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
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.
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.
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.
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
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/
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 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)
10th October 2019 Audio Foundation, Auckland Central.
Music 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.
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.
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
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.
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 is a frequent visitor to New Zealand and we hope that continues. His projects draw on many sources and he is unafraid to change direction completely. His last visit saw the release of his beautiful Viata album. An album that would sit comfortably in the ECM catalogue with its unhurried atmospheric Euro Free ethos. The haunting deliberations leaving crystalline arcs trailing behind each note. The time before he came with ‘Tiny Hearts’ and before that with ‘The Dilworth’s’. All of these projects were enthusiastically received and the albums that resulted were popular on both sides of the Tasman.
His most recent project, the Crawfish Po ‘Boys’ is yet another step change. It is rooted in the sounds of the southern USA. Although a take on the contemporary New Orleans sound, it also harks back to the vibe of Louis Armstrong and Big T.Unlike Viata or its predecessors, the latest album is an EP (around 20 mins long). As I listened to it, two things stood out. The focus on vocals and the choice of musicians. The vocals are led by Dilworth with a number of backing vocalists adding heft. With respected musicians like Stu Hunter (organ), Julien Wilson (saxophone), Chris Vizard (trombone) and Paul Derricott (drums) it could hardly be less than engaging.
The first gig took place at the Auckland Jazz & Blues club and it focussed on traditional fare. At the CJC the following night Dilworth gave us contrasting sets, and unlike recent visits where Australian musicians like Alistair Spence joined him, he worked with a local lineup.Roger Manins was on tenor sax, Andy Keegan on drums and from Wellington, Daniel Hayles on the organ.He opened with some tunes from Viata, but they were given a different treatment this time.The biggest point of difference was the inclusion of Daniel Hayles, a groove inclined keyboardist who quickly found his place and pushed the tunes in a different direction.This was achieved without resorting to showy bravura runs and by creating an underlying chordal pulse. It was particularly evident during Toran where he played ostinato; using subtle variations to enhance the performance of the melodic lines from saxophone and trumpet.
The second half was shorter and some of those tunes came closer to his Crawfish Po’Boys material. His version of Iko Iko was fun. Dilworth, Keegan, Manins, and Hayles obviously enjoy playing together but I’d like to hear them tackle the raunchy old New Orleans tunes someday. Pushing deeper into the bluesy heartland of Jack Teagarden – the time is ripe for such a re-appraisal.
Eamon Dilworth (trumpet, compositions), Daniel Hayles (Hammond organ), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Andy Keegan (drums). Backbeat, CJC Creative Jazz Club, Auckland, Mayday 2019
Steve Barry left these shores many years ago and these days Australians count him as their own. It is hardly surprising that they do because since his departure he has raked in the accolades, won numerous awards and completed a Doctorate. Given the above, we can hardly begrudge his move. Music is like water it will always find its level, no matter where the wellspring. Everyone on the New Zealand Jazz scene looks forward to Barry’s yearly trips home as he never rests on his laurels. He brings us new and diverse projects and above all he showcases innovation.
The ‘Blueprints’ Trio is a good example as it was formed primarily as a vehicle for his doctrinal compositions. For any student of pianism, these works are compelling as they combine strong elements of modern classical composition balanced against Jazz innovation. That Barry achieves this with such clarity, while never completely abandoning the history of jazz speaks strongly of his vision. Very few can achieve this without the music sounding contrived or lopsided. Barry’s compositions, although often challenging, are neither. Audiences listen and above all they smile as the music unfolds. Picking the references and enjoying the journey beyond. Those with a sense of history will hear Monk and Strayhorn; others will hear new music and neither is wrong.
The YouTube clip that I have posted illustrates this clearly as there are distinct Monkish references. When you listen closely though, you realise, that this is a twenty-first-century version and a Monk who has absorbed a whole lot of very contemporary ideas. The angular leap into ultra-modernity is abetted by his Australian bandmates; both completely at home in this adventurous new world.
