a work of this importance. This is a modern piece of music in the mould of Darcy James Argue. Richly textured, evocative of the title and especially in the warm multi layered dissonance that swells out of the quieter passages. The work has captured a mood and an orchestra going places. This is a moment which benchmarks the growing maturity of the Auckland Jazz scene and I am truly glad to have witnessed it. The overall performance on the night was flawless, but if anyone stood out it was altoist Callum Passels. His solo on ‘The Dark Passenger’ was wonderful. it was a feat of story telling, of mood and it oozed freedom – as if he had somehow escaped the confines of room and orchestra. Importantly, he managed this without once deviating from the logic of the composition. I urge people to purchase this album and I guarantee that you will play it over and again. AJO @ Festival (1)On Wednesday I spent time with the Benny Lackner Trio. A popular USA/German (French) trio who seldom passed up an opportunity to playfully ambush each other and often along the lines of nationality. Their mock combative banter acting as a counterweight to the cohesion they showed on the bandstand. I have seen this trio three times as they have a long association with New Zealand. In my view they are the true successor to Sweden’s lost lamented EST, but there is more to them besides. Their approach is similar but additional elements inform their music. The influence of Lacker’s former teacher Brad Mehldau is discernible but the band is forging a new sound. This is the confident face of post millennium European Jazz. Never compromising, unafraid to appropriate elements from their native culture, and done without a hint of self-consciousness. These guys are heavyweights and we are bound to hear a lot more of them in years to come.  Benny AJF picThe trio’s set list was a mix or originals and some very interesting covers. What was not composed by Lackner or by the drummer Chazarenc, were often unexpected tunes; Brahms, Cold Play, David Bowie, Rodriguez and Jimmy Hendrix. ‘If Six were Nine’ was simply stunning. Warmly familiar to those of us who remembered the rock original. Taking the bones of a 1960’s tune and infusing it with edgy lines and modern harmonic conceptions. I have long-held the view that the new standards will come from material exactly like this. None of the band were alive when this acid blues classic was cut in 1969, but their joy at performing it was evident. Jimi would have loved it. Benny AJF pic (2)The bass player on this trip was Bruno Schorpe. When offered an upright bass he declined – choosing to remain on electric bass throughout. I’m glad that he did because the instrument had the bite to act as counterweight.  Balancing out well the electronics and various effects of Lackner’s keyboards. Then there was drummer Matthieu Chazarenc. He has accompanied Lackner on previous trips and to my ears he is directly out of a great tradition. French Jazz drummers have a sound that is distinct. Like many of his compatriots Chazarenc’s sound is crisp, even dry; utilising dynamics in ways that younger drummers are often incapable of.  A label like ACT must surely pick the trio up sometime soon.  They would be a perfect fit – much as they would for ECM.

Thursday brought us ‘The JAC‘ from Wellington. A delightful octet shortlisted in the 2015 New Zealand Jazz awards for their ‘Nerve’ album. This project is clearly one that will remain with us for some time and if any band deserves to become an institution it is this one. A brassy octet with an orchestral yet airy sound and one which I am particularly enthusiastic about. This was the release gig for their newest album.

AJO pic (2)‘The Green Room(out on Rattle.) Rattle has an uncanny Knack of locating the best of new Zealand music and presenting it in ways that even the big labels seldom manage. The album is beautifully recorded and live the JAC simply sparkle as they weave texture and into their shape shifting grooves. In many ways it is a band of equals as almost everyone stands out at some point. While there is an incredible tightness to their performance, they manage to loosen up enough to create rub and textural complexity. Jac pic (3)It is almost overkill to single out soloists with a cohesive group like this as every one is notable in some way or another. Altoist Jake Baxendale is their nominal leader and three of the compositions on the album are attributed to him (including the title track). If any number captures the essence of the group it is this. The solo on his tune Andalucia also captures a strong sense of place. I know Andalucia well and this is a convincing testimony.

