Backbeat Bar, Bebop, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Straight ahead

Callum Passells – Flightless Birds

Birds (1)This is the second appearance of Flightless Birds at the CJC Creative Jazz Club and the audience flocked to hear them. The band is a history lesson to the initiated and an initiation to those unversed in Jazz history.  They presented a programme that was both clever and accessible and therein lay its charm.  The band specialises in contrafacts and especially those of the bebop and swing era. The inside joke is that many of those tunes were once contrafacts themselves; new and often frenetic tunes written over the changes of familiar ‘songbook’ standards. In the bebop era tunes like ‘Cherokee’ (Noble) became Ko-Ko (Parker), ‘I Got Rhythm’ (Gershwin) became ‘Dizzie Atmosphere’ (Gillespie).  Musicians like Charles Mingus took things a step further by introducing a wry political humour into titles, exemplified in his contrafact ‘All the things you could be by now if Sigmond Freud’s mother was your wife’ was ‘All the things you are’ (Kern). A throwaway favourite of mine is ‘Byas a Drink’ (Don Byas) which is ‘Stompin at the Savoy’ (Sampson). Birds (2)

The above examples are more than a play on words, they are fiendishly clever compositions and sometimes as famous than the tunes they arose from. This was not cleverness for cleverness sake but a bold in your face statement arising from the ongoing struggle of African American Jazz musicians who were tired of being sidelined for jobs, or sent to the back door of the hotel. Especially at a time when many of the inferior white bands cashed in doing the same material, often rising to superstardom. It was also about having fun and mocking the incredulity of the music press. They did it because they could and they were extraordinary musicians who used their intellect to brand a new music. This band is a modern antipodean successor, DNA intact.

The Flightless Birds took this concept a logical step further and not only created contrafacts out of contrafacts but they hinted at or altered the embedded ‘quotes’ and references. It was done with a smile but it was also done with a certain reverence. The times that these tunes arose from were acknowledged, but the joy and eternal spirit of Dizzy et al shone through. Here are a few of the gig tunes and their origins: ‘Stephen Thomas’ (Tom Dennison) is over the changes of ‘St Thomas’ (Sonny Rollins). There is a world of referencing right there (posted as a YouTube Clip). Stephen Thomas is, of course, the gifted Auckland drummer. ‘Buy a Car’ (Passells) utilised the changes of ‘Take the A Train’ (Strayhorn), ‘J Y Lee’ (Passells) was naturally ‘Donna Lee’ (Parker), ‘The Punisher’ (Sinclair) was a great new arrangement based on the changes of ‘In a Mellow Tone’ (Ellington) and so on.  This was a fun night. Passells announcements were entertaining (as they always are) and above all the band looked as if they were enjoying themselves. We were also. Birds (3)

Flightless Birds: Callum Passells (alto saxophone, Compositions), Ben Sinclair (tenor saxophone, compositions) Tom Dennison (bass, compositions), Adam Tobeck (drums). The gig was at the Backbeat bar, K’Road, Auckland, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club on April 25, 2018.

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Backbeat Bar, Bebop, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Hard Bop, Straight ahead, Swing

Frank Gibson Plays Thelonius Monk

FrankEvery Jazz club needs a Monk night on their calendar and when it comes to Monk the local go-to person is definitely the well-known drummer Frank Gibson Jr. Gibson and the various iterations of his bands have long made a point of keeping the Hardbop era and Monk firmly on our radar. While the setlist was not exclusively Monk, the Monk tunes chosen were a solid mix of seldom-heard compositions and old favourites. Frank (2)

A good example of the former was Eronel which memorably featured on the Criss Cross album. I heard Jonathan Crayford play this number solo a few weeks ago and I recall thinking then – why is this wonderful tune not played more often? We also heard the tune Criss Cross, the title track from that album.  ‘Criss Cross’ with its atypical rhythmic displacement is an interesting and bold composition and one which took Monk into new territory. It occurred at the height of his fame. Another lessor known tune was Light Blue, which appears on Thelonius Monk in Action (at the Five Spot).  Others like ‘Rhythm-a-Ning’ and ‘I Mean You’ are well-known all were enthusiastically received. Frank (3)

Among the other tunes played were ‘Bessie’s Blues’ by John Coltrane, ‘Beatrice’ by Sam Rivers and an interesting Harold Danko tune titled ‘Tidal Breeze’. The band featured veteran guitarist Neil Watson and Bass player Cameron McArthur, but a newcomer to this particular lineup was Cameron Allen on tenor saxophone. Allen added that nice earthy-brass touch that Monk gigs benefit from. The gig occurred during an intense and devastating storm. Surprisingly, the audience braved horrendous weather to get there, navigating their way through fallen trees, power outages, flooding and through the debris which littered the city streets. It is always right to head for the music in troubled times and Monk is a force of nature in his own right. Frank (1)

The gig took place at the Backbeat Bar for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, Auckland, New Zealand, April 11, 2018.