With him in Auckland were the other members of the current Blueprints trio, Jacques Emery on Bass and Alex Inman-Hislop on drums. With Emery often playing arco bass and Inman Hislop splashing bold colour strokes, the distinctive vibe was complete. While this was very much Barry’s show, no one was in the background. For a copy of the latest Blueprints Trio album ‘Hatch’ go Rattle Records or to view his complete discography go to stevebarrymusic.bandcamp.com/
The Steve Barry ‘Blueprints’ Trio appeared at Backbeat, 100 K’Road, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club on 10 April 2019
Sometimes 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. 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 email@example.com
The interesting diversity in the CJC programming was again on display last week with two international acts as different musically as acts could be. Wednesday featured a multinational mostly free-improvised music ensemble Kira Kira and Thursday the Harlem born Jazz/Soul Singer Vivian Sessoms. Both attracted good audiences, once again proving the value of adventurous programming.
Kira Kira features two renowned Japanese avant-garde musicians, Satoko Fujii, composer/pianist, and partner Natsuki Tamura on trumpet. This particular project is a collaboration with the Australian pianist Alister Spence. It is usual for Fujii to challenge herself by performing alongside musicians new to her acquaintance and for the Auckland show, the basic trio added drummer/percussionist Chris O’Connor. This was exactly the right choice.
These are seasoned musicians at the peak of their powers and it showed as they navigated a less travelled musical terrain. Fujii is the best known of the ensemble, having attracted accolades from around the world. She has been called the Ellington of free music. Her early teachers and mentors included Paul Bley, Cecil McBee, and George Russell (all appeared on her debut album). She has released 80 albums so far and this year, her 60th, she will release an album a month. She is an extraordinary musician who plays as free as a bird; but who never-the-less weaves in a mirage-like momentum. There is a sense of purpose, a pathway leading to deep beauty, but all of the above is elusive. Like all free music, the essence can dissolve if you try too hard to grasp at the form.
Spense came to New Zealand recently, touring with trumpet player Eamon Dilworth. He impressed me deeply then as his tasteful minimalism told bigger stories than a busier player. In Kira Kira, he plays Rhodes, electric piano, preparations, and controls effects. Few people have seen a Rhodes performing topless but it was certainly captivating. As he stroked and tapped under the hood he extracted an array of wonderful sounds and colours. He interacted with the other three musicians in ways that only a deep improviser could; responding to and working with the ever-shifting duo segments.
When Natsuki Tamura played, his trumpet cut through the air like a swooping hawk. Sometimes Percussive and confronting, at other moments gentle, cajoling. At times he reminded me of Wadado Leo Smith. His lines could be supportive or squalling and contradictory and he was the perfect foil to the chordal expansiveness of the piano.
Lastly the newcomer to the group, New Zealand drummer Chris O’Connor. If anyone could add value to an already fulsome sound it was him. He reacted and contributed with such sensitivity that it became impossible to imagine the group without him. I have uploaded part two of the Kira Kira suite to YouTube and posted it (part one was marred by fridge noise and the other two movements were too long). I invite you to listen and then listen again. This is music that rewards deep listening. This was freedom.
Kira Kira was performed by Satoko Fujii, Natsuki Tamora, Alister Spence and Chris O’Connor at the Backbeat Bar, for the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) November 21, 2018
Perhaps it’s the anniversary of the moon landings, or perhaps it’s the crazy-arsed nonsense happening down on planet earth, but deep space has been very much on my mind lately. I have not been alone in this preoccupation as I appear to share this with a group of explorative improvising musicians. I was recently on local radio taking about a favourite topic, ‘space dreams and analogue machines’ and it occurred to me then, that space dreamers have always shaped our other-world view. Frank Hampson (Dan Dare Comics), Gene Rodenbury (Star Trek) and musicians like Eddie Henderson (Sunburst), or Sun Ra (Space is the Place). Humans have always looked to the stars for inspiration but only writers and musicians have the courage to describe what others cannot yet imagine.
For the second time in a month I attended a space themed gig and this time it was titled Phobos the scary moon’. Phobos circles Mars and it was only discovered in 1877. It is a small moon, but since its discovery it has exerted an outsized influence on the human imagination. The Greek god Phobos is a god of a fear associated with war. The word Phobia comes from this. For those with open ears and a love of adventurous grooves there was only joy to found here. Nothing about Cam Allen’s Phobos gig required the listener to seek Freudian analysis afterwards. This was an enjoyable night and the scariest part came later as I was walking back to the car and heard an off-key wail from a nearby karaoke bar.