Jac pic (2)It is hard to know where to start with Callum Allardice; he grows as a musician every time I hear him. His compositions are stunning and his guitar work so fluid and exciting that it defies belief. These are performances that stop you in your tracks and few New Zealand guitarists capture that particular sound. Lex French is another spectacular performer and we would hardly expect otherwise. He is now the leading local voice on that horn. Perhaps the most experienced player is Nick tipping who never puts a foot wrong. On the new album we hear him at his best.  Jac pic (4)Convincing contributions by the likes of Chris Buckland, Matthew Alison and Shaun Anderson reinforce the view that this is an all-star band. Lastly there is pianist Daniel Milward. He has recently moved to Melbourne and his voice is particularly strong on the recording; more so than on the first album. Not a showy pianist but an extremely tasteful one who gets it just right. I have put up a sound clip of the Allardice Composition ‘The Heist’, as I have loved it since first hearing it (probably at the Tauranga Jazz Festival).AJO pic (3)

On the 24th I attended another Rattle Jazz album release. This time at the Auckland University Jazz School in the Kenneth Meyers Centre. The Chris Mason Battley Group were performing the album DIALOGOS; this arising from the music of celebrated New Zealand composer John Psathas. The project is exciting and while very much in the moment, a careful crafting is evident. If that sounds like a contradiction it is not. Improvised music is forever reaching beyond imposed structural limitations; the boundaries of convention. Without that restless outreach the music would wither on the vine. This is an example of the new music that you might find on ECM (or Rattle), it is minimalist and references the ethos of John Cage or perhaps even Zorn; it reaches the outer limits of the known.  AJF CMB pic (2) In Psathas words, “it is not arranging or adapting…(rather) a continuing of the composing process”. There are works or arrangements which re-imagine and examine a work from an outside perspective. That is not the case here. This is part of a developing story and the Psathas vision remains at its heart. I recently read a trilogy by a famous and highly respected author. He had intended to write a fourth volume but died before he could proceed. A year later another author picked up where the original author left off and achieved something extremely rare. He added to the body of work seamlessly; continuing the narrative in ways that were his own and entirely consistent with the original. Although a more serious work, DIAGOLOS was an unmitigated triumph. AJF CMB pic (1)Mason-Battley is a thoughtful gifted musician, but we don’t see him perform about town very often. Any new project gets his undivided attention and that was the case here. Counter intuitively, it is his careful preparation which affords him the extraordinary freedom he demonstrates on the bandstand. During this performance he took us right to the edge; you gained the sense listening that he was pushing himself a little further with each phrase. It is at times like this that great music emerges. While adventurous with electronics, he evokes a classic Coltrane sound on his Soprano. There are a number of local musicians who double on soprano but few (if any) sound like Battley. AJF CMB picThe Chris Mason-Battley Group has been around for some time and the original group set New Zealand records for the number of downloads and albums purchased. For this project core members David Lines, Sam Giles and Mason-Battley remain with the addition of drummer Stephen Thomas. Unlike earlier configurations, there is no guitar. Bringing Thomas into the mix has worked extremely well. The drummer of choice for many gigs and a gifted percussionist in the fullest sense. Psathas music calls for sensitive drum work and Thomas has exactly the right approach. His understanding of subtle dynamics, time awareness and overall sensitivity to the project were very much on display. I also appreciated David Lines piano. Lines early classical training was evident in places and again this made him a very good choice for the project. The work required a pianist with a particular chordal approach. At times he was minimalist and with a particular approach to voice leading. Lines like the other four were indispensable to the project. Lastly there was Sam Giles – an electric bass player I wish I heard more often. Giles often leans towards the avant-garde and innovative projects. That is where he shines. AJF CMB pic (5)The Last Auckland Jazz Festival gig I attended was the Alan Brown/Kingsley Melhuish Alargo project at the Golden Dawn. The Golden Dawn is the perfect place to wind down and a very good place to hear laid back grooves and experience deliciously exotic ambient adventures. This music creates a world we wished we lived in. A world of exotic grooves and shifting realities. Seeing and hearing is believing with Alargo, their sound as wide as the ocean and as deep (a little songbook reference there). What Brown and Melhuish are crafting is terrific. Sound shaped, altered, looped and all guiding you inexorably toward that fantasy world of improvised/groove Jazz/electronica. As wonderful as it is to watch, it is essentially a place in which to abandon yourself. As you dive in you feel the buffeting of warm grooves all about you, as the tiredness of a busy fortnight evaporates. I thought that I was an early discoverer of improvised ambient music but Brown was way ahead of me. We have often discussed this genre and we see it as a local space worth claiming. Melhuish was always going to end up beside Brown on this project; trumpet, pedals, programming, percussion and shells swimming around the keyboards. An otherworldly magic evoked by Browns deft fingers. I like to think that I gave this music a slight nudge along the way.  AJF CMB pic (4)This has been an interesting Jazz Festival and although it is cliched, there was something for everyone. From manouche through to the avant-garde. I loved that it retained the feeling of local and of intimacy – even when showcasing offshore bands. The CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Rattle Records, 1885 Britomart, Auckland University, Golden Dawn, Portland Public House, Hallertau, Ostro, Lot 23, One2One, Hotel DeBrett, Lewis Eady, The Refreshment Room, the Vic, The Wine Cellar and other venues deserve our heartfelt thanks. Above all its Ben McNicoll who we must acknowledge as he lost sleep and carried the heaviest load. We are also in the debt of Caro and Roger Manins for the part they played. The vision belongs to these innovators and what ever happens along the way, I hope that the Auckland Jazz Festival continues as the fine fringe festival they envisioned.

