By any measure, Andrea Keller is an extraordinary musician and her latest release, ‘Life is Brut[if]al’ is the proof of the pudding. This is music for our times, and it reflects her well-documented and highly original creative journey. Keller is Melbourne based and like most musicians in recent months, her activities have been severely curtailed. The insidious grip of the virus is causing ever tighter lockdown restrictions, but creatives are used to working in challenging conditions, and happily, her prodigious output continues. This artist has a work ethic that few can equal, and we are the beneficiaries.
The term tune is wholly inadequate to describe how the pieces unfold and although the substitute term journey is somewhat cliched, it is accurate. As we listen, we find ourselves in a world located far from the mundane, a world full of intricacy and wonder, but revealed via the medium of minimalism and kaleidoscopic shifting patterns. This is Keller’s preferred space as her various influences have led her here. She is an extraordinary pianist with a deft touch, but her compositional skills are very much to the forefront in this work.
As one would expect, Keller has gathered some of Melbourne’s finest musicians about her for this project. Her ensemble writing is always about collaboration: Scott McConnachie (soprano and alto saxophone), Julien Wilson (tenor, saxophone and bass clarinet) and Jim Keller (voice), alongside Five Below band members Stephen Magnusson (guitar), Sam Anning (double bass), Mick Meagher (electric bass), James McLean (drums). Andrea Keller plays piano throughout.
The first piece ‘Meditations on Light’ is the longest and it is the perfect opener as it invites a reflective mood before diving deeper. It opens with a soft pulse, followed by guitar; the latter evoking the sound of a wine-soaked finger rubbed on crystal. Then you hear Keller, moving slowly and purposefully; a T. E. Lawrence riding out of the distant desert haze. By this point, anyone with open ears and a receptive heart will be fully engaged. You listen and the realities and cares outside the door fade into obscurity. The soprano, when it enters, soars ecstatically above the drums and bass. It has the feel of a Fellini movie and the album is worth buying for this track alone.
The second track ‘Dear John/Joan’ is more somber and mysterious. It reminded me of church bells and mourners in an Italian village, and again it is eerily filmic. Perhaps it reflects the loss of connection that the world is currently experiencing. Bley and Burton achieved a similar effect with ‘A Very Tang Funeral’. That is followed by the title track ‘Life is Brut[if]al’; a powerful track which takes a freer path over a long earthy vamp. I love this track, especially, as the freedom seeking soprano dances so unbound. This track best sums up that happy place where freer music talks to its growing audience. An intersection for the adventurous and a place where the finest of improvised music is headed.
After that comes ‘Suicidal Snails’ and ‘Blip ‘the former featuring reeds in unison and the latter, a short but sweet segment featuring tenor saxophone. The penultimate, ‘Youth Unleashed’ finds us exploring the free again.
The final track incorporates portions of Rainer Maria Rilke’s profound prose, from ‘Letters to a young poet’. The track is ‘Love in Solitude (disassembled)’. This intertextuality is the icing on the cake and perhaps the point where the album makes its strongest claim to greatness. This is art music and it is timeless.
Born of Czech parents and growing up in the ethnically and musically diverse city of Melbourne, Keller has been gifted an ecumenical viewpoint. Her album speaks to the world and beyond, and due to its originality, depth and fluid interplay it is a five-star achievement. This album and its predecessor ‘The Composers Circle’ are part of her ‘Monday Nights at Jazzlab’ series. ‘Five Bellow Live’ won the 2019 Jazz Bell Award for the best Jazz Ensemble.
Keller is a multi-award winner, renowned educator and mentor. She was contemplating a visit to New Zealand in the New Year, but travel restrictions will likely prevent that. Until then, I will remember Keller performing at the Uptown Jazz Cafe (and the night before at Jazzlab). They were wonderful performances, and my photographs and these albums, reinforce that memory.
During the writing of this post, an email arrived in my inbox, informing me that Keller is about to release yet another album; this time of solo piano titled ‘Journey Home’. There is also a related film to be released on DVD. The latter, a collaboration with filmmaker Hayley Miro Browne; a tale of their fathers, fleshed out with graphics and Erik Keller’s photographs of the 70’s Czech Republic. Again, this speaks to the work ethic and the creativity of this gifted artist. I have my order in. To purchase the above or any of Keller’s self-released albums, visit her Bandcamp site. It is a treasure trove. There is also merchandise available, and who could resist that gorgeous artwork by Luke Fraser. AndreaKeller.Bandcamp.com
The Following albums are all adventurous in their own way. All reach beyond the strict confines of genre and while each approaches from a unique vantage point, they offer a cross-section of trans-Tasman pandemic era music. The music may or may not have been influenced by the lockdown itself, but the association resonates. We are on a long journey. Moving from isolation towards an unfamiliar landscape. We will inevitably cling to yesterday, but we will hopefully also take the braver step of jettisoning what has become superfluous. We do not need bankers and snake oil merchants to guide us, but we do need adventurous musicians.
Dark Energy: Paul Williamson Quartet
A few years ago a visit to Melbourne coincided with the launch of Paul Williamson’s ‘Finding The Balance’ album at JazzLab. There was a lot to like about the album and I wrote a review after I had returned to New Zealand. Now in the midst of the pandemic, Williamson has released a new album titled ‘Dark Energy’. This time he invokes different spirits and in doing so he taps into new and exciting realities.
