Backbeat Bar, Beyond category, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Space Jazz

Cam Allens Phobos The Scary Moon

Cam Allen (4)Perhaps it’s the anniversary of the moon landings, or perhaps it’s the crazy-arsed nonsense happening down on planet earth, but deep space has been very much on my mind lately.  I have not been alone in this preoccupation as I appear to share this with a group of explorative improvising musicians. I was recently on local radio taking about a favourite topic, ‘space dreams and analogue machines’ and it occurred to me then, that space dreamers have always shaped our other-world view. Frank Hampson (Dan Dare Comics), Gene Rodenbury (Star Trek) and musicians like Eddie Henderson (Sunburst), or Sun Ra (Space is the Place). Humans have always looked to the stars for inspiration but only writers and musicians have the courage to describe what others cannot yet imagine.  Cam Allen (1)

For the second time in a month I attended a space themed gig and this time it was titled Phobos the scary moon’. Phobos circles Mars and it was only discovered in 1877. It is a small moon, but since its discovery it has exerted an outsized influence on the human imagination. The Greek god Phobos is a god of a fear associated with war. The word Phobia comes from this. For those with open ears and a love of adventurous grooves there was only joy to found here. Nothing about Cam Allen’s Phobos gig required the listener to seek Freudian analysis afterwards. This was an enjoyable night and the scariest part came later as I was walking back to the car and heard an off-key wail from a nearby karaoke bar.  Cam Allen (3)

The band – intergalactic warriors all; Cam Allen on saxophones, gongs and percussion, John Bell on vibes and horn, Julien Dyne on drums, Eamon Edmudson-Wells on upright bass and Duncan Cameron on keys. I rate John Bell’s Aldebaran quartet highly and for similar reasons I rate this band. This type of improvised music is still under explored and it is long overdue for more careful examination. It has form but the structure is not beholden to form; it has melody and hooks but not at the expense of mood or texture. The musicians here conveyed real enthusiasm for the project and that enhanced the effect.  Cam Allen

Seeing Dyne in such good form was a special treat for me. Later as I reviewed the clips I realised what a powerhouse he is. His rolling polyrhythmic beats reminiscent of the young Alvin Jones. Polyrhythmic drummers often sound as if they are powered by rocket fuel and Dyne did. Allen deftly played three horns (plus gongs) and his nicely open compositional structure permanently altered the time-space-continuum. The clip that I am posting initially took me back to those wonderfully transporting forays of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Keep these space gigs coming people I am up for more.

The gig took place at the Backbeat Bar, K’Rd, 29 August 2018, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club.  I am finishing this post just a few hours before I fly to Scandinavia. I hope to experience some music as I travel and will post occasionally. Otherwise I’ll be posting as normal in November. I know that I missed a few posts but I hope to catch up over Christmas. Keep following live improvised music people, your inner life depends on it.

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Beyond category, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, experimental improvised music, vocal

Leda’s Dream 2018 – Chelsea Prastiti

Prastiti (1)Chelsea Prastiti was not long back from Cyprus when her band Leda’s Dream appeared at the Backbeat Bar. Prastiti is well known in the Auckland improvised music scene and especially so at the avant-garde end of town. She’s a compelling vocalist and composer who approaches her craft as a free spirit, unfettered by others expectations. When she sings she dives deep and puts herself out there fearlessly but her risk-taking is not a mere academic exercise; it cuts to the very heart of what it means to be a thinking, feeling human. Her compositions are therefore always interesting and out of that a raw beauty and an honesty arise.  Prastiti (2)Although the ensemble played material that we have heard before, they sounded incredibly fresh – even different. Crystal Choi confined herself to accompanying vocals (no keys), Michael Howell stepped further into a measured chordal role and Callum Passells on alto and voice effects was the archetypal minimalist (saying a lot more with less). This felt very right and the re-configuration gave the ensemble a lot more freedom. They stretched out as the spirit took them and the first two tunes filled the entire first set. The voices, in particular, were liberated by the change and this gave wings to the melodic lines and mood. The harmonies were there in spades but that was not what drew you in. It was ‘mood’ and the pictures that those moods created.  PrastitiPrastiti’s is a brave path and I would expect no less from her. This is a musical space that is sparsely populated and more’s the pity. Think Sera Serpa (duos or trios), Think Norma Winstone (Azimuth 85) or perhaps the brilliant Nordic vocalist Sidsel Endresen (Endresen live with Jan Bang). In this ensemble, she has the musicians to give her the freedom she deserves. Passells, who is unafraid of soft trailing notes or of minimalism, Howell who can follow a vamp to eternity and make it sing, Choi who instinctively makes the right moves, and Eamon Edmundson-Wells and Tristen Deck who know when to lay out and when to add colour or texture. The music drew from free improvisation, standard Jazz and deep Folkloric wells. It did so without undue introspection. The band brought the audience along with them and the bouts of enthusiastic applause proved it. For some reason, and it was partly their attire, the gig felt like a postmodern version of a Pre-Raphaelite tableau. Oh yes indeed, that always works for me.