Bebop, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Straight ahead, Swing

Marc Osterer (NY/Austria)

Marc Osterer 254Improvised music is a never-ending contest between the familiar and the unexpected. Everything is valid on the journey, but sometimes we forget that tradition can be a springboard and not a straightjacket. We had a good example of that on Wednesday.  Because he lives far from here, few if any locals had previously encountered Marc Osterer, but few who heard him will forget his exuberant CJC gig. Born in New York, Osterer has led an interesting musical life. Broadway Shows, New York clubs, principal trumpet (Mexico City Philharmonic) and the Salzburg Festival Austria. While he attended prestigious musical conservatories in New York, there is something else in his sound – something that can’t be learnt purely from academic institutions. Osterer’s Jazz has a firm foothold in the tradition. Louis Armstrong and the great swing-to-bop trumpeters like Sweets Edison. It made perfect sense therefore that the standards he played were from the Songbook and that his own compositions reached deep inside that era.Marc Osterer 256 (1)

There was something of the old time back streets and jazz alleys in his sound. The way he phrased and that tasty lip-shake vibrato coming straight after a ‘hot’ clean-toned blast. Sure he is a formidable technician, but there was more than that in his sound. Trumpeters not raised on his streets, not bottle fed on Armstrong, Eldridge, Stewart, Allen or Edison hesitate before diving into that particular sound. Swing-to-bop as played in the 50’s still contained the mellow soulful echoes of its New Orleans beginnings. This period is often overlooked today – perhaps it’s even seen as hokey by some?  That’s a shame because the era is a gift that keeps on giving (watch a clip of Roy Eldridge or Henry Red Allen sometime – ‘whomp whomp’). What Osterer showed us were modern interpretations which were credible and which shone fresh light on an oft neglected golden age of trumpet.Marc Osterer 255We also witnessed good chemistry between the visiter and his pick up band. It was not the band advertised but what we got was terrific. Matt Steele was flown up from Wellington and locals (fellow UoA Jazz School alumni) Eamon Edmundson-Wells and Tristan Deck completed the rhythm section. Pianist Steele has been gone from Auckland for over a year and is seldom heard here these days. We do hear Edmundson-Wells (bass) and Deck (drums), but to the best of my knowledge, none of them have performed in this context. Absent were the complex time signatures and post bop harmonies. The tunes stayed closer to the melody and the rhythmic requirements were often two-beat or even something closer to second line. As they played through the sets the joy of discovery showed on their faces and we felt it too. Marc Osterer 255These musicians were still students three years ago but their skills are now well honed. They met the challenge and more.  Locals who had not seen Steele play for a while, were buzzing; especially after the blistering Cole Porter standard , ‘It’s alright by me’. Steele’s fleet fingered solo was terrific, and matched by Deck’s bop drumming (complete with appropriately placed bombs and fluid accents). Edmundson-Wells dropped right in behind, pumping out his lines, and it was obvious they were enjoying themselves.  Osterer’s compositions tell us how Marc Osterer 254 (1)comfortable he is with this style of music. His ‘What’s that smell’ (Jazz should be ‘stinky’ he explained) – a New Orleans referencing tune, then ‘Tune for today’ and ‘Bite her back’ based on a Bix Beiderbecke tune. Among the standards was Chet Baker’s version of the little known ‘This is always’, a steamrolling syncopated version of ‘Limehouse Blues’ (Braham) [Note: I have only seen one Kiwi attempt that, Neil Watson on fender] and a version of Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘New Orleans’.

My favourite tune of the night was the bands version of the Mencher/Moll 1930’s standard,’I want a little girl (of my own)’. This slow burner is another that has dropped from fashion, perhaps due to the slightly creepy title (and the lyrics are definitely pre feminist).  What a tune this is though. This was less Armstrong’s version than the Cootie Williams/Eddie Cleanhead Vinson take or even Brother Jack McDuff’s. A low down dark-alley speak-easy version with growls, stutters and smears; giving us the full dose of ‘stinky’ jazz and we loved every second of it. A commentator once stated; “When they find out which part of the human brain holds the love gene, this tune, ‘I want a little girl’ will be present in the DNA”.

Putin recently opined that tolerance and the Western world’s fetish for embracing diversity are signs of weakness. Hermann Goering said something similar, “when I hear the word culture I reach for my gun”. This myopic world view is the domain of strutting fools. The improvised music circuit is our connection to innovation, tolerance and expanded consciousness. On Wednesday nights we forget Trump and Le Pen. For that short window in time we live in a world of exciting ideas and discover the hidden corners of human consciousness.  Keep them coming CJC, you enrich our lives.   