The band – intergalactic warriors all; Cam Allen on saxophones, gongs and percussion, John Bell on vibes and horn, Julien Dyne on drums, Eamon Edmudson-Wells on upright bass and Duncan Cameron on keys. I rate John Bell’s Aldebaran quartet highly and for similar reasons I rate this band. This type of improvised music is still under explored and it is long overdue for more careful examination. It has form but the structure is not beholden to form; it has melody and hooks but not at the expense of mood or texture. The musicians here conveyed real enthusiasm for the project and that enhanced the effect.
Seeing Dyne in such good form was a special treat for me. Later as I reviewed the clips I realised what a powerhouse he is. His rolling polyrhythmic beats reminiscent of the young Alvin Jones. Polyrhythmic drummers often sound as if they are powered by rocket fuel and Dyne did. Allen deftly played three horns (plus gongs) and his nicely open compositional structure permanently altered the time-space-continuum. The clip that I am posting initially took me back to those wonderfully transporting forays of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Keep these space gigs coming people I am up for more.
The gig took place at the Backbeat Bar, K’Rd, 29 August 2018, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club. I am finishing this post just a few hours before I fly to Scandinavia. I hope to experience some music as I travel and will post occasionally. Otherwise I’ll be posting as normal in November. I know that I missed a few posts but I hope to catch up over Christmas. Keep following live improvised music people, your inner life depends on it.
Chelsea Prastiti was not long back from Cyprus when her band Leda’s Dream appeared at the Backbeat Bar. Prastiti is well known in the Auckland improvised music scene and especially so at the avant-garde end of town. She’s a compelling vocalist and composer who approaches her craft as a free spirit, unfettered by others expectations. When she sings she dives deep and puts herself out there fearlessly but her risk-taking is not a mere academic exercise; it cuts to the very heart of what it means to be a thinking, feeling human. Her compositions are therefore always interesting and out of that a raw beauty and an honesty arise. Although the ensemble played material that we have heard before, they sounded incredibly fresh – even different. Crystal Choi confined herself to accompanying vocals (no keys), Michael Howell stepped further into a measured chordal role and Callum Passells on alto and voice effects was the archetypal minimalist (saying a lot more with less). This felt very right and the re-configuration gave the ensemble a lot more freedom. They stretched out as the spirit took them and the first two tunes filled the entire first set. The voices, in particular, were liberated by the change and this gave wings to the melodic lines and mood. The harmonies were there in spades but that was not what drew you in. It was ‘mood’ and the pictures that those moods created. Prastiti’s is a brave path and I would expect no less from her. This is a musical space that is sparsely populated and more’s the pity. Think Sera Serpa (duos or trios), Think Norma Winstone (Azimuth 85) or perhaps the brilliant Nordic vocalist Sidsel Endresen (Endresen live with Jan Bang). In this ensemble, she has the musicians to give her the freedom she deserves. Passells, who is unafraid of soft trailing notes or of minimalism, Howell who can follow a vamp to eternity and make it sing, Choi who instinctively makes the right moves, and Eamon Edmundson-Wells and Tristen Deck who know when to lay out and when to add colour or texture. The music drew from free improvisation, standard Jazz and deep Folkloric wells. It did so without undue introspection. The band brought the audience along with them and the bouts of enthusiastic applause proved it. For some reason, and it was partly their attire, the gig felt like a postmodern version of a Pre-Raphaelite tableau. Oh yes indeed, that always works for me.
Leda’s Dream: Chelsea Prastiti (vocals, compositions), Crystal Choi (vocals), Michael Howell (guitar), Callum Passells (alto sax, sound effects), Eamon Edmundson-Wells (upright bass), Tristan Deck (drums), Backbeat Bar, 8 August 2018
Karangahape Road and the precincts around it are a natural home for adventurous and alternative music. If you walk the length, you are assailed by sights and sounds at variance to each other. Taken in their entirety they are oddly compatible. The jumble of colour and the bursts of noise as you pass a Karaoke bar or an uber cool eatery is counterbalanced by the languid notes from Shanghai Lils or the soft chatter emanating from Hookah smoking Kebab shop doorways. Woven into this oddness of streetwalkers and urban cool, are the alternative music joints. Down in basements, under the street or up narrow stairways. Thirsty Dog, Anthology, Audio Foundation, Wine Cellar. And at the top end of the strip, next to the old Jewish graveyard is the Backbeat Bar. High-quality alternative improvised music resides here on Wednesdays.