Leda’s Dream: Chelsea Prastiti (vocals, compositions), Crystal Choi (vocals), Michael Howell (guitar), Callum Passells (alto sax, sound effects), Eamon Edmundson-Wells (upright bass), Tristan Deck (drums), Backbeat Bar, 8 August 2018

Backbeat Bar, Beyond category, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Fusion & World

Takadimi @ Backbeat Bar

TakadimiKarangahape Road and the precincts around it are a natural home for adventurous and alternative music. If you walk the length, you are assailed by sights and sounds at variance to each other. Taken in their entirety they are oddly compatible. The jumble of colour and the bursts of noise as you pass a Karaoke bar or an uber cool eatery is counterbalanced by the languid notes from Shanghai Lils or the soft chatter emanating from Hookah smoking Kebab shop doorways. Woven into this oddness of streetwalkers and urban cool, are the alternative music joints. Down in basements, under the street or up narrow stairways. Thirsty Dog, Anthology, Audio Foundation, Wine Cellar. And at the top end of the strip, next to the old Jewish graveyard is the Backbeat Bar.  High-quality alternative improvised music resides here on Wednesdays. Takadimi (4)

Takadimi is the brainchild of the gifted tabla player Manjit Singh and the CJC featured his band last Wednesday. This is a fusion band in the very best sense of the word as it fuses styles and complex rhythms with apparent ease. The music’s origins are clear but the tunes are not unduly anchored to them. We are living in an age when classical forms are not nailed down and in the west, the whole notion of musical purity is frequently overstated. The higher purpose of music is to connect on a human level and not to impress by showing off technical prowess. Takadimi connected deeply and spoke directly to our senses. They played improvised music but worked into the complex structures of Indian Talas. It felt as if both forms were respected.

The tunes were all introduced by the leader Manjit Singh, who would establish the rhythm by chanting a tala (or taal); then he would guide the ensemble into the open and freer air of jazz harmonies where collective (or solo) improvisation occurred. I have seen this band before and this felt like a step up. The soloists, in particular, showed a readiness to work with and enjoy the challenges presented by the complex polyrhythms. All of the musicians held the line and made it appear easy – it certainly was not. Takadimi (3)

Underpinning everything were the rhythms and colours provided on the Tabla – an instrument long embedded into the Jazz repertoire. Anyone who has heard John McLoughlin, Jean Luc Ponty and Zakir Hussain together will understand how profound the association can be. It is therefore great to have such a fine tabla player in our midst and it our good luck that he is up for cross-genre collaborations.

The last time I heard Takadimi was at the Thirsty Dog; way down the other end of K’ Road. On that gig the lineup was different, this time the band had no guitar and the pianist Alan Brown had joined them. Singh could not have chosen better. Brown is well versed in the output of East European wunderkind Tigran Hamasyan. Hamasyan often counts in with talas and his beautiful Armenian styled rhythms are at times, very close to Indian forms. Brown is a master of complex rhythmic structures and capable of executing them without ever losing the groove. There were many fine performances but a standout was from Lukas Fritsch. His alto danced expertly through the tunes and for a young musician, he handled the complexities like a veteran.  Takadimi (2)

The clip that I have posted is a beautiful composition by the guru Ustad Fazal Qureshi and arranged by Manjit Singh. The Taal is Mishra Jaati – rendered as a polyrhythmic 7 over 4/4 time. On this track, Brown plays a synth instead of piano.  

