Alex Ventling ~ Nurturing the Creative Spirit

Interview January 2022

Alex Ventling is a musician worth keeping an eye on. His learning pathway is intriguing and his music is vibrant. He is an improviser in the true sense, avoiding inertia as he gathers information without and within. His method is to locate a point of equanimity and in doing so, honouring both the collective and the innate. Although Ventling was born in my city I had not encountered his eerily-beautiful music until recently. He was unfamiliar because he left us for Basel straight after high school, studying extensively in Switzerland and Northern Europe. That course of action has yielded dividends for the musician and for the listener. This post is about his journey but also something deeper, unlocking the creative spirit. 

JL32: Hi Alex, I know that you are just out of MIQ, so welcome to my Waitakere home.

AV: Thanks John it’s nice to be here for a few weeks of relaxation and freedom. This sort of freedom is quite rare in the world right now.

JL32: You are regarded as a Swiss pianist although you were born in Tāmaki Makaurau. How do you view yourself? 

AV: I still feel like I’m a Kiwi kid, but one (embedded) in Europe. There I discovered a culturally rich world and I am exploring that. My mother is Swiss Italian and my father is German American, so I have many cultural connections, but those particular connections only come into play when you experience the cultures first hand.  

Trondheim

JL32: I have been thinking about musical nationalism lately and about what Dave Holland said. That musical nationalism should be acknowledged but not overemphasized. He saw Jazz as a universal art form. How do you react to that?

AV: Yeah, I agree. There is so much to be said about how different peoples perceive a musician’s career and it relates to the values they have. So, moving about (between countries) you create music in different cities, and even though Europe is quite small in area, there is such a diversity of musical thinking.   

JL32: So where did your musical journey begin? 

AV: I grew up on the North Shore with a strong connection to Leigh where my mum did her marine biology degree, and I had a good piano teacher early on. She took the time to find out what music I related to. She allowed me to explore more open music, something closer to improvising. And at Pinehurst school, the Jazz pianist Dr Mark Baynes led our Jazz band, so I was very fortunate. He introduced me to people like Bud Powell, Keith Jarrett and Aaron Parks and I would listen to his recommendations on the school bus and ask for more each week.

JL32: And I bet you heard a lot of Brad Mehldau.

AV: Yes, because Mark was starting his thesis on Brad around then. And so at 19, I left for Basel in Switzerland, intending for it to be a gap year, a reconnecting with my roots. I stopped off in New York on the way to attend a New York Film Academy Music course. I’m interested in the visual arts, especially when combined with music. 

At that point, I was still deciding on what I wanted to do with my life; music or design. Then, while passing through Singapore I applied to Berklee Jazz School as they do auditions there. After my audition, I was accepted by Berklee and offered a scholarship. In the end, I decided not to take the offer up. In Basel, I thought the whole thing through carefully and decided to study there instead.

JL32: I am interested in this because it is not a typical study pathway for an aspiring Kiwi Jazz musician.  

AV: In hindsight, I am glad that I rejected that offer because I had nowhere near the capabilities that Berklee required and while they would have developed those skills, or any good Jazz school would have, I believe that I could have emerged into a sea of pianists who sounded much like each other. 

JL32: So you settled on the Basel Jazz Campus. How was that different? 

AV: The teachers certainly challenged us, we had Jorge Rossy, Larry Grenadier, Jeff Ballard, Mark Turner, Bill McHenry, but the focus was interesting (not just about developing chops).

‘by the way, I don’t care what ‘you’ can play and what ‘you’ can do. What I care about is what ‘we’ can do together. 

That changed the way I thought about group playing. I learned how to listen to myself with others and to view everything as a learning opportunity. There was a huge emphasis on listening at the Basel Jazz Campus. That is not to say that virtuosity is not valid, but we were encouraged to go beyond that. So, less focus on individualism and more about connections. Play something that the music is asking for rather than what your ego suggests.

(Brad Mehldau now teaches there also)

JL32: That is a nice segue to a related question. I’m interested in your involvement with Buddhist Vipassana meditation and how that practice factors into your development as a musician. I want to come back to that as it ties in nicely with what you are saying, but to continue with the European teaching methods you’ve encountered. Do you see this as being different from what is offered elsewhere?

AV: Perhaps there is a cultural component to this. In some cultures, you have to play louder, faster or say it quickly to be heard.  So to jump ahead a bit, that is what the Jazz School in Trondheim Norway is so aware of in their teachings. An amazing place. I managed to spend my last semester in Trondheim while completing my European Jazz Masters. They talk a lot about the generative potential of the musician. They are training your ears and the inner musician so that you draw on that, then translate that onto your instrument. If you develop that first, you will learn afterwards what technique you require to express what you have inside. Scandinavian Jazz schools tend to reorder priorities over many traditional Jazz Schools by putting skills development second. The generative potential and your skills can then be complimentary.  

JL32: You are the second European trained musician to express similar views. Rob Luft who was at the Royal Academy in London was told something similar. But back to Basel, tell me something about the bands you formed during and after your studies there?  The YouTube clips of those bands are captivating. Was the trio the unit you formed first?

AV: The trio, which I still have, arose out of my time in Basel. I wanted to start there because as a pianist, that particular classic piano trio form is the holy grail of Jazz. That trio is a multinational affair with the UK born Phelan Burgoyne on drums. Btw, Phelan was in a band with Rob Luft. He is now living in Florence with his Italian wife. And we had fellow student James Kruttli on bass, so yes, the trio is still going and we have more to say. Our last gig was in Berlin but we haven’t had many opportunities to play lately due to COVID. We had a different bassist in Berlin but it was a great reunion for me and Phelan. Before that, and weeks before COVID hit, we toured New Zealand of course. You reviewed that (We laugh about the white piano wish it a peaceful slumber). You play on what you are given, you adjust and play off that. That’s the attitude of pianist improvisers because you can’t bring your piano to a gig.

Jl32: How do you see the trio evolving?

AV: So the trio is still going and I’ve been playing more free music and loving that. Improvisers need to channel these varying experiences (even difficult pianos) and react to new places. Since I’ve been travelling, in Copenhagen, Berlin, Trondheim there are fresh ideas and we all have new tunes to share. So what was initially an acoustic piano trio is now involving a Korg Prologue synthesiser. We have evolved from a tunes trio to something else, last gig we only played two tunes per set and between we played free.

JL32: So do you enjoy playing free?

AV: I love it and that is mainly because I’ve been exposed to Scandinavian music, the free scene in Copenhagen and also in Berlin. 

JL32: Both of those locations have well developed free scenes, Have you found a difference? 

AV: Berlin is more of an animal, a beast of its own I would say. 

JL32: Open exploration and embracing hybridity?

AV: Yes improvisers should include their other influences and experiences, what’s around them and whatever else they are going through, even the non-musical elements. The places they’ve travelled through, the people they’ve met, the cultures they’ve encountered, soak it up and translate that into music. That’s when you get interesting results. This can be seen as the traditional journey for improvisers in a sense, many of the standards were just pop songs of the day reinterpreted.  I have a trio I play with right now in Scandinavia where we mostly improvise, but we also play jazz standards and fragment them. 

JL32: I’ve heard you do a version of Someday My Prince will Come as a reharm. 

AV: Exactly. That was a fully-fledged new arrangement until the melody line was barely perceivable anymore. 

JL32:  I just found an album on Bandcamp which is essentially Pakistani devotional music in conjunction with a Nordic Jazz Guitarist and bass. It remains what it is, devotional music, but through a Jazz lens. Nothing is forced.

AV: What you said then, through a jazz lens, I find it interesting when Jazz musicians or other kinds of artists look at something through their own lens, something different, often not even music. I mentioned before the school in Copenhagen I attended, the Rythmic Music Conservatory, they are all about that. People come there from vastly different styles and genres. We would embark on our different projects and get feedback from each other on our projects, a classical clarinettist, an extended technique only saxophonist, a hip-hop artist etc. When a Rap artist gives feedback on a piece by an improvising pianist like me, I will hear something different to what a Jazz musician will tell me. That musician will talk about aspects that I might not have considered. It’s more of a zoomed-out perspective. It is also nourishing to let go of that thing where you need to prove yourself (to people who know your thing)

JL32: With your Alex And The Wavemakers Quartet, you were exploring, expanding, you added a human voice, a Korean voice. I loved that. Were you influenced in any way by that European thing, like Kenny Wheeler/Norma Winstone, Weber, Endresen etc, interwoven vocal lines, melodic interplay?  

AV: The reference you made to Kenny Wheeler and Norma Winstone, I had certainly heard that, but I came to the use of wordless voice differently, using voice as a rhythmic instrument. So in the group, you are referring to, Alex and the Wavemakers, I was very much influenced by the Swiss musician Nik Bartsch and his Ronin band.

JL32: Yeah I rate that band, percussive serialism, tell me more. 

AV: So that’s the sort of sound I was going for, rhythmic organisms so that every musician had a piece of the rhythmic puzzle and we would all interlock. I would compose the rhythmic cycles so that they all knew where they were, but I didn’t want the voice to stand out by having lyrics. Everyone needed to be an equal part of a collective sound. So it worked out well with the Korean Singer Yumi Ito. She is a phenomenal singer, and also Japanese singer Song Yi Jeon (there is material featuring both available on YouTube). Song, who has a strong voice brought quite a powerful flavour to the band. It started with the Nik Bartsch influence but we ended up doing a lot more improvising (Bartsch concentrates on micro improvisations). We even had solos.

JL32: And has that approach changed?

AV: So that’s a strong part of my listening background, but in Scandinavia and particularly Copenhagen I’ve been concentrating more on improvising; where people are using a lot of textural approaches, thinking more about bringing together sonic textures. So the new group, the one I sent you this morning and which I started in Trondheim, has piano, synth, violin, vibraphone and drums. So changing the lineup and forming a new quartet was driven by COVID and the lack of gigs, but I’m developing a concept out of that. 

JL32: Yeah having a palette like that opens up a world of possibilities. As a composer, it must give you more scope. So do you prefer writing through-composed pieces or something looser? 

AV: Yes that’s a good question and I’ve been thinking about that a lot. Where do I lie between completely free and completely arranged? I find that whole area interesting, arranged, textures, free, and that’s where these cultural differences come into play. My observation is, that the further north you go, the more musicians think about composing beyond or before the notes are written.

JL32: As in they’ve internalised the ideas?

AV: Yes, working out structures in advance, but then the actual notes and rhythms can be completely free, but perhaps the dynamic, interplay, vibe and textures will be strict and fixed. So the complete opposite to how classical music forms are notated. So you don’t start with a melody, rhythm, set of chords.   

JL32: So you’re not necessarily thinking cycle of fifths, how to resolve or traditional forms?

AV: Oh yes, you’re probably right. There’s nothing wrong with that traditional approach at all, but nobody is talking about composition quite like the Scandinavians do. It’s a given that Jazz musicians will be familiar with song forms, scales etc, but does it matter if you have an individual approach?  A process that you develop. In Copenhagen, it wouldn’t necessarily matter if you had little knowledge of traditional song forms. If you have a process of your own, then that’s perfectly valid. 

JL32: I saw a video featuring Dave Holland, where a bass player student asked him how many notes ahead he thought. His reply was none.

‘during a free-flowing enjoyable conversation with friends, how many words ahead do you think or plan’?  

So he was saying, once you know how to speak, how you use speech is an in-the-moment creative process. 

AV: And you’re not thinking about which word you’re going to use. So you have a basic competency in language and you use it. So with this conversation now, we are not thinking about our next word, but we are thinking about what will we do with those words. Ideas are forming and I think that it is the same with music. The smallest details can make big differences and that is part of the minimalist approach. Listening to Nik Bartsch I discovered what delight you can get with these minimal changes, so I’m a big fan of minimalism. The composer-pianist from Norway, Christian Wallumod, exemplifies that. There are minimal and subtle changes that can occur over time when you are in a certain musical zone. This happens when a group is at a certain level and can shine a light on these (subtleties). It is fascinating when musicians are playing free, find their space, stay there for a while, then tell a story with those details.

JL32: The Melbourne pianist Andrea Keller exploits those subtle variations to great effect, but she will also place them against fragments of the unsubtle. 

AV: Nik Bartsch talks about that in his book, (where he refers to) the unobtrusive difference. He quotes Stravinsky or Morton Feldman when he says, it is of the highest art when you can repeat something, change it very slightly, repeat a form many times over but it is the subtle differences. That creates the art. Christian Wallumrød gets variations out of simple major triads for example.

JL32: Again the internal battle with yourself over utilising all the chops you possess or telling a story in subtle ways.

AV: Which is what we were talking about, in developing an inner voice which tells you what you want to express. A different set of skills is required to express simple ideas well.

JL32: What about eliminating the bass, removing the anchor?

AV: Yes in my Trondheim quartet we don’t have a bass which can be liberating. I wondered if it would work at first, but once I’d prepared the left side of the piano with blue-tack mutes, I realised that they would take away a lot of the overtones and sustain, giving me a more percussive bass sound – even sounding at times like a Fender Bass. 

JL32: Nik Bartsch again. The harmonics are gone and you hear the patterns clearly – like Ta-tunk, ta-tunk.

AV: yes exactly, he utilises that. And then you are more of a percussion instrument again. I prepare the bottom two octaves of the piano, but also the top two octaves using wood, wooden cutlery between the strings. On a grand piano, I put the wood between two of the strings, leaving the third-string resonating (there are three strings to a note in the upper register of a grand).

JL32: There is a marvellous pianist in Auckland named Hermione Johnson who deploys a wide range of effects, some soft (stroked chopsticks), some percussive, some more like the gamelan. 

AV: Other harder objects and especially metals can give a strong gamelan sound; activating some of the frequencies in the soundboard and the strings. I think that prepared piano lends itself more to a percussive sound. While you can add to the sustain, it is a lot easier to take away, it is a subtractive exercise, eliminating the sustain but then adding to the attack depending on the materials used. I will be releasing an album soon with a Norwegian guitarist named Hein Westgaard playing a semi hollow-body guitar plugged directly into the amp. Without using pedals. I am playing prepared piano with varying acoustic preparations and it is completely improvised (it will be available on Bandcamp once released).  

JL32: The minimalist approach and use of extended technique have always been with us, even going back to previous centuries.

AV: And those forms will always be underdogs.

JL32: It can be extremely rewarding although deep listening is required. In a world full of easily accessible and disposable things, connecting deeper music to audiences must have challenges. 

AV: Yes, but that’s what improvisers do. I’ve been playing with another guitarist in Trondheim who plays Baritone Guitar and he bows it with a cello bow. He uses lots of pedals and creates these atmospheric worlds of sound and he loops it and feeds it through a granulation process. Much like Stian Westerhus the experimental guitarist, also a Norwegian. 

JL32: Eivind Aaset is someone I listen to a lot (a Norwegian guitarist who frequently works with Jan Bang, Arve Hendrikson and other notable improvisers). An American reviewer felt that this type of Nordic live improvisation and sound sculpting was like an extension of Bitches Brew.

AV: And it is influenced by the film music tradition. We had a class at Trondheim Jazz-Line NTNU called sound drama. It was about improvisation and group improvisation and trying to avoid tonal and rhythmical structures (the discussion turned to deep listening, which led us to Buddhist meditation and the influence it has had on improvisers like Gary Peacock and our own Jim Langabeer, who both attended the Woodstock Zen centre)  

JL32: So on deep listening and mindfulness, how did you get into practising Vipassana Mindfulness Meditation?

AV: I began practising Vipassana about six years ago, starting with a ten-day course in silence, no reading material, no distractions, no music, no talking. I went into it out of curiosity, but it turned out to be life-changing. I meditated feeling that it could be beneficial to music-making but not sure how. It turned out to be more than I expected and it was not about changing a person but making them more themselves. It strips you down and gives you tools. While I was in Basel I wrote a paper on Vipassana meditation and its connection to improvised music. In attempting to break down the elements I found some astounding relationships. There is a word common to Vipassana (and Buddhism in general), equanimity, and when you apply that to group playing it benefits the music. Letting go of your ego, not judging your performance while playing, living in the now. The music will tell you where to go and what it needs. This requires level-headedness.

JL32: Learning to be the observer perhaps?

AV: Yes the observer living in the moment. It’s hard not to think forward or back.

JL32: The restless monkey-mind demanding novelty, craving?

AV: Accept change as it happens as the observer. At first, I thought that I had to be reactive in Jazz, but now I think that being responsive is better, there is a difference. Making an instantaneous decision based upon everything that you’ve learnt and without ego. Being more giving to your fellow musicians. I don’t want to parrot the drummer or any band member in a rhythmical trade. Those ideas were in my Basel Thesis. I am now keen to explore how this could relate to composition. 

JL32: European Jazz is developing multiple strong identities and often at warp speed. 

AV: Especially the former Eastern Bloc countries. I hope that the free explorations continue but the internet could dilute that originality. Original ideas, folk music and new ways of exploring sound are very important in Scandinavia, but my Trondheim tutors worry about the risks posed by internet overload. 

JL32: Speaking authentically is vital for improvisers and I hope Jazz never travels down the ersatz road that commercial music has.  I guess that this is a good place to wrap things up. Thanks for coming over and agreeing to a grilling. By the way, I can’t wait to hear the new band. 

AV: I will send you a copy when it’s out. I return to Copenhagen and Trondheim in two days, so I must head home and grab my surfboard.

JL32: Where will you surf?

AV: Tawheranui.

You can find Alex Ventling’s albums on streaming platforms, Bandcamp or by contacting him via his website AlexVentling.com

JazzLocal32.com is 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, poet & writer. Some of these posts appear on related sites.

Andrea Keller ~ Systems Over-Ride

There is something satisfying about evaluating an anticipated album before the listening public gets to experience it, and whether it arrives digitally, or through the post, it can bring with it a heightened sense of expectation. It is a series of brush strokes unveiled before the paint is dry, and best of all it is unsullied by the crude measure of market vagaries. You listen with care, hoping that the music will speak to you and when it does you feel lucky. 

The best improvisers never settle, they reach waypoints then quietly move on. Andrea Keller is just such a musician. She is a creative force in perpetual motion and her steady output attests to that. And while each album or performance reveals something unforeseen, the connection to what came before is evident in the compositional DNA. To maintain such an arc without faltering is rare, but then Keller is a unique musician.

I have followed her work for some time and found the journey rewarding. There is a strong sense of the experimental in what she does but it never feels random. She can play with extremes while navigating a delicate path in between. When amidst these contrasting realities she is at her best and Systems Over-Ride is a prime example. 

It is entirely consistent with her musical openness, that she expresses a fascination with both free jazz and doom metal; this is referenced in the liner notes and it makes sense that she should navigate a course between these turbulent waters. She is in her element here. This quintet of Wave Riders, Keller aside, features a fresh crew. It compliments her 2013 Wave Rider album (and all of her albums) by moving on. 

As the pieces unfold, Keller’s pianism is always at its heart, with her unhurried serialism and melodic interjections drawing you ever deeper; notes and the spaces deployed to maximum effect. Much is implied beyond the notes too, as the tunes navigate a course between the turbulent waters ruffling the music’s edge. The quintet members respond in kind, and there are solos of course, but the album breathes as one.

As we approach the first quarter of the 21st century there is a rightness to these explorations. This is contemporary jazz as it should be. A leading US Jazz biographer and Journalist recently posted this meme, ‘People whose interest in Jazz stops with mid 20th Century recordings are missing the whole point of that music’. There is no endpoint to an improvisers journey. This is the direction of travel, ready or not.

The lineup here features Scott McConnachie (saxophones),  Jack Richardson (guitar), Mick Meagher (bass), Rama Parawata (drums) plus specially commissioned remixes using fragments from the studio session – remixes by Nicole Lizēe, Bree van Reyk, Joe Talia, Philip Rex & Theo Carbo.   