Takadimi is the brainchild of the gifted tabla player Manjit Singh and the CJC featured his band last Wednesday. This is a fusion band in the very best sense of the word as it fuses styles and complex rhythms with apparent ease. The music’s origins are clear but the tunes are not unduly anchored to them. We are living in an age when classical forms are not nailed down and in the west, the whole notion of musical purity is frequently overstated. The higher purpose of music is to connect on a human level and not to impress by showing off technical prowess. Takadimi connected deeply and spoke directly to our senses. They played improvised music but worked into the complex structures of Indian Talas. It felt as if both forms were respected.
The tunes were all introduced by the leader Manjit Singh, who would establish the rhythm by chanting a tala (or taal); then he would guide the ensemble into the open and freer air of jazz harmonies where collective (or solo) improvisation occurred. I have seen this band before and this felt like a step up. The soloists, in particular, showed a readiness to work with and enjoy the challenges presented by the complex polyrhythms. All of the musicians held the line and made it appear easy – it certainly was not.
Underpinning everything were the rhythms and colours provided on the Tabla – an instrument long embedded into the Jazz repertoire. Anyone who has heard John McLoughlin, Jean Luc Ponty and Zakir Hussain together will understand how profound the association can be. It is therefore great to have such a fine tabla player in our midst and it our good luck that he is up for cross-genre collaborations.
The last time I heard Takadimi was at the Thirsty Dog; way down the other end of K’ Road. On that gig the lineup was different, this time the band had no guitar and the pianist Alan Brown had joined them. Singh could not have chosen better. Brown is well versed in the output of East European wunderkind Tigran Hamasyan. Hamasyan often counts in with talas and his beautiful Armenian styled rhythms are at times, very close to Indian forms. Brown is a master of complex rhythmic structures and capable of executing them without ever losing the groove. There were many fine performances but a standout was from Lukas Fritsch. His alto danced expertly through the tunes and for a young musician, he handled the complexities like a veteran.
The clip that I have posted is a beautiful composition by the guru Ustad Fazal Qureshi and arranged by Manjit Singh. The Taal is Mishra Jaati – rendered as a polyrhythmic 7 over 4/4 time. On this track, Brown plays a synth instead of piano.
Takadimi: Manjit Singh (leader, tabla, arrangements), Alan Brown (piano, keyboards), Lukas Fritsch (alto saxophone), Denholm Orr (bass), Daniel Waterson (drums). The gig was at the Backbeat Bar, K’ Road, Auckland, CJC Creative Jazz Club, July 11, 2018.
There is an inescapable charm surrounding any Besser performance and Wednesday’s Zestniks gig at the Backbeat bar was no exception. While his music has many strands feeding it and although it can be hard to categorise, it is never the less rooted in the Jewish musical traditions. Besser is somewhat of an icon in Arts circles and deservedly so. The arc of his work has a momentum that few could emulate. As it alights on various styles or genres it borrows their raiment, and seemingly without compromising what lies at the music’s heart; gathering what is necessary and no more. Over the years he has collaborated with leading conceptual artists, filmmakers, symphony orchestras, electronic adventurers and Jazz musicians. The Zestnics performance reflected much of this fascinating journey.
I am always drawn to performers who leaven their gigs with an appropriate portion of banter and Besser’s comments and asides were delightful. They were delivered with a deadpan expression and consequently were nicely understated. As with music, timing and delivery are everything. Many of the tunes were from his ‘Gimel Suite’ and a quick investigation of the word leads you to a cornucopia of meanings. It is the third letter of the Hebrew alphabet, it is a letter imbued with special qualities and it this case it is a footing or foundation for composition. This is an ancient to modern music and I suspect that those listening will have conjured their own associations. Because I have recently travelled through eastern Europe, I heard the warp and weft of Polish or Czech street music.
The other ensemble members came from a variety of disciplines and this was fitting. Caro Manins on vocals with her deep knowledge of ancient Sephardic Ladino music; Nigel Gavin, an adventurous ‘World music’ musician who ignores artificial boundaries; John Bell, a Vibes player from the free to groove or ‘World’ end of town; Eamon Edmundson-Wells on bass, a versatile bass player and also frequently seen in avant-garde settings; Alistair Deverick on drums, navigating those exhilarating rhythms. Lastly were two from the expanded Black Quartet; Peau Halapua on violin and Sophie Buxton on viola – popular classical musicians and sometimes seen with Jazz or ‘World’ ensembles. Besser, of course, was on piano.