This is an edgy and forward-looking album and although it offers glimpses of the familiar, it quickly strikes out for freer air. Popular music seldom strays beyond the angst of loves lost, but Australasian improvisers increasingly move beyond the confines of gravity. In fact, astrophysics is often an inspirational touchstone for our down-under improvisers. In the early seventies, these themes were convincingly referenced by the likes of Bennie Maupin and Eddie Henderson. Dark Energy picks up the batten, combining galactic revelations with the discovery of wondrous interior worlds.
On certain tracks, Williamson’s trumpet playing contains hints of Tomasz Stanko or perhaps the quieter moments of Kenny Wheeler. A wistful moody quality is evident and especially on tracks like Al-egance; his tone is especially gorgeous in these settings. On the more ethereal tracks, he utilises extended technique and skilfully embeds the instrument into the spectrum of the bands sound. In all of these explorations, his band is in lock-step. Letting the compositions speak with clarity, and understanding, that close confinement is unnecessary in space.
On guitar, Theo Carbo displays a deft touch, clean and appropriate to the task in hand. Again there is a gentle moodiness and one which owes much to improvised Americana. The bass and drums also strike the right balance, never overreaching, and yet every voice and flurry is heard perfectly.
Paul Williamson (trumpet, compositions), Theo Carbo (guitar), Hiroki Hoshino (double bass), Miles Henry (drums)
‘Wind and Wire’ is a third of a set of solo albums that Alan Brown has released. His first two albums teased out the subtitles of an acoustic piano, and they did so in a setting which allowed the acoustics of the room to inform the improvisations. This album compliments the earlier albums while expanding the sonic possibilities. With keyboards and digital enhancements come fresh choices, and this is a logical progression for which Brown is well-fitted. He is an acknowledged master of the digital and analogue keyboard, and he understands how to judiciously apply enhancements.
The album is a set of 10 improvised pieces and the titles set up the mood for each. ‘Mood’ is an important ingredient in any ambient composition for it is the mood and not melody or rhythm which invites us inside a piece. Brown is always careful to establish this. His improvisational development follows a logic evolved from the preceding phrases. It is more than sound shaping as it flows like a river from start to finish, and this in spite of being unconfined by written charts or cycles of scales.
In Wind and Wire, there are varying moods and not all are quiet or reflective. Where you start is not always where you expect to finish. There are surprises embedded within. While these are essentially interior landscapes they are no less real for that. They invoke vistas and engage with our ever-changing realities. Something we have hopefully learned to value in these days of inner reflection.
A few days ago ‘Trouble Spots’ appeared in the Rattle Records Bandcamp catalogue. I listened and was captivated. Because humans are hard-wired to categorise I looked for descriptors. Among the tags were: acoustic instrumental, experimental, atmospheric, improvised. I listened to the rest of the album and then once through again. Wow, I thought, this is engaging but it studiously evades categorisation. How can something so enjoyable and so strangely familiar remain so elusive?
The cover art was also mesmerising. So much so, that for a while I failed to register, that the album was the result of a long collaboration between Steve Garden and Ivan Zagni. Garden, the local Manfred Eicher, the presiding spirit of Rattle Records (and what is often overlooked, a fine drummer and percussionist). Zagni is the co-leader and a significant figure in the music world, long acknowledged as a gifted multi-genre experimentalist. Born in London and moving to New Zealand many years ago where he soon became a significant presence on the local scene. The Rattle label grew out of Garden’s early work with Zagni and Don McGlashan.
Keen to get the low-down I contacted Garden and during our conversation, he suggested some additional tags for the album: absurdist, filmic, musical jokes, sonic circus, accidental improvisation, sonic collages and experimental music. Most musical disciplines have a vocabulary and the listener is therefore accustomed to locating fixed reference points; seeking out the elements that indicate genre. If a style is too rigid however, then that implies stasis and the improvising arts are the antitheses of stylistic inertia.
So this is an album that tells wonderful stories and the stories are best constructed (or deconstructed) in our heads. The music here facilitates that with its evocative but elusive cover image, it’s glimpses of Beirut or Nicaragua, of Punch & Judy, Cat & Mouse. Think of it as musical Dada or a Zen Koan. There is serious intent and good musicianship here, but that should not prevent us from laughing in pure delight.
On a gloomy autumn lockdown day, nothing is more welcome than a fresh and exciting piece of music. It brings sunshine, and if the artist is a gifted up-and-comer, it brings hope. In the days before lockdown, I saw a press release for Vanessa Perica’s ‘Love Is A Temporary Madness’. It could easily have been lost among the hundreds of emails warning me of the impending crises, but happily, it wasn’t. I listened to the sample track and found it instantly compelling.
There is nothing easy about composing and arranging Jazz orchestral charts and few musicians embark on this tortuous path. Thankfully Perica did, and her charts are magnificent. On ‘Love is a Temporary Madness’ she draws on a large palette, a seventeen-piece orchestra. Using contrast, texture, and modulation to great effect; she balances piano, guitar and the various soloists against a fulsome horn section and all to the best advantage. Big orchestras like this can easily maroon soloists, but these charts nurture the individual voices as much as the ensemble.
I know many of these musicians and I can’t help but wonder if she wrote with specific artists in mind; Andrea Keller in particular, as she is always such a distinctive performer? Very few pianists speak with such clarity and few can imply so much with well-crafted understatement. Add in renowned Australian musicians like Julien Wilson, Jamie Oehlers, Ben Vanderwal, and the other first raters and you understand why the ensemble sound is so fine. A sound that breathes in unison and when required urges a soloist to greater heights.