 It is available from Bandcamp in double vinyl, limited edition Compact Disk or Digitally at www.andreakeller.bandcamp.com  (Spotify should be avoided or used as a last resort, I support Neil Young and the artists who have pulled their content from that platform)

JazzLocal32.com is 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, poet & writer. Some of these posts appear on related sites

Seventh House Music ~ Exile / Murmurs ~ Review

‘Seventh House Music’ is a recent imprint of ‘Rattle Records’ and a portal into a specific sub-genre of free improvised music. The parent label, Rattle, occupies a unique place in the cultural life of Aotearoa. It is a natural home for innovative and predominantly Kiwi art music and the new imprint has emerged at an auspicious time. Rattle has just celebrated its thirtieth anniversary. It is a taonga, drawing inspiration from many sources, including that of Aotearoa’s indigenous peoples, and due to the careful curation by Steve Garden, it maps a unique arc of creativity. Or to quote from the website: ‘music born of open-ended boundary-free creativity, new music for open ears.

‘Exiles’ is the first album from Seventh House Music, and presciently, it appeared in the week of Jon Hassell’s passing. It engages the psyche, much like Hassell’s music. Adventurous music like this has been around for some time, but until recently, unaccountably, it has mostly flown under the radar. In fact, this is the second collaboration between Steve Garden and Ivan Zagni. Their first release, ‘Trouble Spots’ came about after a long collaboration and it finally appeared last year. I reviewed it in a post titled ‘Adventurous Spirits’ on this blog site. 

This album feels a lot bolder and it is as compelling as it is confronting. I would not categorise this as ambient music as it demands attention from the first. There is no equivocation here as the album hauls you deep inside its soundscapes and without preamble. You attempt to regain your equilibrium as you perceive the unfamiliar in the familiar. This is a world that Alice would have delighted in, a place where nothing is quite what it seems and where change can happen deceptively. You accustom yourself to a direction only to find that the moon and stars are not where you thought they were. 

There is a narrative flow throughout, but it is not dependant on the known. It laps gently at your feet in First Wave, then drops you unexpectedly into something utterly different. You strain to hear as a distant and disembodied voice urges, 

“you’ve got to stop dreaming at night’ (did I imagine hearing that?).  

Twenty-Three Fifty-Nine becomes a minimalist piano piece with crystalline chords dropping out of the ether. And there is subtle humour as well, as fragments of spoken word mess with your head. As in Collapse, which opens with percussion and delightfully so, and out of the rhythmic shapes emerges competing voices. 

  “I was close to my mother, (pause), in real life I mean”. “The twilight of the gods”

In times of upheaval, there is nothing more cathartic than a truly immersive experience, a place where the complexities of the world can be encountered, upended, then reordered. As always with Rattle productions, the artwork and booklet are pitch-perfect. Whomever UnkleFranc is, he/she should take a bow. Very few labels present such an attractive package and even fewer maintain such unerring consistency over time. If you haven’t checked out expansive psychedelic filmic music, this would be a great place to start. If you are familiar with adventurous music then you won’t need a second invitation. If you have noise-canceling headphones, grab them and push play: you will thank me, I promise.

The album was produced, recorded, and mixed by Garden and Zagni, with some mysterious others credited. It is available on Bandcamp or better yet on CD complete with a comprehensive ArtBook. Seventhhousemusic.bandcamp.com

‘Murmurs’ is the second Alan Brown album to be released in recent months, and like Alargo, it delves into free-improvised sound-sculpted music. While this is a solo album, it features many voices, shaped and curated by a variety of electronic means. One of the devices utilised is an iPad and this willingness to experiment and to push at the boundaries of technology is part of what makes Brown a trailblazer. 

Most importantly, Brown is a master of nuance and although he utilises an array of machines he humanises the effects and instruments at his disposal. There is always a keen acoustic awareness and he evokes a sense of the spaces he occupies. There is wizardry, but it is subservient to mood and texture. It is the continuation of an interesting and evolving journey and one we are lucky to share. 

The layering and looping effects on Murmur are seamless, as themes shimmer and shift. And because the changes flow so naturally, you are always inside the music. Transmission becomes Murmur and so on throughout. And because of these beguiling and subtle shifts, you lose your awareness of time and become more aware of space. I am unsure what the piece titled Halting Problem refers to, but it had me standing on a mountain top and breathing clear crisp air. In effect, these are engagements, and each invites the listener to become a participant. One will find a mountain top, another something entirely different. 

Our world is peppered by ugly social media outbursts, appearing to lurch from crisis to crisis. Because of that, our awareness of human shortcomings increases and we can easily become disoriented, angry or despairing. This album provides respite and applies a balm. It is a call to pause and reflect. It slows our steps and guides us to our better selves, and out of that, refreshed, we are the better for it. 

Listen and purchase from seventhhousemusic.bandcamp.com 

Anthony Donaldson

Devils Gate Outfit

Devils Gate Outfit was recorded live at Wellington’s Meow two months ago. The album is bursting with restless spirits, and I am not surprised that such a powerful genie was let out of the bottle so quickly. There are multitudes of spirits hovering over the recording, fragmentary echoes of Ornette and Miles, but the predominant voices are those which haunt the ragged windy Wellington coastline. All are paid their due, but the album is unconfined by the many streams that feed it. It is above all a succinct commentary on the breadth of improvised music that is thriving in Aotearoa right now. 

The album is out on Kiwi Jahzz, a natural home for adventurous and original free music. And it captures a particular night at Meow where the band holds a residency. The playing is great, and so is the overarching vibe. Delivering great performances without defaulting to any ‘look at me’ moments. It is a band uncoupled from tired old formulas and thus able to move as freely as it desires. Sometimes this results in tantalisingly fleeting glimpses of the past, then just as suddenly you are plunged into the forward-looking improvised groove music favoured by younger audiences.  

The album is loosely programmatic but does not follow a linear storyline. It establishes a theme, then drops kaleidoscopic images. letting the music paint evocative sound pictures. There is a wealth of musicianship evident here as well. I am familiar with most of the players (apart from Steve Roche and David Donaldson). Although new to me, I am delighted to hear both for the first time. It was also good to hear Cory Champion expanding his percussion role to Vibes.

I am picking that drummer/composer Anthony Donaldson is the nominal leader in this outfit and around him are a truly formidable crew. The interactions between them are impressive as they navigate that fine line between spontaneity and cohesion. The slow-burning bluesy Wood Drift is the closest thing to straight ahead and it is a delightfully spacious piece of music – it could (and should) find cut-through with any Jazz taste. And I can never hear enough of Blair Latham’s playing. On Wood Drift, his woody sonority and captivating lines caress the melody against a gentle background of Daniel Beban’s understated guitar and Callwood’s bass, setting up Champion, Roache and Beban for solos, such a languid and appealing groove tune. 

Contrasting nicely, The Portal to Red Rocks is a burner and a showcase for Latham on saxophone and the very capable Roche. Here the bass and drums provide propulsive energy as they navigate the shifting rhythms and washes of electronic effects. If I had to pick a tune that best exemplifies the album it would be the opener Storm of the Century. Anthony Donaldson owns this track and it is his pulse that sets the others free. I will be surprised if this isn’t a contender for Tui Jazz Album of the year.

The Devils Gate Outfit: Anthony Donaldson (drums), Tom Callwood (double bass), Steve Roche (cornet, baritone horn, Cassio), Blair Latham (saxophones, bass clarinet, David Donaldson (bass banjo, percussion), Daniel Beban (guitar, electronics), Cory Champion (vibes, percussion, synthesizer) It was released 19 October 2021, on Kiwi Jahzz and is available digitally on Bandcamp: kiwijahzz.bandcamp.com 

School of Hard Nocks ~ by Village of The Idiots

This amazing recording is extracted from a number of live shows organised by the visionary drummer Anthony Donaldson. Among the shows referenced are ‘Seven Samurai’ ‘Oils of Ulan’ Po Face’ and others. The overarching implied theme is the Samurai film genre. This is an album where open conversations occur between two art forms. It belongs to an interesting subgenre of improvised music and in my view an avenue worthy of continued exploration. You encounter it convincing in Zorn’s Filmworks. These were reimagined soundtracks, or more accurately, soundtracks to reimagined movies. Music aligned to the essence and untethered from any strict narrative form. Auckland/Canadian guitarist Keith Price did just this with his reimagined The Good the Bad and the Ugly score. Jazz has always been associated with the cinema, but extending the brief and pushing into clearer air is where the gold lies.   

The album is painted on a vast canvas and has a cast that must rival that of a Spaghetti Western (or Carla Bley/Paul Haines Escalator Over the Hill). Thirty-one musicians are credited here and a significant number of them are high profile improvisers. Throughout, they come and go, as larger and smaller ensembles change places, with some artists like Jonathan Crayford appearing on a single track. The mood can shift at lightning speed, as a tune ends abruptly and a fresh exploration emerges. Another aspect that can’t be overlooked is the underlying humour. Music like this is not pitched at the serious-faced, dinner suit/ball gown-clad denizens of dress circles (although I’d love to see that attempted). It is anarchic and plays with imagery. The open-eared will quickly grasp this point and every piece of mind-fuckery will bring them joy. 

There are so many good performances and so many great musicians here that it is beyond my scope to enumerate them all. When you see names like Anthony Donaldson, Jeff Henderson, Bridget Kelly, Daniel Beban, John Bell, Patrick Bleakley, Lucien Johnson, Jonathan Crayford, Chris O’Connor, Steve Cournane, Riki Gooch, Richard Nunns and Tom Callwod on a setlist, you check it out immediately. The way the units are configured creates a unique set of textures and there can be no doubt that this is a drummers band.  Donaldson’s drumming leaves a powerful impression, but he leaves plenty of space for other percussionists. A  glance at the lineup tells that story best, as I counted seventeen drummers and percussionists on the album. As they come and go, they never get in each other’s way and this is a tribute to the arranging. Some of course are doubling on percussion instruments (e.g. Noel Clayton plays guitar, bass banjo and punching bag, while Maree Thom plays electric bass, upright bass, bass drum and accordion). And to complete the illusion of filmic authenticity, Donaldson adds foley to his drum/percussion roles.   

For a full listing of the musicians involved check out Donaldson’s site. Better yet buy immediately. The album was digitally released on Bandcamp in early November 2021 and it can be located at anthonydonaldson.bandcamp.com   

JazzLocal32.com is 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, poet & writer. Some of these posts appear on related sites

SNJO ~ Where Rivers Meet

‘Where Rivers Meet’ is a celebration of adventurous improvised music and it offers us a fresh window into the works of three departed titans (one still among us). The composers examined are Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Dewey Redman and Anthony Braxton, and while the spirit of these extraordinary musicians is evoked, this should not be regarded as a retrospective. What the SNJO have achieved is an in-the-moment exaltation of free spirits. The charts and performances are living breathing entities, rooted in the now. 

This is another waypoint on the open-ended journey that Coleman, Ayler, Redman and Braxton embarked upon. A journey that had no final destination in mind and the SNJO has approached these suites in that same enquiring spirit. Improvised music is at its best when it is not time-locked. 

Were lesser hands involved, it could be risky to combine arranged orchestral music with compositions that are famously organic, but here, it works well. The orchestration is never overdone and it adds contrast and unexpected texture to these vibrant open tunes.  The charts were orchestrated by four arrangers, Tommy Smith, Geoffrey Keezer, Paul Towndrow and Paul Harrison. Each suite is made up of three tunes by the composers and there are four soloing saxophonists involved, each tackling a different suite. 

The SNJO was established by Smith in 1995 and it is regarded as one of the pre-eminent jazz orchestras in Europe. It is also one of the most innovative. No matter what your taste in improvised music, you will find much to enjoy in this album. Ornette Coleman’s “Peace’ is a familiar and much-loved standard and the rendition by Towndrow is fabulous (on alto). The same applies to Dewey Redman’s lovely ‘Joie De Livre’ (Konrad Wiszniewski on tenor), or Ayler’s ‘Going Home’ (Tommy Smith on tenor). 

The meatier out-material is there also, Martin Kershaw is outstanding on the Braxton suite. I love this and ‘Composition 245’ especially. This is pure exaltation and Kershaw is killing. Here the spirit of Braxton shines brightest: minimalism, keening reeds, discordant joyfulness, space, tantalisingly distant vocalisations, swooping descents into quiet. Smiths sensitive, gorgeous rendition of Ayler’s ‘Ghosts’ is in a similar spirit. 

The performance took place in St Giles Cathedral Edinburgh while the gifted Russian expressionist, Maria Rud painted the cover artworks in real time (and in the presence of the orchestra). Spontaneous conversations between open art forms is the new realty and executed perfectly here. While there were no audience members present due to COVID, the artists have somehow magicked us into this hallowed space.

It also is nice to see some younger players alongside the veterans. I have been following James Copus rise with considerable interest. A wonderful player with an abundance of interesting ideas to communicate. 

Anyone who follows JazzLocal32.com will know that I endeavour to keep a focus on local improvised music, or that of Aotearoa in general. In this case, there is a strong local connection between the SNJO, Smith, and Wellington drummer John Rae. Smith and Rae formed their first band in Edinburgh when Rae was 14 and later they recorded together. Between 2000 and 2003, Rae was the SNJO drummer. 

The album was recorded in Edinburgh but it crosses a multitude of borders. Reminding me that local is about more than mere geography. Local can be a community of interest, a connectedness – beyond borders. The degree of separation is minimal in the Jazz world anyhow. Perhaps, Dave Holland put it best when he pled, ‘let’s not over-analyse the nationalist tendencies in Jazz’. No matter where we are from, it’s how well, and how authentically we tell our story. This is truly great music, universal music, full stop.  

To purchase visit the SNJO site or the SNJO Bandcamp page   http://www.snjo.bandcamp.com

JazzLocal32.com is 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, poet & writer. Some of these posts appear on related sites

The Brian Smith Interview

As Aotearoa’s Jazz musicians become increasingly confident of their place in the world, it is timely to acknowledge those who paved the way. A significant figure in this journey is saxophonist and winds player Brian Smith. I had been meaning to interview him for some time and the recent lockdown provided the ideal opportunity. I have long been aware of just how innovative London Jazz was during the 60s and 70s. The output was considerable, different from what was happening elsewhere and it stands up well to this day and there is an increasing interest among jazz fans and Jazz historians in pouring over this material. Over a lengthy Zoom call, we discussed his musical career and in particular his involvement in the UK Jazz scene. What follows is extracted from that wide-ranging discussion. 

Where Smith grew up and how he first engaged with music was the obvious place to start, but then as we proceeded I was struck by how modest Smith was, quietly brushing aside his considerable achievements in true Kiwi fashion. And the more we talked, the more I realised that a colourful piece of Jazz history was unravelling. 

JL32: Hi Brian, thanks for agreeing to the interview. 

Smith: Greetings John, where would you like to start? 

JL32: Where were you born?

Smith: I was born in Wellington but I grew up in Stratford, Taranaki. It was there that I learned piano and later switched to the saxophone.

JL32: Did you start gigging in the Naki?

Smith: Yes as a schoolboy I was part of a band that played for local dances. It was so much fun that I stayed at school an extra year; beyond when I’d intended to leave. 

JL32: what were your musical interests at that time?

Smith: It was then that my friends and I encountered 78s by the likes of Humphrey Littleton, Bennie Goodman, Louis Armstong, Lionel Hampton. I still have those under my bed (laughs and points). So, my first jazz interest was more Eddie Condon and I particularly liked the clarinet player Edmund Hall. It was his ‘feel’. It was hard to get records here then. But also among those recordings, I soon discovered Joe Newman, Wardall Grey, and early Miles. 

JL32: Did Wardall Grey lead you to discover Dexter?

Smith: No, I discovered Dexter later, also Miles album ‘Around Midnight’ a little later again, those was significant albums for me. 

After playing in a few small bands, Smith moved to Auckland (1958) and it was there, that he joined the Bob Paris dance band, later moving to Australia with them. During his time in Auckland, he became increasingly active on the jazz scene, playing at places like Trades Hall. When the Bob Paris band moved across the ditch,  he went with them, joining the exodus of Kiwi musicians like Mike Nock who had left for Australia a few years earlier. 

JL32: When we were discussing the Auckland clubs and musicians, you mentioned trumpeter Dave Ironside. I knew Dave well and I often wonder what became of him as I went to Sydney with him in 1967.

Smith: Yeah, Dave was a great bloke, he had a really good sense of humour, very funny.

JL32: And when was your move to Australia?

Smith: It was in 1960, I went on the Wanganella with Rick Laird, Barry Woods, Neddy Sullivan and Mike Walker, I was sick for two or three days as I recall (laughs). The trip cost us £30 each, a fortune in those days.

JL32: Did you get much work across the ditch?.

Smith: Well, after moving to Australia with the band, I met up with lots of musicians, such as Kiwi pianist Dave McCrae and our association was to continue later in London. (reaches into a box and produces a few Bob Paris recordings – one with vocalist Ricky May ). Later I obtained a residency on the Gold Coast through Bob Paris. That was where I met my wife. We were given accommodation and a percentage of the door. My wife was a receptionist at that hotel, she made sure that I was fed.

JL32: You connected with a lot of interesting Jazz musicians while in Sydney, notable Aussies, Kiwis such as Mike Nock, and others from much further afield.     

JL32: Did you by any chance meet up with a blind multi-instrumentalist Claude Papesch while you were there? 

Smith: Yes, I was driven around Kings Cross by him. (much laughter as we reminisced about this as we had both been nervous passengers while Papesch drove). Bob Gillett, Andy Brown, and I lived near Claude, and once after he’d painted his flat, he asked us to check the bits he’d missed and tap the wall to show him. He was such a character, a nice guy, he would call around and knock, and we would sit there quietly, then he would enter and find us one by one, feeling our ears and faces and naming us. I heard that he eventually became mayor of the Blue Mountains. Anyhow, after two years of gigging around Australia I moved back to Auckland. Once back home I played regularly with the likes of Tony Hopkins. 

JL32: Lachie Jamieson was around then, did you know him?

Smith: Oh yes, a great drummer and vibes player. I played with him a bit too, and another drummer back from the USA, Ray Edmundson. Lochie was a big deal in Auckland as he’d played with Sonny Rollins, Ira Sullivan, and bands around Chicago. And apart from Tony Hopkins, I played regularly with Mike Walker, Marlene Tong, different people. Some tours happening around then. 

Then a few years later, I packed up and decided to move to the UK as my wife came from Lancashire. On the way, I had a one-night stopover in New York, and during that night, I attended three gigs. I heard John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, and Herbie Hancock.  Clifford Jorden was the tenor player with Mingus which was at the Half Note.

JL32: What was your first destination in the UK?

Smith: I went to Manchester and met a few people on the scene. One of them was a bloke called Ernie Garside, who managed a Jazz Club there. I would sit in from time to time and my wife’s brother would come with me. He eventually became Maynard Ferguson’s manager. At that time Maynard was playing in Manchester. This was not long before his London concerts. Ernie Garside asked if I wanted to play in Maynard’s band and I did. It got busy as I was juggling three bands.

JL32: If it’s 69/70 you would have been playing with Nucleus, Tubby Hayes Big Band, and Maynard Ferguson.

Smith: Yes, and one or two other things were happening. I was playing with Alan Price as well.

JL32: I have listened to recordings of Tubby Hayes from that period. Nice band.

Smith: There was a TV Show and bits that were recorded. I had no solos but I was in the saxophone section with Alan Skidmore and Peter King. Peter King was great, I played with him quite a bit, a real nice guy.

JL32: I have jotted down a list of the significant UK bandleaders of that era you’ve played and recorded with: Graham Collier (70), Maynard Ferguson (65-75), Michael Gibbs (63-70), Keith Tippett (78), Mike Westbrook (69), Humphrey Littleton, Tubby Hayes, and particularly the Scottish horn player and composer Ian Carr (69-82). You have regularly played alongside UK-based Jazz greats like Kenny Wheeler, Stan Sulzman, John Marshall, Alan Holdsworth, Peter King, Tony Oxley, Stan Tracey Barre Philips, Jack Bruce, John Surman, and many more. And course Alexis Korner, the proto blues unit that influenced John Mayal, the Stones, etc. That’s some list.  