Takadimi: Manjit Singh (leader, tabla, arrangements), Alan Brown (piano, keyboards), Lukas Fritsch (alto saxophone), Denholm Orr (bass), Daniel Waterson (drums). The gig was at the Backbeat Bar, K’ Road, Auckland, CJC Creative Jazz Club, July 11, 2018.

Backbeat Bar, Beyond category, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Fusion & World, Small ensemble

Jonathan Besser @ Backbeat Bar

BesserThere is an inescapable charm surrounding any Besser performance and Wednesday’s Zestniks gig at the Backbeat bar was no exception. While his music has many strands feeding it and although it can be hard to categorise, it is never the less rooted in the Jewish musical traditions. Besser is somewhat of an icon in Arts circles and deservedly so. The arc of his work has a momentum that few could emulate. As it alights on various styles or genres it borrows their raiment, and seemingly without compromising what lies at the music’s heart; gathering what is necessary and no more. Over the years he has collaborated with leading conceptual artists, filmmakers, symphony orchestras, electronic adventurers and Jazz musicians. The Zestnics performance reflected much of this fascinating journey.Besser (2)

I am always drawn to performers who leaven their gigs with an appropriate portion of banter and Besser’s comments and asides were delightful. They were delivered with a deadpan expression and consequently were nicely understated. As with music, timing and delivery are everything.  Many of the tunes were from his ‘Gimel Suite’ and a quick investigation of the word leads you to a cornucopia of meanings. It is the third letter of the Hebrew alphabet, it is a letter imbued with special qualities and it this case it is a footing or foundation for composition. This is an ancient to modern music and I suspect that those listening will have conjured their own associations. Because I have recently travelled through eastern Europe, I heard the warp and weft of Polish or Czech street music.   Besser (1)

The other ensemble members came from a variety of disciplines and this was fitting. Caro Manins on vocals with her deep knowledge of ancient Sephardic Ladino music; Nigel Gavin, an adventurous ‘World music’ musician who ignores artificial boundaries; John Bell, a Vibes player from the free to groove or ‘World’ end of town; Eamon Edmundson-Wells on bass, a versatile bass player and also frequently seen in avant-garde settings; Alistair Deverick on drums, navigating those exhilarating rhythms. Lastly were two from the expanded Black Quartet; Peau Halapua on violin and Sophie Buxton on viola – popular classical musicians and sometimes seen with Jazz or ‘World’ ensembles. Besser, of course, was on piano.

Some of the tunes were nostalgic or even mournful, some were brimming with joy – all were enjoyable.  The tunes never strayed too far from the notation, but there were some brief improvised sections which balanced things up nicely. I have posted the last number of the gig and while I am not sure of the title, I know that it brought the house down.

The gig took place on the 4th of July, 2018 at the Backbeat Bar, K’Road, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club.

Avant-garde, Backbeat Bar, Beyond category, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs

The Oblivious Eight

JeffJeff Henderson is a freedom warrior from outside of the perimeter fence.  On the 9th of May, 2018, he marched barefooted into the Backbeat Bar with a ragtag army of irregulars. The audience had come well prepared and a pregnant air of anticipation hung over the bandstand during setup.  Unusually, there were no lower ranks in this army, all were battle-hardened veterans (or anti-heroes depending on your viewpoint). All had impressive service records, an advance guard who took no prisoners. Jonathan Crayford is arguably the most famous of the troop, a decorated hero who swiftly commandeered a C3 organ (an ancient analogue machine decorated by psychedelic art and reminiscent of a Haight Asbury weed shop). Beside him sat machine gunner Steve Cournane, a rat-tat-tat freedom fighter recently returned from Peru. The remaining soldier, battle scared and bleeding, was Eamon Edmundson-Wells (his Viking surname tells it’s own story).  Jeff (1)

The first set was a powerhouse of inventiveness. An outburst of raw energy cradled cunningly in a cocoon of warm grooves. This one step closer-than-usual to Jazz approach may have surprised some, but certainly not me.  I have witnessed Henderson doing this time and again. He can pick over the bones of anything from heavy metal to folk music. He is fearless in his appropriations and he always transforms base metals without fear or favour. This was pure alt music alchemy. Henderson is the real deal, a musician with a calculated irreverence, a sound jocky with an inside-outside approach. A man who dives so deep inside his artform that few dare to follow. As he traversed the various moods and tempos, you could hear his trademark multiphonics; nothing lingering too long. There were too many fresh ideas ahead and no time for a tea break.  Jeff (2)