Some of the tunes were nostalgic or even mournful, some were brimming with joy – all were enjoyable. The tunes never strayed too far from the notation, but there were some brief improvised sections which balanced things up nicely. I have posted the last number of the gig and while I am not sure of the title, I know that it brought the house down.
The gig took place on the 4th of July, 2018 at the Backbeat Bar, K’Road, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club.
Jeff Henderson is a freedom warrior from outside of the perimeter fence. On the 9th of May, 2018, he marched barefooted into the Backbeat Bar with a ragtag army of irregulars. The audience had come well prepared and a pregnant air of anticipation hung over the bandstand during setup. Unusually, there were no lower ranks in this army, all were battle-hardened veterans (or anti-heroes depending on your viewpoint). All had impressive service records, an advance guard who took no prisoners. Jonathan Crayford is arguably the most famous of the troop, a decorated hero who swiftly commandeered a C3 organ (an ancient analogue machine decorated by psychedelic art and reminiscent of a Haight Asbury weed shop). Beside him sat machine gunner Steve Cournane, a rat-tat-tat freedom fighter recently returned from Peru. The remaining soldier, battle scared and bleeding, was Eamon Edmundson-Wells (his Viking surname tells it’s own story).
The first set was a powerhouse of inventiveness. An outburst of raw energy cradled cunningly in a cocoon of warm grooves. This one step closer-than-usual to Jazz approach may have surprised some, but certainly not me. I have witnessed Henderson doing this time and again. He can pick over the bones of anything from heavy metal to folk music. He is fearless in his appropriations and he always transforms base metals without fear or favour. This was pure alt music alchemy. Henderson is the real deal, a musician with a calculated irreverence, a sound jocky with an inside-outside approach. A man who dives so deep inside his artform that few dare to follow. As he traversed the various moods and tempos, you could hear his trademark multiphonics; nothing lingering too long. There were too many fresh ideas ahead and no time for a tea break.
The compositions were wonderful and each in a different way. It was inspired that Henderson surrounded himself with such a warm groove. Drum beats that either dove into a 70’s groove or even took a Buddy Rich turn. A warm as toast Crayford tinged B3 sound and a solid blood dripping bass line. That sort of surrounding could have been a straight jacket for an avant-garde player but in Henderson’s hands, it was a liberating vehicle. He worked off the others constantly and they, in turn, gave him clear air without deviating from their given roles. This was one of those special nights where every musician shone a light, cutting through the mundane and dispelling all hints of mediocrity. They were so deep in the music that they were doubtless ‘oblivious’ to the rows of open-mouthed listeners. I must, however, raise an eyebrow at the name, there were clearly more than eight band members on that bandstand.
Auckland is the richer for Henderson’s presence. We should count our lucky stars that he jumps the perimeter wire from time to time. This was an eight out of eight performance. Jeff Henderson (baritone & alto sax, compositions), Jonathan Crayford (C3 organ), Eamon Edmundson-Wells (upright bass), Steve Cournane (drums) – June 9, 2018, Backbeat Bar, CJC Creative Jazz Club, K’Road, Auckland.
Rarely, do we get to experience something truly sublime and for this to occur a number of planets must be perfectly aligned. Art at this level cannot be forced as the realization is dependant on both tangibles and intangibles. The musician might be in peak form, but if the room or the instrument is mediocre then the fine edge of perfection is blunted. It is harder to achieve in a capacious concert hall; easier in a well-appointed studio or an intimate vibing Jazz club. There is no manual to guide us to the point of departure. It is a divine alchemy pure and simple.
When I heard that Jonathan Crayford would be touring the country with a Steinway D Concert piano and one with considerable provenance, my first inclination was to doubt. This was no small undertaking. The piano in question was special, played by luminaries such as Lily Kraus, who signed it. It was formerly owned by a branch of the Guggenheim family and if Crayford had not asked a friend to purchase it, we would have lost it to an offshore purchaser. The friend, surprisingly, agreed and said, “Now use it”. Crayford is one of the few musicians who could pull this off.
