Viata: When the Eamon Dilworth album ‘Viata’ was delivered, I was just about to head off to a gig. As I pulled out, I fed the CD into the car sound system and was immediately captivated. Some albums grab you like that, cutting through the dross of everyday life and commanding your fullest attention. The next day, freed from distraction I played it again, and as I listened, the power of the music was evident; a private world where carefully layered soundscapes revealed themselves in an unhurried fashion. I have heard Dilworth live and listened to his recordings, but this is ‘one out of the bag’. Over the years I have learned to expect great things from Australian improvisers and this certainly reinforces that well-earned reputation. ‘Arrow’ was a great album but ‘Viata’ is quite exceptional.
Arrow and Alluvium, were broader canvases – more eclectic; but these compositions are pastoral rather than urban landscapes. Revealed are breathtaking aural vistas of the kind you would expect from ECM artists; pristine spacious northern European landscapes. One of the tunes is titled ‘Eich’, a clear homage to Norway’s Matias Eich and it is beautifully realised, but as you work through the album the unmistakable dreamy warmth and gentle slurring of Tomasz Stanko is evident. Jon Hassel helped shape the direction of Scandinavian trumpeters and perhaps via the Nordics, Australian trumpet players also. These are not the only influences evident here and the vast Australian landscapes cannot be overlooked. In spite of its influences, the album stands strongly on its own merits. The quintet utilises the skills of notable Australian musicians; Alistair Spence (piano), Carl Morgan (guitar), Jonathan Zwartz (bass) and Paul Derricott (drums). With these heavyweights accompanying Dilworth, he couldn’t lose. This is an album I really enjoyed. If you listen carefully it is possible to hear a distant Bell beckoning.
Zephyrix: There is nothing that piques my interest more than receiving news of an impending Barney McAll project. His projects are seldom announced in conventional ways but they creep into your consciousness like portents. You see an image or hear a rumour and know that something is unfolding. A few months ago I noticed a mysterious image appearing below a McAll tweet. There was no explanation, just the word Zephyrix and an image of a man-bird. Because he paints on a vast canvas and because he is a master of subliminal, the image was the message; leaving you with the sense that something extraordinary was about to appear. This how McAll works his magic. By communicating on many levels at once. You always get great music, but embedded in that music and in the related media are archetypes. This album exemplifies his approach to creating art and it touches on his philosophy.
A few weeks after I spotted the image I received an email from Melbourne’s Monash University, inviting me to attend the launch of McAll’s Zephyrix album as a guest. The work was commissioned for the prestigious Monash Art Ensemble, a fifteen-piece Jazz orchestra. The work had six parts and was conducted by the well respected Paul Grabowsky. A few years earlier I had interviewed McAll during his Peggy Glanville-Hicks composers residency in Sydney. The work was composed at around that time.
Although unable to attend the launch I received a copy of the album and as I played it that familiar question arose. How can one artist have such a diverse body of work and yet achieve such excellence in everything that he creates? The answer lies partly in McAll’s work ethic, but above all, it lies in the way he views life and the creative process. The integrity of his vision is never subordinated to the commercial imperatives which often grind artists down. In spite of that (or because of it), he has a large following and wins award after award (he just collected three further Bell Awards for ‘Hearing the Blood’).
As you listen to Zephyrix you enter a world of textural richness with surprises at every turn. Mythical and exotic creatures populate the imagination, only to disappear as another, takes its place. McAll’s work is always strongly allegorical and in this case, the allusions touch on the fundamental struggles of existence. Beginning with the Greek God Zephyr (God of the west wind ) and followed by the voices of Black Crow, White Swan, Peacock, Pelican, Zephyrix and Phoenix. The odd creature out is the most interesting, one of McAll’s creations, the Zephyrix. This is a fusing of the Phoenix and Man – the man wearing business attire, the phoenix perhaps his better self.
As you listen to the album you detect the spirit of Stravinsky, but the touchstones go beyond orchestral Jazz or modern classical music. Even though the references to the past are there, this work sits comfortably among the best of forward-looking orchestral works. It is a journey well worth taking and I am eagerly awaiting McAll’s next project.
Good Music always says something interesting; it’s a form of communication where a musical statement begins a process and a listener responds. With any innovative musical form, we need to bring something of ourselves to the equation. The more open our ears the better the experience. Gifted improvisers of all cultures understand these fundamentals and because of this they mostly tell old stories in new ways. Rarely and bravely, musicians hit us with stories not yet fixed in the popular imagination. Steve Barry and his collaborators have a foot in both camps. While this is adventurous material, it is also approachable to anyone with open ears. What we heard at the CJC was innovative but the archetypes of all music were located deep in the compositional structure. A careful listening revealed trace elements from composers like Stravinsky or Bley and perhaps even of indigenous music.
The first piece they opened with was titled ‘Grind’ – a composition inspired by Sydney traffic (much as Tristano utilised every street sound that floated through his NY window). The piece began as journeys do with determined momentum – a degree of clarity followed by a more frenetic stop-start feel as the piece progressed – then reflection. It appealed to me greatly and twelve minutes in, I knew that I was hearing something similar to the approach used by Bley/Guiffre/Swallow in ‘Freefall’. There are moments in musical history when profound change is signalled and that album was one of them. The critics of the time hated it of course but modern Jazz audiences have caught up. The new Barry album ‘Blueprints and Vignettes’ will not be regarded as controversial but as vital and forward-looking. Back then clubs took fright and closed their doors but no club owner worth their salt would miss booking this group.
Barry is an interesting pianist and composer and this project may be his best to date. At the CJC he was confronted with a basic upright piano, but he somehow transformed it into a new instrument entirely. Many in the audience were fascinated and approached him afterwards to enquire how he achieved this slight of hand. Clever miking and a constant repetitive damping of the soft pedal was evident, but I suspect that his rapid-fire staccatissimo touch contributed as much to the effect. I know that Barry has also explored Bartok and the classical modernists and this may hold some clues as well. Whether by happenstance or contrivance, the overall effect was enormously pleasing. There were set patterns and themes, but these altered, developed, as fresh ideas arose from them.
I was delighted to finally catch up with Dave Goodman (PhD), having heard him last at the 505 in Sydney (along with Mike Nock, Rog Manins, James Muller and Cameron Undy). Goodman is an enormously versatile drummer and a popular educator. His role here is varied, but often that of ‘colourist’. Rolling his sticks over the drum heads, or providing contrast with irregular taps on the snare or a muted ride cymbal – and entering these interesting conversations as an equal. The other trio member was Jeremy Rose on reeds (his horns, the alto saxophone and bass clarinet). He was just superb and every bold sound or whispered breath added new dimensions. It is seldom that we hear a bass clarinet and to hear one in a trio setting of this kind is even rarer. The clarinets woodiness and rich harmonics added texture, the alto, a hawk awaiting its moment then swooping purposefully. In spite of the varying tempos and moods, the album imparts a delicacy from start to finish. Live, they got the best out of the acoustics and venue piano. What a perfect sound palette Barry has chosen for this project and whether live or recorded, how satisfying the realisation.
The album ‘Blueprints and Vignettes’ is available from stevebarrymusic.bandcamp.com or from retail and online sources (I recommend Bandcamp). The album features Max Alduca on bass. The live gig took place at the Thirsty Dog for the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) – February 21, 2018.
It was a foolish oversight on my part – I hadn’t visited Melbourne in fifteen years. I had seen quite a few Melbourne improvisers perform in Sydney or Auckland but failed to track them back to their native habitat. The last time I was there, Bennett’s Lane was still a thing, but closed for two weeks. That was the week between Christmas and New Year; that arid Jazzless desert in the live music calendar. With family now residing in Melbourne, I decided to atone for my sins and I headed off while the Jazz calendar was over-flowing with tasty offerings.
My first stop en route was Sydney where I met up with Mike Nock. That evening we caught a gig at the Foundry 616 where Nadje Nordhuis and James Shipp were playing. When Nock enters a venue the room rearranges itself. You immediately become aware of people in the dark interior, gathering quietly to pay their respects. It was great to see him looking so well and to hear about his new projects. We miss him in Auckland as he has not played here for over a year. I had previously seen Noordhuis perform when the Darcy James Argue band came through Auckland. She is a member of both the Darcy Argue and the Maria Schnieder ensembles – Shipp is a vibraphonist percussionist and ‘synthesisist’ and well-known in New York. The gig opened the Sydney Women’s Jazz Festival and it was well received. I was also delighted to catch up with Thomas Botting who played bass for that particular gig. A robustly healthy and startlingly fit Botting. After a few days with my daughter and grandchildren, I headed to the domestic airport and Melbourne.
To my delight, I was greeted at Melbourne Airport by large signs reading – ‘Welcome Home from Jail Granddad’. Aussie humour is unique and often intentionally embarrassing. Hiding behind false sensibilities is not an option. If you don’t like good-natured piss-take humour – go elsewhere (Kiwis get this). It is no accident that our lost, lamented and beloved Kiwi comedian John Clarke and the actor/comedian Bruno Lawrence settled there. A larrikin world-view runs through the music as well. There is a unique openness about much of Australian improvised music. It is of course informed by the Jazz roots of America, but strangely unbeholden to it. The musicians are liberal-minded and many are unashamedly strident in their political views – this can feed the music as well. New iterations of the Liberation Music Orchestra are forming in Melbourne and that makes perfect sense.
There were quite a few Melbourne musicians on my list and at the top was Barney McAll. It is no secret that I am fascinated by the depth and scope of McAll’s music and interviewing him is always an interesting experience. Some musicians go to great lengths to hide from personal scrutiny, believing that their music is all you need to know about them. That is an entirely valid viewpoint, but a curse if you’re a biographer or reviewer looking for context. When I review, I try to avoid armchair appraisals; attending live music whenever possible; eager to know something of the musician, the thought processes, philosophical leanings; hoping to look behind the mask. Possessing a stubborn belief that an artist and the music are two sides of an alchemic essence.
McAll texted me his address and I ventured out into the heat, trying to make sense of the train system. I got off somewhere in the outer suburbs; prophetically, somewhere near Mooroolbark. There was a bing and I looked at my phone. The text read, ‘Round the back your grace – ignore the dog’. McAll greeted me warmly and we went inside for a Vegemite crumpet. As he was wearing military-style camouflage, I didn’t dare tell him that Kiwis only eat Marmite (look up the great Marmageddon debate which erupted after the Christchurch earthquake). It is always a pleasure talking to McAll, but unforeseen things occur when your guard is down. He played me some new compositions, showed me a video he was working on and we discussed the coming year’s projects. Then unexpectedly, I found myself the subject. Being interviewed about my poetry and the duty of creative artists to get their work out there. As we talked, and as if it were the most natural thing in the world, he handed me a grinning ventriloquist’s dummy and sat another in the next chair. The discussion continued, was filmed in real time; two child-sized puppets and me; and the McAll directing it Fellini fashion. For more about McAll’s recent ‘Hearing The Blood’ album or his catalogue, go to iTunes, Spotify or www.extracelestialarts.bandcamp.com – read my recent blog post, December 4, 2017.