This is the first time that I have encountered Vanessa Perica’s work and I am slow off the mark there. She’s increasingly coming to attention of the wider Jazz world and no wonder. When you’re compared to Maria Schneider and praised by luminaries like Ted Gioia, you are well on your way.
The world as we knew it has been upended by a virus and the unfamiliar now demands constant attention; but as we reel from a plethora of new realities, we must not resile from re-examining what was under our nose. In isolation, few of us crave a conversation with our banker. Our desires centre around the arts. With our minds free to roam we form tableaus of reimagined paintings, we craft wonders out of found objects, we sculpt gardens, and above all, we immerse ourselves in music.
Everyone loves music and as consumers, we have greedily accessed it without a second thought for the musicians. Now, they are our lifeline, our passport to sanity, and when we need them most they are there for us, giving us free concerts or releasing albums at the worst possible time. Income streams in the creative sector have been slashed drastically but the composing and performing continues unabated. Artists must create, and for that to continue we need to support their endeavours. Buying albums like ‘Love is a Temporary Madness’ is the perfect way to do just that. Purchase from Vanessa Perica Bandcamp
The lockdowns won’t stop jazz! To assist musicians who’ve had performances cancelled, get their music heard around the globe. There Jazz Journalists Association created a Jazz on Lockdown: Hear it Here community blog. for more, click through tohttps://news.jazzjournalists.org/catagory/jazz-on-lockdown/
JazzLocal32.com was rated as one of the 50 best Jazz blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association
No one is more fitted to sonically sketch the journey of the Eighteenth-century French explorer known as La Perouse than the Australian born Jazz pianist Chris Cody. In his bios, Cody is referred to as a French Australian musician and that is an obvious qualification. He also possesses an exquisite sensitivity when it comes to communicating complex truths. The colonist versus the indigenous peoples, the scientist versus the open seas adventurer.
On this album, Cody’s improvisational compass has deftly navigated his way inside a vast sprawling seascape; found ways to lift the veil on colliding realities and woven them into a compelling saga. For all that, the album is not mired in abstract musings; it is grounded in the tangible. Cleverly, he avoids the strictures of the programmatic; opting instead for memorable glimpses, interesting mileposts. He weighs past against present, the science against belief, and all the while carefully preserving the mythologies that feed the spirit. And like all of Cody’s work, the album evokes a timeless sense of place.
When you live on the Pacific Rim it is inevitable that tales of ancient navigators capture your attention. Our present realities were shaped by them and for better or worse we are their descendants. There were so many notables, but the epic voyages of the ancient Lapita peoples are always omnipresent. While the Pacific was opened by these early navigators, the European late-comers are no less interesting. Cook is much talked about and the legacy of his voyages is mixed. Other men followed in his wake, as this was the age of scientific exploration, the age of enlightenment. In truth, the scientific voyagers served both science and the expansionist desires of empire builders. La Perouse on his ship Astrolabe was more scientist than colonist, but for all that, his untimely death contains an eerie echo of Cooks violent demise.
In 1786, navigators relied on the compass for fixing latitude. To fix an approximation of longitude an instrument called the Astrolabe was used; an instrument with its origins in Greek antiquity. Complex mathematical calculations were required and losing your way was a constant hazard. As Harrison’s Longitude fixing watch was still under development, the methodology of open sea navigation often relied on dead reckoning. Dead reckoning sent more sailers to the bottom of the sea than to their destinations.
Something akin to dead reckoning is close to what skilled improvisers do; risk being at the heart of an improviser’s performance. ‘Astrolabe’ the album, is a work composed for medium-sized ensembles. Piano, trumpet, multi reeds, trombone/didgeridoo/conch, violin, accordion, double bass and percussion. This offered Cody unique options and the textures he creates are marvellous.
Mundus Vetus (old world) opens with the baritone clarinet establishing a motif over a measured vamp. This piece clearly references the court of Louis Sixteenth who commissioned the voyage. You can sense the courtly processionals and the formality. From that point on we are afforded glimpses of the new and exotic places along his journey. The sounds of accordions, drums and pacific flutes come and go. ’Becalmed’ opens with trombonist James Greening on didgeridoo, soon overtaken by the crystalline unhurried pianism of Cody. This is music that absorbs and it is best experienced by letting yourself fall into it. It rewards deep listening.
I must also mention the striking physical appearance of the album. The outside cover features a misty ink wash Japanese style by Maya Cody. Inside, you will find extraordinary engravings by Jean de Bonnot and a booklet containing translations from the La Perouse ships journals (translated by the multi-lingual Cody)
This album will definitely appeal to wider audiences and although it is a first-rate Jazz album it is also beautifully arranged. This is a journey to be enjoyed as a whole. I would place this album in the must-have category, so buy a copy early, preferably by visiting chriscody.bandcamp.com or by ordering it online.
#random facts: a young Napoleon applied to join the crew and was rejected. Joseph Banks gave La Perouse some of Cook’s navigation instruments. La Perouse sailed into Sydney harbour a few days after Captain Phillip – a few days earlier and perhaps Australasians would be speaking French. Chris Cody lived 25 years in Paris working as a Jazz Musician. If you visit Cody’s Bandcamp page you can obtain all three of his recent albums digitally for $22.10 AUD
JazzLocal32.com was rated as one of the 50 best Jazz blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association.