Auckland Jazz FestivalCJC (Auckland Jazz Club)Rattle Records (go to Rattle to purchase the albums listed – the exception is Darkly Dreaming at the AJO website)

Auckland Jazz Festival, Beyond category, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Jazz Arts-Poetry-Literature-Photography

Auckland Jazz Festival 2015 – part one

AJO @ Festival logo This is the second Auckland Jazz Festival and what incredibly tasty offerings there are in the programme. The event runs as a fringe festival and this is absolutely the right approach; no corporates making stupid unhelpful suggestions, an intense focus on the best of Kiwi improvised music and international acts with an established connection to New Zealand. The ‘best kept secret’ ethos is a good model for this music and it’s true. In a nutshell the festival tells an all but hidden story; the story of a vibrant diverse Jazz scene, with more than enough talent to wow discriminating audiences. The biggest downside of fringe festivals is that they run on air. Good attendance can mitigate this. With no significant up-front advertising budget, the role of the sponsoring clubs, bars, galleries and local record labels is vital. Those venues and the labels (Rattle in this case) need our support and appreciation. While Auckland has an unfortunate track record of failing to support the arts, the winds of change are in the air. The gigs on offer are diverse and interesting and Auckland will increasingly want a piece of this magic. 12080125_10154517770924815_4684211624996739413_oThe festival opened on the 14th with a duo of respected Australian musicians, ‘The Prodigal Sons’. P J Koopman (guitar) and Steve Barry (piano) are expats who left New Zealand long ago to work in Australia. Both are fondly remembered by Kiwi audiences and both are now firmly established in Sydney; polished musicians speaking each others language. The years of hard work and performance in diverse situations giving them particular insights. Barry has been widely acknowledged for recent albums and although widely engaged in academic pursuits recently, it is good to see him on the road again. These guys can really swing their lines and do it while spinning out fresh ideas. No tempo deters them, but it was the medium and slow tempos that showed us their best. The two original compositions which particularly impressed me were by Koopman; ‘Working Title’ and ‘Major Minor’. On these tunes the exchanges between the two were breathtaking. They engaged two fine local musicians for the gig and with the talented Cameron McArthur on bass and Andrew Keegan on drums the gig was superb. McArthur and Keegan were there every step of the way and as pleasing as the headliners.