While I was there, McAll phoned Julien Wilson to find out his gig schedule for me. There was a gig of his on in Northcote and so I dashed back to the Jazz Corner hotel before heading out into the warm Melbourne night. It was an auspicious night to be out and about in Melbourne as the divisive and ill-considered same-sex marriage plebiscite had delivered a resounding yes vote. Whole inner suburbs were closed as revellers partied. Adding to the celebratory mood, a significant World Cup qualifying match was underway (which the Aussies subsequently won to the chagrin of Kiwis who lost their qualifying match). All of the above spells happy chaos in an art and sports-mad city. And I had music happening – lots of it. A scarfed man sitting opposite me on the tram was laughing and crying in turns. He was so drunk that his eyes revolved in opposite directions. Someone asked him if he was anticipating a win and he nodded chuckling, then just as quickly he cried inconsolably – ‘Cats are bastards’ he mumbled – ‘I just fell over one and hurt my arm’.
Jules Wilson is a tall friendly man and he plays like he lives with his heart on his sleeve. I have followed his Facebook posts and listened to his music for years; no-one is ever left wondering what his worldview is. Like many musicians, he loathes injustice or inequality and you can hear this manifest in his sound. Not in an angry way but in an earnest cajoling way, demanding that humanity ups it’s game. Creating original improvised music taps into a deep well of experience and with mature players, their character oozes through the notes. A lot of modern saxophonists have a raspiness to their tone and often produce a vibrato-less sound. Wilson has a rich full-bodied sound and it touches on an era when the tenor giants ruled the world. Appropriately there is often some breathy vibrato at the end of a phrase. This is not to say that he is an old-fashioned player because he isn’t. It is rather that the history is in that tone – ancient to modern.
There is another factor which could influence his tenor sound – he doubles on clarinet. The clarinet is the first horn he mastered. While many saxophonists treat that horn like a difficult inlaw, Wilson perseveres, regarding it with a begrudging affection. I was stunned by the beauty of his clarinet playing and how modern the instrument sounded in his hands (he played a fast-paced bop classic, not a ballad). I asked him in the break how he felt about the horn – “it’s a punishing unforgiving instrument, but I can’t bring myself to abandon it” he told me.
Wilson came sharply onto my radar with McAll’s extraordinary Mooroolbark album but he has long been one of Australia’s most successful Jazz Musicians. Winning the National Jazz Award in 1994, The Music Council of Australia Freedman Fellowship in 2006, The 2008 Bell Award – Artist of the Year, a Bell Award trifecta in 2014 and the APRA Art Music Award for Excellence in 2016. I have recently been listening to his back catalogue which is available on Band Camp (some CD albums are also still available). His output is diverse and all of it interesting – an edgy album with Jim Black, Mark Hellas and Steve Magnussen – several recordings with his popular trio (Stephen Grant on accordion and Stephen Magnusson on guitar) – an extraordinary couple of albums featuring Barney McAll on piano, Jonathan Zwartz bass and Allan Browne on drums. There are around twenty albums in all. All are worth a listen but his ‘This is Always’ album is an absolute gem (the live ‘This Narrow Isthmus’ which followed, likewise). The former harks back to a specific era in the best possible way – not as a tribute album, but as a rekindling of a bright flame.
The story behind the album is instructive as it takes us to the heart of an in-the-moment creative process. The musicians wanted to capture the vibe and style of the famous Prestige Meeting Sessions. McAll and Wilson swapped a few charts but had no detailed discussions – no rehearsals were scheduled. On the day of recording, the four turned up at the studio with a ‘first-take’ approach. No baffles and no headphones were used. This allowed for a sense of immediacy and real-time heightened interaction. McAll reimagining the piano styles of the era in passing – some Evans like intros and even using the locked hand’s style briefly. Wilson sending forth a flurry of swoon-worthy fat warm tones. None of this sounded contrived – it sounded like the present and past fused into a cohesive whole. The album is an important milestone in Australian music and no antipodean Jazz lover should be without a copy. It should not be regarded as a trip down memory lane, but as a testament to the eternal now. The unsuspecting will believe it to be a loved classic album of the Prestige-era and scratch their heads to place it.
When Bennetts Lane passed into history, the Melbourne club scene rose to the challenge. The Bennetts management (or some of them but minus the name – it’s a complicated story) opened a new club in the industrial heartland of Brunswick. The JazzLab is a stunning venue. Situated in a basement, it has all that old-school Jazz Club vibe but not at the expense of good taste. It is comfortable but not over-decorated (I have seen some shockers in other countries, trying so hard to be cool that they end up as museums to kitsch). More importantly, the sight lines are good and the acoustics great. I attended the JazzLab with expat Auckland musician Matt Steele and my son Jeremy and the gig was a treat. It was the album release of ‘Finding The Balance’ by the Paul Williamson Quintet. This was a solid unit with an inexhaustible array of talented firepower and good tunes. All were new to me except Jamie Oehlers, who I see perform regularly.
The unit had swags of punch and plenty of textural contrasts. It was big enough to sound like a larger ensemble at times, but the writing allowed individuals to shine. Oehlers was on fire, hitting sweet spot after sweet spot during solos – carving his path through the air like a titan. Closer to earth, but equally attention-grabbing was the leader Williamson – his sound control impressive – his trumpet speaking a very human dialect. I had not encountered Andrea Keller before, but her tasteful minimalist approach also caught my attention – it contrasted nicely with the fulsome horns. The remaining musicians a six-string electric bass player Christopher Hale and a very tasty drummer James Mclean. It was a great launch in an interesting venue – what could be better.
Keller, in particular, intrigued me, so I looked through the gig guide to see if she was playing elsewhere. My luck was in as she was leading an interesting trio at the Uptown Jazz Cafe in Fitzroy. The next night, was a warm one, and I walked to Fitzroy, pausing to eat street food on the way. Finally, I stumbled up the stairs to a very warm Uptown Jazz Cafe. The venue was not air-conditioned and ill-lit, but the gloom and the heat added to the ambiance. As the band set up, a shaft of dim orange light beamed on them, illuminating the trio as ghostly orange specters – enlarging and distorting their forms as it projected them onto a screen. The music bordered on avant-garde and the setting was therefore perfect.
The trio of piano, violin, and electric bass didn’t disappoint. Keller’s serialist credentials were very much on-show as she spun out a filigree of wonderfully intricate patterns. At first, appearing to be repeating motifs, but a more careful listening revealing otherwise. Finely detailed changes to the underlying structure guided the ear into a finely wrought lace work of notes. In this, I detected the influence of Riley or other adventurous souls. The violin and bass meeting the challenge, adding colour, texture, and melodic contrast (I didn’t catch their names). I had recently been listening to Terry Riley’s ‘Lazy Afternoon Among the Crocodiles’, so this gig was very pleasing to my ear.
I saw other gigs during the week, but the standouts were those mentioned. Melbourne is a city of the arts and a very European styled city. It is therefore not surprising that Jazz flourishes there. I have traveled through many of the worlds great cities in the past year, but this city is as Jazz rich as the best.
The Australian and New Zealand improvising scenes are a homogenous entity and long may it remain so. If the traffic sometimes appears one-sided, that is a natural consequence of our artists moving to the bigger scene; the exchange benefiting both. Many of those who jump the Tasman do well and they always return for gigs, tours, or sometimes to conduct workshops. Without these exchanges with Australia and beyond, our improvised music scene would be the poorer. This traffic brings us a number of talented Australians, musicians who probably would not have the opportunity to come otherwise; those collegial connections count for something. Drummer Simon Barker is one of those.Barker was in Auckland early last year with Carl Dewhurst. Together they are the amazing ‘Showa44’, a duo which I reviewed during their visit. Anyone who follows Barker will know how versatile he is, and above all the musical integrity and originality he brings to whatever situation he is in. Barney McAll’s award-winning ‘Mooroolbark’ and ‘Showa44’ are very different propositions but Barker sits comfortably at the heart of both; of equal importance is his teaching. While in Auckland, he held a workshop at the Auckland University Jazz School and undertook three days of intensive one-on-one teaching with students (and established musicians). Students I spoke to said that they valued the opportunity enormously.The first set featured Barker solo. It is not often that a drummer performs solo and to pull that off requires something beyond mere drum chops. Barker brings something that is uniquely himself to the kit, and he is able to communicate a story, not just a beat. He began with a tribute to an obscure central North Island Polynesian drummer (sadly the name alludes me). He has never met this person but saw a clip of him performing in the traditional Polynesian, polyrhythmic style. He had a traditional wooden drum mounted beside his big tom and working between this and his kit, he created intricate cross rhythms, worthy of a row of skilled drummers.His second and shorter piece he described as a chant and it was. The hypnotic intensity carried the audience to the last beat; just as the first piece had. He is not only a storyteller on his instrument but he is capable of creating an orchestral sound. The audience loved it. The second set was something of an impromptu affair but none the less enjoyable for that. Also on stage for that set was Dixon Nacey, Olivier Holland, and Roger Manins. So busy was Barker’s schedule that the quartet had not found time to rehearse. Even the set list was once settled on the bandstand.They began with ‘All the things you are’ and turned it on its head. The introduction performed by Holland and Barker alone was a blast. Drummer and bass exchanging phrases, challenging each other, leavening the exchanges with humour. When Nacey and Manins came in they exposed the bones of the tune. It was well done and in spite of its raw originality, the echoes of the melody hung in the air as implied offerings. The remainder of the set were original compositions and a rendition of the complex but ever popular Oleo (Rollins). Keep visiting Australians, we value you.
When I started attending the CJC, I heard Peter Koopman quite often. He was always impressive, but never a showy guitarist. His approach matched his quiet demeanor, an easy-going manner obscuring a real determination to excel at his craft. Before long he moved to Sydney and although the local Jazz scene laments this musicians rite of passage, we also know it is the right thing. At best, these offshore journeys produce the Mike Nocks and the Matt Penmans, and we all benefit from that.
It is harder to track the progress of a musician once domiciled in another country, but news of Koopman’s milestones often reach us. Since he moved to Sydney in 2011 he has worked with a variety of bands; his own, and sometimes as a sideman. He has also placed himself in interestingly diverse musical situations and the learnings arising from these interactions are evident in his current compositions and playing.We have seen him back in New Zealand a few times during the last five years, but this is his first visit leading a guitar trio. As anticipated, we experienced a more mature Koopman, his guitar work showcasing well-honed skills. Australia is a merciless testing ground for improvising musicians and especially so for guitarists. Working in the same scene as Carl Dewhurst or James Muller, and holding your own, the proof of the pudding. In 2014 Koopman was placed 3rd in the Australian National Jazz Awards, which are held at Wangaratta each year. These awards are fiercely contested and that is no small accomplishment. The Inner Westies Trio for the New Zealand trip was Peter Koopman (guitar), Max Alduca (bass) and Stephen Thomas (drums). The guitarist and Bass player from West Sydney, the drummer from West Auckland. Alduca is a compelling bass player, and a drawcard on his own. He often includes a touch of tasteful arco bass in his performance. I last saw him when he toured with the ‘Antipodeans’, an innovative young ensemble, populated with musicians from three countries. Alduca made a hit then and reinforced our positive view of him this night. He has a number of gigs about Auckland aside from the CJC gig. A player bursting with originality and with a notable way of engaging with audiences. Nice to see him back and especially in this company.