Smith: It was a busy time.

JL32: I want to spend a bit of time on ‘Nucleus’, but before I do, I see you played regularly with Kenny Wheeler.

Smith: Yes and he was such a humble guy. He would come away from a concert or recording session after playing well, look concerned and ask us if he played alright. 

JL32: At around that time was Kenny working with John Taylor and Norma Winstone, right?

Smith: Yes Norma Winstone and John Taylor were actually in Nucleus at one point, during my time the only other vocalist was Joy Yates (a Kiwi). But back when I first arrived, there were other people important to me. Rick Laird was in London by then and he was working at Ronnie Scotts. He introduced me to a drummer, percussionist called John Stephens who ran the Spontaneous Music Ensemble.

JL32: He was a notable early free player. Tell me more?

Smith: He was good to me. He had a caretaker flat off Harley Street. He let me stay there and I played with him at the ‘Little Theatre Club’, with Trevor Watts. I played with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble a bit at that time. Dave Holland would come up, Kenny Wheeler, Jeff Klien, Evan Parker. One night Chick Corea turned up and sat in and I didn’t know who he was at the time. We were playing a lot of free stuff and he was stomping and slapping the piano sides.   

JL32: Anyone else?

Smith: Oh yes I was with Alexis Korner between 1965-66).

JL32: Did you ever encounter the legendary Phil Seaman?

Smith: yes, once I recall we were on the same gig. 

Note: Alexis Korner Blues Incorporated was a very important band at the time and the great British blues bands like the Stones and John Mayal were all heavily influenced by it. Musicians like Jack Bruce, Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Ginger Baker, and Graham Bond were all in the band at some point. The Alexis Korner band moved freely between jazz and blues venues and included Jazz standards in the repertoire.

JL32: Was the 1970 album ‘Elastic Rock’ the first Nucleus album you were on? I think that you were a founding member of that band.

Smith: I was. The band was formed by the Scottish trumpeter and arranger Ian Carr and multi-instrumentalist (Sir) Karl Jenkins, I was with them right up to when I left the UK and on many of the albums between 1970-82, except when I was touring with Maynard Ferguson. 

JL32: It was very successful. I arrived in London in 1985 and it was still popular then. Don’t you think the term Jazz-Rock Fusion was a bit of a marketing exercise? To my ears, you were a jazz unit edging at times into free territory. Not nearly as rock-sounding as in the guitar-heavy fusion bands. Listening again I find stronger synergies between Nucleus and the late 70’s output by Bennie Maupin or Eddie Henderson etc. And it sounded like a true collective with no egos dominating.

Smith: Yes we were a collective and you could argue that there was a synergy between our music and the era you mention. Nucleus did do well and there were a few other Kiwis who joined the band after I did. Billy Kristian, Dave McCrae, Roger Sellers, Joy Yates. 

JL32: Overall, 45 members are listed as passing through the band, and there were 21 albums by my count. You are credited on many of those albums. And some well-known figures from the London Jazz scene came and went; Kenny Wheeler, Tim Whitehead, Tony Coe, Gordon Beck, John Taylor, Norma Winstone, Allan Holdsworth, Neil Ardley and so many more. And of course, you were in the core group. I notice that your playing attracted favourable mentions from reviewers. 

Smith: Oh well (downplaying it), I got along with Ian and it worked out for me. There were quite a few of us (Kiwis) in London during the 70s, Frank Gibson and Bruce Lynch for example. We were all doing different things. Anyhow, the last tour I did with Maynard was March 75, and I went back to Nucleus and played with them right up until when I returned home. Bob Bertles the Australian saxophonist filled in while I was touring with Maynard. 

During his time in London, Smith was often in brass sections accompanying well-known popular musicians or visiting artists. These included: Gladys Night And The Pips, Donavan, Dusty Springfield, Nancy Wilson, T Bone Walker, Georgie Fame, Alan Price.

JL32: You played tenor, soprano, and alto flute. Your soprano sounded great and the arrangements were interesting. Did you write any of the tunes?

Smith: Yes I wrote a few.

JL32: I’m guessing that the tune Taranaki would be you, there’s a clue there.

Smith: Yes that’s me (laughs).

JL32: What about arranging?

Smith: The arranging was basically whoever wrote the tune and then everyone had input.

JL32: And so not long after, Nucleus won the Best European Band competition at Montreux.

Smith: Yes that was 1970 around the time we released Elastic Rock, our first album. The big radio stations used to sponsor bands, all of the big European stations, and our sponsors were the BBC and we won (laughs). So because we won at the Montreux Jazz Festival, as best European band, the prize was an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival.

JL32: How was that?

Smith: Fantastic, yeah, so after Montreux, we travelled to Newport. It was in the afternoon, I can’t remember which day, but it was funny actually, because Dave McCrae and Rick Laird were there also with the Buddy Rich band. And Mike Nock with Fourth Way on the same weekend as well. 

JL32: So you got together for a hang?

Smith: Yeah, because we hadn’t seen each other for quite a while. And then we played one night in New York at the Village Gate. It was amazing.

JL32: Did this lead to more work for Nucleus?

Smith: After we returned, we toured a lot, Italy and Germany in particular, Festivals and clubs. It became a regular thing.

Nucleus gained a significant following and after Elastic Rock, many successful albums followed. They reflected the times and the restlessness of 70s youth culture, complete with psychedelic cover art and cross-genre appeal, but they were firmly grounded in the Jazz tradition. The albums following: We’ll Talk About it Later, Solar Plexis, Belladonna, Roots, Labyrinth, Under The Sun, Snakehips Etcetera, Alleycat, In Flagranti Delicto, Out of The Long Dark, Awakening (and more after Brian Smith left). The labels during the 70s were Vertigo, Capitol, Mood. Some are still on issue and most will be available on streaming sites (one Nucleus album is also available on Bandcamp featuring Smith) 

JL32: You played with Kieth Tippett’s Frames around then? You are credited on ‘Music for Imaginary Films.  With Stan Tracey.

Smith: Yes I played with Stan a few times, but there was a trombonist named Malcolm Griffiths. He and I got a quintet together for just a little while in 1977, and we did a couple of gigs and a broadcast and Stan Tracey was on that with Brian Spring and Dave Green. And another one I did some playing with was a great piano player, Gordon Beck. I was in a band with him called Gyroscope right at the beginning. At around that time I started touring America with Maynard and Gyroscope hired Stan Sulzmann.

JL32: I associate him most strongly with Kenny Wheeler’s ‘Music for Small and Large Ensembles’. (we agree that this double album is an essential desert island disk) 

Smith: yeah Stan and I were pretty good friends and still keep in touch. Oh, and in the late 70s, Dave McCrae put a band together called ‘Pacific Eardrum’. That band did two or three albums, one before I joined, and several later, including one after I returned which we all did back here in New Zealand. 

JL32: So looking back over that period, what gave you the most satisfaction?

Smith: Well playing Nucleus, but playing with Maynard especially so. I’d always had this thing about the big band era, the bands that toured America constantly, and (having) the chance to do that in 1974. I spent a whole year in America and I was touring around the whole time. It was just that whole road thing, being on the bus with a bunch of guys and having a good time, playing some good music. Once upon a time, it was like going to school, that’s where musicians made a name for themselves. I learned a lot playing with that band. Sometimes it was the incidental things, like playing at the Bulls Head in Barnes, playing with small units, like the Tony Lee Trio as a guest, or with Martin Drew. And Paz, that was a Latin Band run by Dick Crouch and we recorded a few things. That was a great band and I enjoyed that.

JL32: Do you think that it gives you an edge playing with big bands?

Smith: Well it depends on the person, but it is a good training ground, and for young players, they must play with lots of different people, whether in small ensembles or large. Learning to read but also learning to blend in, hearing the phrasing, and knowing how to react.

JL32: When you returned to New, Zealand I guess people wanted to take lessons. I heard somewhere that you taught Roger Manins for a while. 

Smith: He used to come to my place in Glenfield when I lived there, maybe for a year or so. I like Roger, we get along fine.  

JL32: And in the years after you returned I recall the Brian Smith Band and an album ‘Southern Excursions’.

Smith: Yes that was with Frank (Gibson) and Billy (Kristian), and my friend Jeff Castle, a pianist from England. He came out here and lived with us for a year in 1984. And then there was the collective ‘Space Case’. We did three or four albums with that band. There was Kim Paterson on trumpet, Murray McNabb on piano and Bruce Lynch on bass (and later on, Andy Brown) and George Chisholm did some trumpet things as well, that was around 84-86. I also did an album with Jacqui Fitzgerald in the 80s. Then there was the time when Roger Fox brought Anita O’Day out and Louis Bellson and we did a brief tour. Lastly my album Taupo (Ode), with Billy Kristian, Kevin Field, Kim Paterson, Lance Sua, Kevin Haines, Alain Koetsier. The two Moonlight Sax albums did pretty well also.

JL32: Have you done much teaching?

Smith: Yes I’ve done a lot. I taught at Northcote College for 20 years and other schools, Papakura, Rosehill College, Kings College. The last school I worked at was Whangaparaoa College. 

JL32: I don’t suppose musicians ever retire because I’ve seen you doing gigs about town over recent years.

Smith: Yes there have been a few, and I had a regular gig at a local bar called the Paroa Bar until this lockdown. With Frank, Dean Kerr, and Neville Grenfell on trumpet. Then we had a band with Dean and his brother and a Sunday spot at Muldoon’s in Orewa for a time. Again that was with Frank and Dean, and an occasional gig at Downbeat as well. We don’t know what will happen at present, but I’m hoping the Paroa Bar opens up soon. They’ve got a nice big stage. 

JL32: We’ve covered a bit of ground.

Smith: Yes that’s about all I can recall at the moment but there may be a few holes in it. 

JL32: Thanks for giving me so much of your time Brian. 

Smith: Well, I’m off to play a few notes. 

 The interview covered a lot of ground, but I knew that there would be much more to uncover. I have always had an interest in British Jazz and so when a new Bandcamp label, Jazz in Britain Archival Project was launched, I took note. Going through it this morning I have located four albums featuring Brian Smith. Some of these contain never-before-released material. Smith expressed a particular fondness for Paz and there is a Paz recording among the Ron Mathewson archival tapes. There is an unreleased Live Nucleus session titled Solar,  and best of all Neil Ardley’s ‘Kaleidoscope’ and Alan Cohen’s band Oracle. Here is the lineup on the Oracle Album: Kenny Wheeler, Henry Lowther, Mike Osborne, Alan Skidmore, Brian Smith, John Surman, Chris Pine, Mike Gibbs, Martin Fry, Ron Mathewson, Trever Tomkins. I will watch this space with keen interest. 

I can’t help but wonder if the kids’ Smith taught, realised, that he’d once played a part in the wild and heady days of London’s music scene.  

Additional sources: The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, The Rough Guide to Jazz, The British Jazz Project, ephemera such as posters and pamphlets. Acknowledgments British Jazz Archives.

JazzLocal32.com is 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, poet & writer. Some of these posts appear on related sites

Kiwi Jahzz ~ from the underground basements of Aotearoa

Last month, a new Kiwi record label was launched and if the first releases are anything to go by, it will surely become a popular destination for ‘out’ improvised music fans. The Kiwi Jahzz label is a significant addition to the Aotearoa recorded music scene, and like Budweiser, it reaches places that others don’t

The music found in these underground basements has long been a magnet for adventurous listeners, and especially for younger musicians who often cut their avant-garde teeth there. With the arrival of the pandemic, lockdowns followed suit and clubs took a hit. One of those venues was The Wine Cellar under St Kevin’s arcade. A popular home for independent music. 

A hundred yards away in a nearby uptown basement, Jeff Henderson devised a plan. Why not move the Audio Foundation gear into the Wine Cellar. This included recording equipment and a ready-made audience. Out of that has come a string of recordings and a desire to make the music available to a wider audience. This is what musical freedom sounds like as the gigs are captured live. These recordings are street raw and bristling with energy, the sounds escaping from dark basements. 

Henderson is known for taking his time over a piece and for letting the moment dictate pace and length. A groove or vamp can run for as long as it needs to and with each utterance informing the direction of travel. It is music often liberated from harmonic distractions or from predictable pulses, so as it wends its way, it draws on a lifetime of experience, with each moment revealing yet another nested story. 

With the double trios recorded so far, the pieces have been shorter and this is perhaps a concession to the medium. In a darkened club you are more attuned to longer pieces, at home there are distractions. All but one of the initial releases features the Trioglodyte Trio. The core Trioglodyte lineup being Jeff Henderson, Eamon Edmundson-Wells and Chris O’Connor. It is perhaps more accurate to describe these albums as Trioglodyte led double trios because most of the releases to date feature a guest trio as well. A mixture of well-known musicians and enthusiastic up and comers. 

While Henderson is not a musician to blow his own trumpet, his baritone saxophone could flatten the walls of Jericho. He is the guiding force behind the growth of the improvised ‘out’ music scene in Aotearoa and his determination has built a sustainable and vibrant presence.  A saxophonist, composer, producer and visionary, someone formidable.

Rated X (Davis)

With him in the Trioglodyte trio are Eamon Edmundson-Wells on bass and Chris O’Connor on drums (and percussion). O’Connor is a legend across many genres and Edmundson-Wells has built a solid reputation in settings like this. The pair are the perfect foils for Henderson, being adept at reacting instinctively and both capable of carrying considerable weight. Edmundson-Wells is a powerful and unfaltering presence and this frees up Henderson to forge a melodic path. Meanwhile, O’Connor does what he is renowned for, delivers his extraordinary pulses in marvellously unexpected ways. 

Vol 1’ is modestly titled but don’t let that fool you, because immediately you click on the arrow, the introductory track comes right at you, delivering hammer blows to the senses. Perhaps there should be a warning upfront; beware there will be no ECM styled five seconds of silence beforehand. That track is titled ‘Bra Joe’. 

Henderson opens with an extraordinary squalling attack as he strides into the tune like a Titan, casting aside all that he deems superfluous. Underneath his saxophone, you are aware of the pumping and scuffling of Edmundson-Wells and O’Connor, followed by the second trio. Crystal Choi on keyboards, Bonnie Stewart on drums and Paul Taylor on percussion and electronics. This may be a short number, but the impact will linger long afterwards.

The second track ‘Bra Joe from Kilamajaro’ is a reimagining of the Dollar Brand standard. Here the pace is slowed and the volume lowered but the intensity is not. The way it unfolds over a long slow vamp imparts something of an Alice Coltrane vibe, with Choi’s keys rippling joyfully beneath the bass. In fact, every track references a Jazz standard (more or less). Some might wonder why an album of adventurous free music features standards, but the music here is as out and adventurous as you might wish. And as with most improvised music, there is an implication of fun, of not taking ourselves too seriously. My favourite track is definitely ‘Rated X’ (Miles Davis). This is a multi-layered sonic feast and everyone gets to strut their stuff here. Miles smiles I’m sure. On this particular track, it is easy to understand why Henderson is held in such high regard. The ideas just bubble from his horn and everyone responds in kind.  And Bonnie Stewart (is this the Irish born Bonnie Stewart, the drummer songwriter, who performs with SIMA in Sydney). I have always been a fan of Choi on keys and this is the proof of the pudding; she was always reaching for this space. And then Taylor, electronics and percussion; his inclusion rounding off the ensemble nicely. This is the way modern avant-garde music has been tracking of late, two, even three drummers, which offers more punch. 

Milestones (Davis)

Vol 2’ has a different mood entirely. It opens with a moody piece of Frisell styled Americana, with one guitarist playing chords over a soft drone while the other answers. When Henderson comes in, new possibilities open up, and a subtle interplay involving all six musicians takes this into freer territory. Track two has a delightful New Orleans barroom kind of vibe. Again, Henderson leads the way with raw gutbucket blues. It shouldn’t surprise anyone to hear him play like a soulful Texas tenor player (complete with shouts) as there is ample evidence of this on earlier Henderson led albums. As you move through the tracks the Americana theme merges with other influences, a two drummer conversation titled Bonnie & Chris, a short piece titled Eamon & Jeff.  And following that is the blistering and rollicking ‘Impressions’; this last piece is best described as a Knitting Factory styled blues with the drums and percussion setting up the tune. Unadulterated crazy magic. Apart from Trioglodyte, the album features guitarists Kat Tomacruz and Bret Adams plus drummer Bonnie Stewart.

Vol 3’ is not a Trioglodyte album and unlike the other three in the series, it was recorded in Wellington at the Poneke Beer Loft (November 2020). Here Henderson is with bassist Paul Dyne and drummer Rick Cranson. All are heavy hitters and well used to traversing the jagged lines of Monk and responding to the keening cries of an Ornette Coleman tune. As well, the tracklist offers freely improvised pieces and a standard. The liner notes make reference to Henderson’s garrulous saxophone, and while that is accurate, it is also true that we can find a more measured and interrogatory tone from him here. Perhaps because this traverses familiar ground with old friends, the trio decided to take an oblique look at the material. This is particularly evident on the Raye/de Paul war-horse ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’. Together they have recut this diamond and revealed burning shafts of light hitherto unseen, and in doing so, they forged a minimalist route to the lustre. ‘Black ‘n’ White ‘n’ Blues’, dances joyfully over ostinato bass lines and a steady pulse, Colemans ‘Blues Connection’ is delightful and captures the essence of the great man; also, the two Monk tunes ‘Bye Ya’ and ‘Friday the 13th’ refresh and delight. 

Vol 4’ is another Wine Cellar recording and the lineup here is mouth-watering. There is no Chris O’Conner in the core trio this time, but his replacement Julien Dyne slots in seamlessly. Dyne is a marvellous drummer, comfortable in a multitude of settings. He is also responsible for the great artwork on all four of these releases. And as if there were not already an embarrassment of riches, Jonathan Crayford features on Fender Rhodes. The other musicians are J Y Lee on alto & flute (a player featuring in many innovative bands about town) and as in Vol 1, Paul Tayler on percussion and electronics. This album takes in a broader perspective on improvised music. It is filled with interesting cross-genre references and it invokes many moods. Here Henderson deploys a fuller armoury of alto, C soprano, baritone and C Melody saxophones.

The opener has an Afro Beat feel. Powerful propulsive and utilising repeated phrases to amp up the tension. Track two ‘The Rubble’, by contrast, is a dark filmic piece powered by the percussive utterances of Dyne and Taylor and the mood deepened by the arco bass of Edmundson-Wells.  Three is airy and open, wending its way purposefully, led by Crayford as he sets the pace and mood. People unfamiliar with free improvised music often fail to comprehend that this type of music can on occasion be gentle and reflective. It is honest music dictated by the moment. The flute and saxophone are pelagic birds circling above the rolling swells of a vast ocean. A most appealing piece.  

Track four, ‘Milestones’ (Davis) is a wonderful Dewey doing Miles fifteen-minute romp and the best reimagining of the tune I’ve heard in ages. This is so good that I had to put it on repeat play. The two saxophones playing unison lines, then Henderson (and Lee) playing the changes before launch off, Crayford dropping space chords underneath and soloing like Sun Ra’s chosen successor, Dyne, Taylor and Edmundson-Wells lifting the intensity beyond the high watermark. This track is everything you could ever wish from a Jahzz group. No wonder Tony Williams kept begging Miles to keep the tune in the repertoire post Bitches. Again 5 stars. There is one more standard ‘The Girl from Ipanema’.  They have taken a ‘same beach different girl’ approach here. This is completely free and not a bossa beat in evidence. This is a musical territory that the Norwegian electronic improvisers claim so convincingly. It is explorative and anyone with open ears will enjoy the ride. Mood dominates and form is irrelevant.  Having some of our best musicians collaborating on a project like this is a masterstroke. The open-eared must support Kiwi Jahzz and if we do there will certainly be more riches in store. You can find downloads and high quality streaming at Bandcamp on kiwijahzz.bandcamp.com

Footnote: A pointless question is sometimes asked of me, ‘but is this Jazz’. My response is, who cares, followed by, but did you listen with open ears and did the music talk to you? That’s all a listener needs to know about approaching unfamiliar music. Perhaps in future, I will answer by suggesting that they may be confusing Jazz with Jahzz.