During solos the shared experience and friendship of guitarist and pianist spoke loudest. I always look for humanity in music and it was most evident during these personal exchanges. On ballads and in particular on standards, Steve Barry has few peers. I like his more complex compositions and enjoyed those, but like many younger musicians he plays few standards. When he does he chooses well and pays them deep respect. On Wednesday they played ‘Isfahan’ (Strayhorn/Ellington) and ‘Skylark’ (Carmichael/Mercer). The latter in particular communicated that wonderful Strayhorn magic. A burst of particularly loud applause followed that number and rightly so. An excellent beginning to the Jazz festival. JoCray electric (5)On Thursday the Jonathan Crayford Electric Trio featured. It is no secret that I rate Crayford highly and I would go to see him perform anywhere. Arguably one of our top Jazz exports to the world and undoubtedly one of the more innovative musicians on the scene today. No Crayford project is a half-hearted affair, as this musician lives music in the fullest sense. His musical outpourings are sublime but it goes deeper than his excellent musicianship. Crayford’s vantage point on the creative life is unusual and deeply focussed: few others share his perception.

When he returns from New York or Berlin he brings the road life with him; a teeming wealth of fresh experience populated by people, places and planets; pouring from his consciousness and into his deep improvisations. Every project has total commitment and every project draws you deeper. Gifted communicators allow us to glimpse what they see and Crayford has that power, especially if you pay proper attention. He has one foot in the everyday world and one in the realms beyond our imaginings. JoCray electric (15)Powering the gig were legendary analogue machines, the sort that live on in spite of themselves. A Rhodes and a Hohner Clavinet D6 fed through an array of pedals, a talk box and other electronic marvels. In Crayford’s hands these spoke afresh, as the listener travelled backwards and forwards in time – simultaneously. whether playing solo piano or music like this, it is always about the groove. He has an un-hurried and methodical way of diving ever deeper into grooves. Unpicking them until you realise that an infinity of corridors yield to his probing. There is nothing of the technocrat here, just deep and uncompromising sonic vista of immense beauty. JoCray electric (8)The third gig I attended was the Norman Meehan/Hannah Griffin/Bill Manhire/Colin Hemmingsen night, ‘Small holes in the Silence’. I was particularly delighted with this offering as I had not yet seen them perform together. Their collaborations are marvellous creations; ever seeping deeper into the consciousness of art-music and poetry lovers. This gig had special written all over it. Meehan is a gifted composer, academic, pianist and author. Everyone on the Australasian Jazz Scene has marvelled at his scholarship when capturing the essence of Bley or Nock in print. He was clearly the right person to shepherd this project, as his touch and pianist lines have the cadences of a poet. He understands the value of space, modulation and sparse voicing. Often allowing a feather light touch to communicate the loudest of truths. Above all he communicates without undue ornamentation. These are the poets attributes and the Jazz musicians attributes. Finding a new way to tell a story, pushing at the edges of grammar and understanding what to jettison in order to find the clear air. AJO @ Festival Meehan (6)Hannah Griffin has an astonishingly purity to her voice, bell-like, adamantine. She evokes the history of the song form. It is as easy to imagine her singing a bards lines in a medieval castle as in a modern setting. She brings the sensibilities of vocalists like Joni Mitchell and like them she serves the words and the music. She interprets but in subtle ways. This is truly an art music ensemble and the words and mood are at their very heart. With each notes passing the essence of the words remained and this is a tribute to the arranging. The other ensemble member is Colin Hemmingsen, a former NZSO principal and Jazz musician. Hemmingsen is a saxophonist who doubles on winds. His bass clarinet playing is fabulous, conjuring the warm woodiness in that especially resonant instrument. The choice of instruments, and voicings was of vital importance here. The conversations needed to convey conviviality. After each reading the ensemble gave their interpretation of a Manhire poem, voices blending, not competing, the words left as pure residue for contemplation.