The piano and Crayford travelled up from Wellington a few days ago and the first concert took place on the day of their arrival in Auckland. The lovely Uxbridge Arts Centre in Howick was the first venue; a pleasant, modern 100+ seat auditorium with good acoustics (especially for a piano) and an intimate cosiness. I arrived early as I was videoing and sat quietly in the darkness; watching Crayford and his magnificent piano get acquainted.
Crayford approaches pianos with reverence and sensitivity. I watched as he played a few phrases – then he paused when a particular voicing took his attention. Putting his ear close and playing it again with a look of delight. He was learning the secrets and subtleties of the instrument. Later during the concert, he gently tapped out a note which had taken his fancy. “Listen carefully”, he said to the audience, pointing to a particular key. A soft harmonic-rich sound reverberated gently through the room – revealing a warm golden timbre. As he shared these insights we felt privileged. Crayford treats fine pianos as living entities; beings to be understood, curated, exalted. When he finished a piece he would gently lift his hands and time would stall as the slow decay of chord or phrase created new harmonics and textures. Sound bouncing off wood, frame and room until it faded into infinity.
He opened with a composition of his own, a reflective piece of deep spacious improvisation, perfectly realised and just the right length to reel us in. The awed hush from the audience said it all. This concert was special and everyone there swiftly grasped that. Next, we heard his take on an obscure but unmistakable Monk tune, the familiar jagged lines morphing into new shapes as he went. There was no set playlist, no charts to guide him; just a small black notebook with dozens of possible tunes written down and in no particular order. The piano and his musician’s instinct informing him of the journey as he went. Tunes were chosen or rejected on the fly. His programme consisting mainly of reflective material but with a few faster-paced tunes to balance these out. A tune from the Spanish civil war attributed to Garcia Lorca was an example of the latter. On the slower reflective pieces like a Satie Gymnopedie, he left space for the music to breathe – space for the spirit of the piano to sing through. He would often play three pieces together and then rise from the piano to quote a line from Shakespeare or to offer an insight into a piece. He is a fascinating speaker and his enthusiasm utterly infectious. Nothing was out of place, everything he did conveyed the magic of the moment.
I urge music lovers to clear their calendars and attend these extraordinary concerts as Crayford travels throughout New Zealand. It is seldom that we get to experience projects like this and extremely rare to hear them in such intimate spaces. The most difficult gig in Jazz is the free-ranging improvised solo piano concert. When it works (and this certainly did) it is the most rewarding. This was deep improvisation, sensitive interaction and piano/sound curation at it’s best. It paid respect to the solo art form and above all to a very special Steinway piano. It was Jarrett like (but without the abuse). It was Crayford at his best and that is enough to satisfy any music lover.
The heart of the modern improvised and experimental music scene is always an interesting place to be. Audiences tend to be open-eared and accustomed to music from a wide variety of sources. Improvising musicians have always drawn on diverse influences and it is a narrow-minded few who whine about dilution or the good old days. We should never undercut the deeper purpose of music, which is to share stories, communicate on a primal level, interpret. We tell stories to live and how we listen or react to music speaks to our musical maturity. When Simona Minns performed in Auckland last week, she brought with her a variety of influences. and all were approached with integrity.
She is billed as a Jazz Singer, composer, arranger and artistic director, and she is unafraid to mash up or blend genres. All of the above descriptors were on show when she performed at the Backbeat Bar and everything she did, communicated an innate sense of fun and adventure. She is a natural performer, but behind that lies careful preparation. Her easy-going confidence disarms, but it arises out of hard work and commitment. A good example of the care she brings to her art lies in her charts. The musicians all commented on how beautifully they were crafted and judging by the solo’s, they were not constrained by them. We heard Jazz standards, old Lithuanian folk songs, tunes from her musical ‘A Hunger Artist’ and some jazz-mashed classic rock. The audience loved it all and got the musical jokes embedded therein. The fact that she was cleverly comedic in her introductions, enhanced the overall effect.
I first read Franz Kafka as a 14-year-old, and once read, his tales cannot easily be forgotten. They are dystopian and thus disturbing, but a mature reading reveals clever questions, posed for our consideration. Kafka’s ‘A Hunger Artist’ is just such a tale – disturbing, yet raising important issues for all times. Issues which cut to the heart of performance art itself.