Jazz is a catch-all descriptor for a broad swath of improvised music, and like all attempts to define an open art form, it eventually hits a brick wall. Jazz doesn’t require a scholarly explanation because the listener ‘just knows’; or as Pat Metheney put it, ‘you can’t see, touch or smell Jazz (unless you’re Frank Zappa), but a listener can recognise it immediately. Sound is air vibrations passing over the small bones in the inner ear, then it becomes electrical impulses. Jazz is physics fused with alchemy. 

JazzLocal32.com is 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, poet & writer. Some of these posts appear on related sites

The River Tethys ~ Ben Wilcock Interview

It had been quite a while since the pianist and composer Ben Wilcock and I last caught up, so when I heard about his new album, I set up a ZOOM interview. It was a wide ranging discussion, more like a hang really, and because we were both relaxed we found a lot to talk about. The most obvious place to start was with Greek Mythology, a topic that we both had an interest in. Exploring this topic backgrounded the album nicely and the consequent intertextuality enhanced my appreciation of the project.    

So, Tethys was a Titan and the daughter of Uranus and Gaia (Sky and Earth). She was associated with bathing spots and rivers. Among her siblings were Hyperion and Oceanus (the latter her brother and husband). Tethys later gave birth to the numerous water gods and nymphs who appear throughout Greek literature (Oceanids). 

My assumption that the album directly referenced this mythology was only partly true. In fact, the prime inspiration was a series of SciFi novels titled ‘The Hyperion Cantos’ by Dan Simmons. I had no knowledge of his works, as my basic reference for Hyperion was John Keats’ aborted poem. My bad. The Hyperion Cantos is now on my reading list.

Aenea

The project topic was an immediate hook, but the way that Wilcock tackled it makes it extremely interesting. In the novels, the river Tethys flows between different worlds and in order to capture the mood of those worlds, he assigned each tune to a different world or place. He also decided that the pieces should not be programmatic and with that in mind he allocated each tune to a world after they were recorded. 

The artistry of the musicians and the arrangements lead you to think that the work is through-composed, but in reality it is ninety percent improvisation and much of that free. Therefore, I was not surprised to learn that the tunes were mostly captured in one-take. Each of them sparkles with a spontaneity which arises from that in-the-moment approach. The tunes are mostly Wilcock originals but with three standards interposed, the juxtaposition works very well.  

The blistering rendition of Gillespie’s ‘Groovin High’ is a roller coaster ride, pulling at the very fabric of the tune, and much like the hot music of the Mos Eisley Cantina in Star Wars, you wish that you could hang there. As Wilcock put it, ‘melody over chaos time’. Another standard is a take on de Paul/Rayes ‘Star Eyes’, a tune made famous by Tommy Dorsey. The remaining standard is ‘La Rosita’ (brought into the Jazz lexicon by Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins). All of the above are assigned a different mood (e.g La Rosita has an old movie vibe, later settling into a delicious Ahmed Jamal groove with its easy loping swing). 

As interesting as the standards are, it is the originals that truly reel you in. Right from the opening number you know that you are in for a treat as a succession of expansive tunes entice you phrase by phrase. This is an album that rewards repeat listening. Some are slow burners while others are edgy, and in spite of the oblique references to familiar music, this is a forward looking and original album. 

First Gate

One of the things Wilcock and I spoke of was how improvising artists hate to be confined or pigeon-holed. This album firmly establishes Wilcock as a capable modern stylist. Yes, he is adept at creating a Peterson, Monk or Garner vibe, but he is so much more than that.  There is free improvisation on this album and he is very much at home in this space. I can’t wait to hear more. This must surely be his direction of travel from here out. 

When you check out the album, listen to the slow burning and bluesy ‘Sol Draconi Septum’. A tune where the form is implied and liberated. Or check out the extraordinary ‘The Secret Life of Music’, which opens with a scuffling dissonant urgency (think Paul Bley), then unexpectedly merges into a delightfully syncopated Willie the Lion stride romp. Then there is ‘Aenea’ with its otherworldly violin soaring over the trio like a circling eagle; and that subtle elegant progression in the middle which briefly reminds you of Evans playing The Peacocks. 

With the colourist drumming and interactive bass, the openness of the offering is reinforced. That the music could be simultaneously inside and outside, is a tribute to the musicians. And Wilcock’s piano is superb throughout, a joy from start to finish and worth the album price alone. Accompanying Wilcock are his frequent collaborators, John Rae (drums) and Dan Yeabsley (bass). On a number of tracks they are joined by the interesting violinist Tristan Carter. No one put a foot wrong here. 

I have always been a fan of John Rae’s drumming and partly because it is always totally appropriate to each situation. Therefore, I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear those spare, Motian-like, colourist pulses emanating from his well tuned drum heads.  I love minimalism and there is plenty of it to enjoy on this album. The best example can be found in ‘First Gate’. Here, the quartet speaks as one and they capture the very essence of minimalist Jazz, something rare, sparse and beautiful. The opening bar begins with three chords, then the sound decays as the seconds tick (how wonderful), gradually that tap, tap, tap and the arco bass or snatches of violin. Five stars for this tune. 

The last number on the album is Star Eyes and as the trio settles into a warm groove, we are eased back to the familiar.  Having experienced this journey. I know that I will return often; these are worlds that beg a deeper exploration. To purchase the album visit Thick Records (follow the link). It is also available on streaming services, but it is best to purchase and support these artists – this one you will want to own in any case. 

JazzLocal32.com is 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, poet & writer. Some of these posts appear on related sites

Simon Thacker ~ Pashyanti

In September 2014, the Scottish guitarist Simon Thacker brought Ritmata to Auckland. I recall that night clearly, as his innovative genre-defying music and entertaining banter enchanted the CJC audience. Since that time, I have followed his endeavors with interest and there has been much to marvel at. As one reviewer put it “(Thacker) is one of the most important musicians of his generation”. He has toured widely, is classical guitar tutor in a number of prestigious universities and has appeared as a soloist with leading orchestras. 

Along the way, he has formed various ensembles as he reimagines cultural musical traditions. He is a master of the unexpected and each performance arises from his pan-cultural journeys. At first his music sounds familiar, but upon further listening, you realise that you were mistaken. What you are hearing is something new. 

This is a musician with boundless imagination and although his music may be fed by diverse streams and is respectful, it is not confined by the past. The last time we communicated he made that point beautifully. “At no point in history is music more exciting than what we will hear tomorrow”.      

His latest project Pashyanti began as a solo project in 2019 and he toured it through the Indian subcontinent, appearing at two of the biggest Indian Jazz festivals along the way. That was to be followed by an appearance at last year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe (cancelled due to covid), but as with all of Thacker’s projects there is constant evolution underway. This year he has invited contemporary dancer Aishwarya Raut (from the Rambert dance school) to collaborate with him. Together, aided by skillful camerawork and gorgeous lighting, they have conjured up a sonic and visual feast. 

There are four segments to the show: MunaSata, Omanjana, Ekla Chalo Re and Nirjanavana. I loved them all, but perhaps because I lived through the sixties, I found Nirjanavana the most compelling. The musicianship and dancing and effects were astounding, as was the otherworldly lighting. Throughout, you will experience the vibe of flamenco or the displaced time of latin music, some Jazz harmonies, slick references to a multitude of eastern traditions and above all, high wire artistry.  

The concert is on until 29 August. Pashyanti appears as the Made in Scotland Showcase, an Edinburgh Festival Fringe event. And best of all, it is available online to viewers worldwide via the ticketing Fringe Player app (follow the link). I urge anyone with a love of acoustic guitar, dance or astonishing musicianship to grab a ticket immediately.  

JazzLocal32.com is 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, poet & writer. Some of these posts appear on related sites

Alargo Live @ CJC

If Alargo had appeared in the year 1644, Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General would have instigated an urgent investigation. Such was the supernatural wizardry and shapeshifting that occurred last Wednesday. On that night we were invited into new sonic worlds and transported beyond the mundane. The event occurred just after the passing of Jon Hassell and that made it especially appropriate. Hassell was a standard bearer for this measured, avant-garde music; and there were others. Eddie Henderson and Miles spring immediately to mind

The point of improvised music is to establish a form and then to craft something afresh. To build, shape and react in the moment, and above all to surprise. Sometimes the surprise comes softly, as a shape is crafted from an unexpected whisper. In the modern world the sources of sound are limitless, but the world is a frenetic and noisy place and we tend to overlook the deeper sounds or the slower journeys. 

This particular style of free improvised music takes its time to unfold, and in the process, moments of rare beauty are revealed. However, like all music, it has its structure. It is linear and it ebbs and flows according to the specifics of mood and pulse. Harmonies appear fleetingly then shift or fade. They exist to enhance mood. 

While it was technically a duo performance it was more than that. There were two musicians but they spoke in numerous instrumental voices. All of the voices were shaped in real time and shaped on machines both ancient and modern. It was acoustic and electric. It was analogue and digital and it worked well because the musicians understood and exploited the possibilities. It is seldom that you hear the subtler dynamic possibilities explored as effectively as this. 

There have been two Alargo albums released to date, and the good news is that another is on the way. This time Rattle is involved and the experimental nature and quality of the music renders it a perfect fit for the label. There were three tunes from Alargo’s Central Plateau album, two from the Primacy album and the rest were either new pieces or those to feature on the up-coming album. I have posted Actopia which is from Central Plateau, the longest piece of the night and a good showcase for this band. 

Keyboardist Alan Brown is a popular and celebrated Auckland musician. He is known for his versatility and deep grooves. It was nice to learn that his famous Blue Train band was performing again recently. As co-leader of Alargo Brown played (utilised) 2x iPads (as sound sources) with synths and effects-apps controlled through a MIDI keyboard, he also played an analogue synth, a darbuka drum and a Suzuki Andes recorder keyboard. 

Kingsley Melhuish is well known around town as a multi-instrumentalist. He is as likely to pick up a conch shell as a trumpet; vocalise or play reeds and other brass instruments. He is also a noted academic, composer and educator. On this gig he played trumpet, tuba, conch shells, percussion, vocal effects, a Boss Loopstation and iPad for effects.  

The Alargo albums are available via alanbrown.co.nz or in stores. Keep an eye on the Rattle releases for the up-coming album. 

JazzLocal32.com is 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, poet & writer. Some of these posts appear on related sites

Bonita ~ July 2021

The Bonita Project is fueled by good compositions, nice arrangements and above all by the exuberance of leader Chelsea Prastiti. It is the second time that Bonita has appeared at the CJC in recent times and people returned for more. It is a worthy project as it reimagines a time and rides on a powerful vibe; the sort that the world needs right now. There was always an easy-going breezy quality to post-war Brazilian music and that quality could beguile. Underneath, however, there is a powerful engine, as the melodies float over a plethora of complex rhythmic structures. 

It is impossible to listen and to keep your feet still as the urgency underlying the beachy vibe captures you. It is also true that in this golden era there were dangerous political undercurrents. Out of that dashed hope came a flowing of art forms and the authoritarian colonels who tried to snatch it all away could not silence the music. Many of the musicians like Elis Regina were harassed, but the music never faltered.

There were three arrangers credited on the gig, Prastiti, Sinclair and Passells. The compositions were by Prastiti (and with one co credited to Kenji Hollaway). Some of the tunes we had heard before, including the lovely ‘Cassandra’ (posted as a video last time). There were also new tunes and among them ‘Peter Pan’ was especially appealing.  The band had changed slightly from last time, with Connor McAneny replacing Crystal Choi. McAneny had been out of the country for a few years and his return is welcome. His piano playing has a muscular quality to it, which was less evident before he left. 

The opportunity afforded by a diverse sound palette was well utilised by the arrangers; bringing out the best in the music without overwhelming melody. This was achieved with three vocalists, an acoustic guitar, piano, double bass, percussion, kit drums, trumpet + flugelhorn,  clarinet + flute, tenor saxophone and a second flute. It was pleasing to hear a 12 piece ensemble perform in this way. A configuration like this allows an arranger to impart a degree of airiness out of a large ensemble sound. This was achieved by having the instrumentalists or the vocalists moving in and out of the mix as required. The tunes had lyrics, but just as often there was wordless singing. I love to hear the human voice used as a (non-verbal) instrument. Perhaps because of my ongoing enthusiasm for Winston/Wheeler/Taylor in their ECM ‘Azimuth’ days. This was a nice project and all the more so because it was presented with infectious enthusiasm.

Bonita: Chelsea Prastiti (vocals, arranging), Eamon Edmondson-Wells (upright bass), Ron Samsom (percussion), Tristan Deck (drums), Connor McAneny (piano), Michael Howell (guitar), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Elizabeth Stokes (trumpet/flugelhorn), Ben Sinclair (clarinet, flute, arranging), J Y Lee (flute), Rachel Clarke (vocals), Gretel Donnelley (vocals), Callum Passells (arranging). 

JazzLocal32.com is 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, poet & writer. Some of these posts appear on related sites

Lost Ships ~ Duni/Luft

Lost Ships on ECM is an album that rewards deep listening. It is deliciously spacious and unbelievably beautiful and the powerful images and exquisite stories will remain with you long after listening. It speaks in many languages, as disparate as Albanian and English. The Romance, Germanic and Balkan tongues unified in improvised song form. The album is a collaboration between UK Jazz guitarist Rob Luft and Albanian born Jazz vocalist Elina Duni. Together they have crafted a rare and precious document. It is especially relevant for current times while gently referencing a fading past. 

Like many ECM albums, originals, traditional folk tunes and jazz standards are approached with a Euro-Jazz sensibility. An approach where less is much more and an almost preternatural clarity is realised  Everything sounds fresh and the album achieves this by breathing new life into what we recognise and by delighting us with the unfamiliar. As always with ECM albums, the recording quality is impeccable, and the musicians take full advantage of this.  

The first number ‘Bella Ci Dormi’ (Beauty, You Sleep) is a traditional Italian song conveying intense longing. It opens with the piano and guitar setting up the tune for Duni; her voice, caressed by the delicacy of the arrangement. Duni has an extraordinarily beautiful voice and Luft has gifted her the perfect arrangements. The next tune ‘Brighton’, an original by Duni and Luft is sung in French (with the flugelhorn as another dominant voice). 

There is a songbook standard, ‘I am a Fool to Want You’ (Sinatra/Wolf/Herron) and a loved chanson classic ‘Hier Encore’ (Charles Aznavour). This establishes the pattern throughout. Songs from many sources sitting comfortably together. The song ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ (trad USA) was made famous by Johnny Cash, but it has previously been recorded by Jazz musicians (Charlie Haden and Shirley Horn).  The two traditional Albanian songs are a rare treat. In ‘Kur Me Del Ne Dere’ or ‘N’at Zaman’, it is not hard to discern the eastern European flavour.  

Among the originals are some wonderful tunes, ‘Flying Kites’ is stunning as are ‘Lux’ and ‘Empty Street’. As lovely as the rest are, my highest praise goes to the title track ‘Lost Ships’. The song pays tribute to the migrants who lost their lives in the Mediterranean; gently but powerfully urging us to take action on environmental and humanitarian issues before we find ourselves lost ships on an empty sea.     

The trio accompanying Duni is not of a typical alignment. It has two chordal instruments and the pianist doubles on drums. Then there is the flugelhorn. Such sensitive players all. And Luft is on every track and he is a powerful presence without being overt. It is his astonishing voicings and delicately placed runs; none intruding on the vocalist but never-the-less conveying a quiet strength by exploiting timbre and speaking whisper-soft. This was a perfect match and I am not surprised that ECM picked them up.   

    The last time I encountered Luft, was at Ronnie Scotts, playing a gig with Kit Downes, and it was there that he told me of this ECM project. At the time I had not heard of Duni, but a few months later and back in New Zealand, I posted enthusiastically on the Norwegian avant-garde vocalist Sidsel Endresen. Luft messaged me immediately to say that there was a connection between Duni and Endresen. Intrigued, I kept an eye out for the album, and then the pandemic hit. 

I was determined to grab a copy, a real copy, complete with brooding artwork and an outer sleeve. ECM has the imprint of artistic integrity and I avoid listening to any ECM recording in a compressed format if I can. I badly wanted to hear the album, but I waited. I was informed that it could take two months due to pandemic shipping delays, but it took much longer. It finally arrived as winter approached and I took it out of the letterbox as dusk fell. I put it on as darkness fell and let the sounds wash over me. I loved it from the first note. It had been my lost ship, and now it was found.

Lost Ships: Elena Duni (vocals, compositions), Rob Luft (guitar, compositions), Fred Thomas (piano, drums), Matthieu Michael (flugelhorn).

JazzLocal32.com is 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, poet & writer. Some of these posts appear on related sites

Sanctuary ~ Lovell-Smith/Baxendale

If you follow the New Zealand improvised music scene, you need to check out  ‘Sanctuary’, a collaborative album released by the Wellington-based saxophonists’ Jasmine Lovell-Smith and Jake Baxendale. And although the release date was only a month ago, it is already receiving significant attention, including from outside these shores. When you listen to Baxendale’s Walt Whitman referencing ‘Leaves of Grass’ Suite or Lovell-Smiths gorgeous ‘Sanctuary’ suite you will understand why.

The album is replete with imaginative writing. Of tastefully painted brush strokes from an unusually rich colour palette, and this enabled by the configuration of the eleven-piece ensemble. It is saying something important but never at the expense of approachability, for example, Baxendale’s suite, the opener, brings Mingus to mind. Mingus in a Felliniesque wonderland.  

The album is getting cut through because it is superbly realised and above all because it speaks convincingly of our times. In Lovell-Smith’s case, there is a distinct pastoral quality to her work and it invites us to reflect. This is similar to the approach that Maria Schneider takes, drawing attention to what is often passed over in haste and clothing the political in a softer raiment. 

Check it out here JasmineLovellSmith.bandcamp.com

Because of the writing and the quality of the musicianship, this is an especially cohesive ensemble; but nevertheless, the voices of the individual musicians shine through strongly. First and foremost among the soloists are the co-leaders, Baxendale on alto saxophone and Lovell-Smith on soprano saxophone, each featuring strongly on the album. Both give stunning performances. They have assembled a formidable line up here and no one falls short. Among the fine performances, Blair Lathem on bass clarinet and baritone, Ben Hunt on trumpet, Louisa Williamson on tenor, Hikurangi Schaverien Kaa on drums, Aleister Campbell on guitar and Anita Schwabe on piano (with her innate sense of swing). 

Baxendale is acknowledged as an important New Zealand composer and he has frequently been nominated (and has won) Jazz Tui awards. He is the spokesperson for the award-winning group The Jac (the winner of this year’s Tui with ‘A Gathering). He has travelled the world with his music and is associated with a number of New Zealand’s finest jazz units. Also a noted composer is Lovell-Smith who has resided, taught and performed in a number of countries, especially the USA and Mexico. Her return to New Zealand has enriched the scene here as she brings valuable insights and experience with her. Her innovative group the Noveltones is well worth catching.    

The subject matter for the two suites, and for the additional pieces are perfectly pitched. Whitman the beloved poet and humanist who spoke his truth in unforgiving times. His love of nature and his common cause with open-minded souls. And Sanctuary, that loaded word that evokes both safety and confinement. The album was recorded after our borders with the world had closed. And while the album evokes a sense of our enforced isolation, it also speaks to our interconnectedness; of human beings existing in a complex ecosystem, and hopefully realising that this is a rare window of opportunity. Music like this helps illuminate our way.    