The number of quality Jazz albums coming out of Australia these days is impressive and considering the lack of support from the mainstream music industry, surprising.I have met a number of Australian improvisers over the years and the best of them have one thing in common, a burning desire to reach beyond the mundane. They communicate this passion in spite of the obstacles and they do it convincingly. The best of these are respected across the wider Jazz world. They are a cohort that brings joy to those hear them and the least we can do is pay them our fullest attention. In November 2019, I became aware of four recent Australian albums: Andrea Kellers ‘Transients, volumes 1 & 2,’’This World’ (a collaboration between Mike Nock, Julian Wilson, Hamish Stuart and Jonathan Zwartz) and ‘Stock’ by Julien Wilson. A common denominator linking the above recordings is Wilson, who appears on all four albums (and is the founder of the Melbourne based Lionshare Records). Christopher Hale appears in three of them.
This World: Anyone who has followed pianist Mike Nock over the years will always be hungry for more of his artistry. He never disappoints. A few years ago Wilson confided that he had been planing a collaboration with Nock but that prior commitments always seemed to get in the way. Then in 2018 disaster struck when Nock was hit by a car on a pedestrian crossing. Many feared that his injuries could curtail his career and his fans hoped for a swift recovery. Not long after he left the hospital (and against the odds), he joined Wilson, Stuart and Zwartz for a standards gig. They sounded so good together that they agreed to record an album of originals (with each contributing compositions). Next, Zwartz obtained an arts council grant, and they headed for Sony Studios.
While the results of the two-day session are a testament to their compositional skills, it is their tasteful interplay that remains with you. The album is a thing of soulful beauty, with the compositions coexisting in happy juxtaposition. For example, the cheerfully reflective tune Old’s Cool (Nock) is followed by the moody In The Night Comes The Rain (Zwartz). If you follow the tracklist in chronological order you could be forgiven for thinking that the album is about Nock’s accident. In the Night Comes The Rain – Home – The Dirge – Aftermath– We shall Rise Again; perhaps that is not the case at all, but whatever the motivation the album is an essential addition to any Jazz collection. What musical heavy-weights these musicians are and how effortlessly they weave their magic. There is a hint of ECM about this recording and not least due to the amazing cover artwork by the Icelandic earth photographer Polly Ambermoon.
Transients volume 1 & 2: Late last year I came across the Transients albums by the multi-award-winning pianist and composer Andrea Keller. I first encountered Keller two years ago while I was visiting family in Melbourne. Her compelling stylistic originality intrigued me and I made a point of attending several of her performances in a row; resolving to keep an eye on her output from then on. On the first night she was decidedly minimalist and embedded deep within an ensemble; the second night a fearless explorer in a serialist vein. These two albums offer variety, innovation. The Transients project began in 2016 and since that time a series of interlinking trios have appeared, culminating in these extraordinary 2019 albums.
This is music that requires your engagement and it is deeply rewarding when you listen properly. It is clear evidence that Australian music is developing its own distinct voice. The opening track on the first album is titled Musings and it is the perfect hook to draw you deep inside an intriguing world. As the tracks unfold you realise that you are listening kaleidoscopically. Phrases form and change along with mood. It is an interesting approach as the various trios sound like a band that could be playing as a larger ensemble. less is more. It is as if it is a bigger unit but with instruments redacted to achieve greater clarity. In spite of the contrasting moods and instrumental configurations, there is a unified heart; so much so that you can easily imagine how each piece would sound if the alternate trios played the piece. On volume two this is realised. On volume 1 you experience the journey while on volume two you are invited to examine it afresh. Many of the tunes like Saint Misha and Sleep Cycles are later reimagined, familiar but not familiar.
It is hard to praise the Transients albums enough and while it is obviously Keller who deserves the lions share of the accolades, the individual musicians excel themselves under her guidance. Wilson on tenor saxophone, clarinet and bass clarinet has long been a favourite of mine. He and the astonishing Stephen Magnusson have previously stunned us when appearing on recordings (notably with Barney McAll). With the addition of James Macaulay on trombone, Sam Anning or Christopher Hale on bass, James McLean or Leigh Fischer on drums and Flora Carbo on Alto, Keller has found the right mix of colours for her masterwork.
Stock: Like This World, Stock was released by Julien Wilson’s Lionshare Records. It is a joyful, freedom embracing, open-hearted exploration of sonic possibilities. It enhances sound, but the electronic effects which it utilises to good advantage are tastefully deployed. This is an album which immediately brings a smile to your lips, exuding as it often does the sounds of a perfect summer (a happier summer than Australia is experiencing at present). It was recorded in 2019 and released by the artists on New Year’s Day 2020. It is the sound of now and I was delighted to hear in the new decade with this gem. Some, wrong-headedly, think that post-millennium Jazz like this has abandoned past learnings; they are mistaken. These artists have no need to look over their shoulder because the past has been absorbed into and informs everything they do as they move the music forward. While Stock is Wilson’s concept it is clearly a collaborative effort. No one creates at this level unless they are inside each other’s heads. The quartet has performed a while but this was a time to share their vision with a wider audience. The tracks cover many moods – here I have posted a joyfully ‘out’ track.
Wilson is noted for his skilful articulation; an artist who can wring new tears out of old ballads and carve scorching pathways through an up-number; one of the few Australasian reeds players who maintains his clarinet chops at this level. This feels like a fruitful direction for him as the step change has a rightness about it. As the album progresses, moving from the filmic to the elegiac, you marvel at the inventiveness. Yes, guitarist Craig Fermanis has a Metheny vibe, but this is an original offering and beholden to no one. He is magnificent throughout and able to create nuance out of controlled chaos, and Christopher Hale’s electric bass work and Hugh Harvey’s drums or percussion are so integrated that the band presents as a single fluid entity. It is the integration of the voices and of ideas within a free-flowing framework that worked for me. It plots an interesting path forward and in doing so brings us along with it.