The Meehan/Griffin/Manhire projects have been well recorded by Rattle Records NZ and these are all available from the Rattle site (see below). This was the launch of ‘Small Holes in the Silence’ – the tile referencing the poem by ‘Hone Tuwhare’AJO @ Festival Meehan (10)Bill Manhire is one of New Zealand’s favourite poets and experiencing him reading in a subterranean jazz club is a unique experience. A reading augmented by fine musicians lifts the experience to the sublime. Manhire is a towering figure in New Zealand literature. A much-loved poet laureate, anthologist and literary standard-bearer. Showcasing to the world the essence of who we are, speaking in that deliciously self-effacing Kiwi voice that we value so much. His poems telling our stories as much as they tell his own. He is us in ways that we wish we could express. He is the poet we aspire to. His poem ‘The Hawk’ moved me deeply. Speaking of vast landscapes and human interactions from a poets vantage point. I also loved his ode to the great Cornish poet Charles Causley, a sly humorous and deftly crafted piece that conveyed deep affection. Above all it captured the ballad form and I could not help thinking of Housman. Two poems however caught me unawares and they were by a dear friend long departed, Dave Mitchell. Mitchell has all but faded from memory and it delighted me to hear him paid his dues. In his younger years a sweet-natured friendly man, in latter years troubled and ill. The reading from ‘Pipe Dreams in Ponsonby’ is what I will take away and hold close – the gentle flames of our lost poet rekindled by a master orator. AJO @ Festival Meehan (8)  Capturing Manhire in musical form required sensitivity; without that the nuances of breath would be lost in the complexities of a sonic landscape. The sets reminded us that poetry and music are natural collaborators. A lyric is a poem accompanied by a lyre. From the Gilgamesh onwards it has been so, the appearance of separation an illusion, the connection archetypal. It is good therefore to see them coupled in this way and by these people.

This blog is syndicated on the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) website and supports the Auckland Jazz Festival and Rattle Records

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Auckland Jazz Festival, New Zealand Jazz Gigs, USA and Beyond

Auckland Jazz Festival 2014 in retrospect

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The 2014 Auckland Jazz festival is over and it is time to reflect on ten days of warm vibes, edgy grooves, good company and above all truly exceptional music.  Auckland is a difficult beast when it comes to festivals.  It is like a smaller version of Los Angeles; a spread out town centre and an urban area sprawling over 600 Square Kilometres.  This contrasts with the smaller Wellington, where the suitable music venues are in close proximity.  While getting festivals off the ground has always been a challenge in Auckland, there are willing audiences out there.  The trick is getting them to pay attention.  It was an ‘underground’ festival and apart from a handful of flyers, some posters in the participating venues and student radio, the publicity machine was Facebook, a hastily created website and word of mouth.  In spite of that people turned up and everyone enjoyed the gigs.  Town halls and large commercial venues are utterly without soul and the decision to stick to smaller venues made good sense.  Because of that festival goers got to experience live music up close and personal.  A woman at the Mike Nock gig expressed delight that she could sit less than a metre away from the band.  Close enough to catch every nuance and smile; to connect with the joy.  To be so close to one of the worlds great pianists is an experience never forgotten.  This sort of intimacy is gold.  This is a solid foundation to build upon and potential sponsors will hopefully see that and come onboard next year.

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Over the ten days I managed to attend five gigs, including the three headline acts.  Like any music lover I wanted to attend more.  Actually there were over thirty gigs on offer for those with time on their hands and that is impressive.  The opening gig was at the Portland Public House in Kingsland which is an intimate entertainment space with a delightfully shabby-sheik decor and great bar food.   ‘The Troubles’ were the perfect act to launch the festival, as their rollicking, anarchic, good time vibe engaged the large and enthusiastic crowd from the first note.  I am a huge fan of this group which is a collective led by Wellington drummer John Rae.  This time, and it was an inspired move, they had included Auckland’s Roger Manins in the lineup.  This transformed a wonderful boisterous freedom loving band into a full-scale riot.   The five piece string section were the perfect foil and they shone.  Neither Manins nor Rae gave any quarter as they hungrily fed off all challenges like musical Pacmen.   The Troubles music bubbles out of a deep well of musicality and exuberance.  It references the sounds of protest, eastern European music, the vibrancy of street life and above all joy.  As the chants, cries, shouts, dissonance and snatches of sweet melody catch your ear, you realise that this is ancient and future music.  It is honest and often deeply swinging.  It is everything from Mingus to now.