To purchase or download the album visit jasminelovellsmith.bandcamp.com – Tell friends about it and support New Zealand music.  

Rachel Eastwood (flute), Ben Hunt (trumpet), Jasmine Lovell-Smith (soprano saxophone), Jake Baxendale (alto saxophone, bass clarinet), Louisa Williamson (tenor saxophone), Kaito Walley (trombone), Blair Latham (baritone saxophone, bass clarinet), Aleistair James Campbell (guitar), Anita Schwabe (piano), Chris Beernink (bass), Hikurangi Schaverein Kaa (drums) 

JazzLocal32.com is 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, poet & writer. Some of these posts appear on related sites

O’Connor/Derrick/Johnson

Last Wednesday’s CJC gig brought us a feast of truly adventurous music and it was beautifully executed. It was ‘free’ and ‘experimental’ and although within the improvised music spectrum, it is probable that many in the audience would not have encountered a prepared piano before. At the heart of the trio was the critically acclaimed pianist Hermione Johnson with drummer Chris O’Connor and reeds player Reuben Derrick. Anyone unfamiliar with a ‘prepared piano’ trio performance could not have wished for a better introduction. 

The beauty of experimental music is that you can put away the straight jacket of preconception and bring your imaginings to bear. New and unexpected worlds can be crafted out of the fragmentary detritus of the old. This is surely the ultimate purpose of improvised music. Freeing us from the tyranny of the obvious. 

This performance dove into the heart of sonority; creating sounds not generally associated with the instruments that made them. The piano had been prepared before the audience arrived and I wish that I had seen it. I have been lucky enough to witness this ritual on previous occasions, and ritual it is. There is a concentrated delicacy required in instaling the objects which muffle or extend the range of a piano. It is an installation and the precursor of new music. Items like chopsticks are inserted precisely between adjacent strings or perhaps a metal bowl is positioned. Few if any in New Zealand exceed the artistry of Johnson in this regard. 

Excerpts from concert

And it was not only the piano that reached for new sounds. No one thinks twice when they hear an instrument’s range extended by electronic means, nor should they when this is achieved acoustically. O’Connor, the drummer’s drummer is the most familiar to CJC audiences. He is one of Aotearoa’s best-loved and most adventurous drummers as he sits astride many genres with deceptive ease. During this performance, he added colour via fingers, mallets, sticks, gongs or rims, and no available surface or drum position was left unexplored. And he underscored the deep pulse emanating from the piano, tapping out some passages with surprising delicacy. 

Completing the trio was Christchurch based reeds player Derrick. The last time I saw him perform was in 2013 with his ‘Hound Dogs’. That particular unit performed a Monk heavy set that was well-received as I recall. Since then he has travelled extensively to places like Warsaw, Colombo, Vienna and Ljubljana. He is a noted composer and has collaborated across many cultural traditions. His fluency on the clarinet automatically singles him out, as the instrument is famous for punishing anyone who takes it up half-heartedly. On this gig, he doubled on tenor saxophone and his uncanny ability to locate the acoustic possibilities on both was evident. It’s a pity that he doesn’t live closer, I am up for more of what he has to offer.

Derrick, O’Connor, Johnson

This was music but it was also performance art of the highest order. It stretched us as improvised music should. It was wonderful. The only way that I can begin to do it justice is by abandoning written syntax. Filigree, texture, tropical thunder, raindrops, gamelan orchestra, quasar, delicate motifs, deep pulse, sighs, dance, hot tiles, exquisite, exotic. It reminded me of the first time that I heard Bley/Giuffre/Swallow’s Freefall.  My ears were realigned after that experience.     

Hermione Johnson (prepared grand piano), Chris O’Connor (drums, percussion), Reuben Derrick (clarinet, tenor saxophone). The gig took place at Anthology, for the CJC Jazz Club, 7 July 2021

JazzLocal32.com is 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, poet & writer. Some of these posts appear on related sites

Jon Hassell ~ the dream catcher

The avant-garde trumpeter, composer and innovator Jon Hassell died this week. He was not as well known as he should have been. He blazed his trail largely out of sight of the mainstream and along the way he created marvellous worlds. His early influences were minimalism, serialism, Indian vocal traditions and Miles Davis. He was a softly spoken trumpeter, a world music innovator, a change agent in rock and a Jazz influencer. On one website sub-genre descriptors call his styles; ethnic fusion, experimental jazz, techno-tribal, ambient improvisation. While associated with many genres, he had moved beyond them to forge a new type of music. 

His creations have always been deeply respectful of the older musical traditions. You will find beautifully crafted fragments of microtonal Indian classical music or textural Balinese Gamalon music. At no point does this feel like appropriation. And all layered lovingly over a deep pulse of electronic effects, a funk bassline and none of it rushed. If you watch videos of him playing you will notice that he points the trumpet bell downwards. Sampling and shaping the sound, on wondrous machines like the Eventide Harmoniser; ever shapeshifting as he moves tangentially between harmony and melody. His trumpet sound is unusual, developed out of early experiments with electronic effects as he sought to approximate Kiranic vocal techniques. 

As a student, he was attracted to serialism and after graduating he studied under Karlheinz Stockhausen in Europe. On returning to the US he met Terry Riley and performed on the first recording of ‘In C’, a work regarded as a seminal moment in modern music. During the early seventies, he discovered Kiranic singing and along with Riley, La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, studied under Pandit Pran Nath (Nath was a pupil of the Sufi vocal master Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan). They were later joined by Jazz Musicians and among them Lee Konitz and Don Cherry. Hassell was a Miles Davis fan and several of his albums highlight that influence. His best-known mainstream collaborations were with Brian Eno, Talking Heads, David Sylvian, Ry Cooder and Tears for Fears. 

Less well known was his enormous influence on the Norwegian jazz scene. During the last few decades, he would perform with or influence various Norwegian Jazz musicians. Members of the underground techno-Jazz fraternity. Eivind Aaset, Jan Bang, Erik Honore, Bugge Wesseltoft, Nils Petter Molvaer, Arve Hendrikson, Sidsel Endreson and others. A sub-genre that is increasingly accepted by Nordic jazz audiences. (The top video features guitarist Eivind Aaset and electronics mastermind Jan Bang).

Hassell’s innovations and collaborations have produced some extraordinary recordings. My personnel favourite is his ECM recording ‘Last night the moon came, dropping its clothes on the street’ (the title is from a Rumi poem). On this album from 2009, he plays alongside like-minded Norwegian improvising musicians. He always used evocative album titles and his album covers and videos magnify the effect. Album titles like ‘Vernal Equinox’, ‘Dream Theory Malaysia’, ‘The Surgeon of the Night Sky Restores Dead Things by the Power of Sound’, ‘Mareefa Street, Magic Realism’,’ Listening to Pictures’, ‘Seeing through Sound – Pentimento’ (pentimento: where a painting reveals fragments of an older painting hidden underneath). He painted in the softest of pastels, dabbing sound onto a universal canvas, elevating mood to the position of supremacy and infusing everything with a rare beauty.

JazzLocal32.com is 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, poet & writer. Some of these posts appear on related sites.

Mireya Ramos

Mireya Ramos was an unexpected musical treat because our borders, with very few exceptions, have been long closed to all but Kiwi returnees (and most recently Australian tourists). Ramos is from New York. Very few international musicians have managed to cross the border, and only if they obtained an exemption and subjected themselves to a strict quarantine. 

With the Australian Bubble just opened I assumed that Ramos must have come from Australia, but in fact, she arrived here with her acclaimed Flor de Toloache all-female Mariachi styled band to perform at WOMAD 2020. Within days of arrival, the borders had closed behind her. For many pre-lockdown international visitors, the border closure proved to be a silver lining as visas were extended and they could avoid the horrors unfolding elsewhere in the world.  

Mireya Ramos is a multi Grammy-nominated (and winning) artist and although the rest of her all-female mariachi band members returned home, she and her partner Andy Averbuch did what creatives do best, they got busy. During the year she has recorded and toured the country and her gigs have attracted enthusiastic audiences everywhere. Her CJC gig featured a variety of Latin and Central American styles with the addition of popular standards.   

Her music draws on many genres, but all coloured by a stylistic uniqueness. She is both a vocalist and a violinist and that appealed as well. The violin is not unknown in improvised music, but sadly it is still uncommon. I am fond of the violin in Jazz and Jazz fusion styles and particularly so with Argentinean music. 

Listening Jazz audiences are always eager to hear traditional and blended South American music. A good example was the version of ‘Fever’ which morphed into an Afro-Cuban groove. Of all the tunes, that appealed to me the most. It is not often that we get to hear the many and varied Latin styles and whenever we do, we are left wanting more.   

Guitarist Andy Averbuch and Bass player Alex Griffith had opportunities to stretch out during solos and they made the most of that, but when Dr Mark Baynes and Lance Bentley locked into a Clave, the magic happened. Ramos has been received enthusiastically in New Zealand and after the pandemic recedes, I am sure that she will be encouraged to return. The band: Mireya Ramos (vocals @ violin), Andy Averbuch (guitar), Dr Mark Baynes (piano, keys), Alex Griffith (bass), Lance Bently (drums).

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, poet & writer. Some of these posts appear on related sites.

Two Drummer Led Albums

Drummer led albums often tell stories in different ways and the releases reviewed here exemplify that. On the surface, they are dissimilar, but both convey raw energy and immediacy. These improvisers transcend the ordinary in their search for an ancient to modern language. 

CRISIS & OPPORTUNITY

The first is a newly released album by Myele Manzanza titled Crisis and Opportunity. It is the artist’s eighth release. And this time, his compositions were crafted while the artist was locked down in London during the worst months of the UK COVID crisis. As with his previous albums, there is something big-hearted about this work. As you listen, you gain the sense that he is telling a story that transcends time and place. This is realised through some very fine writing and crafted over his warm mesmerising beats.

Crisis & Opportunity Cover

Manzanza draws on strong roots and influences. He is a Kiwi, a citizen of the world and of African heritage. His father is a Master Congolese drummer and his formative years playing hand drums will have informed his approach to the kit. Among the other influences evident are broken-beat and Jazz electronica. Out of these influences and his own life experiences, alchemy is forged. He is forward-looking and overtly political. He is someone to watch with interest.  

Teaser to Crisis & Opportunity

Joining him on the album are some London musicians plus Mark-de Clive-Lowe (a Kiwi Keyboard maestro based in LA). I am familiar with trumpet player James Copus, as his impressive Dusk album came to my attention quite recently.  The other horn player is George Crowley on tenor saxophone. When the horns are playing in unison it is hard to believe that the horn line is not much bigger. On piano is Ashley Henry and on bass Benjamin Muralt. Both chasing those hypnotic dancing beats to good effect. And with de Clive-Lowe adding his deft brush strokes, a magnificent Album is realised. If you go to his Bandcamp label you can purchase a digital copy or order vinyl. www.myelemanzanza.bandcamp.com

WORDS

The other drummer led album that caught my attention is a free-jazz album released by Alex Louloudis. It arrived as a digital review copy with very little attached information, so I embarked on some research. In reality, the music speaks for itself and the biographical details are of less importance. The first track of ‘Words’ is ‘Surviving’ and it pulls you into a frenetic life-dance full of raw beauty and endless recalibration. It is propulsive and joyous and I fell for it immediately. It is the sort of track that brings me back to listen over and again and because of the immediacy, you know it’s real. 

This is free music that can move inside or outside with extraordinary ease. Nothing is quite what it seems and the river of sound flows over a cushion of compelling beats. There is often an ostinato bass line as in The Magic of 3. The melodic lines avoid the obvious and there is almost no repetition of phrases. In the right musical hands, following such principles opens up huge possibilities. This is a killing band and it is unmistakably a drummers band. 

I learned that Alex Louloudis was born in Drama, Greece, moved to America to study at the age of 19 and that he records on the Belgian based label ‘Off’. Since completing his studies in New York, Louloudis has moved among like-minded improvisers and attracted favourable attention. Although the artist was previously unknown to me (my bad), he has certainly come to the notice of important musicians and commentators (Gary Bartz, Billy Harper, Reggie Workman, Oliver Lake, Jeff Ballard, to mention just a few). The title track ‘Words’ is the final track and it rounds off the album perfectly. Opening to soft brush beats, it morphs into a dreamy slow-moving rendition of Over the Rainbow,  which in turn introduces the reflectively cutting poem, recited by Rosdeli Marte. 

  

The musicians: Alex Louloudis (drums), Raphael Statin (tenor saxophone), Dean Torrey (bass), Rosdeli Marte (vocals #1,6), Kaelen Ghandhi (tenor saxophone (# 1,6), Aaron Rubinstein (guitar #1,6), is available from Bandcamp at https://stilll-off.bandcamp.com/album/words

In this post, I have deviated from my usual practice of reviewing only albums from Aotearoa, New Zealand (or those offshore who maintain connections to our rohe). During the Covid lockdowns, I worked with the world Jazz community on platforms like the Jazz Journalists Assn site to ensure that the musician’s stories still were being told. Many writers were unable to engage, and in my country, we had freedoms others did not. No rule is worth having if it cannot be broken for a good cause. ‘Words’ is the exception that proves the rule and I couldn’t resist.   

 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, poet & writer. Some of these posts appear on related sites.

Keith Price Double Quartet 2021

Jazz and Cinema are natural bedfellows and there was no better proof of this than with Keith Price’s Double Quartet gig. A few days ago the CJC held the New Zealand premiere of Price’s ‘New Improvised Soundtrack to The Good the Bad and the Ugly’ and what a rare treat that was. The two art forms have complemented each other since the early twentieth century. Even before the talkies, a pianist would sit watching a flickering screen while he or she would churn out improvised music. In the cinemas segregated for coloured audiences, there were aspiring Fats Wallers, and in the white-only theatres’ grandiose theme music was conjured out of thin air. 

While seldom defined as Jazz it was never-the-less reactive to the moment and the first talkie was a (now) controversial film called ‘The Jazz Singer’. Soon after came some iconic Jazz themed movies and in the era of the Neo Realists, a Jazz soundtrack or an incidental jazz segment was indispensable: Elevator to the Scaffold (Miles), Breathless (Martial Solal), Blow Up [Herbie Hancock). 

It is not always obvious that a Jazz musician has composed a movie soundtrack but a surprising number of films can lay claim to this connection. John Williams who wrote the Star Wars soundtrack (plus ET Jaws, Schindlers List etc) was a Juilliard trained Jazz pianist (who once worked as a Jazz musician in New York bars). We have Jazz musicians in our own community who often appear in the credits (Crayford, Langabeer etc)

In the case of Ennio Morricone, the reverse is true. He was never a Jazz pianist but his compositions have become jazz standards. I mention Morricone because he composed the original soundtrack to The Good the Bad and the Ugly. This work by Keith Price is not in any way based on Morricone’s score. Price has turned the concept on its head and created something vital and new, and in this case, drawing on the film images to blaze a new trail. 

Here, the images are subordinate or equal to the music and there is no incidental music to enhance the segments of dialogue. And because there is no spoken narrative something extraordinary occurs. We feel the music and absorb the images in new ways. It comes to us through many senses, through ears, body and eyes. 

This is a through-composed work, but with space and opportunity for the musicians to react to the images (and to each other). It features group improvisation, but there is nothing aimless about the work. Each segment is built on what proceeds it with the charts guiding the ensemble forwards as they interact.  

Excerpts from the concert

The ensemble was a double quartet and this doubling up of instruments required skilful playing and very good writing. Luckily we got both, and although the gig was loud, the intensity never tumbled into chaos. Each musician took on agreed roles, resulting in a heady, textural mix. There were two keyboards (piano and digital), two drummers, two basses (one upright, the other electric), a tenor saxophone and a guitar.  

Price was on guitar and guiding the music with prompts. In a semi-circle facing the screen and keeping an eye on the leader were, Ron Samsom (drums), Olivier Holland (electric bass), Mostyn Cole (upright bass), Malachi Samuelu (drums), Kevin Field (piano), Ben Gailer (keyboards) and Roger Manins (tenor saxophone). 

Ben Gailer, Malachi Samuelu, Mostyn Cole & Eli

An unexpected plus for me was having the cinematography of Sergio Leone untethered from the screenplay. A new piece of music to a timeless movie. He was a towering genius of the cinema and it was nice to be reminded of that as we appreciated the preternatural framing of each shot. Leone drew on Samurai tales for his Dollar Trilogy and in doing so he reached beyond genre. These are ancient archetypes reframed and more profound than the faux wild west of John Wayne or ‘Hopalong’ Cassidy. The function of archetypes is to live on through reinterpretation and thanks to Keith Price, this story lives on.

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, poet & writer. Some of these posts appear on related sites.

Mark Lockett Quartet

The Spirit of Ornette Coleman hung in the air last Wednesday, manifesting itself in the form of the Mark Lockett Quartet. It was a quartet devoid of chordal instruments. It was Coleman, not Mulligan. It was original music and an example of Coleman induced Lockdown creativity. The inspiration may have come from Coleman’s approach, but Lockett is a true original. He drums musically and tells stories at every turn. His tune titles, his solos and his announcements are tales from a true raconteur. He is a storyteller with an open vocabulary.   

I am always enthusiastic about a Lockett gig and with Lucien Johnson in the line-up, it was a sinch. I have reviewed several of Johnson’s albums, the last one, Wax///Wane, was especially fine. Like Lockett, he is adventurous and his musical fearlessness was an asset here. While Lockett composed the tunes (excepting two Monk tunes), Johnson was the principal arranger. 

The resulting gig was a tribute to freedom. The sort that shocked in 1959 and doesn’t know. Colman never abandoned the rules, he just invented new ones. His hard to nail down theory of ‘harmolodics’, an evolving rearrangement of hierarchy, with harmony, melody, speed, rhythm, time and phrases jostling for equality. I think that he would have enjoyed this gig as he never wanted followers. What he wanted, was fellow travellers and he found that with this band.

I can’t recall when I last saw a trumpeter, Oscar Laven. He was smokin’ last Wednesday and his forthrightness and bright tone, balanced out the thoughtful and softer toned explorations of Johnson on tenor saxophone. Everyone took solos and the notes they blew added something worthwhile. Behind them and pounding out meaty basslines was Umar Zakaria. We saw Zakaria recently when he fronted his own gig. Here, he was at his best, a Mingus like figure powering the music to greater heights. He was just the right anchor and the others benefitted from his solid earthy cushion.   

As the tour progresses throughout the Islands, the audiences will find much to enjoy, and as a bonus, they will hear Lockett’s tall tales of New York and elsewhere. His banter is worth the ticket price alone and if you add to that the joy of fresh sounding music, it’s a bargain. 

Mark Lockett Quartet: Mark Lockett (drums), Lucien Johnson (tenor saxophone), Oscar Laven (trumpet), Umar Zakaria (upright bass). The gig was at Anthology, CJC Creative Jazz Club, 22 April 2021.

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, poet & writer. Some of these posts appear on related sites.

Ruckus, 2021

For those who don’t live where we live, live gig reports could feel like salt rubbed into a wound. I write from a warm Pacific Island. A place where the virus is not in the community but where we can roam free (we don’t have snakes) and where we have live music available. We have had two short sharp lockdowns this year and as we emerged from each of them, the music venues filled up with enthusiastic punters; so what better way to exit the last lockdown but with joyful noise. Ruckus is a genre defying, assemblage of anarchic improvisers under the guidance of David Ward. 

 Last week saw the inclusion of saxophonist J. Y. Lee in the Ruckus lineup and his bold delivery added piquancy. There were three Monk tunes performed, and on these, Lee played Baritone saxophone. The richer palette worked well and the contrasting instrumentation gave the jagged bouncing lines of Monk’s compositions a rich earthy feel.  Ruckus is one of several local groups which invariably include Monk tunes in their repertoire. Ward’s quirky Monk arrangements are always worth listening to.