In spite of his age, Stephen Thomas has long been established among New Zealand’s premier drummers. He is often a first call for visiting improvising artists. Although primarily a Jazz drummer he is as comfortable in avant-garde settings as in large rock auditoriums. This unit worked well for Koopman and his interesting compositions and new takes on old standards all sounded fresh. Koopman originals dominated the gig, often intensely melodic, modern sounding and at times with real edge. Among the standards, and the final tune was Joe Henderson’s ‘Isotope’; a warm rendering, with enough fire to melt the coldest night. Below is an original Koopman composition.
Peter Koopmans Inner Westies: Peter J Koopman (guitar), Max Alduca (upright bass), Stephen Thomas (drums). Performed at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Albion Hotel, 6th July 2016.
Auckland spoils us with long runs of clement weather, but when winter hits we suffer. Having effectively avoided any meaningful autumn we suddenly plunged into a week of cold wet days. There was no better time for the Michel Benebig/Carl Lockett band to arrive. As we grooved to the music, a warmth flooded our bodies within minutes. Nothing invokes warmth like a well oiled B3 groove unit and the Benebig/Locket band is as good as it gets. The icing on the cake was seeing Shem with them. A singer with incredible modulation skills and perfect pitch, able to convey the nuances of emotion with a casual glance or a single note. The way she moves from the upper register to the midrange, silken.Michel Benebig has been travelling to New Zealand for years, and his connection with the principals of the UoA Jazz school has been a boon for us. He generally brings his partner Shem with him, but last time work commitments in her native New Caledonia kept her at home. Michel just gets better and better and the way his pedal work and hands create contrasts and tension defies belief. It is therefore not surprising that Michel attracts top rated guitarists or saxophonists to his bands. The best of our local groove guitarists have often featured and a growing number of stand-out American artists (see earlier posts on this band). Of these, the New York guitarist Carl Locket is of particular note. I first heard Lockett in San Francisco four years ago and he mesmerised me with his deep bluesy lines and time feel. Although comfortable in a number of genres, he is the ideal choice for an organ/guitar groove unit.The band played material from their recent album (mostly Benebig’s compositions) and a few standards. There were also compositions by Shem Benebig. Their approach to arranging standards is appealing – numbers like Johnny Mandel’s ‘Suicide is Painless’ are transformed into groove excellence. We heard that number performed at the band’s last visit and the audience loved to hear it repeated. This visit, we heard a terrific interpretation of ‘Angel Eyes’ (Matt Dennis). I confess that this is one of my favourite standards (Ella regarded it as her favourite ballad). Anita O’day performed it beautifully as did Frank Sinatra and Nat Cole. The only groove version I can recall is the relatively unknown Gene Ammons cut (a bonus number added in later years to his ‘Boss Tenor’ album with organist Johnny ‘Hammond’ Smith). That version took the tune at a very slow pace, so slow in fact that you initially wondered if Ammons had nodded off before he came in. It was wonderful for all that (who can resist Ammons).The band began the tune at a slow pace (but not as slow as Ammons), then once through, picking up the tempo, the band settling into a deeper groove, drummer Samsom and the guitarist really locking together, giving the Benebig’s room to create magic. That locked-in beat is often at the heart of an organ-guitar unit and when done well it adds bottom to the sound. Locket’s style of comping is the key to that effect, the entry point for the drummer, the way the guitarist lays back on the beat and comps in a particular way. Samsom heard and responded as I knew he would. He is a groove merchant at heart. On tenor saxophone, Roger Manins was on home turf. Dreamily caressing the melody before his solo.
On an earlier blues number, we saw Manins at his playful best. He is always up for a challenge and this time, it came from Shem Benebig. This blues (sung in French) was about the demon drink and the dangers lying therein. As Shem ran through the tune she gestured accusatively, as if berating the audience. She had transformed herself into a firebrand preacher and her playfulness went down a treat. Tunes like this contain the DNA of their ancient beginnings and the Sanctified Church, ‘call and response’ at their very heart. Having berated the audience she turned on Manins as they exchanged phrases in a time-honoured way. The musical conversation went on for a number of bars until Shem delivered the coup-de-grace. Manins came back whisper-soft in mock submission. Shem, hands on hips flicked her hair triumphantly – a delightful moment of ad-lib musical theatre. I have put up this blues clip – more clips to follow later.
And all the while that fabulous B3 grooved us to a place we never wanted to leave.
As I write this it is International Jazz Day, a UNESCO sponsored day honouring the diversity and depth of the world improvising scene. It was, therefore, serendipitous that Carl Dewhurst and Simon Barker brought ‘Showa 44’ to town – especially in the days immediately preceding the big celebration. This gig offered actual proof that the restless exploration of free-spirited improvisers, lives on undiminished. I have sometimes heard die-hard Jazz fans questioning free improvisation, believing that the music reached an unassailable peak in their favourite era. To quote Dexter Gordon. “Jazz is a living music. It is unafraid …. It doesn’t stand still, that’s how it survives“. While a particular coterie prefers their comfort zone, the music moves on without them. Younger ears hear the call and new audiences form. Life is a continuum and great art draws upon the energies about it for momentum. Improvised music is not a display in a history museum.It is through listening to innovative live music that our ears sharpen. When sitting in front of a band like this the mysteries of sound become visceral. This was an extraordinary gig, at times loud and confronting, mesmerising, ambient and always cram-packed with subtlety. Fragments of melodic invention and patterns formed. Then subtly, without our realising it, they were gone, tantalising, promise-filled but illusory. We seldom noticed these micro changes as they were affected so skillfully – form and space changing minute by minute, new and yet strangely familiar – briefly reappearing as quicksilver loops before reinventing themselves.With the constraints of form and melody loosened new possibilities emerge. In inexperienced hands, the difficulties can overwhelm. In the hands of artists like these the freedom gives them superpowers. Time is displaced, tonality split into a prism of sound, patterns turned inside out. The first set was a single duo piece, ‘Improvisation one’ – unfolding over an hour and a quarter; Dewhurst and Barker, barely visible in the low light. This was about sculpting sound and seeing the musicians in shadow added a veneer of mystique. Dewhurst began quietly, his solid body guitar lying face up on his lap. The sound came in waves as he stroked and pushed at the strings, moving a slide – ever so slightly at first, causing microtonal shifts or new harmonics to form, modulating, striking the strings with a mallet or the palm of his hand. The illusion created, was of a single drone repeating. In reality, the sound was orchestral. As you listened, really listened, microtones, semitones and the occasional interval appeared over the drone. Barker providing multiple dimensions and astonishing colour, responding, reacting, crafting new directions.In this context, the drummer took on many roles, a foil to the guitarist, creating silken whispers, insistent flurries of beats and at times building to a heart-stopping crescendo. I found this music riveting and the audience obviously shared my view. In the quiet passages, you could hear a pin drop. If that’s not an indication of the musical maturity of modern Jazz audiences, nothing is. One of the prime functions of art is to confront, to challenge complacency. This music did that while gently leading us deeper inside sound itself. No one at the CJC regretted being on this journey. This is territory loosely mapped by the UK guitarist Derek Bailey, the Norwegian guitarist Aivind Aaset and the American guitarist Mary Halvorson. They may take a similar path, but this felt original, perhaps it is an Australian sound (with a Kiwi twist in Manins). The long multifaceted trance-like drones suggest that. The second set was shorter, ‘Improvisation two’ had Roger Manins aboard. I should be immune to Manins surprises but he frequently catches me off guard. His breadth and depth appear limitless. ‘Improvisation Two’ began with a broader melodic palette. Dewhurst and Barker set the piece up and when Manins came in there was a stunning ECM feel created. Barker tap-tapping the high-hat and ride. Achingly beautiful phases hung in the air – then, surprisingly they eluded us, unravelling as Manins dug deeper – dissecting them note by note. These interactions give us a clue as to how this music works, each musician playing a phrase or pattern and then re-shaping it, passing the baton endlessly.
This requires deep listening and turn on a dime responses; as the overarching but perpetually shifting theme guides them. By the time Manins had played for five minutes, the mood and pace had mysteriously changed. By fourteen minutes we were in free territory – at twenty minutes the Tom fell over. Barker swept it up and changed to brushes in an eye blink. The falling drum was seamlessly blended, a fresh percussive option. I have seldom seen such captivating responsive drumming. Making an accident a virtue.
I have watched the twenty-two-minute segment of ‘Improvisation two’ ten times in a row and it is just as jaw-dropping each time. It is not the purpose of this Blog to rate and compare, but if it were, I would need extra stars to do this gig justice.
Showa 44; Carl Dewhurst (guitar), Simon Barker (drums & percussion), with guest Roger Manins (tenor saxophone) – CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Albion Hotel, Auckland, New Zealand, April 27th, 2016.
Footnote: After posting this I spoke with Carl Dewhurst. I explained that I had an overwhelming sense of the Australian desert – hearing the textures and wide open spaces in the improvisations. In the end, I was overly cautious, not wanting to offend indigenous sensibilities, deleting a reference to the Didgeridoo and Clapsticks. After speaking to Carl I am adding the references back in here. He informs me that this project actually began in the vastness of the northern deserts, playing alongside indigenous Australians. I heard right.
When the word gets about that a Jamie Oehlers gig is imminent, excitement mounts. Having turned people away last year, due to a capacity audience, the CJC offered two sessions this time. As expected, both were well attended. Oehlers is highly regarded in the Jazz world and it is not surprising. His astonishing mastery of the tenor saxophone is central to his appeal, but it is more than that. Every note he plays sounds authentic as if no other note could ever replace it, and all conveying a sense of musical humanism.
He introduced the numbers by painting word pictures; creating an expectation that the best is soon to come. The audience anticipating an interesting journey happily followed. He always gives us something of himself and it serves him well. Audiences like to glimpse the human being behind the music and not all musicians are capable of that. If done well (not forced), it must convey warmth. Oehlers is a natural in this regard. This affability applies to the man and to the musician. His egalitarian world-view inevitably seeping into his playing. This is how it is with all the greats. Their sound and their life eventually merge. The horn becoming breath.Oehlers has a new album out titled ‘The burden of memory‘ and we heard many of the pieces as the sets unfolded. Accompanying him on the album is a dream rhythm section: Paul Grabowsky on piano, Reuben Rogers on bass and Eric Harland on drums. Each a heavyweight and living up to their formidable reputations. For the Auckland gig, there was Kevin Field on piano, Olivier Holland on bass and Frank Gibson Jr on drums. Jumping in where Grabowsky, Rogers, and Harland had gone was no doubt daunting but they pulled it off in style. All played exceptionally well, but Gibson was a standout. The exchanges between him and Oehlers memorable. These men have history and the old conversations were clearly rekindled on the bandstand. Roger Manins joined Oehlers for the last number of each set and the two dueled as only they can. Weaving skillfully around each other and sounding like two halves of a whole; grinning like Cheshire cats.The album title and the song titles speak clearly of the musicians thought processes. He talks of his motivations and his horn takes us there. The burden of memory is a phrase he heard while listening to talkback radio and it resonated with him. He thinks deeply, examines the world about him and this communicates throughout the album. The second track ‘Armistice’ is a good example, possessing a melancholic beauty, and while it throws up the obvious images of a war ending, it also speaks of families and the tentative steps towards new possibilities.