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On Monday I got an email.  ‘If I was free, would I be able to pick up Mike Nock and his trio from the airport’.  I truly like him as a human being as there is an irreverence and a sense of fun about him.  Hanging with him is a positive experience and it was also a good opportunity to gain a few insights into the gig.  He has a Zen approach to life and to music; living in the moment and cutting through the bullshit.  He is funny and a great storyteller, but surprisingly humble about his own impressive accomplishments.   Anyone who has studied the history of New Zealand music (and arguably Australian) will inevitably say at some point, “Oh yeah, Mike Nock; this is THE guy”.  At the airport I ran into another returning Jazz Pianist Steve Barry, so we all crammed into my hatchback.   Musicians, personal luggage and cymbals.  “What will you play tonight” I asked on the way into town?  Mike gave a typical Mike reply, “Man I don’t always know until my fingers are on the piano keys”.  When I repeated this to bass player Brett Hirst he laughed, “Yes and I age a year every-time he does it” he said.   “These days whether a standard or an original, all I want to do is reach deep inside until I find the poetry”, added Nock.

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It is this last statement that epitomises his approach.  You watch him seated quietly at the keyboard, calmly flexing his arms and then suddenly he is playing; the melody stated as if in passing, feeling his way to the essence of a tune.  It is always a masterclass for the careful listener.  All of the dross and excess baggage of a tune is dispensed with as the smiling Nock shares his joy with those present.  As he plays he sings quietly or exclaims joyously.  Sometimes pausing momentarily, dropping his hands from the keys, acknowledging a special moment.   In a club like the CJC you get an immediacy like no other venue and being part of a Mike Nock experience is very special.   Nock played a variety of tunes, some well-loved standards, some almost forgotten older tunes and an original or two.   IMG_3208 - Version 2When he played Irving Berlin’s lovely ‘How Deep is the Ocean’ he prefixed it with a long intro, pulling you deep into the mood of the piece and then suddenly swinging madly, the melody dancing with him.  It was as if we were hearing it for the first time.  Next was ‘Solar’ (Miles Davis), which in lessor hands could be viewed as a surprising choice.  The tune was given no quarter.  Nock, Brett Hirst and James Waples (drums) immediately peeled the layers away to reveal an energised core which burned like a super nova.   Life is good when the Mike Nock trio is in town.

The next night featured the Benny Lackner Trio from Germany.  Lackner has played at the CJC twice previously, but this was the first time that he had brought his European trio with him.  He is an interesting artist and his music is very different from that of the Mike Nock Trio.   This music is firmly rooted in the European aesthetic and less rooted in the bluesy traditions of America.  What he offers is something wholly modern and closer to the oeuvre of artists like Esbjorn Swennson and Tigran Hamasyan .   It was a rare chance to hear a type improvised music that I have long followed with enthusiasm but get few chances to hear being so far away from Europe.  Rather than drawing on the blues it seems to appropriate folk music and near eastern song forms.   The tunes though are all originals and they are often lovely to the ear.  The trio uses electronics in the way that EST did, but there is more edge these compositions.  There are complex cross rhythms and pulsing bass lines on the upbeat numbers; probing filigree explorations around the beautiful melodic lines on the ballads.  On upright and electric bass was Paul Kleber and on drums the interesting Matthieu Chazarenc.  This was music to savoured and thought about long afterwards.  Offering complimentary but contrasting artists is at the heart of good festival programming.