The compositions were wonderful and each in a different way. It was inspired that Henderson surrounded himself with such a warm groove. Drum beats that either dove into a 70’s groove or even took a Buddy Rich turn. A warm as toast Crayford tinged B3 sound and a solid blood dripping bass line. That sort of surrounding could have been a straight jacket for an avant-garde player but in Henderson’s hands, it was a liberating vehicle.  He worked off the others constantly and they, in turn, gave him clear air without deviating from their given roles. This was one of those special nights where every musician shone a light, cutting through the mundane and dispelling all hints of mediocrity.  They were so deep in the music that they were doubtless ‘oblivious’ to the rows of open-mouthed listeners. I must, however, raise an eyebrow at the name, there were clearly more than eight band members on that bandstand.

Auckland is the richer for Henderson’s presence. We should count our lucky stars that he jumps the perimeter wire from time to time. This was an eight out of eight performance. Jeff Henderson (baritone & alto sax, compositions), Jonathan Crayford (C3 organ), Eamon Edmundson-Wells (upright bass), Steve Cournane (drums) – June 9, 2018, Backbeat Bar, CJC Creative Jazz Club, K’Road, Auckland. Jeff (3)

Beyond category, Concerts - visiting Musicians, Piano Jazz, Review

Jonathan Crayford’s ‘Steinway Tour’

SoloJ (1) Rarely, do we get to experience something truly sublime and for this to occur a number of planets must be perfectly aligned. Art at this level cannot be forced as the realization is dependant on both tangibles and intangibles. The musician might be in peak form, but if the room or the instrument is mediocre then the fine edge of perfection is blunted. It is harder to achieve in a capacious concert hall; easier in a well-appointed studio or an intimate vibing Jazz club. There is no manual to guide us to the point of departure. It is a divine alchemy pure and simple.

When I heard that Jonathan Crayford would be touring the country with a Steinway D Concert piano and one with considerable provenance, my first inclination was to doubt. This was no small undertaking. The piano in question was special, played by luminaries such as Lily Kraus, who signed it. It was formerly owned by a branch of the Guggenheim family and if Crayford had not asked a friend to purchase it, we would have lost it to an offshore purchaser. The friend, surprisingly, agreed and said, “Now use it”. Crayford is one of the few musicians who could pull this off.

The piano and Crayford travelled up from Wellington a few days ago and the first concert took place on the day of their arrival in Auckland. The lovely Uxbridge Arts Centre in Howick was the first venue; a pleasant, modern 100+ seat auditorium with good acoustics (especially for a piano) and an intimate cosiness.  I arrived early as I was videoing and sat quietly in the darkness; watching Crayford and his magnificent piano get acquainted.

Crayford approaches pianos with reverence and sensitivity. I watched as he played a few phrases – then he paused when a particular voicing took his attention. Putting his ear close and playing it again with a look of delight. He was learning the secrets and subtleties of the instrument. Later during the concert, he gently tapped out a note which had taken his fancy. “Listen carefully”, he said to the audience, pointing to a particular key. A soft harmonic-rich sound reverberated gently through the room – revealing a warm golden timbre. As he shared these insights we felt privileged. Crayford treats fine pianos as living entities; beings to be understood, curated, exalted. When he finished a piece he would gently lift his hands and time would stall as the slow decay of chord or phrase created new harmonics and textures. Sound bouncing off wood, frame and room until it faded into infinity. SoloJ (4)

He opened with a composition of his own, a reflective piece of deep spacious improvisation, perfectly realised and just the right length to reel us in. The awed hush from the audience said it all. This concert was special and everyone there swiftly grasped that. Next, we heard his take on an obscure but unmistakable Monk tune, the familiar jagged lines morphing into new shapes as he went. There was no set playlist, no charts to guide him; just a small black notebook with dozens of possible tunes written down and in no particular order. The piano and his musician’s instinct informing him of the journey as he went. Tunes were chosen or rejected on the fly. His programme consisting mainly of reflective material but with a few faster-paced tunes to balance these out. A tune from the Spanish civil war attributed to Garcia Lorca was an example of the latter. On the slower reflective pieces like a Satie Gymnopedie, he left space for the music to breathe – space for the spirit of the piano to sing through.  He would often play three pieces together and then rise from the piano to quote a line from Shakespeare or to offer an insight into a piece. He is a fascinating speaker and his enthusiasm utterly infectious. Nothing was out of place, everything he did conveyed the magic of the moment. SoloJ (6)