‘The dreaming‘ references the indigenous peoples of Australia. An ancient meditative practice, the dreaming is an altered state of consciousness, where the past and future appear to those open enough to receive that gift. Of the two standards, the reharmonized version of ‘Polka Dots and Moonbeams‘ particularly appealed. The gig featured several tunes, not on the album; we were especially delighted by the ‘fast burner’ take on ‘After You’ve gone’. That particular standard by Turner Layton harks back to 1918. it was soon picked up by Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, and Fats Waller. This bebop referencing version breathed fire into the room. Those who attended the gigs were abuzz afterward and rushed to purchase the album. If you missed the tour and wanted a copy of the album I have included a link below. Recorded in Brooklyn New York at the System 2 studios, the album had the support of the WA Department of Culture and the Arts. Oehlers wrote six of the tunes and co-wrote a further three with Rogers, Harland, and Grabowsky. The remaining three tunes were by Grabowsky, Jobim and Van Heusen.
It is not very often that an album like this comes along and more’s the pity. This is an album for those who are properly engaged, who listen deeply; offering ample rewards to those who pay due attention. While there is a hint of the freedom of the 1961-62 Giuffre/Bley/Swallow albums, this is an album of the now. It tells a modern Australian story while claiming a portion of the space occupied by the sparse Nordic improvisers. People might find this darker approach unexpected as the Australian landscape resonates bright light and pastel colours. While not the norm there are recent precedents such as the astonishingly atmospheric ‘Kindred Spirits’ by Mike Nock. Pianist Luke Sweeting shows us from the first few notes that he truly understands form and dynamics. As he moves about the piano his fingers tease out endless shades of colour; the sort found in the shadows. The name Grey Wing Trio is apt too, because the subtlety of the shadings are endless here. Like the wing of a sparrow, what appears as mono-toned becomes multi-hued upon closer examination.
The lightness of Sweeting’s touch gifts him the opportunity to cycle through one crystalline moment after another and the echoes of each chord hang in the air with delicate subtlety. The music has dynamic richness – this in spite of the dominance of quieter moments. Trumpeter Ken Allars excels in this space. Few trumpeters play as he does and few have his tonal or dynamic diversity. He can say as much with a breathy whisper as he can with his gentle flute-like notes or sudden squalls. This references the territory of the Nordic improvisers like Arve Henriksen and Allars does it convincingly. The less is more approach has always served Jazz well and this is another proof. I am familiar with Sweeting and Allars as I have seen them perform on several occasions. The drummer Finn Ryan is new to me. Again he is perfect for the job in hand. A true colourist and able to match the others in subtlety. His use of mallets and fluttering brushwork contrasting nicely with the stick work.
Running through the tracks is an over-arching thread of minimalism. Themes emerge, then evaporate into floating motifs. Realities form and dissolve as if mirages. What remains is deep evanescent beauty. (The sound clip from the album is Chords).
I knew of Matt McMahon long before I met him in the Foundry 616. Australian and New Zealand Jazz lovers respect him as an artist and his name often comes up when improvising musicians talk. In 2008 I picked up a copy of his Ellipsis album during a visit to Sydney. My album collection then as now, was out of control and so after listening to it, I filed the album with the intention of obtaining more by the artist later. Because my cataloging skills are poorly developed it soon slipped out of sight and did not resurface until 2015. That was the year I met McMahon at The Foundry. His gig was as the regular pianist and arranger/co-composer for the Vince Jones band. I liked his playing and noted my impressions of man and pianist on the back of my program; ‘friendly, of quiet demeanour – a pianist with a deft touch – uses beautiful crisp voicings. The perfect accompanist, serving the singer and the song and never his ego‘. We talked for some time after the gig and before I left he handed me a copy of his ‘The Voyage of William and Mary’ album.
As soon as I got back to New Zealand I played the album and loved its depth and scope. Solo piano albums seldom achieve this themed narrative quality. While all of the tracks appear to describe a journey experienced by his Irish ancestors William and Mary, the narrative is deeper and wider than that. It acknowledges McMahon’s Irish roots in subtle ways, but more particularly it outlines a musical journey experienced by the artist. This is the wonder of deep improvisation, a place where all is not what it seems. Each note here is a revelation; not just to the listener but perhaps to the artist as well. Solo albums are the hardest to pull off, as the musician must search deep within. In doing so there is often the risk of unapproachable introspection or worse still self-indulgent noodling. McMahon has convincingly avoided those traps.
Each time I listen to ‘Island of Destiny’ thoughts of my own seafaring ancestors overwhelm me; their imaginings, hopes fears. So much is encapsulated in a piece that somehow transcends itself. What ever the images this beautiful music evokes it is a tribute to McMahon. He shares his vision in a way that allows us to become absorbed and to feel like participants. That is no mean feat.
Matt McMahon (solo piano, compositions) PathsandStreams Records
Due to the timing of the Chris Cody album ‘Not My Lover’, some jumped to the conclusion that his Jazz love letter to Paris was in response to the recent atrocities. In fact Cody recorded it well before those tragic events and much to the relief of family and friends he was safely in Australia at the time. The City of Light has the strongest of Jazz associations and Cody captures that intimate relationship perfectly. You can feel the ebb and flow of the city’s life running through his fingertips as he plays. The beauty of the architecture, the elegant Seine, the mad driving through the twisted maze of streets. Through his perceptive lens we gain a sense of the city which for hundreds of years has welcomed visiting creative artists to its heart; regardless of creed or colour. We also catch a fleeting glimpse of the harsher realities hidden behind the gorgeous facade.
Cody is a man of great charm and warmth and the compositions echo his urbane humanity. The album he has crafted is more than a collection of tunes loosely referencing Paris. When you listen carefully you realise that it is a soundtrack for the city; sonic impressionism. His deft pointillism revealing a Paris with its exotic and often troubled connections to North Africa, the complex realities of its political life, its restless intellectualism and the almost mythical sophistication of its women.
On tenor is Karl Laskowski, an important Australian saxophonist who was heard to such great effect on Mike Nocks ‘Hear and Know’ album. Cody albums typically feature the trombone prominently, but this is an exception. The textures are therefore different and in writing for tenor saxophone the piano and horn form an interwoven intimacy. Whereas the trombone is a voice calling up from the streets, the tenor speaks of cafe’s and basement night clubs. On bass is Brendon Clarke who I know best from his association with the Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra and tenor player Roger Manins. Lastly there is James Waples on drums. Another highly respected musician and one who regularly features in Nock lineups. This band is the business.
There are ten tracks on the album. Eight by Cody plus ‘I Love Paris’ (Porter) and La Javanaise (Gainsburg). I have heard Cody play ‘I love Paris’ a number of times and the way he voices it and swings puts me in mind of the mature Hampton Hawes (Clarke, Waples and Cody interact so well here). The title track ‘Not My Lover’ is fabulous, with its sensuous moody introduction overtaken by a lively fast-paced segment which dances and moves delightfully. It is not a big leap to imagine it as the soundtrack for one of those timeless gritty neorealist French movies. Laskowski and Cody stand out here. Lastly I must comment on Cody’s composition ‘For Satie’. Satie is variously described as the father of modernism, the first minimalist etc. Which ever way people choose to remember him, his avant-garde approach caused a seismic shift in music. In this piece Cody has respectfully captured his essence. Capturing Satie, a man of few notes and delicate sensibilities required good taste and deft touch. That is Cody in a nutshell. Below is the title track ‘Not My Lover’.
Chris Cody (piano, compositions), Karl Laskowski (tenor saxophone), Brendon Clarke (bass), James Waples (drums). – purchase from www.chriscody.com
Mooroolbark is a place, an album and a state of mind. It is an intersection of worlds and a testament to Barney McAll’s writing skills .
There is a special place where artistic expression transcends the immediate, a place where archetypes become manifest in varied and subtle ways. This is a place where unexpected journeys begin. Where the eyes, ears, touch, smell and feel guide you inexorably toward ancient and modern shared memories. Jung spoke of this as the ‘collective unconscious mind’ (or the ‘universal mind’). This is a mysterious well of ‘unknowing’ and the best improvising artists navigate its depths. McAll is a musician eminently qualified to navigate this journey.
He is a storyteller and a fearless explorer. Revealing seemingly endless worlds as the patina of time and space reveal new layers note by note. The trick of this is the subtle cues left along the path. If the listener comes with open ears and mind, new depths unfold. In truth these are ancient devices, long the preserve of poets, painters, improvisers and prehistoric cave artists. McAll and ASIO use these subliminal cues to confound, tease and cajole. All is revealed and all is not what it seems. We listen, we enjoy, but there is always a Siren to lure us deeper. ASIO tantalises with motifs that sound familiar, but which often dissolve into something else upon closer examination; echoes from the future as much as the past. These are the archetypes of sound and silence. #ASIO stands for the Australian Symbiotic Improvisers Orbit, but even in the title the story deepens? Another ASIO comes to mind, as hard-won Australian freedoms vanish in the eternal quest for security. At a pre-release gig in Sydney’s Basement the band donned high-viz vests with #ASIO stencilled on them; high visibility music juxtaposed with secretive worlds. This #ASIO has some answers. The landscape of McAll’s new album ‘Mooroolbark’ is littered with these potent images and if you let your preconceptions go, they will come to you. These musical parables are modern ‘song lines’; age old stories told afresh. ‘Mooroolbark’ completes a circle. A return to familiar physical and spiritual landscapes. A reappraisal of the journey with old musical friends.
McAll is a thinker and perhaps a trickster as much as he is a musician. To quote from Jungian sources “In mythology, and in the study of folklore and religion, a trickster exhibits a great degree of intellect or secret knowledge and uses it to play tricks or otherwise disobey normal rules and conventional behaviour.”
While his previous albums have featured New York luminaries like Kurt Rosenwinkel, Gary Bartz, Ben Monder, Josh Roseman, Billy Harper and others this is mostly an Australian affair. The one exception is percussionist Mino Cinelu. McAll’s collaborations with Dewey Redman, Fred Wesley, Jimmy Cobb and others have brought him much deserved attention. Now the story moves to his home country. The Mooroolbark personnel are McAll (piano, compositions, vocals), Julien Wilson (tenor, alto clarinet), Stephen Magnusson (guitars), Jonathan Zwatrz (bass), Simon Barker (drums, percussion), Mino Cinelu (percussion), Hamish Stuart (drums), Shannon Barnett (trombone). These are well-known gifted musicians, but everyone checked their egos in at the door. This unit performs as if they are one entity. Every note serves the project rather than the individuals. The sum is greater than its considerably impressive parts. I have seen McAll perform a number of times and his sense of dynamics is always impressive He can favour the darkly percussive; using those trademark voicings to reel us in, then just as suddenly turn on a dime and with the lightest of touch occupy a gentle minimalism. On Mooroolbark everyone’s touch is light and airy, open space between notes, a crystal clarity that surprisingly yields an almost orchestral feel. Avoiding an excess of notes and making a virtue out of this is especially evident as they play off the ostinato passages (i.e ‘Non Compliance).