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The third headline act was a double trombone lineup.  From the USA was Francisco Torres who is best known for his stellar work with Poncho Sanchez or the award-winning Gordon Goodwin Big Phat Band.   His credits are considerable and everyone from Terrance Blanchard to Natalie Cole has benefitted from his strong playing.   The other trombonist was Wellington’s Rodger Fox who like Torres has an impressive list of credits to his name.  Fox wears many hats, promoter, educator, composer and trombonist.  Neither Torres nor Fox had played at the CJC before and it was appropriate that they were given a quality rhythm section.   On piano was Kevin Field, Bass Oli Holland and drums Ron Samsom.  The gig was therefore titled ‘two bones and a dog’.  The dog reference was about the ‘Dog’ band which features Field, Holland and Samsom.  Perhaps because it was the third headline gig in a row the numbers were down and that was a shame because they played like there was no tomorrow; mostly standards and particularly those with strong trombone associations.   It was nice to hear a tune by the ill-fated master of the west-coast trombone, Frank Rosolino.  I am always overwhelmed by the warmth of the instrument.  In the semi darkness a glow of burnished gold radiated from the horns, reflecting the warmth of the music perfectly.  There were a number of trombonists in the audience, grinning from ear to ear.   Another great festival night.

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The final gig that I attended was at the Golden Dawn.  Recently voted the best bar in town, it is a welcoming place; a venue begging to become your local, no matter how far away you live.  The management have the happy knack of engaging the quirkier bands, showcasing an edge that can only emerge from underground music.  The lighting is particularly appealing, something between a vaudeville dressing room and a prohibition era speak-easy.  The multi hued lighting seeps through dark-toned wood grain and bounces off the bottles behind the bar, losing its intensity on the journey.   Sunday night is jazz night and what better place to finish up a festival.  When I arrived the Alex Ward trio had just set up and they played a short opening set.  We heard Tigran Hamasyan’s ‘leaving Paris’, a Brad Mehldau tune (from his Easy Rider album) and a standard or two.  The number that I most enjoyed was Wards own composition ‘Litmus Test’, which strongly references and builds upon the vibe of 60’s McCoy Tyner.  IMG_3332 - Version 2

The closing set was ‘Harry Himself’ and this under-the-radar band is truly amazing.  It is a hybrid music with enormous appeal, similar to the Jazz from the Nordic countries.  Unusual combinations of instruments, some electronics, loops and an endless supply of deep grooves.   All of the musicians were of the highest calibre and perhaps this is the bands ace in the hole.  When doing something brave and unusual, do it really well.   Leading the band was Kingsley Melhuish on tuba, trumpet, trombone, flugal and vocals (and pedals).  On pedal steel guitar and Fender was Neil Watson, a much admired musician who can subvert and then create afresh like few others.  Sam Giles was pumping out-deep groove electric bass lines and it was good to see him on the band stand again.  At the rear and barely visible, but clearly audible, was Ron Samson, a drummer as respected as he is versatile.  Carried on the pulses of blue light were shimmering outlines, accompanied by mesmerising waves of sound; intensely textural grooves, layer building upon layer.

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At times Melhuish would set up a loop on tuba, tweak the sound and then play wonderful figures over it on trumpet or flugal.  In behind, bending notes on fender or adding fills on the pedal steel guitar was Watson.  This unusual combination of instruments works so well that it should definitely be repeated.  It begs further explorations.  With Samsom and Giles in the mix a pulsing original sound scape unfolded; perhaps best described as a Second Line gumbo meeting psychedelic Americana.  The festival finished up with a Jam session at the same venue.

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Those who attended the various festival gigs were very pleased with what was on offer and those who found out too late cursed their ill luck.   I understand that the notification period will be longer for next years festival, so watch out for it next Spring.

What: The Auckland Jazz Festival  17th to 26th October 2014

Who: The Troubles (septet), The Mike Nock Trio, The Benny Lackner Trio, Francisco Torres/Roger Fox (quintet), Alex Ward Trio, Harry Himself (quartet).

Where: The CJC (Creative Jazz Club), The Portland Public House, The Golden Dawn.

Note: I will add a Torres/Fox video shortly