My last word is about the presentation and the sound quality of the above albums. The recording and mixing standards here are very high. All have eye-grabbing artwork but in the case of the Lionshare albums, the standard is extraordinary. Wilson has an eye for great cover art, intuitively understanding that the relationship between the eye and the ear is important. Music is about more than just sound. I know that he gives careful consideration to such matters, whether it’s the eerily atmospheric work of the Icelandic earth photographer Polly Ambermoon or the marvellous creations of Dale Cox. The albums are all released on Bandcamp. We should all purchase whatever we can through the Bandcamp platform as the artists share is considerably greater there. In addition, we get streaming at Hi-Fi quality and the albums and other merch can be accessed directly. The two Lionshare Albums are also available in 24bit/96kHz audiophile quality and are downloadable for burning. If you have a high-end audio system you should grab the 24bit versions as these are the best quality available to us.
This World: Mike Nock (piano), Hamish Stuart (drums), Julien Wilson (reeds) Jonathan Zwartz (bass). Transients 1&2: Andrea Keller (piano), Julien Wilson (tenor saxophone & clarinet), James Macaulay (trombone), Stephen Magnusson (guitar), Floro Carbo (alto saxophone), Sam Anning (double bass), Christopher Hale (bass guitar), Leigh Fisher (drums), James McLean (drums). Stock: Julien Wilson (reeds, effects), Craig Fermanis (guitar), Christopher Hale (bass guitar), Hugh Harvey (drums & percussion)
The Melbourne group Spirograph Studies was exactly as described, modern and eclectic. In this quartet, there were no horns to carve out melodic lines. Instead, a guitar and piano spun intricate layers one on the other, focussing more on well-crafted motifs and harmonic development. There was melody but it was mostly implied, nestling comfortably among richly dissonant textures and emerging out of the subtle interplay. It was often voice-led but not as we know it and the overall effect was beguiling.
The playing was great but what also stood out were the compositions. What we experienced was an unmistakable Jazz Americana vibe. There were no actual Frisell tunes played but the great man’s essence hung in the air; residing most strongly in the interactions between leader Tamara Murphy and her bandmate Fran Swinn; Murphy the enabler and Swinn the ideal vehicle for realisation. As Swinn stroked the chords, the soulful utterances reeled us in; urged on by the bass. With music as delicately layered as this, no band member can afford veer off coarse and none did. This was a disciplined ensemble but in spite of that, the music flowed effortlessly. Their overall sound was warm and yet it tugged on the heartstrings, hinting at a distant sadness. The signature sound of Americana, where every note is weighted with nostalgia.
The other core band member was drummer James McLean. A drummer who showed his ability by responding appropriately to the textural subtleties and propelling the gentle swing feel. His brushwork was crisp and his stick-work understated so as to reside inside the music and not all over it.The pianist on the ‘Kindness not Courtesy’ album was Luke Howard, but on their Australasian tour, his role was alternated with Sam Keevers. I have heard Keevers before as he is a well respected Australian pianist. For a long period, he held the piano chair in the Vince Jones group (a coveted position held before him by Barney McAll).Having Keevers onboard during the New Zealand leg worked a treat. A skilled accompanist who knows a lot about supportive playing and comping. The Piano and guitar interacting seamlessly and moving in and around each other’s phrases like dance partners.
Andy Sugg’s collaborative album ‘TTTenor’ was cut in Melbourne back in 2006 and rightly, it has garnered praise. In a land of significant horn-players, the tenor triumvirate of Sugg, Oehlers, and Wilson was a standout. Three gifted saxophonists who capitalised on the imaginative charts to showcase their formidable skills. Completing the original sextet was an immaculate rhythm section – Paul Grabowsky (piano), Gary Costello (bass) and Andrew Gander (drums). Since then, Sugg has recorded other albums like ‘The John Coltrane Project’ ‘The Berlin Session’ ‘Brunswick Nights’ ‘Wednesday at M’s’ and ‘Tenorness’.He has also been involved in numerous International projects (including writing and lecturing). He was an adviser during the making of the John Coltrane feature-length documentary film ‘Chasing Trane’. All of the above have brought him critical acclaim.
In spite of Sugg’s busy schedule, the ‘TTTenor’ project was never retired. Last week he teamed up with Auckland’s Roger Manins and Canberra’s John Mackey to present a new and exciting iteration of the TTTenor group. To complete the sextet were, Mark Lockett on drums, Kevin Field on piano and Cameron McArthur on upright bass.This was not a reprise of the older material as new compositions and interesting charts had been created.This time, the different stylistic approaches from the three tenor players gave added contrast during solos and a rich texture was noticeable during the head arrangements. Three-tenor-gigs are not commonplace and I suspect that writing for three instruments occupying the same total range presents challenges.Throughout the head arrangements, the skillful voicing was evident. Dense beautiful harmonies which set the mood for the solos which followed. Inviting the soloists to mark out their points of difference in that space.