Because they work in such a unified fashion it is almost a sin to single out solos. Inescapable however are the solos by McAll on ‘Nectar Spur and on the dark ballad ‘Poverty’; which has incandescent beauty. Wilson on the moody atmospheric ‘Coast Road’, and above all Magnusson and McAll on ‘Non-Compliance’. I am familiar with this composition and I love the new arrangement here. A transformation has occurred with ‘Non Compliance’; morphing from a tour de force trio piece into an other-worldly trippy sonic exploration. All of the musicians fit perfectly into the mix and this is a tribute to the arrangements and to the artists. Zwartz (an expat Kiwi who has a strong presence here) holds the groove to perfection and the drummers and percussionists, far from getting in each others way, lay down subtle interactive layers; revealing texture and colour. Barker on drums and percussion is highly respected on the Australian scene (as are all of these musicians). Adding the New York percussionist Mino Cinelu gives that added punch. On tracks 6 & 7 noted trombonist Shannon Barnett adds her magic and Hamish Stewart is on drums for the last track.
A sense of place may pervade these tunes, but there is also a question mark. This is not a place set in aspic but a query. Places or ideas dissolve into merged realities like the music that references them. Layers upon layers again.
This is art music, street music and musical theatre of the highest order. Everything that you hear, see and experience serves the music in some way. It is a bittersweet commentary on the human experience. A scientist on New Zealand National Radio said that exploring the dark unseen areas of space is the new magic. I think that he is right. This album is replete with trickster references but the intent is deadly serious. This music turns the arrows of listening back on us like a Zen Koan. Barney McAll is an award-winning, Grammy nominated Jazz Musician based in New York. He was recently awarded a one year Peggy Glanville-Hicks Composers Residency and he currently resides at the Paddington residency house in Sydney, Australia.
I would urge you to buy the ‘Mooroolbark’ album at source rather than purchase it on iTunes. The cover art and the messages are a trip in themselves. Available June 5th.
I took the photos of Barney McAll during a two-hour interview with him in Sydney April 2015. I chose not to use the traditional question and answer format as this begged a different approach. For better or worse getting inside a story Gonzo style is what I do. The first and last pictures are from the ‘Mooroolbark’ album artwork by Allan Henderson & Jenny Gavito and Andre Shrimski. The bird is the wonderful Frogmouth Owl (shedding the old New York skyline from its plumage).
The Album: ‘Mooroolbark’ – Barney McAll (piano, compositions, vocal), Julien Wilson (tenor sax, alto clarinet), Stephen Magnusson (guitars), Jonathan Zwartz (bass), Simon Barker (drums, percussion), Mino Cinelu (percussion), Hamish Stuart (drums ), Shannon Barnett (trombone [6, 7]) – released 2015 by abcmusic
Steve Barry recorded his new ‘Puzzles’ album back in February and after his very successful first album ‘Steve Barry’, there were high expectations for its successor. In ‘Puzzles’ Barry has returned to the winning combination of Alex Boneham on bass and Tim Firth on drums and he could hardly have done otherwise. When musicians work this well together and have more to say, the journey should continue. While essentially a trio album, the gifted alto saxophonist Dave Jackson joins them for three numbers. There is a sense of shared vision here as the four have worked together extensively. While familiarity can sometimes breed complacency there is none of that in ‘Puzzles’. The communication between band members is intuitive, but there is an element of surprise and freshness about the interactions. All of these musicians are at their peak and while they impress deeply, there is no escaping the fact that it is the strength of compositions that gives this album its edge.
Barry’s life is an extremely busy one. He is in the final stages of his doctrinal studies (focussing on composition) and he gigs regularly around Australia and New Zealand. Last year he won the prestigious Bell Award and was the runner-up at Wangaratta. Guiding his impressive work ethic is more than just academic or professional considerations; he possesses a deep quest for knowledge. If you follow Barry’s physical travels you understand something of what motivates him. He is never a casual tourist. His engagement with and questioning of the world about him informs his work. The compositions in ‘Puzzles’ reflect this as they are carefully crafted improvisational vehicles, complimentary in relation to each other but clearly reflecting the learnings gained by Barry along the way. The sound quality on the album is also superb and the album nicely presented. ‘Puzzles’ was recorded at the ‘Pughouse Studios’ in Melbourne by Niko Schauble and the cover design is Barry’s.
I saw Barry on his way through Auckland to perform in Queenstown. Reports from that gig were positive and over the week he worked his way back to Auckland’s CJC, where he performed with Roger Manins on tenor, Cameron McArthur on bass and Ron Samsom on drums. The CJC band are highly rated musicians, but you inevitably get a different feel from any band less familiar with the material. While the numbers on the album sound effortless, the charts are obviously complex. We heard many cuts from the album and a few new numbers that have not yet been recorded. In the past Barry’s compositions tended to favour a degree of density, but many of his new tunes have a lighter feel. They are probably just as complex but like all evolving musicians Barry is mastering the art of making the complex sound simpler. It would be hard to pick between the tracks on ‘Puzzles’ but for beauty and emotional depth I like ‘Forge’ and for groove the fabulous ‘Heraclitus Riverbed’ (anything involving the ancient philosopher Heraclitus draws me in). It was interesting to compare Manins (live) with Jackson (on the album). Manins on tenor was the passionate story-teller while Jackson on alto has a drier sound and evokes the feeling of an intrepid pugnacious explorer.
After listening to him live and replaying the album for days on end the conclusion is inescapable; Barry is a major talent on an upward trajectory. I would urge people to hear him live when the opportunity presents itself and above all to support his art by buying the albums.
The Album: ‘Puzzles’ – Steve Barry (piano, rhodes), Alex Boneham (bass), Tim Firth (drums), Dave Jackson (alto saxophone). www.stevebarrymusic.com
The CJC Gig: Steve Barry (Piano), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Cameron McArthur (bass), Ron Samsom (drums) on the 29th October 2014 www.creativejazzclub.co.nz
Sometimes you just get lucky; being in the right place, at the right time, when something special is about to happen. In 2013 that something special was the Hip Flask 2 project. Roger Manins conceived of the second Hip Flask album while he was staying with band member Brendon Clarke. The other band members quickly indicated their enthusiasm and the project had begun. Once underway the need for fresh compositions and a host of other practicalities needed sorting. Around that time I was talking to Roger Manins about the successful ‘Dog’ project, and he told me about ‘Hip Flask 2’.
Knowing that I had been planning a trip to Australia he said. “Why don’t you spend a day with us in ‘Studio 301’ and watch us record?”. No second invitation needed, I did just that. There is something special about watching a good band at work, taking a project from conception to completion. Seeing them from inside the recording booth as new ideas and interesting charts coalesced into magic was fascinating.
Now almost a year later the album is out on ‘Rattle’ and the band is on the road. To add some additional icing to an already rich cake, ‘Ode Records’ suggested that ‘Hip Flask 1’ be included with the new album. The original album is still widely sought after but it is sometimes hard to get. Everyone jumped at the opportunity and ‘Rattle’ quickly changed focus to create a double-album cover. As I had taken a number of photographs in the recording studio I decided to offer them to the band, just in case there was a use for them. To my delight many of these were utilised in the cover art. To be a small part of a project like this is a joy.
As you would expect, a band on the road is a lot freer than when in the studio. There is more room to develop ideas and there is an immediacy which occurs in a no-second-take environment. Both manifestations are extraordinary. The Stu Hunter tune ‘revolution’ is a good case in point. It just begs for piano and Hammond to stretch out. Live they do this, the musicians all extending their reach. Manins stratospheric lift-offs into harmonics become imbued with keening cries of ecstatic soulfulness. Hunter (who comps sparingly and soulfully during others solos) weaves his solo right around the beating heart of the music, while Adam Ponting sermonises on the meaning of the blues. Because the band have a history together they are well accustomed to each others moves.
It is unusual to have both C3 (or Ace Tone) and piano in the same funk unit. Musicians of lessor calibre than Ponting or Hunter would be unable to keep out of each others way. They not only manage it well, but make the pairing of the instruments sound natural. Hunters soulful grooves are nicely contrasted by Pontings approach which is often unexpected. He is an interesting pianist to listen to, often using atypical voicings. He is equally interesting to watch. He sits comfortably erect yet close to the piano, his hands spread flat over the keys, Monk like. Bass player Brendan Clarke is at a sweet spot in the mix. He never over plays, but his strong lines impress as does his perfect time sense, never more so than during ‘Bennett’s Radio Blues’. Drummer Toby Hall rounds off this band of heavyweights. His absorption clearly on show as he sinks trance-like into the polyrhythmic grooves. I often wonder whether bass face trumps drum face or B3 face. Drum face was the winner on this night. Someone in the audience muttered excitedly at one point, “holy shit that is totally a real Jazz drummer”.
I like so many tunes on this album but I suppose that it was ‘Lancelot Link, Missing Chimp’ that made me smile the most with its otherworldly Yusef Lateef vibe. Anyone who was a child or who raised a child when Lancelot Link graced our screens will be chuckling at the happy remembrance; and on a key challenging penny whistle to boot.
It is to the credit of Auckland University that they gave a grant for the Hip Flask 2 project. Rattle records must also be praised as they have become the standard bearers of quality Jazz in this corner of the world. The final credit goes to Roger Manins for rebooting this important piece of funk history, blowing with all his heart and above all for sharing the journey.
For my related post on the day I spent in the 301 recording studios in Sydney, search for ‘New Year 2014 The Fabric of Creativity’ on this blog site
I am a keen follower of ‘Tiny Hearts’ and if you explore the tributaries flowing from that creative enterprise you will arrive at this album. ‘Cosmontology’ is an incarnation (minus Eamon Dilworth). Dave Jackson is the leader of this project and joining him are three of Australia’s finest improvising musicians. This is Jackson’s second album under the title of ‘Cosmontology’, the last being in 2012. I have not asked the meaning of the album title, but the related term Cosmology is the science of unravelling the beginnings of the universe. At the centre of that work is the Big Bang Theory. If we transcribe that theory into musical terms we begin to divine the ethos of this album. This music feels incredibly bold to me, at times raw but always full of life, promise and excitement. The sub atomic particles and vibrations that exist at the centre of the musical universe have coalesced here.
Jackson is an established alto saxophonist who like the other band members works in the Sydney area. His approach while guided by an innate sense of musicality is somehow bolder than many of his alto playing contemporaries. There is a confidence that radiates from his every phrase, a sense that he is forging ahead without the need to look over his shoulder. He carries the history of Jazz in the DNA of his sound, but is always forward-looking.
This sense momentum is evident from the first listening. The title track ‘Cosmontology’ begins with an almost meditative intro by Barry who plays Rhodes throughout the album. In the first few bars the chords shift subtly, teasing us with possibilities. This nicely sets the mood up for what comes next, an unerring journey into the heart of a compelling composition. Bass and drums follow and as they weave in and around the chords a visceral power is evident as the groove develops. When Jackson comes in there is no equivocation. An overwhelming clarity of purpose has everyone moving in unison.