Ward’s arrangements for Ruckus are also notable for their eclecticism, their lack of cliche. blues, Americana, latin tinge, free and swing and all fused into a jazz-grounded brew. There were folksy ballads and a tango referencing tune (I have posted the latter). This time, there was less Americana influence but it was still evident. The band’s sound is crafted from pedal steel guitar, a standard electric guitar (or guitars), drums, upright bass and multiple saxophones. 

As always, Neil Watson alternated between pedal steel guitar and standard electric guitar. He and Ward are old hands at this material and they play off each other well. When both played guitar they never got in each other’s way, throwing challenging lines between them or else comping quietly as they laid down a cushion for the other. 

Eamon Edmundson Wells upright bass work stood out on this gig. He sounded great. This is the type of band where he is at his best, the type of band where a degree of freedom is afforded him.  Tristan Deck again proved his worth as a multi-faceted and capable drummer. I loved the stick work on the tango-esque number.

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. Some of the posts also appear on other sites.

Multiple Streams, Deeper Rivers

I have been absent during the last month as my computer was deliberately unplugged. I needed time to walk among trees, read and spend time with visiting family. None of the above kept me from checking out new music and it afforded me some time to reflect more on the global changes feeding Jazz. There is nothing quite like a pandemic to make us re-evaluate our place in the world and to make us value comity over isolation. These connecting threads lead us into every corner of the improvised music diaspora. 

Just in time for the holidays, I gave several Christmas presents to myself. The first was Keith Jarrett’s magnificent ‘Sun Bear Concerts’ box-set, recorded in Japan (which I had long lusted after). It was fitting in light of the news that Jarrett is unlikely to perform or record again due to a debilitating stroke. This boxset has often been overlooked. It is a musical statement of pure genius.  The second album was a recent release ‘Architexture’ by the German Jazz musician Florian Ross. ‘Architexture’ is an extraordinary album, sitting astride the broader traditions of ensemble Jazz. It is configured atypically and consequently it has a distinctly airy feel to it. 

The album features a traditional jazz quartet, augmented by a conducted seven-piece wind ensemble. Ross is a gifted composer (and pianist) and his music has often been performed by large jazz orchestras such as the WDR. In this case, a more unusual configuration has let in additional light, while at the same time offering a rich and diverse textural soundscape. Using this palate Ross has crafted a programatic and personal journey through the world’s architecture.   

The music speaks strongly of place, but not just Germany (where Ross lives). It speaks of the locations where his favourite architecture is found, and out of that comes an idiosyncratic chiasma. The streams that feed this album are plentiful and among them the twentieth century western classical tradition. The only composition not his own is an arrangement of Elgar’s Nimrod (var.9) for saxophone and wind ensemble. Elgar composed many of his works in a rented cottage and it is ‘Brinkwells Cottage’ in conjunction with Elgar’s works which inspired that particular arrangement.  

From start to finish, this is a worthwhile journey, an evocation of archtectural visions, the places and sounds that inspired their constructions, and of course of Ross’s connection to those places. Alvaro Siza of Portugal, Antoni Gaudi of Catalonia Spain, the incomparable Oscar Niemeyer who designed Brasilia and many more. His Developments 1-4 are short through-composed pieces dedicated to specific architectural spaces or forms; Brazilian Architecture, the floor plan of a cathedral, the suburban prefabricated house, Bavarian Rococo; and dear to my heart ‘Glebe Cottage’ the home of Jazz pianist John Taylor.  

The Album is out on the German Naxos label and can be accessed on streaming sites. I urge you to buy a physical copy as the booklet is a small masterpiece. Featured are some wonderful musicians, Florian Ross (piano, compositions) Sebastian Gille (saxophone), David Helm (double bass), Fabian Arends (drums), The Event Wind Ensemble, Susanne Blumenthal (noted conductor). The album can be ordered in stores or online. For more information check out www.florianross.de 

Just before Christmas I attended a concert by Auckland based Musician Ben Fernandez. The occasion was the release of his latest album ‘The Music Never Stopped’ but it also served as a homage to the spirit that was evident in the community during the New Zealand COVID lockdowns. Fernandez is of Goan extraction but was musically active in Mumbai before settling in New Zealand. He studied Jazz at several Auckland institutions and is a regular performer about town. He has also maintained a connection to the Bollywood Film industry. Along the way his musical influences have been rich and varied and he showcased many of those during his concert of mostly original compositions.  

There was a spontaneous improvised piano piece, A tribute to his former teacher Phil Broadhurst, tunes written for various family members and of particular interest to me, a duo involving Persian musician Rasoul Abbasi.  Abbasi played a Kamancheh which is an ancient-bowed instrument with a wonderfully mournful tone. The composition itself, and the contrast between piano and Kamancheh worked to the advantage of both (I have posed a sound clip). This ability to make strong and authentic intercultural connections is where Fernandez excels. It spoke to the universality of the improvised music traditions, and of empathy and the Jazz sensibilities. 

Another tune of Fernandez which captured a pan-global essence was a piece written for a beloved family member ‘Chuchi’.  I have included that as a video clip. The line-up was varied and featured many of the musicians he had studied with such as Andrew Hall (who gave a great saxophone solo on the heartfelt tribute to Phil Broadhurst). The musicians on the trio number were Jo Shum (bass) and Ron Samsom (drums).  The concert finished up with Auckland vocalist Maria O’flaherty singing a great rendition of the much-loved standard ‘What a Difference a Day Makes’. In light of the pandemic, the tune had added resonance. ‘The Music Never Stopped’ features Ben Fernandez (compositions, arrangements, piano), Jo Shum (bass), Ron Samsom (drums), Warren Mendonsa (guitar), Rasoul Abbasi (Kamancheh), Jess Rogers (vocals), CeleBRationChoir conducted by Alison Talmadge. The album is available from benfernandez.com 

While writing this, a number of interesting review copies and new releases hit my inbox. Among them, a soon to be released album from a Lebanese Jazz bassist Makram Aboul Hosn titled ‘Transmigration’. This wonderfully inventive musician has released his first album under extremely adverse conditions. As well as facing the devastation of COVID19 in Lebanon, there have been ongoing violent political upheavals, Banks froze the artists touring money, and if that were not enough, there was a devastating Port Explosion. The recording of ‘Transformation’ went ahead anyhow only three days after that last mentioned cataclysm. His is an album well worth checking out and to top off the stelar ensemble performances there are a number of guest artists like Joe Locke (who appeared remotely). The album will soon be available from all major streaming platforms. This is proof that high-quality Jazz exists everywhere. The artists are Makram Aboul Hosn, Nidal Abou Samra, Christopher Shaheen, Khaled Yassine, Joe Locke, Tariq Amery, Sima Itayim. Release date 18th February.

The last album to be mentioned is an ECM offering by Norwegian Kantele player and folk/Jazz vocalist Sinikka Langeland. The cut I will post is from her last release and it is so measured and so beautiful that it sends a shiver down the spine. Langeland is accompanied by Jazz Nordic legends in this album. She performs with the likes of Arve Henriksen, Trygve Seim and Anders Jorman. The YouTube track posted is ‘Deep in the Forest’. Available from all music stores and from streaming sources.  

All of the above demonstrate the multiplicity of influences feeding Jazz. From multiple streams come deeper rivers. 

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. Many of these posts also appear on Radio13.co.nz – check it out.

Bonita ~ Chelsea Prastiti

Chelsea Prastiti’s Bonita gig was a phantasmagoria of warm evocative sounds. I have the greatest respect for her work and in this case, she curated something rare; she conjured up the vibe from another place and time, and she did so without a hint of contrivance. The Brazil of the sixties and seventies with its Bossa Nova soundtrack was an era of infinite possibility. In the end, the dream was stolen by a repressive authoritarian regime but the music, a timeless gift to the world, lived on. Over the last half-century, the Jobim songbook, in particular, has remained popular, and while some interpretations have been breathtaking, others, have been pale imitations. 

What Prastiti has done here is both respectful and innovative. She has composed a suite of tunes that nails the vibe as it taps into the essence of New Wave Brasileira while evoking the founding era. The concept for this gig and many of the tunes were conceived years ago. Prastiti had other projects cooking back then, and so she waited her time. As it turns out, she timed it perfectly. With our borders closed, the desire for high-quality Kiwi music is at an all-time high. Audiences are not being distracted by ‘once again and for the very last time’ tours by fading greats, and the realisation is dawning that homegrown is often better. 

Stars above water below

Another plus for holding the gig now was that her friends and collaborators were all within reach: notably, Elizabeth Stokes and Ben Sinclair of ‘The Beths’. The recent winners in the Best Group category at the NZ Music Awards would probably have been back on a world tour right now, but the pandemic curtailed that. The ensemble members all go back quite a way with Prastiti and I believe that the warmth they radiate arises from those long-held connections. 

Cassandra

The ten-piece ensemble oozed a Brazilian vibe, with its flute players and fingerstyle acoustic guitar. Add to this the unmistakable rhythms of Samba and Bossa Nova and the course was set. There was a horn section of trumpet and a tenor saxophone and one of the flute players doubled on clarinet. Behind them was an upright bass, drum kit and percussion and in the darkness, and to one side, a piano. The arrangements were beautifully textured and the harmonies absolutely gorgeous. As well as the instrumental harmonies, there were vocal harmonies contributed by two of the instrumentalists (one being Stokes, who has a fabulous voice – the success of the Beths underscores that). Prastiti composed all of the tunes and arranged most of them. The other credits go to Sinclair who arranged Prism, Callum Passells who arranged Bumblebee and Kenji Iwamitsu-Holdaway who is co-credited for the composition titled ‘Stars Above and Water Below’. 

Chelsea Prastiti is one the most innovative vocalists to appear on the local scene and she is never afraid to take risks or to explore new territory. The rest of her ensemble were: Elizabeth Stokes on trumpet and vocals, Crystal Choi, who appeared last week, this time on piano and vocals; bringing a beautifully voiced minimalism to the proceedings and echoing Tom Jobim’s delicate spidery lines. Roger Manins was on tenor saxophone with fills and some tasteful solos – J Y lee played an edgy melodic flute (it is not his primary, but he brought expression to an instrument that in the wrong hands can lack it). Beside him was Ben Sinclair (bass guitarist from the Beths), alternating between clarinet and flute, the ever-reliable Adam Tobeck was on the drum kit, with Ron Samsom on percussion. Lastly, and hidden in the shadows was Michael Howell, utilising the voicings and fingerstyle of the Brazilian acoustic guitar. He absolutely nailed those warm pulsing rhythms which fell about us like a warm summer shower.  

Eleven years ago, I began this Jazz blog and one of my first posts was an opinion piece about this era. I looked back at it today for the first time since writing it, and apart from a few missing commas, it stands up. I was worried when I wrote it that it might get something wrong, but a Brazilian musicologist messaged me to thank me for it. Anyone wanting to gain an additional sense of this era could follow the link to my original post. It is an opinion piece, but it could serve as a springboard to more authoritative, Brazilian-sourced information. https://jazzlocal32.com/2011/06/07/wave-antonio-carlos-jobim/

The gig took place at Anthology K’Road for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, November 25, 2020

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. Many of these posts also appear on Radio13.co.nz – check it out.

Haines/Crayford/Singh

Any jazz club gig involving Nathan Haines, Jonathan Crayford and Manjit Singh is bound to catch the attention. It was programmed to occur months ago and unsurprisingly tickets sold out so quickly that many missed out. Then, out of the blue, the virus crept back among us and we found ourselves back in lockdown. There was a new date suggested, but for safety reasons that did not transpire, and we waited. October brought us warm weather, freedom of movement, and above all, it gave us our gigs back. This time the Haines/Crayford/Singh gig actually happened and more tickets were released as restrictions no longer applied. 

The gig was a fusion of Jazz and the Indian musical traditions and in particular the northern styles. Accompanying them on harmonium and with vocals as a guest artist was Daljeet Kaur, the wife of Tabla player Manjit Singh. Chelsea Prastiti also appeared as a guest artist on one number. To pull off this type of fusion and yet do so respectfully, requires careful programming and good musicianship. The three co-leaders were particularly suited to this task. 

Singh was a respected Tabla player and teacher long before he travelled from the Punjab region to New Zealand. He has since completed a musicology degree at Auckland University and his involvement with the UoA Jazz School brought him into frequent contact with local jazz musicians. Haines and Crayford are internationally renowned and together they are a versatile dream-team. Bringing Singh into their orbit made perfect sense as both can comfortably play outside of the strictures of genre. 

There are particular subtleties to Indian music and perhaps most formidably the rhythms. The scales, although model, and thus familiar to Jazz practitioners also have aspects of difference. The northern Indian scale has twelve notes and is moveable. When western harmonies are added, unusual challenges crop up. Jazz, however, is the art form of flexibility and its practitioners thrive on playing over drones and exploring harmonies. I believe that is why this worked so well. 

As soon as I heard the harmonium and tabla together I was transported back in time; back to a night in the Himalayan foothills where I once heard a wandering troupe play. Two youths who we had befriended in Katmandu, called by late one night and led us up into the mountains. We walked in the moonlight and eventually arrived at a rustic farmhouse; cattle on the ground floor, a farmer ushering us up a ladder to the first level. A troupe of wandering musicians who crossed borders secretly at night and played in private homes by invitation only. A four-piece unit of sitar, tambura, flute, harmonium and vocals. They were brilliant. Not the sort of thing anyone could forget.   

I had always assumed that that the harmonium was a traditional Indian instrument, but I have since learned, that it came from the West around 250 years ago. Once adopted by Indian musicians, it was modified, and it entered the repertoire of the northern part of the sub-continent. Its entry was not without controversy. Because it sits at the juncture between east and west, it feels an appropriate instrument to bring to an Indian, Jazz fusion gig. 

There were a number of original tunes, a classical piece, a Beatles tune and an old Pakistani folk tune. The arrangement of Norwegian Wood was well adapted. The Beatles had been exploring modal Indian music at the time. When Chelsea Prastiti joined them, she and Daljeet Kaur sang a New Zealand composition, Olympic Girl. That number received wild applause, but my favourite segment was when the trio played Heitor Villa-Lobos Bachianas Brasileiras No 5. This gorgeous tune with its sensual Latin rhythms and Spanish tinge has been played and adapted by Jazz musicians before – notably by Wayne Shorter. The trio’s version paid it homage in the very best way. 

 Nathan Haines|flutes, soprano saxophone – Jonathan Crayford | piano & keys – Manjit Sigh | Tabla, tala & percussion – Daljeet Kaur | harmonium & vocals – Chelsea Prastiti | vocals

The gig took place at Anthology K’Road for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, October 21, 2020

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. Many of these posts also appear on Radio13.co.nz – check it out.

Tigran Hamasyan ~ The Call Within

Any album by the brilliant Armenian Jazz pianist Tigran Hamasyan is going to elevate our spirits, and his new release, ‘The Call Within’ does just that. The title suggests quiet introspection, but instead, a vast cosmology is revealed. It is infinitely expansive and any expectations of meditative reflection should therefore be set aside. In the album, Hamasyan utilises the richness of his birthplace Armenia, but in doing so he paints the tunes onto a broader canvas. 

‘The Call Within’ features a core trio plus guests. The guests however, are so well integrated into the mix that the unit feels like a medium-sized ensemble. Alongside Hamasyan: Evan Marien (bass) and Arthur Hnatek (drums). Guests: Tosin Abasi (guitar), Areni Agbabian (vocals) and Artyom Manukyan (cello). The generous use of keyboards interwoven with piano is also a factor in providing this unusually rich palette.  

The first track, ‘Levitation 21’ begins with a meditative chant over a simple motif. Then, without warning, the music comes at you like a freight train. This sudden mood switch is deftly executed and it sets up an other-worldly syncopation. The effect constantly catches you off guard as the tension rises then drops. It is call and response and it is stop-time, but not as we know it. 

The use of stop-time is even more pronounced on ‘Our Film’ and as the album progresses, the listener becomes aware of many such contrasts. Some of these contrasting figures are deftly interwoven, placing one inside of the other. The heavily percussive co-exists with gently rippling arpeggios, which by contrast, are played with extraordinary delicacy. And over this come the drums and bass who dance like magical dervishes. 

On ‘Old Maps’, rippling arpeggios introduce a celestial choir and the notes fall from Hamasyan’s fingertips like rain drops. I especially loved this track, as it felt like the universe singing to humanity. Poets and musicians are beguiled by maps and love them as archetypes. The maps theme is again updated in the last piece titled ‘New Maps

There are quieter moments as well, such as the intriguingly titled ‘At a Post-Historic Seashore’ but whatever the mood, your attention never flags. As each new vista appears you feel like a wayfarer on a beguiling quest. This is the genius of the album and what ever the phrase or section, you feel like it is was just for you. Throughout, Hamasyan draws on ancient Armenian scales and on modality. Perhaps that is why it sounds both familiar and exotic. 

At each turn, Hamasyan and his collaborators deliver energised performances and in doing so they shake us from our pandemic-induced inertia. This is the album we need right now. It is an affirmation of all that is wonderful in the world. It is European Jazz at its finest. Like three of his previous albums, this one has been released on the Warners ‘Nonesuch’ label. It is available through Bandcamp or from record stores.

Tigran Hamasyan (keyboards, piano, voices), Evan Marien (electric bass), Arthur Hnatek (drums) and with guests: Tosin Abasi (guitar), Areni Agbabian (vocals), Artyom Manukyan (cello)

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. Many of these posts also appear on Radio13.co.nz

Bach In Reykjavik

It has long been acknowledged that Bach’s DNA is deeply embedded in Jazz practice. While Bill Evans surprised some fans when he named Bach as a primary influence, the Baroque composers influence is actually widespread in all of western improvised music. Over the years there have been numerous Bach crossover albums and while the best were marvellous, others sounded slightly awkward. The more recent Bach referencing albums have moved beyond the swing approach and in doing so they have reached deep inside the essence of the music. Like a good Jazz head-arrangement, Bach’s music provides an exquisite architecture for improvisers to explore. I am enthusiastic about a number of these modern explorations.

A few days ago a review copy of ‘On Goldberg Variations’ (Backlash Music) arrived. I was immediately intrigued, as the album was recorded in Reykjavik. The musicians are classical improvising pianist, Mathias Halvorsen and Jazz percussionist, Jan Martin Gismervik. Both are Norwegian although Halvorsen is at present living in Iceland. I am an enthusiast for Nordic and Icelandic artistry and I wondered if those spacious northern landscapes would influence their approach. After listening, my answer is yes. Halvorsen pointed out that the two are more closely aligned with the Norwegian scene, but it is no stretch to imagine how recording in Iceland can add a layer of influence. 

Lines

While the album is directly informed by the notation of the Goldberg Variations, it is also referred to as new music. Here, the musical ideas have been examined with care, extracted and then reduced to their essence. In the track titled ‘other voices’ a sub-minimalist approach is evident; with the musicians utilising fragments; and the results are both familiar and unfamiliar. To quote Halvorsen:

(It) can best be compared to looking at a familiar world through a continuously changing kaleidoscope’.

Stripped of ornament, and elided, the silence between the notes becomes essential in the decoding. We sense what lies between and it is visceral. We follow and are surprised as the motifs and rhythms fall into place. Those familiar with the Goldberg Variations will find themselves attempting mental reconstructions as fragments of rhythm or melody, appear and then vanish. Humans are hard-wired to look for patterns, and in searching for them here, we are drawn inside a spacious pristine world. We compare what we know, or what we think we know and out of that comes the new.