Sugg is a versatile artist and on many of his albums, the influence of Coltrane is unmistakable. It is there in spades on soprano offerings but on tenor, there is an added something that perhaps draws on earlier influences. He is a muscular player and the phrases which flow from his horn seem so right that it is hard to imagine any other possible note choices. This fluidity when storytelling is perhaps his greatest gift. Manins while also a muscular player takes a different path. He is a disciplined reader in an ensemble situation and it, therefore, amazes those unfamiliar with his playing when he dives into his solos, urgently seeking that piece of clear sky ahead and reaching for joyous crazy. While there is considerable weight to his sound, he frequently defies gravity when the excitement of his solos bursts free of the expected.John Mackey was previously unknown to me, but I found him compelling. His approach to solos was thoughtful, leaving lots of space as he backed into a piece. His storytelling developed methodically, taking you with him as he probed the possibilities. His skillful use of dynamics, a softer tone early in his solos and during ballads. His solo destinations were often heart-stopping in their intensity. This Contrasted with the other tenor solos and gave the project added depth.
The pianist Grabowsky is a very hard act to follow but Field managed to carve his own space with ease. His signature harmonies and rhythms giving the others much to work with. His own solos a thoughtful reprise from the front line horns.CameronMcArthur is a first choice Auckland bassist and he lived up to his reputation on this gig.
Mark Lockett is an original drummer and perfect for the gig as he has worked with Sugg before. He certainly pleased the audience last week, accenting phrases and pushing them to greater heights. Near the end, he gave an extraordinary solo, not a fireworks display but a master class of melodic and rhythmic invention, aided by gentle and occasional interjections from Field and McArthur.
This was the first gig at the new venue. The attendance was good and everyone appeared wowed by what was on offer. This gig sets the bar high and why not. Australasian Jazz produces some amazing talents. I have put up a clip ‘TTTenor’ playing John Coltrane’s ‘Naima’ – the sound quality is less than perfect as the bass drops right out once the tenors begin – I am working on that – spacious new venues can definitely be a challenge, sound wise.
‘TTTenor’ was: Andy Sugg (tenor saxophone), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), John Mackey (tenor saxophone), Kevin Field (piano), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Mark Lockett (drums). 5 June 2019, Anthology K’Road – CJC Creative Jazz Club
The value of having a Jazz Club in your city should never be underestimated as the experience of hearing quality live music in an intimate setting is far superior to anything that you will experience in a concert hall. Even international musicians tell you this although it is against their best interests to say so. What you pay the big bucks for in the concert hall or stadium, you buy for a pittance at a small club doorway. In addition, you get to meet the musicians and best of all experience the music up close. This post is to remind people that Auckland’s premier Jazz Club, the CJC has moved to Anthology 375 K’ Road, Auckland City. Tonight, TTTenors with Manins, Sugg & Mackey.
The CJC came into being around eleven years ago and since its inception, there have been at least five moves. The audience always follows like pied pipers and I have no doubt that they will make the switch from Backbeat to Anthology seamlessly. What we have in the CJC is a gift of inestimable value. Its mission is simple. Showcase high-quality original improvised music and provide a place for musicians to play. As a not-for-profit enterprise, it runs on good-will. Underpinning this is the hard work of its founder/administrators Roger Manins, Caro Manins & Ben McNichol. On hand to assist them are numerous Jazz Students and other volunteers. The final ingredient is the listening audience and keeping the attendance levels high is essential to its continuance. Tonight, Wed 5th June 2019 sees the new venues launch gig and please note, it’s at Anthology, not the Backbeat as previously advertised. Don’t miss the chance to hear three of Australasia’s top tenor players (with Kevin Field, Cam McArthur, and Mark Lockett as rhythm section) You can get up to date gig information at www.creativejazzclub.co.nz
If there are Jazz Lovers who don’t love Mike Nock’s music, I have never met them. Should any be located send them to me and I will arrange for remedial education. I have just returned from Australia and while there I caught up with Mike. Over dinner, we discussed, the dismal state of the music industry and the tenacity of musicians – who keep producing great music in spite of that. I read a quote recently by the preeminent Jazz writer Ted Gioia who penned the following; (paraphrased slightly) ‘Jazz musicians get frustrated, even angry, at the lack of opportunity – but they keep playing and in playing at such high-level they experience a rare joy that few people get to experience’. And they share this with us in spite of the poor remuneration and industry marginalisation. As many will know, Mike Nock was badly injured last year when an inattentive driver bowled him at a pedestrian crossing.
I cannot imagine a world without him performing and amazingly, bravely, he is doing just that. While I was there his Quartet performed at the 616 Foundry Jazz Club in Ultimo and he demonstrated to everyone that it takes more than an out of control 4×4 to keep him down. It is all intact, that Nock magic, the great compositions, the surprises, the deep – deep blues, the unconfined breath of freedom, and that innate swing. On stage with him were a few old friends – expat Kiwi bass player Brett Hurst (always marvelous), ‘Pug’ Waples (a treat) and for the first time I met tenor player Karl Laskowski – anyone familiar with the Nock recordings will be familiar with his lovely sound and clean lines. When Mike is up to it he will come back and perform for us at the new venue – as he said – ‘Godzone is my home man’.
Keep your ears open, attend the live gigs, buy the albums – this music feeds the soul and is an oasis of sanity in a fractured world.
Eamon Dilworth is a frequent visitor to New Zealand and we hope that continues. His projects draw on many sources and he is unafraid to change direction completely. His last visit saw the release of his beautiful Viata album. An album that would sit comfortably in the ECM catalogue with its unhurried atmospheric Euro Free ethos. The haunting deliberations leaving crystalline arcs trailing behind each note. The time before he came with ‘Tiny Hearts’ and before that with ‘The Dilworth’s’. All of these projects were enthusiastically received and the albums that resulted were popular on both sides of the Tasman.