Steve Barry is a gifted acoustic pianist and he is well recorded as such. To hear him on a Rhodes is a treat. On this album Barry often takes the measured approach, providing the necessary counter weight to the wilder explorations. This frees Jackson, Botting and Derricott to work in a freer space, it is the springboard they need. A steadying hand guiding the explorers as they surge forwards. In Barry’s playing there is the feeling that you are on ‘Voyager’; experiencing unimaginable colours as you cut through the silence of space.
Tom Botting’s bass work quickly took my attention here. I rate him as a bass player but I have seldom heard him recorded so well. He has found an album where he can really shine and he makes the best of the opportunity. His strong lines and immaculate sense of time serve to unleash Derricott who rains down shimmering flurries of beats as he moves and shapes the sound. His contributions add depth, colour and heart stopping excitement. As a unit they are immaculate.
Some people might not like the use of pedals with a horn, but they need to catch up. Improvised music has never stood still, often appropriating new sounds, striking out in new directions. The Scandinavian trumpeters fatten up their sound by electronic means as do American trumpeters like Cuong Vu. The history of Jazz is full of examples of changed and amplified sound. Without those experiments no Charlie Christian or Jimmy Smith. What is the difference between utilising extended technique acoustically and adding the use of pedals to delay or chorus? The only questions that should arise are; has this been done well, does the music have integrity? In this case I say a resounding yes.
Who: Dave Jackson (alto saxophone, electronics), Steve Barry (Rhodes), Tom Botting (acoustic bass), Paul Derricott (drums)
Some acts appear to arrive out of no-where. All of the rehearsing and scuffling hidden from the common gaze. Others invite you in at ground level, letting you see the raw material as it evolves, letting you see the promise, beckoning from the future. Letting you see the influences, the base metal. For a pop act the former makes sense, for improvised music it makes no sense at all. Improvised music should move at will, explore awkward corners and morph into new shapes as it feeds off the life around it. Standing still is death.
Last time this band was in town the name ‘Tiny Hearts’ had not yet surfaced. They were the ‘Dilworths’ then, but the music was just as beguiling. One of the things that I quickly learned was the strength of the bands influences, powerful tributaries feeding a common cause. I was momentarily tempted to view the group as a discrete entity, a single project, but now I’m not so sure. The more that I learn about them, the more I see the individual strengths of the musicians, where they’ve come from and where they’re headed. Each of them have excelled in former projects but there is more. Together they exude an organic quality, growing, evolving in unison. Expressing the moment.
I was familiar with a few of the tunes, the ones played during the ‘Dilworths’ tour. I had also kept in touch with the musicians and seen clips as they developed their program along the way. These are great compositions, but the performances lift them to another level. All of the pieces have the individual musicians stamp imprinted on them. This is in keeping with the ‘Tiny Hearts’ ethos. A Steve Barry tune is unmistakably his, A Dilworth or Jackson tune likewise. While most of the tunes were written with ‘Tiny Hearts’ in mind, they often referenced earlier projects or perhaps give a nod to future offshoots. The ink was hardly dry on Tom Botting’s atmospheric Balclutha chart when he visited with the ‘Dilworths’ last time. ‘Big Sea Reprise’ takes up the baton from Paul Derricott’s amazing Big Sea (Arrow) album. I loved that album and asked Derricott about it when I caught their act last week. He told me that he had liked the album as first, but then developed some doubts. It lay fallow for a few years, then Paul revived it. He is now pleased with it.
Dilworth is the fronts person for the group, his friendliness and confidence making him and obvious choice. Musically, all speak equally. The composition of the band is part Australian and part Kiwi if you count their countries of origin. In reality they’re best described as Australians. Musicians like Barry and Botting could never be confined to our small Islands. Dilworth, Derricott and Jackson are Sydney musicians with solid reputations. If you are growing curious then here is my challenge. Purchase a copy of ‘Alluvium’. If you already possess it then order copies of: ‘Big Sea’ by Derricott, ‘Steve Barry’ the eponymous titled award-winning album by Barry, ‘Caravana Sun’ by Dilworth, ‘Cosmontology’ by Jackson. I have just ordered the latter to complete my set. I also spoke to the band about future projects and there are plenty in store. A Paul Derricott, a Steve Barry and a Dave Jackson album are in the wind.
I missed their CJC gig as I was in Australia, but I caught them at the Auckland Jazz and Blues Club. Reading the venue perfectly, they devoted much of the night to the Ellington/Strayhorn songbook. This was not done begrudgingly as they revelled in the chance to play sets dominated by these timeless standards. As the night progressed we whooped and clapped as numbers like ‘It don’t mean a thing’ brought the joy among us. Embarking upon a night of unprepared swing era tunes would catch a lessor band on the hop. For these guys it came naturally.
If you get the feeling that these musicians are in the middle of a massive and self-perpetuating project then you would be right. For those who haven’t worked it out, the title says it all. Alluvium comes from the Latin ‘to wash against’. Loose base metals tumbling together in a stream. That sounds about right. I can’t wait to see them again in any of their incarnations. They really are extraordinary.
Who: Tiny Hearts – ‘Alluvium’ Eamon Dilworth (trumpet), Steve Barry (piano), Dave Jackson (saxophone), Tom Botting (bass), Paul Derricott (drums).
#JazzApril is International Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM) and the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) in Auckland New Zealand has lined up an impressive roster of artists. The opening gig for Jazz April was the acclaimed saxophonist Jamie Oehlers from Perth Australia and the club could hardly have done better than engage this titan of the tenor. Anyone who had heard Jamie Oehlers on previous visits needed no second invitation; the club filled to capacity. Jamie is tall, so tall in fact that I managed to chop off his head while filming the first video clip (having foolishly set up the camera during the sound check when he was not present). In fact everything about Jamie Oehlers is larger than life. His presence fills a room in ways that it is hard to adequately convey. The sound of his tenor has a warm luminous quality about it and it seems to penetrate every nook and cranny of a room; whether playing softly or loudly it reaches deep into your soul.
Two hundred years ago ( November 1814) a young Belgium instrument maker Adolphe Sax was born and in the 1840’s he patented the tenor saxophone. It has gone through relatively few modifications since that time. Fast forward to the Jazz age and the instrument came into its own. Nobody brought the instrument to the wider public’s attention more than Coleman Hawkins and few took it to such dizzying heights as John Coltrane. Listening to Jamie Oehlers perform made me think of the tenor’s history and above all it reconfirmed my deep love for the instrument. Last time he was in Auckland he played ‘Resolution’ from Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’ (it is the 50th anniversary of ALS this year). Among other numbers in the set list this year was Coltrane’s ‘Dear Lord’ (recorded by JC in 1963 but only released in the 1970’s on the ‘Dear old Stockholm’ album). Jamie Oehlers was born to interpret Coltrane and he certainly held our rapt attention last Wednesday.
He had requested the same local musicians for this visit as last time; Kevin Field (piano), Oli Holland (bass) and Frank Gibson (drums). Roger Manins joined the band for the last two numbers and the two tenor masters unsurprisingly wowed everybody by the way they cajoled each other to new heights. There were introspective ballads, freshly interpreted standards and a few fire-breathing fast burners. I filmed quite a few numbers and have posted a duo performance of Mal Waldrons ‘Soul Eyes’ (Jamie Oehlers and Auckland pianist Kevin Field). It is during ballads and especially the slower paced duo numbers that a musician is left naked. No pyrotechnics to hide behind, no lightening strike runs or off the register squawks to dazzle us with. This clip says everything about Oehlers as a man and as a musician. Thoughtful, compelling and always authoritative.
He was right to request Field, Holland and Gibson for this gig. They showed repeatedly that they were up to the task and gave of their best. It is gigs like this that make us proud of our down-under musicians and we know when we hear performances like these that we can hold our heads high in the wider Jazz world. There was no more appropriate gig than this in which to kick off Jazz April. Listen to the You Tube clip and I’m certain that you will agree.
Who: The Jamie Oehlers Quartet – Jamie Oehlers (tenor sax), Kevin Field (piano), Oli Holland (bass), Frank Gibson (drums).
There are a number of factors that make music special to a listener and for most it is the familiar that attracts them. Improvised music is a different beast and the most valued quality is what Jazz essayist Whitney Balliet termed “the sound of surprise”. When Jazz listeners are fully engaged it is seldom the melody line or a familiar riff that holds their attention. While melody, chord voicings or an ostinato groove bring us to the moment, it is the promise of the new that creates a state of joyous anticipation. So it was with the ‘Antipodean 6tet’ and the rewards were immediately evident. Mike Nock told me recently that some of the young Australian bands are on a par with the best of what’s on offer in America. A statement like that from a person of Mike’s undisputed authority causes you to take notice. Some of the members of this group were among those mentioned by him.
The idea for the ‘Antipodean 6tet’ was conceived in Berlin when Jake Baxendale, Aiden Lowe and Luke Sweeting decided to create a vehicle for their music. By the time of the Australasian tour they had added Ken Allars, James Haezelwood Dale and Callum Allardice.
Those of us who pay close attention to Australian and New Zealand Jazz knew that we were in for something out of the ordinary. A heightened sense of anticipation followed the tour announcement. Earlier this year Rattle records released JAC’s ‘NERVE’ album. The album featured Wellington musicians Jake Baxendale (alto, compositions) and Callum Allardice (guitar, compositions). Many saw Jake as he toured with JAC during the launch tour and enjoyed his alto playing. Callum Allardice was in Germany at the time of the launch, but his compositions and arrangements were also appreciated. These two musicians form the New Zealand contingent of ‘The Antipodean 6tet’.
Luke Sweeting is an Australian pianist who conveys more with his light touch than many do by playing percussively. His playing is thoughtful, airy and interesting. He has previously composed for sextets and is obviously central to the bands well crafted ensemble sound. Sweeting, Aiden Lowe (drums), James Heazelwood Dale (bass) and Ken Allars (trumpet) are well established on the Australian scene with the former two having toured Europe extensively. They have all attracted positive attention around Australia. All have worked as leaders, but melded into an ensemble the instruments speak in a unified authoritative voice.
A Sydney bass player contacted me a few weeks ago saying that I would be mad to miss this innovative band. He was right in his estimation of their impact, as they appear to bring something fresh and exciting to the scene. A northern European aesthetic with an authentic Australasian feel.
To best illustrate the above I must focus on Ken Allars. I have been aware of Allars for some years but it was probably his compelling trumpet work on Mike Nock’s critically acclaimed 2011 album, ‘Here and Know’ that first grabbed my attention. I received a review copy shortly after the 2011 release and was immediately struck by his use of dynamics and strong improvisational abilities. Later I saw him in the horn-line of the JMO (Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra) when it toured Auckland with Darcey James Argue. Now seeing him with ‘The Antipodean 6tet’ my positive first impression is reconfirmed. On the opening number we saw his use of extended technique. Not so much the usual growls or smears, but a skilful deployment of flutter tonguing and airstream effects. The whistles, breathy explorations and pops augmented the contributions of Jake Baxendale who wove in quiet upper register ostinato responses (like Evan Parker in the opening few bars of ‘The Lady and the Sea’ – Kenny Wheeler). So controlled was the sound production that at times Allars sounded like he was playing a flute. When he did blast out a phrase it was doubly effective as it contrasted with the softer moments.