Halvorsen & Gismervik

The pieces reveal a filmic soundscape of stark beauty. ‘Numbers’ beguiles us with long ostinato passages and again the minimalist approach allows us to explore the sonic subtleties. ‘Running’ takes us closer to a known form but then injects long bars of silence between the phrases. ‘Together’ comes closer to Jazz sensibilities with its resonant voicings, which dance. Everything merits a deeper listening here as the journey is in part, subliminal; it will stretch some listeners toleration as avant-garde music frequently does. It worked for me and took me back to the extraordinary Bley/Giuffre/Swallow albums such as ‘Freefall’ (ECM). 

For those keen to hear some other contemporary approaches to improvised Bach, I recommend Brad Mehldau’s ‘After Bach’ (Nonesuch). This album achieved tremendous cut through and juxtaposes Mehldau’s own compositions with Bach’s. That album references ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’. It is closer to the original Bach charts. A sumptuous delight from start to finish. 

For another unusual look at the ‘Goldberg Variations’, people could check out Uri Caine’s ‘Goldberg Variations’ album. This was released by ‘Winter & Winter’ and is gorgeously packaged. Like Mehldau, Caine plays some of the variations as written, but the rest appear as blues, electronica, gamba quartet and in many unusual ensemble configurations. There is also humour and joy.

If you’re afraid of iconoclasm, these will not be for you; but if you are up for sonic adventures, dive in and go with it.

Pianist Mathias Halvorsen

 

 

Percussionist Jan Martin Gismervik

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. Many of these posts also appear on Radio13.co.nz

Jazz on Lockdown series

Some missing music for those missing music. Hear it Here

Mark de Clive-Lowe (keys) in Auckland’s CJC a few weeks ago with Brandon Combs (drums) and Marika Hodgson (bass)

‘Don’t Dream it’s Over (N Finn), Chelsea Prastiti (vocals), Kevin Field (piano), Mostyn Cole (bass), Stephen Thomas (drums), Mike Booth (trumpet). CJC Auckland at Alchemy Live

Bird Song (Smirnova) Simona Smirnova (vocals), Alan Brown (piano), Cameron McArthur (bass), Jono Sawyer (drums) at Auckland’s CJC, March 2020.

The lockdowns won’t stop jazz! To assist musicians who’ve had performances canceled, get their music heard around the globe. The Jazz Journalists Association created a Jazz on Lockdown: Hear It Here community blog. For more click through to
https://news.jazzjournalists.org/category/jazz-on-lockdown/

Jazz on Lockdown ~ Hear it here series

My normal weekly post has been sitting in my ‘drafts’ folder for over two weeks. Since writing it,  my attention has been focused elsewhere.  Although in isolation, I am not referring to my personal situation but to the J JA ‘Jazz on Lockdown’ project which has rallied Jazz Journalists from every corner of the globe and asked them to respond collectively to the pandemic. My colleagues and I are now working together using an online workspace and our individual blogs may be delayed. Those who are able to have volunteered to join an editing working group as we grapple with the challenges of a fast-moving situation. This is a Jazz Journalists Association project aimed at keeping improvised music current and to get updates to and from countries on lockdown. 

Because of that, Spain first captured our attention. When the virus hit, a popular Jazz musician succumbed and soon every resident was under lockdown. As the virus spread, so did our focus and within days the problem had reached every country. One by one the great Jazz centres like New York closed and the iconic and much-loved Jazz clubs closed with them. When the city that never sleeps locks down, you know that you have urgent work to do. Jazz Journalists are not going to sit around moping; nor will we restrict ourselves to watching another era’s YouTube clips. It is the current musicians who need us the most. We are learning new ways of working and it is our intention to direct you to live gigs or the gigs of working musicians where we can. 

We need Jazz fans and Improvised alternative music fans to keep buying current albums. If there is a live-stream concert with a tip-button give them a few dollars. This is a new version of the pass-the-bucket tradition which goes back to the earliest days of Jazz. Many of the live-streamed concerts will be free, some could be pay-per-view. Buy their music and on Bandcamp or their website if possible. ‘Jazz on Lockdown’ will inform you of the links.  

Barry/Metheny/de Clive-Lowe/Alchemy/Smirnova/Martyniuk

The week before the virus arrived was a week of plenty in Auckland, but the above-named artists did not all appear in the same band. Nor at the same gig. They probably won’t mind if you think that though. Attending Ronnies a few years ago, I caught English pianist Kit Downes at the late show. This followed a sold-out earlier show featuring Kurt Elling. I informed Downes that my write up would begin ‘Elling opens for Downes at Ronnie Scotts’. He liked that. 

Arriving in a rush, as if waiting for the cooler weather came Pat Metheny, Steve Barry, Mark de Clive-Lowe, Alchemy, Callum Passells, Trudy Lyle, Simona Smirnova, and Michael Martyniuk gigs. As always, painful choices were required. 

Steve Barry Trio: Barry left Auckland many years ago; settling in Sydney and returning yearly to perform. Each time he visited there were new directions on offer, highly original material and each iteration offering glimpses of lesser-known composers. His recent albums have taken him into deeper waters still, moving beyond the mainstream. For those of us who like adventurous music, they have been compelling. Two albums were released last year. The first is on Earshift Music and the second on Rattle; both available on Bandcamp.  

‘Blueprints and Vignettes’ trod a path reminiscent of 60’s Bley; boldly striking out for freer territory and edging its way confidently into the classical minimalist spaces. That album was followed by ‘Hatch’ which is an astonishing album of stark pared-back beauty. It is an album pointing to new possibilities in improvised music. This concert felt more exploratory, with denser compositions and jagged Monk-like moments. He played one Monk tune halfway through and this reinforced the connection. 

Mark de Clive-Lowe: It was barely six months ago since de Clive-Lowe passed through Auckland during his ‘Heritage’ album release tour. He attracted capacity audiences then (and now). After years of living away from his home city, he is now reconnected to the Auckland improvised music scene and we hope that he will maintain that link. Having a room like ‘Anthology’ certainly helped, as its capacity is significant. During this tour, he treated us to a wider range of his innovative music; especially his Church Sessions. Showcasing the genre-busting underground gigs that he began in LA and which spread like wildfire throughout the world; giving fresh impetus to the improvised music scene and the endless possibilities looking forward.  

On tour with de Clive-Lowe was the respected LA drummer Brandon Combs. A drummer who can hold down a groove beat while working it every which way; able to interact intuitively with the electronic beats generated by de Clive-Lowe as he dances across the multitude of keyboards and devices. Together with locals Nathan Haines and Marika Hodgson, they created wizardry of the highest order. This artist is the wizard of hybridity and we are happy to remind people that he came from this city. Live re-mix, dance, groove beats, jazz, whatever: it has all been captured, mined for its essence and released for our pleasure.

Alchemy Live: This was the first live performance of the ‘Alchemy’ project. It followed the successful release of the eponymous album which got good airplay and deserves ongoing attention. The concept was the brainchild of producer Mark Casey and its realisation by the musical director and Jazz pianist Kevin Field. The pianist has created some truly fine Jazz charts and the assemblage of musicians he brought into the project brought it home in spades. The tunes have been selected from the New Zealand songbook. Perennially popular and chart-busting classics like ‘Royals’ and ‘Glad I’m not a Kennedy’. Artists as diverse as Herbs, Split Enz and Phil Judd. Because of mounting travel restrictions, several of the artists on the recording were replaced for the live gig. New to us, was Jazz student vocalist Rachel Clarke and she won us over that night.

Pat Metheny: This concert had been long anticipated and it was only the second time that he has appeared in New Zealand. In spite of the looming health scare, the town hall was packed. This was a retrospective of sorts as it featured his best-known tunes. Who would not want to hear a fresh version of Song for Balboa or the joyous ‘Have you Heard’? I loved the concert but two quibbles. I didn’t like the way the piano was miked and mixed except for one number. Gwilym Simcock is a great pianist. It would be nice to hear him in a trio and with an acoustically mic’d up Steinway. The star of the show (Pat aside) was bass player Linda May Han Oh. How stunningly melodic and how sensitive she was in each situation she encountered; solos to die for.

Simona Smirnova: This was Smirnova’s third trip to Auckland. By the time she had arrived in the country, people were becoming cautious about attending crowded gigs. She still attracted a good audience and those who did come were delighted with her show. The setlist was similar to her last year’s show but in the bigger Anthology venue, it sounded stronger. Smirnova interacts extremely well with audiences and they respond in kind. Her beautiful ballads (accompanied on the Lithuanian Kanklas) and her upbeat Slavonic styled scatting were the highlights. Her material is delightfully exotic, being an original blend of Jazz, Lithuanian folk music and beyond. Her voice is simply beautiful and her zither playing beguiling. She was accompanied by Auckland veterans Alan Brown on keys, Cam McArthur on bass and this time, Jono Sawyer on drums & vocals). I have some nice footage which says it best.

Michal Martyniuk: The last gig I attended before isolating myself was the Michal Martyniuk Trio. I did not have video equipment with me but I captured the concert in high-quality audio. I will post on that shortly and will be adding sound clips. You can purchase Michal Martyniuk’s albums at michalmartyniuk.bandcamp.com His ‘Resonance’ album review can be viewed on this site if you enter his name in the search button.

Jazz On Lockdown‘ posts will now move to the principle page and the Jazz on Lockdown page will feature information and links from around the world as the information comes in.

The lockdowns won’t stop jazz! To assist musicians who’ve had performances canceled, get their music heard around the globe. The Jazz Journalists Association created a Jazz on Lockdown: Hear It Here community blog. For more click through to
https://news.jazzjournalists.org/category/jazz-on-lockdown/.

The artists featured were:

Steve Barry (piano), Jacques Emery (bass), Alex Inman Hislop (drums),

Mark de Clive-Lowe (keys), Brandon Combes (drums), Marika Hodgson (bass), Nathan Haines (saxophones).

Marjan Nelson (v) Allana Goldsmith (v) Chelsea Prastiti (v) Lou’ana Whitney (v) Rachel Clarke (v) Kevin Field (piano), Roger Manins (saxophone), Mike Booth (trumpet), Mostyn Cole (bass) Ron Samsom (drums), Stephen Thomas (drums)

Pat Metheny, Gwilym Simcock, Antonio Sanchez, Linda May Han Oh

Simona Smirnova (v, Kanklas) Alan Brown (piano, keys), Cameron McArthur (bass), Jono Sawyer (drums).

Michal Martyniuk (piano), Cameron McArthur (drums), Ron Samsom (drums).

NOLA /New Orleans

My excuse for not posting for a month is a good one. I was travelling in places where the internet was bad and where the music was just too good to sit around posting stuff. I refer to New Orleans, Crescent City, Jazz City, The Big Easy or as the locals say, ‘NOLA’. We had been planning a reunion with our American based family for some while when my son said, ‘we have to go to New Orleans, and without further ado he organised it’. It’s a no brainer for a Jazz writer and in fact for anyone who wants to understand musical evolution. Almost everything we call modern music emanated from that steamy delta city, a place where happenstance and oppression caused cultures to collide.

Louisiana was once the home of the Choctaw, Natchez, Atakapa, Caddo, Houma and Tunica, the first nation peoples, but after colonisation it was French, then Spanish, French again (almost German or British) and finally after the Louisiana Purchase, a part of the United States of America. It was the greatest real estate bargain of all time and it happened because Napoleon was broke (it was a wonderful bargain unless you were Indian, creole, or a slave). Today it is a place where the old music lives on in its original forms and if you look beyond the lights of Bourbon Street, you realise, that what began in Congo Square lives on; it is the Buddy Bolden, King Oliver gig; a hundred years along the road and the bands are still marching to those hypnotic voodoo beats.

We began our journey in San Francisco and had a few days to spare before heading south. I checked out the S. F. Jazz offerings and spotted the name, Carmen Lundy. We booked immediately. The show was at the San Francisco Jazz Centre and it lived up to expectations. Hers is the Jazz of the deep south and her voice overflows heartfelt soulfulness. Carmen Laretta Lundy was born in Miami which is east of New Orleans across the Gulf of Mexico (Cecile Mclorin Salvant comes from nearby well).  ‘Hi y’all, are you ready’ said Lundy and from that moment the southern vibe was locked-in ready for the trip ahead. She has variously been compared to Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Aretha Franklin and all of those comparators are accurate. She is also noted for her ability to cut through to diverse audiences. She performed no standards, but sometimes referenced them as her voice moved through the styles with ease; then she just as quickly she would reference gospel blues and in a way that brought a lump to the throat. She had a recent New Zealand visitor Terreon Gully in her band (a powerhouse drummer). He sends his greetings to his Kiwi Jazz friends.

Lundy has always attracted the best musicians and this band was no exception. A few albums ago she had Geri Allen on piano, on the next album Patrice Rushen. As we travelled to the airport next day I heard an unmistakable bassline and double-clap emanating from the car radio. Wow, I said to the driver, they’re playing ‘Forget me Not’ by Patrice Rushen. It’s just been re-released he told me. There on local Jazz radio was the gifted Jazz pianist who for a brief time blazed across the firmament as a disco-funk diva. Check it out, black disco-funk, Patrice Rushen.

I had been suffering from a bad cold and so I planned an early night. It had taken over four hours to fly down to NOLA and on US domestic flights four hours in the air requires stoicism and lots of Vicodin. Our brains were also stupefied after watching days of congressional impeachment hearings (why you may well ask). It was winter in the North and not winter in the South. We arrived in the French Quarter just on nightfall and within minutes all ideas of an early night evaporated. The street music was seeping under the door and when the voodoo beat calls there is no option but to rise up and follow. Outside the hotel and almost invisible in the shadows, an old guy played a sad delta blues, along Royal Street a brass-heavy ensemble testified and around the corner skinny kids were playing on makeshift drums. The combined effect was hypnotic, and it gave us a taste of the heady stew that is NOLA. Throughout the next day, we discovered the food; cornbread, grits, gravy, gumbo, jambalaya, collard greens, Beignets and my guilty favourite; Southern Fried Chicken. I was definitely going to add some weight in that town; and as for Beignets, well imagine a pillow fight in an icing sugar factory and as a forfeit, you are made to eat crunchy crusty doughnuts.

On the second night, we found Frenchman Street. I had previously asked musician friends where we should go to hear the best music. ‘Just head up to Frenchman Street and follow your ears’ was the advice. Frenchman Street and not Bourbon Street is where the best music happens (although the daytime street musicians in the Quarter can be amazing as well). As you near Frenchman Street the music grabs you, amplifies and intensifies until it reaches crazy. You turn into the sound and are confronted by a special kind of mayhem. Bar after bar and the music spilling onto the pavements and fighting for supremacy. Pure New Orleans Jazz (and real old school), New Orleans funk, washboard blues; songs by WH Handy, Louis Armstrong, Louis Prima or Henry Red Allen and everyone wailing and thumping. It was vibrato rich, the horns played licks as filthy as swamp mud; the brass players whooping as they shook off the ‘dirt’ and all of it floating joyously above a seething dancing throng. On the street corners, attractive dancers held out buckets, strutting their stuff while just behind them, Second Line Parades formed. Call and response while the drums roiled the air with heart-stopping polyrhythmic beats. To experience that was really something. This is where it all began, and this is where the flame burns purest.

I was also amazed by the funk units with those pumping groove lines; three drummers, percussion, horn-heavy, organ, guitar and always an e-bass, leading with a groove like a prizefighter, landing killer blows. The received wisdom is that James Brown invented funk, but New Orleans funksters tell another story, ‘Yes, brother Brown nailed that mother down, but it took a third drummer from NOLA to get it just right’. I was informed (correctly it appears) that funk was recorded in NOLA long before JB recorded and the evidence is there for anyone to check out.

I must also mention Congo Square. For those who love music and who understand the history, going there is akin to visiting an atmospheric cathedral. This is where the Spanish slave masters reluctantly ‘allowed’ their slaves to play music and dance. The slaves and Creoles responded with an inestimable gift to the future, the creation of modern music. Here, traditional African rhythms met European melody and civil war musical instruments were bent to new uses. It is a silent place now, surrounded by mature Live Oaks, each tree trailing dreamy sprays of Spanish moss while around the edges, statues of the luminaries like Louis Armstrong look benignly on.

That New Orleans happened at all is a miracle, as it’s an unsuitable site for any settlement. It has defied calamity after calamity and yet it survives, and at its heart, the Mississippi barges and the paddle boats ply their trades. On a calm day, the mighty river looks benign but the threatening waters wait patiently, and alligators and cottonmouth vipers wait in the bayous. Five pumps and a few meagre levies are all that protect it, but barely. The cities inhabitants were appallingly treated during Katrina and the federal authorities nearly closed the city for good. Indeed, they tried, but back the inhabitants came, and all the while the music played on.

Noveltones & Knotted Throats @ AF

Noveltones (7)There is a world of interesting music happening at the Audio Foundation and this three-set gig exemplified the foundations imaginative ahead of the game programming. The evening featured a cross-section of music from the fully arranged to the unconstrained and free. From the open dialogue of the Knotted Throats to the carefully crafted texturally rich four-piece voicings of a jazz ensemble. Then, and perhaps this is the essence of the programming, the two groups merged and out of that came a declaration. Sound exists without boundaries. The borders and demarcation lines as we organise or sculpt sound are only human constructs and beyond these artificial barriers, the various languages merge. When that occurs music is the richer for it. Improvised music is always on the move and just as post-bop moved seamlessly between free, fusion, hard bop, bop and groove, so the journey continues. Noveltones (3)

The Noveltones are an assembly of gifted equals, collectively shaping sound while expressing individual voices. Soprano saxophonist Jasmine Lovell-Smith, who studied in the USA is at present working toward a doctorate in composition at the NZSM. Bass clarinettist Blair Latham who spent years in Mexico is fluent with many horns. Bass player Tom Callwood (mostly playing arco), who we saw recently with the Melancholy Stinging Babes (a formidable figure on the avant-garde scene), and Tristan Carter, a violinist who rounds off the ensemble sound beautifully. The music initially reminded me of Gunter Schuller’s third stream pieces, but this ensemble is in no way time locked. The principal composer for the first set was Lovell-Smith and her compositional experience was especially evident in the harmonic concepts. There were also compositions by Latham. The pieces often balanced a spiky beauty with voice-led passages. There was also an appealing textural quality. The current ensemble hasn’t yet recorded, but I hope that they do. I have put up a Noveltones sound-clip from the gig.

The second set was another aural feast as it featured Jeff Henderson, Hermione Johnson and Tom Callwood. Henderson (on baritone saxophone) is the heavyweight of the New Zealand avant-garde scene and he never disappoints. There are few musicians who can muster such authority or draw you in as deeply. He taps into the primal essence of sound itself. Johnson is a renowned experimental musician, the foremost voyager with prepared piano, a noted composer and an organist. She is particularly known for her bold originality. Callwood, who we heard earlier, is exactly the bass player you would want in this situation. His gift for adventurous arco and extended technique was put to good use. What we heard were essentially reflective pieces; pieces tailor-made for deep listening and wonderfully mesmerising. As the motifs repeated a brooding presence hung over the room, the voice of unquiet spirits released from constraint. Happily, this is a zone located well beyond the reach of the music police. I found this set profoundly engaging and I count myself lucky to have caught it.

The last set brought both ensembles together and this time with the addition of the gifted drummer and percussionist Chris O’Connor. A great evening of music.

Noveltones (6)

For those keen to hear more of Henderson’s explorations, they can’t go wrong by accessing an album he recorded with Clayton Thomas (bass) and Darren Moore (drums). It is titled, ‘For a Clean Cut – Sharpen the Blade’. This gem was recorded in the basement of an old Auckland Church and it is a cause for rejoicing. If ‘free’ music scares you then this may not be your bag; but if it does, why? Sculpting sound is what musicians do. 

The album is on Bandcamp at iiiirecords.bandcamp.com 

The gig artists were Jasmine Lovell-Smith (soprano saxophone), Blair Latham (bass clarinet), Tom Callwood (upright bass), Tristan Carter (violin), Jeff Henderson (baritone saxophone), Hermione Johnson (prepared piano), Chris O’Connor (percussion) IMG_1256

10th October 2019 Audio Foundation, Auckland Central.