His most recent project, the Crawfish Po ‘Boys’ is yet another step change. It is rooted in the sounds of the southern USA. Although a take on the contemporary New Orleans sound, it also harks back to the vibe of Louis Armstrong and Big T.Unlike Viata or its predecessors, the latest album is an EP (around 20 mins long). As I listened to it, two things stood out. The focus on vocals and the choice of musicians. The vocals are led by Dilworth with a number of backing vocalists adding heft. With respected musicians like Stu Hunter (organ), Julien Wilson (saxophone), Chris Vizard (trombone) and Paul Derricott (drums) it could hardly be less than engaging.
The first gig took place at the Auckland Jazz & Blues club and it focussed on traditional fare. At the CJC the following night Dilworth gave us contrasting sets, and unlike recent visits where Australian musicians like Alistair Spence joined him, he worked with a local lineup.Roger Manins was on tenor sax, Andy Keegan on drums and from Wellington, Daniel Hayles on the organ.He opened with some tunes from Viata, but they were given a different treatment this time.The biggest point of difference was the inclusion of Daniel Hayles, a groove inclined keyboardist who quickly found his place and pushed the tunes in a different direction.This was achieved without resorting to showy bravura runs and by creating an underlying chordal pulse. It was particularly evident during Toran where he played ostinato; using subtle variations to enhance the performance of the melodic lines from saxophone and trumpet.
The second half was shorter and some of those tunes came closer to his Crawfish Po’Boys material. His version of Iko Iko was fun. Dilworth, Keegan, Manins, and Hayles obviously enjoy playing together but I’d like to hear them tackle the raunchy old New Orleans tunes someday. Pushing deeper into the bluesy heartland of Jack Teagarden – the time is ripe for such a re-appraisal.
Eamon Dilworth (trumpet, compositions), Daniel Hayles (Hammond organ), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Andy Keegan (drums). Backbeat, CJC Creative Jazz Club, Auckland, Mayday 2019
Steve Barry left these shores many years ago and these days Australians count him as their own. It is hardly surprising that they do because since his departure he has raked in the accolades, won numerous awards and completed a Doctorate. Given the above, we can hardly begrudge his move. Music is like water it will always find its level, no matter where the wellspring. Everyone on the New Zealand Jazz scene looks forward to Barry’s yearly trips home as he never rests on his laurels. He brings us new and diverse projects and above all he showcases innovation.
The ‘Blueprints’ Trio is a good example as it was formed primarily as a vehicle for his doctrinal compositions. For any student of pianism, these works are compelling as they combine strong elements of modern classical composition balanced against Jazz innovation. That Barry achieves this with such clarity, while never completely abandoning the history of jazz speaks strongly of his vision. Very few can achieve this without the music sounding contrived or lopsided. Barry’s compositions, although often challenging, are neither. Audiences listen and above all they smile as the music unfolds. Picking the references and enjoying the journey beyond. Those with a sense of history will hear Monk and Strayhorn; others will hear new music and neither is wrong.
The YouTube clip that I have posted illustrates this clearly as there are distinct Monkish references. When you listen closely though, you realise, that this is a twenty-first-century version and a Monk who has absorbed a whole lot of very contemporary ideas. The angular leap into ultra-modernity is abetted by his Australian bandmates; both completely at home in this adventurous new world.
With him in Auckland were the other members of the current Blueprints trio, Jacques Emery on Bass and Alex Inman-Hislop on drums. With Emery often playing arco bass and Inman Hislop splashing bold colour strokes, the distinctive vibe was complete. While this was very much Barry’s show, no one was in the background. For a copy of the latest Blueprints Trio album ‘Hatch’ go Rattle Records or to view his complete discography go to stevebarrymusic.bandcamp.com/
The Steve Barry ‘Blueprints’ Trio appeared at Backbeat, 100 K’Road, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club on 10 April 2019
The decision to review these two albums together makes sense for a number of reasons. They were both released on the Rattle Label earlier this year and both are quite exceptional. I predict that both albums will be nominated for Jazz Tui’s next year, it’s a no-brainer. Once again, Rattle has served us up a tasty fare. Albums that are beautifully presented and which compare favourably with the best from anywhere.
‘Eat Your Greens’ is an album by to the popular Wellington pianist and educator Anita Schwabe. It was recorded at the UoA Kenneth Myers Centre in Auckland during her recent tour. Her band also performed live before a capacity audience at Auckland’s CJC Creative Jazz Club and it was immediately obvious that they were in great form. Schwabe normally plays with Wellington musicians and regularly with the Roger Fox Big Band. The idea of recording in Auckland was formed while sharing gigs with Roger Manins earlier and it was with his assistance that the Kenneth Myers Centre was made available for recording.
The semi-muted acoustics in the KMC auditorium work well for smaller ensembles and especially when John Kim captures them. Schwabe is a delightful pianist and her swinging feel was elevated to the sublime by the inclusion of Manins on tenor saxophone, Cameron McArthur on upright bass and Ron Samsom on drums. Having such fine musicians working in sync is the first strength of the album; the other strength is the compositions.
The album is a hard swinger in the classic post-bop mould, and in spite of the references to past greats, the musicians insert a down to earth Kiwi quality. The compositions are superb vehicles for momentum and improvisation and the band wastes no opportunity in exploiting those strengths. In light of the above and unsurprisingly, a track from the album. ‘Spring tide’, won Schwabe an APRA Award for best New Zealand Jazz composition this year. As you play through the tracks you will be grabbed by Manins bravura performance during ‘Anger Management’ or by his sensitive playing on the lovely loping ‘The way the cards Lay’ (Manins is Getz like here); at how beautifully McArthur pushes that little bit harder in order to get the best from his bandmates or how finely tuned Samsom is to the nuances of the pulse (plus a few heart-stopping solos).