I have seen bands who lower the volume for a ballad or a thoughtful meditative piece, but never quite like this. They skilfully utilised the pianissimo and piano and diminuendo to impart an infinite array of subtleties and within that space communicated a world of information. Earlier I mentioned the European aesthetic and perhaps I refer more specifically to the Norwegian ECM sound. I detected a strong influence of this future-facing aspect of modern Jazz in Allars playing. Later I asked him whether he had listened much to the modern Norwegian trumpeters. Yes he had checked them out in person. We then discussed people like Arve Hendriksen, Nils Petter Molvaer, Mathias Eick and others. While Molvaer and Eick often use electronics and loops there were no such effects used by Allars.
This band is purely acoustic and the impressive range of sounds and effects at their disposal will have pedal manufacturers smiting their brows in frustration. Because of the sound balance, the imaginative drum work and the punchy bass lines are as strong in the mix as the other instruments.
They are due to record shortly and I look forward to that. I urge anyone who can to catch this tour or subsequent outings. I guarantee that you will not regret it.
What: ‘The Antipodean Sextet’ Luke Sweeting (piano), Jake Baxendale (alto saxophone), Ken Allars (trumpet), James Heazelwood Dale (bass), Aiden Lowe (drums), – in New Zealand – Callum Allardice (guitar).
Where: The CJC (Creative Jazz Club) Britomart 1885 building, Auckland. 26th March 2014
For many, music is a distant and pleasant soundtrack which augments their moments of relaxation. Something to wallpaper the background while they chatter over a few drinks. I am wired differently because my normal talkativeness ceases when even a faint echo of good music is heard; an off switch is flicked. This pied piper effect has characterised my life and often made me late for appointments. What is it that makes music so compelling to some and not to others and why is improvised music beguiling to those with that special antennae?
My earliest memory of Jazz is of a Louis Armstrong film. I was a primary schooler and I made my long-suffering mother take me back twice. Louis fascinated me in ways my relatives couldn’t quite fathom but they indulged me with an EP or two. Ours was a classical music household. Three years later I was walking down a street near my home when I heard a trumpet playing. I could see the musician’s outline in the upstairs window as he played, weaving deftly around what I later learned was a Coleman Hawkins solo. I stopped in the street, delighted and open-mouthed. I have no idea how long I stood on the pavement gawking, but I vaguely recall being led inside and offered cocoa by the trumpeters mother. The trumpeter and his mother were Polish refugees and they made me feel very welcome. In the months that followed I called often and absorbed Miles, Lester Young, Dave Brubeck, Sweets Edison, Art Peper, Hampton Hawes, Billie Holiday, Basie, Ellington and more. By the time I had connected with the groove-organ trios of Gene Ammons I was damned. I would bunk off school and play Gene Ammons or Miles all day long, dancing about like a deranged fool. The devils music had me by the throat.
Half a century on the same music gods and their siren songs still exert power over me. Enough to lure me to Australia at very short notice. I had picked up some gossip from Australian musician friends, that my friend Roger Manins was doing a gig with Mike Nock, James Muller, Cameron Undy and Dave Goodman at the 505. I have family in Sydney and so it was a no brainer. Family, grandchildren and Jazz, perfect. When I told Roger that I would be flying over for the gig he invited me to his ‘Hip Flask’ recording session at the famous 301 Studios in Alexandria. I love recording studios and to hear a top rated unit like this recording in a famous studio was too good an opportunity to miss. I applied for extra leave and altered my flight schedule to accommodate the extra day in the 301.
The timing rested on a knife-edge as I had a gig to attend just hours before my flight to Australia. I made the check-out with 4 minutes to spare. The flight over on Virgin was abysmal. I had a headache from lack of sleep and it was like being stuffed into a rubbish tin surrounded by bored, rude flight attendants who acted as if they were in a BBC spoof. An Australian musician later commented that Virgin felt to him like it was piloted by overtired children.
After clearing customs, I poured myself into a taxi and headed directly for the 301. The industrial exterior gave little indication that I was standing outside an important recording studio. The one where EST recorded their final album. They buzzed me in and after navigating a series of corridors I pushed open a heavily padded door to find myself in an icy cool low-lit room with two technicians, a two-man film crew and the five cats from ‘Hip Flask’. They were sitting around the mixing desk drinking coffee and listening over and over to the intro of a tune. It sounded great. This is what I had come for. To capture the very act of creation.
It is a special privilege to follow a creative process through from inception and I felt like a kid in a candy store. This is exactly where I wanted to be and I soaked it up greedily. My headache had vanished at the first note. As the morning progressed the band would troop in and out of the studio. Trying material, listening to it and repeating it if any one member expressed dissatisfaction. Roger outlined his vision and set the tone, but after that he allowed a form of guided democracy to exist. If they strayed from his vision he would talk them back round.
The sessions in the control room were all smiles and banter but a sense of purpose always ran through the proceedings like an unbreakable thread. When they reached agreement they would return to the studio and assume their positions, baffled up and miked to such an extent that the bass drums and piano were barely visible above the wires, cover sheets and portable booths. The band has an unusual configuration for a funk unit, being tenor Saxophone, Hammond B3, grand piano, drums and bass. The saxophone, bass, piano and B3 were in the studio while the drums and the Leslie unit were both in isolation booths. The studio space was big enough to accommodate an orchestra, but this quintet was squeezed into a corner and each baffled from the other in some way.
The quintet had recorded together before and even though their last recording was in 2007, their essence had survived intact. As the session progressed I learnt a new word, ‘shoint’. Roger and the organist Stu Hunter used it often and they would proclaim a satisfactory cut as being ‘Shointy’ or they would listen to the playbacks to see if they had ‘shoint’. As far as I can ascertain the term describes a deep dirty groove that hits the musical ‘g’ spot. While it is accurate to describe the recording as Jazz Funk, it is more than that. The unusual pairing of two keyboards, the intuitive interaction and the quality of the musicianship gifted them with limitless options to draw upon. Over all of this Roger Manins presided like an old time preacher, communicating with gestures, earthy licks on his Conn, diagrams and pithy Rogeresk phrases.
The most interesting moments came towards the end of the session when Roger produced a chart for ‘circles and clouds’. The chart contained a few bars of musical phrases and then a series of symbols. The ideas conveyed were beyond normal logic. On most of the staves clouds were drawn and although these pieces were essentially free, there was a clear purpose underpinning them. Roger had the concept firmly in his sights as he talked them through the vision or let the ideas develop in the studio until the concept was realised. Stu Hunter would play a compellingly dissonant chord and then Adam Ponting and the others would grab a hold of what was unfolding and produce kaleidoscopic shapes, moving and shifting together like interchangeable chameleons. When the idea was realised Roger would take them back into the control room and expand on what had gone before. Roger, “OK you are clouds, circling a vast ocean. Now if you look down you will see dolphins swimming and playing”. One or other of the band then asked if there was a shoal of bait fish swimming near by. The concepts developed and then they would repeat the process until a number of amazing miniatures were cut. This filigree of beguiling patterns had been conjured up in that very hour. Realised without an over reliance on written notation or oral language. This was improvisation in its most profound form and I was lucky enough to hear and experience it.
My earlier question as to why some people fall deep within the web of music, while others let it wash over them unaffected, is not answered here. This listener will never lose the magic and following bands like this guarantees that. I am impatient to see what cuts survive and what is locked way in a vault. When the album comes out and I can hardly wait, I will have heard more than most. Every squeak, false start and profound moment is locked in my memory. John Zorn said, “all sound is valid”. I heard and witnessed an intensely creative process and I feel very lucky.
Who: ‘Hip Flask’ Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Stu Hunter (Hammond B3), Adam Ponting (piano), Brendon Clarke (bass), Toby Hall (drums)
Where: Recording Session at 505 Studios, Sydney Australia.
This post is dedicated to Roger Manins my choice of best NZ artist for 2013. Roger is not only deeply authentic and amazingly creative, but equally important he shares his vision and enables others to follow.
I have watched the career trajectory of Steve Barry for sometime and with each passing year the acclaim grows. Just over a year ago he won the prestigious Bell Ward. More recently he obtained second place in the ‘Australian Jazz artist of the year’ awards at Wangaratta 2013. After winning a generous grant, enabling him to concentrate on his writing, he took time out for wood-shedding and further study. He also travelled extensively. He made use of this time by studying under piano masters like John Taylor. From the outside his rise has the appearance of an effortless ascendancy, but the success of Steve’s trio arises from dedication and hard work. His years of intensive study and relentless practice are now paying off. As a result he plays with a maturity that is rare in younger artists and his unique approach to form is especially evident in his own reworked compositions and the often obscure but well-chosen ballads that he plays.
There are two equally valid Jazz traditions around forming up combo’s and both can produce in-the-moment music. At one end of the spectrum are groups formed just prior to a gig. Hasty truncated rehearsals take place if time allows, but in some cases the musicians do not meet each other until they hit the bandstand. At the other end are the groups like Jarretts Standards Trio, who are so familiar with each other that communication becomes intuitive. Both situations have their pitfalls as the overly familiar can produce a certain complacency (Evans was sometimes guilty of this), while the seat of the pants line-ups can result in cues being missed. Even good musicians fall at these hurdles but not so this trio. The Steve Barry Trio has been together for over two years and they deliver royally. The music sounds incredibly fresh each time we hear them and there is no lack of invention. This is a special group with a unique ability to react to and challenge each other. They are one of the finest piano trios in Australasia.
I have heard Steve’s compositions many times, but on Wednesday it all seemed new. They were the same familiar tunes with their complex time signature and moments of intense ostinato but they had somehow evolved. Steve Barry is not an artist to rest on his laurels or to recycle old licks. The most obvious changes occurred with the intro’s, which probed new pathways and took us on compelling journeys until we were again on familiar ground. His intro’s and outro’s are something I look forward to, as they balance the pulse and swing.
I loved every note but the piece that really stood out was the seldom heard standard ‘More than you know’ (Vincent Youmans -1929). This was covered by Teddy Wilson, Billie Holiday and others. It is not heard much these days. This slowly paced intensely beautiful ballad proved a good vehicle for improvisation and in the hands of this trio it was wonderful. Steve stated the melody upfront and the richness of his voicings took my breath away. There were subtle asides as the tune progressed, like a fine filigree partly obscuring the form. Then about five minutes in a gentle swing section.
You could not wish for better collaborators than Alex Boneham on bass and Tim Firth on drums. Both are truly exceptional musicians. There is a rich fatness to Alex Boneham’s tone which is all the more surprising as he was playing an old upright bass from the Auckland University School of Music. In the hands of a master bassist, even an average instrument sounds rich and full toned. His feel for time and note placement is perfect; deeply engaged and listening with big ears for every nuance.
Tim Firth also creates a buzz when he is in town and local drummers especially love to hear him. Few can handle complex time signatures like he does and while he can play high octane tunes with edginess and fire, he can also execute brush work perfectly. His brush work on ‘More than you know’ was understated (as it should be on a ballad) but as the tune progressed you were in no doubt about the value of his contribution.
This was one of those nights that gives Jazz a good name.