I have put up two sound clips: ‘I want a little girl (of my own)’ and ‘It’s all right by me’ – enjoy.

Mark Osterer (trumpet, arrangements, compositions), Matt Steele (piano), Eamon Edmundson-Wells (bass), Tristan Deck (drums). 22nd March 2017, CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Thirsty Dog, K’Road, Auckland.

 

Bebop, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Post Millenium

Flightless Birds – Callum Passells

Passells 254Callum Passells’ newest project was an exploration which took us to the outer edges of Bebop. The title ‘Flightless Birds’ a wordplay; a pebble tossed into the pond, suggesting many possibilities. The obvious Jazz reference is a comparison  between flightless New Zealand birds and Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker – his musical descendants especially. A cohort that tried and often failed to catch his musical coattails. For a time after his death, alto saxophones were laid aside in favour of the tenor; only a brave few risked comparison with the troubled prodigy. As his legend grew he seemed unassailable. Attempts to demystify, to separate the legend from his musical  legacy came later. In the post millennium era few such sensitivities remain. Parker is deeply admired for his genius, then deconstructed unselfconsciously. The gifted altoist Rudresh Mahanthappa immediately comes to mind.

As the Wednesday CJC gig progressed the flightless birds theme was teased out with self-deprecating humour and clever asides. If the aim was to challenge us to view Bebop in fresh ways, while stripping away some of the worshipful churchy reverence, then it succeeded. Passells is able to strike that rare balance between irreverence and devotion, and all the while delighting his audience. He makes the outlying and complex accessible and this is his gift. His music makes us think, it makes us laugh, but never at the expense of enjoyment.Passells 256The two things that draw me to Passells are his tone and his communication of ideas. For a musician who leans toward the avant-garde he has a remarkably clean tone. This works well for him when he heads into uncharted choppy waters, cutting though the turbulent air incisively. There is obvious precedent for this in Albert Ayler (who strove to sound like Desmond or Konitz while tearing at the very fabric of harmony and form).Passells 254 (1)

The quartet had no chordal instrument and adding one would have subtracted from, not enhanced the performance. Accompanying Passells were tenor player Ben Sinclair, Bassist Tom Dennison and drummer Adam Tobeck. As tempting as it is to compare this to the Marsh/Konitz quartets, or even the piano-less Mulligan quartets would be superficial. This project was firmly grounded in the Bebop tradition and interpreted in an honest Kiwi way. Sinclair was the ideal foil for Passells, also possessing a clean tone and delivering pleasing and inventive solos. The warm harmonies struck between the two horns and the bass were at times spine tingling – more bebop than cool and often bookended by edgy heart stopping unison lines.  It’s been ages since I’ve seen Dennison on the bandstand and that was a treat in itself. He gets such a fat warm sound from his instrument and his time feel is great. This is the second week in a row that drummer Tobeck has played a CJC gig. He had different duties to perform on Wednesday and he obviously warmed to the challenge.Passells 255The tunes were all ‘contrafacts’ and cleverly constructed. I am crap at working out the mother tunes – a job best suited to musicians fed a rich diet of standards’ changes. The pieces had titles like “The Punisher” (Sinclair), or ‘Buy a Car’ (Passells).  The Punisher was written over the changes of ‘In a Mellow Tone’ (Ellington) and ‘Buy a Car’ over ‘Take the A Train’ (Strayhorn). After each tune the original was announced, then people got it immediately, cursing themselves for not getting the connection quicker. The tunes were close enough to hint at familiarity, but far enough away from the original to cause some head scratching. One tune needed no guesswork. “I’ve got it bad and so I’m obliged to notify all previous sexual partners” (Passells) – no prize for attributing that one.

My favourite contrafact of the night hands down, was ‘Parkers Dead'(Passells). This title was a double word play – referencing ‘Parkers Mood’ and the graffiti that arose in and around North American cities immediately after Bird’s death; ‘Bird Lives’. This tune was the purest Bebop, with a powerful unison line and hooks so strong they could snag a Great White. Because of a passing superficial similarity, I initially thought it to be based on Parkers ‘Bloomdido’ (my bad).  As is always the case with Passells gigs, I came away musically satisfied and challenged to dive deeper into the music I thought I knew.Passells 257

Flightless Birds: Callum Passells (alto saxophone, compositions), Ben Sinclair (tenor saxophone, compositions), Tom Dennison (upright bass, compositions), Adam Tobeck (drums). CJC (Creative Jazz Club) – Thirsty Dog, 08 March 2017