The pleasure of experiencing great music in small venues is inestimable. Sure, we love it when the famous cats blow through town, rush to get our tickets for the town hall concerts, pay the hefty price tag gladly and listen; watch the tiny figures way, way down on stage. I have attended many such concerts over the years and regarded them among life’s high points, but now I am not so sure. As great as these concerts are and as amazing as the visiting musicians are, the experience is filtered through layers of complexity and as a result, one essential ingredient is often missing, that feeling of warm intimacy.
I have heard road-wise musicians talk of a virtuous feedback loop, the way artist and audience feed off each other until the music becomes bigger than the sum of its parts. Large civic venues are by their very nature redactive and the end result is often a performer facing a passive sea of listeners. Anyone who has been tapped on the shoulder during a performance and been told by an usher to sit still will get my point. Sitting still and mute is difficult for seasoned Jazz lovers. We know when to hold our breath and we know not to chatter, but we also understand when to vocalise our joy or when to exhort a soloist to greater heights. And bodies will sway and feet will tap – that’s the fine point of engagement. When the music is visceral it radiates a life force and even at the most fundamental level of existence, atoms collide and shift. If it lives it moves.
Some of us, the lucky ones, have experienced an artist of international stature performing in a small cosy club. If it’s a pianist and if a very good piano is located in the venue, then it’s a recipe for unbounded enjoyment. A few days ago Barney McAll played at a sold-out venue at the Wellington International Jazz Festival. Thanks to his close friend Jonathan Crayford he stopped off for a day in Auckland on his return journey. There had been some discussion about this possibility a few months ago and JC assured me that it would happen. Because I had a prior warning I waited and when the tickets appeared I swooped like a hawk. Only the lucky few got to attend this gig.
The eye-catching online notification featured an attractive sketch and a poster which read; ‘Barney McAll plays Gospel solo piano at Freida Margolis, limited tickets available’. In the fine print was the word, Steinway. Together this spelt seismic. When you hear McAll you experience more than just music, you experience dreamscapes and multiple histories. The first thing to grasp about McAll is that he can reference many styles and genres and while this is disconcerting to some, it is an essential part of his output. Cutting edge contemporary improvised music, Orchestral Jazz, alternative popular music, standards, soul, free or Gospel. While his projects can feature any of the above styles, each is laid down with the utmost integrity and each bears his unmistakable hallmark.
What we heard were mostly Gospel hymns – the sort you would hear in a Harlem church. They were hymns, but not presented in the way you’d hear them in a New Zealand or Australian church. They were improvisational vehicles and the voicings of some old-time Jazz greats shone through. I have heard such voicings from the likes of Hank Jones and this is hardly surprising. Musicians like Jones came up through the black gospel church experience. What is uncommon, is to hear this from a white Australian musician. His eight years of playing in American Gospel churches left its mark of authenticity on him.
During the night he invited Jonathan Crayford and Bella Kalolo to join him. Crayford accompanied on piano, free improvising, while McAll played an unusual guitar-like instrument, imparting a sitar sound or prepared piano sound. Kalolo was obviously delighted to be accompanied by McAll and even though she was unamplified and therefore low volume the two of them had strong chemistry. While they approach the tunes differently, Gospel is clearly something both artists understand.
McAll also played Necter Spur from his ‘Mooroolbark’ album and ‘The Nock Code’ from his recent ‘Hearing the Blood’ album. Both albums garnered multiple awards and significant praise. Unencumbered by a band, he ranged freely over the numbers and found exquisite asides to explore in-depth. This was music to be experienced from three metres away. This was a love letter to the classic Steinway ‘D’ series and Freida Margolis was the perfect backdrop. I had mounted the camera up high and it was surrounded by tiles which brightened the sound – but that piano – those tunes and those musicians found the magic and gave us a gig to remember.
Barney McAll (Steinway D, stringed instrument), Bella Kalolo (vocals), Jonathan Crayford (Steinway D) – for McAll albums visit Extra Celestial Arts on Bandcamp.
So many great improvising artists gig on our New Zealand and Australian club circuits that we could easily become complacent and we shouldn’t be. This golden age for hearing hi-quality live Jazz is the result of hard work behind the scenes, and a dedicated few, mostly volunteers, make this happen for us. They deserve our thanks and above all, they deserve our commitment to the cause of live music. This year and last year were especially interesting at the CJC, as the breadth and quality of the music hit new highs. What the performing artists put into these tours or gigs is beyond estimation – but we, the audiences are lucky; all we have to do is climb out of our chairs, throw on a coat (yes it is cold out but warm as toast in the venues) and experience the magic.
For the second time in less than a month, we had a pre-eminent and award-winning Australian vocalist in our city, Michelle Nicolle. A quick perusal of her YouTube clips or pages is quite enough to reel you in; experiencing her quartet live is a great Jazz experience. Nicolle has a big voice and a voice with an astonishing vocal range. In spite of that, she is remarkably expressive, even at a whisper. Her quartet has a long history together and because of that, the accompanying musicians know how to react to the vocalists every nuance. Good accompanists know when to hold back and when to answer a phrase and they did. They gifted the tunes a spaciousness, allowing the notes or phrases to breathe and their good judgement caused the lyrics to flow with ease.
The setlist was a mix of originals and standards, many of the standards being Ellington or Strayhorn tunes. Her own compositions although different in flavour were a bridge between past and present, updating the sentiments that Strayhorn often expressed, but dressing them in modern clothing. ‘Drop that smile’ being a good example. There was a very tasteful interpretation of Cole Porters ‘So in Love’ and a great rendition of Ornette Coleman’s ‘The blessing’, but as good as those tunes were, it was her Strayhorn that captivated.
On guitar was the impeccable vocal accompanist Geoff Hughes (reputed to be an expat Kiwi), on upright bass was Tom Lee and on drums Ronny Ferella. No wonder the quartet received a Bell Award in 2017. The clip is ‘The Days of Wine & Roses’ from an earlier MNQ tour and possibly with a different guitarist.
The concert occurred during the days immediately proceeding the Wellington International Jazz festival and it was cold and wet outside. In spite of that, those who were still in town wrapped up and made their way to the Backbeat Bar and everyone who braved the cold was very glad that they did.
MNQ: Michelle Nicolle (vocals, composition), Geoff Hughes (guitar), Tom Lee (bass), Ronny Ferella (drums). The gig took place at the Backbeat Bar, K’Road, Auckland, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club. June 06, 2018.
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.