Who: The Steve Barry Trio – Steve Barry (leader and piano), Alex Boneham (upright bass), Tim Firth (drums)
Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 1885 Britomart, Auckland on the 27th November 2013
Pianist and composer Mark Isaacs has a rapidly growing international reputation and we were lucky to get him here. Once again it was down to Roger Manins, who has wide connections in the Jazz world and we are eternally grateful for it. Mark Isaacs has toured the world extensively and not only fronted a number of prestigious Jazz festivals, but also recorded with many world-renowned Jazz musicians. Artists like Kenny Wheeler, Roy Haines, Adam Nussbaum and Dave Holland have appeared on his albums but as if that were not enough, he has two parallel musical careers. Mark is also a classical pianist/composer of some stature and the conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy said this of his extraordinarily beautiful ‘Children’s Songs’. “This wonderful cycle is highly inventive and inspiring, accessible to children and adults alike. Very enjoyable and touching“.
The first thing to strike you about Mark is his intense passion for music, but his focus and drive have not in any way deterred him from exhibiting a cheerful, often extroverted demeanour. He engaged easily with the CJC audience and his level of report with the band and especially Roger, made the gig all the more enjoyable. Even though he had not played with drummer Frank Gibson Jr or Bass player Cameron McArthur before it felt like an established band. He and Saxophonist Roger Manins go back a long way and perhaps because of this long-standing connection, what was billed as a standards gig, soon became so much more.
The set kicked off with ‘Gone With the Wind’ (Allie Wrubel – 1937). By coincidence this once popular but seldom heard tune was performed here by Mike Nock only months earlier. Both artists appeared to briefly reference the brilliant but somewhat obscure Brubeck version, but each approached the tune in very different ways. Mark Isaacs is another musician who has the history Jazz piano under his finger tips and as he worked his way into the tune I could hear brief echoes of the past greats. I love this tune and especially when interpreted this well.
As the set list unfolded I realised that most of the standards were from the 1930’s. It is not hard to fathom why, as the Great American Songbook tunes written in this period were second to none. The gig, subtitled as ‘Pennies From Heaven’, was later explained as being an inside joke. Roger and Mark had embarked upon just such a project a decade ago and in their view the title scared off the potential audience. More fool those who failed to turn up because this number in their hands was fresh, funny and satisfying. ‘Pennies from Heaven’ (Johnny Burke/Arthur Johnston) is also from the 1930’s.
The tune that I have posted is the perennial favourite ‘Someday My Prince Will Come’ (Frank Churchill – 1937). Although non Jazz audiences would only associate this tune with Disney, it has a long and distinguished Jazz history. Among the 100’s of well-loved versions are those by Oscar Peterson, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly and Grant Green. Playing a classic standard like this to a savvy Jazz audience can have its pitfalls as comparisons are inevitable. The audience however lapped it up and from the stating of the melody through to the open-ended interpretation near the end, it was fabulous. With Roger egging the band on and Mark responding in kind it could hardly be otherwise.
There was a very nice solo by Cameron McArthur who astonishingly just keeps improving between gigs. Frank Gibson Jr met Mark years ago but in spite of them trying to organise a gig it never happened until now. In the event it was a happy confluence of inventiveness, exuberance and great musicianship. Roger Manins was on form as usual, delivering fiery energised solos in a post Coltrane manner.
Mark Isaacs has the technique and the hunger to continually reach beyond. Whether gently comping under a melodic bass solo or unwinding the melody to explore what lies beneath he engages us. His probing left hand often pulls slightly back on what his right hand is playing and the tension created gives added impetus. While his Classical compositions are informed by Jazz, the opposite is also true. He will surely continue to do well in both worlds.
As I left the club I picked up a copy of his Resurgence band’s ‘Duende’ album and put it on during the drive home. It is an album of his own compositions. What was immediately apparent was how well crafted the compositions were. It was the sort of album that ECM might have released and the quality of the recording added to that impression. As I listened on I heard some beautiful guitar work, not over stated but clean, inventive and crystalline. Then I heard a human voice, wordlessly singing arranged lines as part the ensemble. Easing over to the curb I picked up the album cover and flipped it over.
The personnel list would stop anyone in their tracks. Mark Isaacs (piano), James Muller (guitars), Matt Keegan (reeds and percussion), Brett Hirst (bass), Tim Firth (drums), Briana Cowlishaw (vocal). Matching this dream line up with those compositions was a masterstroke. Muller and Isaacs communicate so very well. It all made sense, the Kenny Wheeler connection, the skilled arranging and the promise of what may follow. Mark Isaacs has the ears to absorb and the smarts to compose what works best for him. This album certainly does.
Who: Mark Isaacs (piano, compositions, leader), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Frank Gibson Jr (drums).
A lot’s been written about Mike Nock and he is well recorded. In spite of this there is so much more to say and the unfolding story has come to define Australasian Jazz. It would be accurate to describe him as one of the greatest musicians New Zealand has produced, but Mike Nock deserves evaluation on a much wider stage than Oceania. As lucky as we feel owning him, he is a citizen of the world, highly ranked among the best that global Jazz has to offer.
This was summed up by one of the audience; an American who has been following the international Jazz Scene for many years. He shook his head in amazement and said “That was the best performance I have heard in ages”. He asked about Mike’s history and I gave him a potted version. “Oh yeah” he said. “Well all of those years in America have given him that deep blues feel that only top players realise”.
I caught up with Mike before the gig and he was his usual friendly self. Over dinner there were jokes and numerous war stories. Because I have attended too many loud gigs my hearing is not quite as good as it was. At one point the drummer James Waples said something to me which I missed entirely. I apologised, explaining that my eyesight and hearing were failing me. Mike leapt on the comment as quick as lightning, saying, “Man don’t worry. That’s exactly what we like in a critic”.
There was the briefest of discussions between the band members about the set list, which ended in Mike saying, “We’ll figure it out as we go and you’ll know when you hear me start to play”. While this is not unusual among Jazz musicians, it was evident that Mike would be digging into some obscure and unrehearsed standards during the evening.
The spirit of Bernie McGann hung over us as he had passed the previous evening. Mike spoke movingly of him and then he played one of Bernie’s compositions followed by ‘Bernie’s Tune’ (Bernie Miller) and the lovely old standard ‘No Moon at All’ (David Mann). ‘No Moon at all’ is hardly ever played these days but it was once very popular. It was famously recorded by Julie London, Nat Cole, Mel Torme and Anita O’Day. There are more recent versions by Karrin Alyson and Brad Mehldau. In Mike Nock’s hands this jaunty mid-tempo classic took on a deep bluesy feel and as it unfolded he achieved something that only the Jazz greats can manage.
The tune turned into something else; it was somehow transformed into ‘every tune’. From the first few bars everyone smiled and many whispered in the dark, “Oh I must know this but I can’t recall the name”. Like many probing improvisers Mike hummed and sang as he played. As the piece unfolded something extraordinary happened. People started quietly humming along with the trio; a deep connection was made and it was primal. I’m certain that many in the audience had never heard the tune before, but they thought that they had. Keith Jarrett has often invoked this state of grace, finding a hidden place deep within the music. So has Mike Nock. Several musicians later commented that he had moved in and out of the song form and that the bluesy overlay had been utterly effective. Another delightful old tune that the trio played was ‘Sweet Pumpkin’ (Ronnell Bright).
On Drums was James Waples and he certainly lives up to his reputation. He has featured on several of Mike’s albums and goes back a long way with Mike. There is a subtlety to his drumming that is hard to put into words. He is a powerful presence whether executing the softest brushwork or a driving upbeat tempo. He has a great ear and knows when to push the others or hold back. He is perfect for a multi faceted piano trio like this and I would go out of my way to hear him again.
Many Kiwi’s have forgotten (and many Australians will deliberately overlook the fact), but Brett Hirst is an expat New Zealander. He is highly regarded on the Australian scene and like James he has had a long association with Mike. When these three are in lockstep it is extraordinary. Like the others Brett is a deep listener and clearly at ease in this open-ended format. At one point in the program Mike stopped and said, “What shall we play now, something unexpected?”. Then he added, “Oh I know, I will try this”. Brett asked hopefully, “Can we know?” The number had started before an answer could be given and he was immediately there. Brett was up to handling any curve balls thrown and clearly relished them.
During the second set the trio were ready to take things further out and we sensed that they were in a zone where the communication is telepathic. It is during these explorations that we see another side of their music. Every interplay however subtle conveys layers of meaning and the spaces between the notes communicates a profundity. This is art-music at its very best but for all that it is never far from its blues roots. I have listened to Jazz across the globe and you would never, never hear better than this.
Who: Mike Nock (piano), Brett Hirst (bass), James Waples (drums). www.mikenock.com
Mike Nock is always capable of surprising and this has long been his hallmark. A restless innovator and improviser who never settles on his laurels, Nock is surpassing himself yet again. ‘Hear and Know’ was recorded in 2011 following his aptly named and deeply satisfying ‘Accumulation of Subtleties’ album.
On ‘Hear & Know’ he is again accompanied by brothers Ben Waples (Bass) & James Waples (drums). There is an unmistakable synergy between these three and so adding Karl Laskowski (tenor sax) and Ken Allars (trumpet) had its risks. While there is a different dynamic and altered textural qualities, the magic of intimacy is maintained. It carries over much of the subtle interplay of the earlier album but creates a different range of moods as well.
I was always impressed by the subtle and profound sub-divisions of mood in the ancient Japanese Haiku. The almost untranslatable ‘wabi-sabi’ are the moods invoked when we can almost touch something profound, sense it and appreciate the mood, but know that it will be forever illusive. A further subdivision is ‘yugen’, which is the sense of mystery which underpins profound moments. To define them more accurately is to lose the moment. Mike Nock has achieved this for me compositionally and through his recording. The moods are profound invoking deep and somehow unnamable emotions.
I felt this most strongly on the beautifully named and wonderfully crafted ‘The Sibylline Fragrance’ and later while listening to ‘After Satie’. In the former piece there was an obvious reference to memory and our sense of smell, which is closely aligned with that. Beyond that was something else, a sense of the history of this music. Touching briefly on the past but rooted firmly in the now. When music achieves this it is especially satisfying. I have seen the trio performing and I have seen Ken Allars with the wonderful Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra. Karl Laskowski was not previously known to me. All of these musicians must feel pleased with this album.
‘Kindred’ is the more recent album and one with a pared back line up. Featuring just Mike Nock on piano and drummer Lorenz Pike, this album seems denser in texture and more introspective. Lorenz Pike is an interesting drummer and well-chosen; he is obviously colourist in tendency and that is the only choice for this music. Once again Mike Nock has made a virtue out of contrast. First impressions are often deceptive though and there is a degree of space and subtlety if we listen. The stories unfolding are at times free and open but there is always an underlying thread. The titles also fascinate me as they refer (as with the previous album) to a mixture of things past (references to the classical world), nature untamed and various private worlds. I am a strong believer that improvised music benefits from narratives, not to define, but to augment the journey.
Mike has created subtle narratives out of the whole, which sit in the consciousness like Haiku. There is something special about these two albums and I am certain that only Mike Nock could tell these particular stories.