It is, however, every bit Schwabe’s album and it is her playing and her compositions that stay with you. I am particularly fond of ‘There once was a Time’ – a fond smile in Bill Evans direction and evocative from start to finish. That such a fine pianist should be so under-recorded is a mystery to me. Thanks to Rattle that may well change. This is an album that Jazz-lovers will play over and over and each time they do they will find something new to delight them.
Anita Schwabe: (piano, compositions), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums). Released on Rattle
‘No Dogs Allowed’ is the follow-up to the acclaimed 2015 Jazz Tui winning album ‘Dog’. The earlier album set such a high standard that it was hard to contemplate that offering being improved on. This, however, is not a band to rest on their laurels and the restless creative forces driving their upward trajectory have resulted in another album that feels like a winner. This time around there is an Australian in the mix, as they have added the astonishingly gifted Adelaide guitarist James Muller as a guest. It was a brave move to mess with a winning combination and to expand the quartet to a quintet but anyone who has heard Roger Manins play alongside Muller will know that this addition was always going to work to their advantage.
While Muller has chops to burn and manifests a rare tonal clarity, you will never hear him deploy a note or a phrase needlessly. Here you have five master musicians speaking a common language and communicating at the highest level. Although each is a seasoned veteran and bursting with their own ideas, they harness those energies to the collective and the result is immensely satisfying. It must be hard for gifted musicians to set ego aside this way, but these five did just that.
While the album is the perfect example of Jazz as an elevated art form it is never for a moment remote or high brow. As with the 2015 album, the core Dog members shared compositional duties. There are two tunes each from Manins, Field and Holland and three from Samsom. Their contributions are different stylistically but the tracks compliment. Place Manins, Field, Holland and Samsom in a studio and the potion immediately starts to bubble. Add a pinch of Muller and the magical alchemy is complete. When you are confronted with a great bunch of tunes like this and have to pick one it’s hard. In the end, I chose Manins ‘Schwiben Jam’ for its warm embracing groove. The album and particularly this track connects your ears directly to your heart.
The Album is released on Rattle and was recorded in Adelaide at the Wizard Tone Studios. DOG: Kevin Field (piano and keys), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Olivier Holland (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums) + James Muller (guitar).
Tomasz Stanko died two days before the Eamon Dilworth gig and I was feeling the loss. I don’t know why this particular musician’s passing affected me so much but it did. Perhaps it was the untimeliness, a great artist gone too soon. It was as if a vital soundtrack to my life had been placed on pause. As I moped about the house, playing Wislawa and The New York Quartets, I remembered that Dilworth was playing soon and I cheered up immediately. I had reviewed the Viata album a month previously and loved it. I knew that it would be a balm and I knew that it would connect me to that place which Stanko took me. It did.
The Viata album had an astonishing array of gifted musicians on it, Dilworth, Alister Spence, Carl Morgan, Jonathan Zwartz and Paul Derricott. When Dilworth flew into Auckland he was only accompanied by the pianist Spence. The rest of the Auckland lineup would be local pick up musicians. Dilworth has a very distinctive sound and hearing his tunes played on different instruments or by other musicians was going to be interesting. Replacing Morgan on guitar was tenor player Roger Manins, on drums Andy Keegan and on upright bass Wil Goodinson. Manins needs no introduction to Australasian audiences and I was looking forward to hearing him in this context. People associate him with burners and that is his shtick, but Manins is also a master at blowing in these spacious atmospheric situations. I hadn’t seen Andy Keegan for a while but I rate his playing – he thinks through what he’s doing, listens carefully and responds appropriately. The last of the New Zealand players, Wil Goodinson, is a gifted newcomer with big ears, a terrific sound and with great things ahead.
This was the first time that I have heard Alister Spence. He is truly an extraordinary pianist and I could hardly believe what I was hearing. A minimalist whose voicings gave power to the spaces – leaving behind in the wake of each note, a gentle otherworldly dissonance. There were long ostinato passages, often a single chord, which shifted the focus imperceptibly. He crafted minute changes without once losing the ostinato vibe. Floating arpeggiated chords, at times Debussy like – as if Terry Riley had appropriated a Debussy moment and made it airy as it floated heavenward. And all of this creating the perfect platform for Dilworth.
It is a brave musician who explores space with such lightness of touch. Dilworth is exactly the right person to do this. His playing and compositions create dreamscapes, warm interludes from the harshness of the post-truth world. This allows us to rise far above the mundane. It is as much about his worldview as it is about sound. He is a musician who thinks about life and then forges a sonic philosophy out of those musings. It is unmistakably, the sort of sound that ECM thrives on. It is time they profiled an Australian. Here, all is subordinate to mood, with the harmonies often implied; the tempos are measured, nothing is hurried and the melodies are miniatures; elided and markers on an interesting journey. Dilworth utilises the extended techniques in his trumpet playing but there is nothing ostentatious on display. Every whisper of air or long-held note is a story in itself.
We heard most of the album during the night and a tune from his earlier Tiny Hearts album. It was hard to decide which tune to post as a video, but I chose Toran which is the last track on the Viata album. To get the most out of it, sit down, slow your breathing and close your eyes. This is a masterclass in subtlety and well worth the effort. The gig took place at the Backbeat Bar, K’Road, Auckland for the CJC Creative Jazz Club.
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.