Mark de Clive-Lowe ~ Heritage Tour

De Clive-LoweMusic is the highest form of communication. It is universal. It reveals truths, tells stories, entertains, and in Mark de Clive-Lowe’s case, it evokes other realities. This was a masterclass in storytelling; an unfolding kaleidoscope where the contradictions and sublime realisations about the human condition were brought into focus. ‘Heritage 1 + 2’ the albums reflect his personal story, a journey of reconnection, an exploration of culture and of family history. He revealed it through moments of spoken narrative, but above all through his reverential musical examination of Japanese art forms. This was a musical journey where the highly personal overlapped the philosophical. It was a journey back to his Jazz roots and undertaken entirely on his own terms.  

At least twenty years have passed since I last heard MdCL perform in Auckland. Back then he was regarded as a youthful Jazz prodigy and people flocked to hear him.  Accompanying such acclaim comes expectations and that can be a straight jacket. It was the era of the media-hyped ‘young lions’, when up and coming Jazz musicians were expected to showcase standards and reclaim a glorious past. While the die-hards repeated their time-worn mantras, something else bubbled beneath the surface; musicians like MdCL shucked off others expectations; in his case moving a world away to engage with the hybrid music/dance scene in London. From there he moved on to LA where he built a solid and enduring reputation. These days Auckland has a flourishing improvised music scene and audiences value innovation. In this space, Jazz and other genres merge effortlessly. Because of that, it was exactly the right moment for MdCL to bring this project home. Auckland heard the call and the concerts reached capacity club audiences.   

When MdCL introduced the sets he talked about his childhood and of cultural disconnection. Experiences like this although disquieting feed the creative spirit. The recent album and the tour follow a time spent in Japan where he immersed himself in his mother’s culture. The album opens with ‘The Offering’ an apt and beguiling introduction piece. Like a ritual washing of hands before a tea ceremony, a moment to sweep away preconceptions. Another standout honoured his mother by evoking her family name. ‘Mizugaki’ is perhaps the most reflective and personal tune of the sets. This cross-cultural feel is evident from the opener to the tunes which follow. While the scales and moods speak of Japan, the interpretations belong to an improviser. Throughout, MdCL maintains this fine balancing act. Evoking the unique moods of the haiku or ink wash. Illusory moods that are best described in the Japanese as no English phrase is adequate. And to all of this, he brings his lived experience. A kiwi-born musician with a foot in many camps.

With the exception of two traditional folk tunes, the compositions (and arrangements) are his own, other elements of his musical journey are also evident: tasteful electronics, drum & bass, Jazz. For copies of the two albums and MdCL’s other recordings go to Bandcamp (links below). Perhaps we can lure him back more often as he certainly has a following here. On the New Zealand leg of his tour, he was joined by Marika Hodgson on electric bass, Myele Manzanza on drums (and in Auckland by Lewis McCallum on flute and alto). The Kiwi contingent sounded good alongside MdCL and for a return-home tour, there was a rightness to utilising Kiwi musicians. I have posted a tune from the Auckland gig titled ‘Silk Road’. The Silk Road carried music, ideas, goods and culture, travelling by any means and from Japan to Spain; and now New Zealand.   

https://markdeclivelowe.bandcamp.com/album/heritage

https://markdeclivelowe.bandcamp.com/album/heritage-ii 

Heritage (Auckland): Mark de Clive-Lowe (keys, electronic wizardry), Lewis MacCallum (alto saxophone, flute, effects), Marika Hodgson (e-bass), Myele Manzanza (drums). CJC Creative Jazz Club, Anthology, K’Road, 4 September 2019.

Eve de Castro-Robinson ~ The Gristle of Knuckles

Eve de Castro-Robinson is Associate Professor of Composition at the University of Auckland. She is well known as a New Zealand classical composer and although widely acknowledged in that field, she is strongly associated with the improvising and experimental music community.  Those who attended the CJC Creative Jazz Club last Wednesday witnessed the scope of her compositional output, with compositions interpreted by a plethora of gifted improvisers. The night was a rare treat.  Last year de Castro-Robinson released an album titled ‘Gristle of Knuckles’ and on Wednesday we experienced a live performance. When introducing it she explained, ‘although I am described as a contemporary classical composer, I am best placed at the ‘arts’ end of that spectrum’. In this space genres, overlap and artificial barriers are torn down. Out of these collisions comes original and vibrant music.

While de Castro Robinson is primarily seen as a composer, she is also an enabler and a canny collaborator; expanding her vision through skilled pedagogy. The above project has her engaging with colleagues from the UoA Jazz school plus a handful of gifted musicians from the diaspora of the avant-garde. The project comes close to being conduction; guiding the improvisers with a feather-light touch, letting them find their truth as her works are re-imagined.  The pieces were composed over a period of years, taking us on a journey from the primal to the avant-garde.       

The first set opened with Roger Manins and Ron Samsom playing ‘Doggerel’. A multi-phonic utterance which set the mood. That was followed by a moving ensemble piece featuring Don McGlashan, Kingsley Melhuish, Keith Price, Kevin Field and Ron Samsom titled ‘The Long Dream of Waking’ (a Len Lye poem). That juxtaposition, duo to quintet, worked well, in fact, most of the compositions were quite unlike those preceding them. These contrasts were an integral part of the ebb and flow and the contrasts worked to the advantage of the whole. There was also another factor in play and it was significant. Between numbers, de Castro-Robinson introduced the pieces, not in the usual way but by telling stories. She has a terrific stage presence and while I shouldn’t be surprised by that, I was. Her talk is peppered with wry humour, that understated self-deprecating Kiwi humour. She quickly had us eating out of her hand and although not playing an instrument, was very much a performer herself. 

Everything was interesting, everything engaged. ‘Twitch’ featuring Kristian Larsen, a piece for piano (but kinetic and expansively sonic),  ‘Passion Flower’ played by Kevin Field, a work inspired by a painting and by ‘The March of Women’ composed by the suffragist Ethyl Smyth. The original is a feminist classic but under Fields fingers de Castro-Robinson’s tune it took on a moody reverential feel. Consciously or unconsciously and deep inside the voicings, it captured the mood of another ‘Passionflower’ the Billy Strayhorn masterpiece; a perfect alignment in my view. ConunDRUMS featured Samsom, Melhuish and Larsen, a delightful percussive exploration, a sculpture. ‘Stumbling Trains’ a fiery piece on cello played by Ashley Brown of NZTrio (and co-composed by him). Check out the embed and above all go to the Rattle site and check out Field’s interpretation of ‘Passion Flower’.

 

The second set opened with ‘Countercurrents’ a solo piece played by alto saxophonist Callum Passells. It began in a stairwell and moved among us, resonating beautifully as the figures and melodies filled the room progressively. ‘Small Blue’ had Field, Melhuish, Price and Samsom paired (a Tuba taking up a bass line), ‘Hau’ featured Mere Boynton on voice and crystal and Melhuish on Taonga Puora. This particular piece was a standout. An ancient-to-modern story of the passing of the spirit and told in a way that evokes New Zealand’s pre-colonial past. I defy anyone to listen to this and not experience a shiver run down the spine.  ‘Trouble Trouble Mind’ brought McGlashan back to the stage with Boynton, Price and Samsom. With two guitars a backing vocal and a raw bluesy feel, this was prime McGlashan territory. The vibe here hinted at a Dunedin punk sound. Rattle records Steve Garden also took to the stage with an array of vocal sounds on ‘The Gild’ (we often spot him launching a Rattle album but we forget that he is a drummer. His percussive vocalisations added quirky additions to the interactions between Samsom and Larsen).

On the face of it, the gig was a collection of interesting compositions, but it also felt a lot like theatre. However you describe it, it was great performance art and the audience loved it. The album can be purchased from Rattle at Bandcamp (as hard copies or high-quality downloads). The musicians were; Eve de Castro-Robinson (compositions and narration), Don McGlashan (guitar and voice), Kevin Field (piano), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Ron Samsom (drums and percussion),  Kingsley Melhuish (conches, tuba, Tango Puora, tenor horn), Kristian Larsen (piano, live sound, gilded cello), Kieth Price (guitar), Mere Boynton (voice, crystal glass), Steve Garden (sounds), Callum Passells (alto saxophone), Ashley Brown (cello).  The gig took place at Anthology, K’Road, CJC Creative Jazz Club, 28 August 2019.

Elsen Price (Aust)

Elsen Price (5)Two bass, two drummer gigs while not unknown usually occur in service of a chordal instrument or of a horn line, and when a solo bass concert occurs, an audience is frequently shown ‘cleverness’. On this occasion, the bass of Elsen Price freed the instrument from the narrow confines of the standard rhythm section or the conventional solo bass repartee; instead, exposing the beautiful resonances and the reach of the instrument. This was sublime music and complete unto itself. It celebrated a gifted musician and a wonderful instrument but without displays of egocentricity. The feat was achieved by inviting us inside the music, and into a sonic cornucopia. We listened and we were captivated.

Life is full of unexpected sonorities and if we believe ourselves to be familiar with them all we are deluded. It is a paradox of modern life that popular music, while prolific, is cursed by formula-driven compositions. On Wednesday, Price and his ensemble teased the new from the familiar. Each instrument adding colour-tones and texture. Hands, fingers, ‘broom’ sticks, standard sticks, mallets, all deployed to good effect. Clicks, taps, scrapes on parchment, rim shots, gongs, bells and balloons under cymbals. And Price leading the way; a conduction answered by each musician and often in unison; acts of collective intuition. 

It is rare to hear Jazz arco bass played so well, it filled the room and swelled, but during the pizzicato passages Price was equally stunning. He is clearly a master technician but this was not about chops. He oversaw the ensemble as a true democrat, giving space and responding to the others. The first set was solo bass. Here Price showed us the breadth of his vision. He employed a looper peddle and would set up a drone or a motif. He would play counterpoint, either arco or plucked, sometimes creating a second loop over the first. He did not rely overly on the live samples, but harnessed them for discrete passages and always under his precise control. 

What we experienced in the second set were energised permanences by Price and his ensemble. Each revealing in their own way what lay deep within the music. That particular set ran a full hour and without interruption. It was a composition for improvisation but with no music on display and as far as I’m aware, no prior rehearsal. Price guided them with gestures or by changing pace. For these types of gigs to work well, the combined energies must feed a room. Music like this leans heavily on interplay, an intuitive reading of cues and deep listening by the musicians. Such high wire acts can easily falter, but this didn’t. That the terrain was navigated so effectively is because the right people were in place on the bandstand. 

Besides Price, on the second bass, was Eamon Edmundson Wells. Although the youngest member of the ensemble he is well versed in playing avant-garde situations. He would be among the first you go to for anything adventurous and he always delivers. On drum kit was Ron Samsom and it was pleasing to have him on this gig. Nothing daunts him and he has few stylistic limitations. He clearly relished the opportunity to play in the ensemble and to interact with another drummer. As he initiated cymbal scrapes, tapped with mallets and scuffed the ‘broom’ sticks the textures richened. This was colourist drumming of the best kind; extending the kit beyond the role of mere timekeeping. On hand drums and percussion was Chris O’Connor; the drummer most often seen in line ups like this. His ability to move seamlessly between genres is legendary; in these situations, he adds inestimable value. With O’Connor you get an ‘Art Ensemble of Chicago’ experience; all the tiny bells and gongs and with each one appearing exactly where it should for best effect.

Gigs like this can sometimes be difficult for audiences, especially those unfamiliar with a freer type of music. In this case, the audience showed enthusiasm, obviously enjoying the experience.

Elsen Price (upright bass, looper), Eamon Edmundson Wells (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums), Chris O’Connor (drums, percussion) @ Anthology, CJC Creative Jazz Club, Auckland 14 August 2019

The Melancholy/Stinging Babes

Melancholy Babes (2)Anything that Jeff Henderson is associated with is likely to be intense, mind-altering and extraordinary. No matter how prepared you think that you are, you should understand that your head will be fucked with. When you factor in Tom Callwood, Anthony Donaldson and Daniel Beban the Henderson effect is magnified exponentially. This music is powerful stuff as it sweeps aside genres as irrelevant distractions. When confronted with a gig like this you abandon preconceptions, as the sonic smorgasbord jolts you out of complacency. It is also a visual experience and Fellini would have signed these guys up in a heart-beat.

There was no music on the stands, one break and there were no announcements. The music followed its own momentum and created its own time. In some sections you were confronted with reedy screams, while in others you heard languid whispers; hinting at some lost illusory past; one located just outside the edge of memory. There was of course structure, but that was determined by the music’s inner logic. It reminded me of a recent Wayne Shorter performance where he purged any semblance of song form; removing structures that impeded the flow, leaving the audience with just music; a vessel inside which the musicians could move freely. Intuitive interaction is the foundation of all improvised music. In this case, the music was a river in flood, an elastic entity, following an old course or cutting a fresh channel at will. 

There were two tunes in the first set (one a Parker number delivered with the essence of Ornette presiding). The overall impression was of one piece of music with a number of moving parts. As the parts formed, some felt familiar, but where you ended up was generally somewhere unexpected. This was a chimeric journey and like children watching a cartoon for the first time, we lived entirely in each moment.  Modern music audiences are dumbed down with endless nonsense; the old trope that music can only be swallowed in discrete recognisable chunks. This music made no concessions to that or any other populist view and nor should it. Many who attended last week were unfamiliar with the avant-garde, but they didn’t need to be told what it was about. They didn’t need an explanation, to know that it belonged to this or that genre. The proof was in the reception. People sat there totally absorbed and because the experience was all-encompassing, 2 1/2 hours flew by.

Jeff Henderson plays the role of a dark shepherd on New Zealand’s ‘out-music’ scene. He composes astonishing music and plays many instruments; among them the seldom heard ‘C’ Melody saxophone. He has frequently collaborated with greats like Marilyn Crispell. Next is Tom Callwood who is often a collaborator of Henderson’s. If you needed a peg to hang his bass playing on, then you might say that he has a Charlie Haden sound (early Haden). He is one of the finer bass players I’ve heard and it’s our loss that he doesn’t live in Auckland. Anthony Donaldson is another hero from the alternative and avant-garde music scene. He’s known for his interactive, sensitive and melorhythmic approach (OK, I made that word up). He is acknowledged as one of New Zealand’s finest drummers and his influence is widespread. Joining the above-mentioned artists for the second set was guitarist and experimental musician Daniel Beban. He is the current Douglas Lilburn Research Fellow and is also at the forefront of the Wellington experimental music scene. His ‘Orchestra of the Spheres’ takes SunRa’s approach to a new level.

Melancholy/Stinging Babes: Jeff Henderson (baritone, alto, C melody, tenor saxes, clarinet). Tom Callwood (upright bass), Anthony Donaldson (drums), Daniel Beban (guitar). The gig was held at Anthology, K’Road Auckland, CJC Creative Jazz Club, 17 July 2019. 

Ruckus @ Anthology

When you look up the term Ruckus in the various dictionaries, the definitions are broad. It is generally defined as a commotion, but it can also describe an argument, the joyful noise emanating from a soccer stadium, loud disputation, the general rowdiness of children and even a fight.  With such an array of options at my disposal, I have selected ‘joyous commotion’. This is the term that most fits the bill when alluding to this band. Ruckus has some history in Auckland and especially along the reaches of Ponsonby Road. While the personnel often come and go, the ethos does not. Kicking up the dust in this current melee were David Ward, Neil Watson, Cam Allen, Eamon Edmundson Wells, and Chris O’Connor. David Ward is a central figure in the group and his compositions featured strongly last Wednesday.  

Again, it was encouraging to see the high turnout at the CJC after a month in the new K’Road Anthology venue. The word is clearly getting about that this is the best place to enjoy Wednesday nights. Once you descend the stairs, winter becomes a distant memory. While clearly pulling in the crowds, the band is hard to pigeon hole. The music hints at a number of descriptors and among them, terms like Zappa-esque, improvised Americana, Fellini-esque and Monkish all come close. At times they veer towards the experimental but no matter the direction, they are always fun.

With the exception of an obscure Monk tune, the tunes last week were originals. These were unique arrangements with a textural richness created by instruments full of contrast. A baritone saxophone with a pedal steel guitar plus Fender offers up an interesting sound palette. With O’Connor and Edmundson Wells, the palette is complete. Both have ‘out’ credentials and O’Connor is as much a percussionist as he is a conventional drummer. Allen moved between baritone and tenor and during his solos, but he never departed too far from the over-arching message. This band stands strongly on its collective strength. Ward featured strongly in the heads of the tunes, establishing unusual rhythmic figures then skilfully pulling them apart.  When both Fenders were playing they acted as if in sync, moving in and out without clashing. With the pedal-steel numbers, Watson was adventurous, often using the instrument in unexpected ways.  He, Ward and O’Conner also made wide use of percussive effects; clicks, squeaks, and muted staccato guitar.

There is mileage to be had in these adventurous offings and I hope that they develop the repertoire further. While it may not be what an audience is anticipating, in this case, they lapped it up. Especially when leavened with calypso.  

Ruckus: David Ward (Fender Guitar), Neil Watson (pedal steel, Fender Guitar), Cam Allen (baritone, tenor saxophone), Eamon Edmundson Wells (upright bass), Chris O’Connor (drums)

Eamon Dilworth – Mayday Auckland 2019

Dilworth (1)

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 – ‘Blueprints’ Trio @ CJC

Barry S (1)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 TQX Factor (M)calling

TQX-Feat-Sia-Packshot_1000-920x584.jpgSometimes I step into the shadows to locate a light that is otherwise denied me. A place where anti-art hides real art and where music appears in bizarre disguises. It can feel like an unnatural place but if you walk on, your eyes soon become accustomed to the half-light. It is only then that the ghosts in the machine become visible. This is the strange world of Anti Pop; a place where those striving to earn a living from popular music bite the hand that pretends to feed them. It is digital Dada – it is an off note brought to a knife fight.

TQX is a subversive entity, a logo hiding in plain sight. I was introduced to the phenomena by a Jazz musician and sworn to secrecy. I will not reveal my source as corporate lawyers and music industry moguls are circling like demented bats. The sort of bats which swooped on Hunter S Thompson during a bad day in the desert. Thompson once wrote: ‘The music industry is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There is also a negative side’. What would he think of the industry now? It causes hallucinations just to ponder on it. TQX- -GLOBAL INTIMACY-Yesterday primo Jazz trickster Barney McAll sent me a link to this anti-pop album titled Global Intimacy. This ‘revolution is under the radar – ‘it will not be televised’. I recognised many of the names – Sia, Gian Slater, Ben Monder, Barney McAll, Kool A.D. Musicians who come from across the musical spectrum. It was a message disguised as popular music, but the sort that is often confined to student radio or oddball playlists. It was political but not everyone will have the ears to hear the message. The material will not suit every taste but everyone should try a bite. I got the message, understood the flavour, and I hope others do.

Then I read an exchange between TQX and the graffiti artist known as Banksy (are either of these people real?) and the whole thing got even stranger. I will reproduce excerpts from that email exchange.

Dear Banksy, My name is Barney McAll. I am a pianist, producer, and composer and I’m writing on behalf of an international group of artists known as TouniquetX. We want to use your image……. Dear Barney. I don’t license my images for use in such a way, sorry but good luck with it! (signed) Banksy ……. Thanks for your response Banksy but we don’t want to license your image. We want to blatantly use it without any license, with full public knowledge that it was your image and that – we stole it.’

I leave it up to readers to untangle this maze of subversion and if their curiosity is piqued, if they think alt-pop is for them, they should discretely access TQX and obtain a collectors edition – only hard copies are available. None of the proceeds will be creamed off by the 1%. Nostalgic for the present yet? goto TQXofficial@gmail.com or extracelestial.arts@gmail.com

Released today; December 7th, 2018