I urge music lovers to clear their calendars and attend these extraordinary concerts as Crayford travels throughout New Zealand. It is seldom that we get to experience projects like this and extremely rare to hear them in such intimate spaces. The most difficult gig in Jazz is the free-ranging improvised solo piano concert. When it works (and this certainly did) it is the most rewarding. This was deep improvisation, sensitive interaction and piano/sound curation at it’s best.  It paid respect to the solo art form and above all to a very special Steinway piano. It was Jarrett like (but without the abuse). It was Crayford at his best and that is enough to satisfy any music lover.

For tour, details check out: jonathancrayford.com – (video up later)

John Fenton  – March 2018

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Beyond category, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Concerts - visiting Musicians, vocal

Simona Minns ‘A Hunger Artist’

IMG_6628 - Version 2The heart of the modern improvised and experimental music scene is always an interesting place to be. Audiences tend to be open-eared and accustomed to music from a wide variety of sources. Improvising musicians have always drawn on diverse influences and it is a narrow-minded few who whine about dilution or the good old days. We should never undercut the deeper purpose of music, which is to share stories, communicate on a primal level, interpret. We tell stories to live and how we listen or react to music speaks to our musical maturity. When Simona Minns performed in Auckland last week, she brought with her a variety of influences. and all were approached with integrity.

She is billed as a Jazz Singer, composer, arranger and artistic director, and she is unafraid to mash up or blend genres. All of the above descriptors were on show when she performed at the Backbeat Bar and everything she did, communicated an innate sense of fun and adventure. She is a natural performer, but behind that lies careful preparation. Her easy-going confidence disarms, but it arises out of hard work and commitment. A good example of the care she brings to her art lies in her charts. The musicians all commented on how beautifully they were crafted and judging by the solo’s, they were not constrained by them. We heard Jazz standards, old Lithuanian folk songs, tunes from her musical ‘A Hunger Artist’ and some jazz-mashed classic rock.  The audience loved it all and got the musical jokes embedded therein. The fact that she was cleverly comedic in her introductions, enhanced the overall effect. IMG_6586

I first read Franz Kafka as a 14-year-old, and once read, his tales cannot easily be forgotten. They are dystopian and thus disturbing, but a mature reading reveals clever questions, posed for our consideration. Kafka’s ‘A Hunger Artist’ is just such a tale – disturbing, yet raising important issues for all times. Issues which cut to the heart of performance art itself.

The tunes from Minns musical were delightful, and the fact that she could frame them without overdoing the pathos reminded us of the deeper questions posed. Her choice of standards appeared commonplace until you heard them and then they took on a life of their own. All were either re-harmonised or arranged in unique ways. As if to underline this point of difference she created mash-ups from them – blending classic rock and Jazz; often dancing as she delivered her lively performances.  IMG_6612 - Version 2

She had a very fine Jazz unit backing her – a truly superb band and ideal for the task. Alan Brown on keyboards, Cameron McArthur on bass and Stephen Thomas on drums. She also played a classic Lithuanian harp (the Kanklas). While it is a small instrument, it is capable of producing extraordinary melancholic sounds. The sort you hear throughout the eastern block (and even down as far as Turkey or Greece). My favourite number was her mash-up of Gershwin’s Summertime. The band really broke loose on that number and the effects were electrifying. An Alan Brown band in full flight is a wonder to behold indeed. S Minns (11)

Simona Minns was born in Lithuania where she obtained a music degree, later moving to Berklee (Boston, USA) where she obtained a degree in composition. She also founded ‘Syntheatre’ a performance company in Boston. Her albums can be sourced from her website or from iTunes or the various streaming platforms. Her website is simonaminns.com  The Performance was at the Backbeat Bar in K’Road and presented by the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) and the Auckland Fringe Festival on Tuesday 20, February 2018.

I have posted a short clip of her performing a song from the Kafka inspired ‘A Hunger Artist’ – where she plays the Kanklas.