The tunes from Minns musical were delightful, and the fact that she could frame them without overdoing the pathos reminded us of the deeper questions posed. Her choice of standards appeared commonplace until you heard them and then they took on a life of their own. All were either re-harmonised or arranged in unique ways. As if to underline this point of difference she created mash-ups from them – blending classic rock and Jazz; often dancing as she delivered her lively performances.
She had a very fine Jazz unit backing her – a truly superb band and ideal for the task. Alan Brown on keyboards, Cameron McArthur on bass and Stephen Thomas on drums. She also played a classic Lithuanian harp (the Kanklas). While it is a small instrument, it is capable of producing extraordinary melancholic sounds. The sort you hear throughout the eastern block (and even down as far as Turkey or Greece). My favourite number was her mash-up of Gershwin’s Summertime. The band really broke loose on that number and the effects were electrifying. An Alan Brown band in full flight is a wonder to behold indeed.
Simona Minns was born in Lithuania where she obtained a music degree, later moving to Berklee (Boston, USA) where she obtained a degree in composition. She also founded ‘Syntheatre’ a performance company in Boston. Her albums can be sourced from her website or from iTunes or the various streaming platforms. Her website is simonaminns.com The Performance was at the Backbeat Bar in K’Road and presented by the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) and the Auckland Fringe Festival on Tuesday 20, February 2018.
I have posted a short clip of her performing a song from the Kafka inspired ‘A Hunger Artist’ – where she plays the Kanklas.
It was a good way to begin a year of music, a good way to breathe life into two enervating steamy nights. Hayden Chisholm was back in the country and around him formed various duos, trios, and quartets. He performed two gigs in Auckland and the first was at the Audio Foundation in Poynton Lane. The venue has long been an important source of innovative music and each time I descend the stairs to the sub-basement I find interesting changes to the clubs configuration. It really is an excellent venue and perfect for what it offers. At first glance, the two nights appeared quite different. One free improvised and the other a set of reflective ballads. In reality, both gigs were reflective, melodic and approachable. The open-hearted humanity and communication skills of the participants made it so.
When Norman Meehan, Paul Dyne, and Hayden Chisholm appeared last year in the UoA Jazz School auditorium, the audience was taken aback by the sheer beauty of the performance. The alto saxophone is heard less often than its fatter sounding big brother the tenor and it is seldom heard like this. There was something about that particular performance that stopped people in their tracks. The beauty of the tone and the way the sound informed the improvisational approach. It’s not as if we had never heard an alto and piano before, but the unusual clarity and the perfect juxtaposition between horn and Meehan’s tasteful minimalism made it special. Unsurprisingly there were good audiences at both of the 2018 Auckland gigs.
At the Audio Foundation, there were no charts and only the briefest of interactions between musicians prior to the performance. The sets were mostly duos – one with John Bell on vibraphone, followed by another with experimental vocalist Chelsea Prastiti and lastly Jonathan Crayford on piano. Chisholm also recited prose and played over a drone on his Sruti Box. The final number of the evening was a quartet made up of all four musicians.
I have never witnessed a free gig quite like that as the communication was so exquisitely personal. More than musicians finishing each other’s sentences. More than the flow of fresh ideas; there was a sense of musicians revealing something intangible. From out of the fading harmonics and the quiet spaces came that extra something. The quiet revealing something on the edge of consciousness, something we often miss. Arising from – evocative like a Rilke poem – or a haiku. Bell stroked his mallets across the bars or responded with staccato – or soft taps and clicks, Prastiti offered cries and bell-like utterances, framed as wordless questions, Crayford explored resonant possibilities by using extended technique or by mesmerizing with darkly descending chords – opening up a dialogue which was met in kind – sometimes gentle, at other times like a flow of coloured sparks.
The Thirsty dog gig on the following night featured the trio of Chisholm, Meehan, and Dyne (adding drummer Julien Dyne in the second half). Late last year the core trio released their album titled ‘Unwind’. Many of the tunes we heard last Wednesday and last year are on the album – plus a few new compositions. The album is released on Rattle Records and is highly recommended. If you like thoughtful, beautiful music with integrity, this is for you. The compositions are all by Meehan and Chisholm (with the exception of an arrangement of Schumann’s ‘Sei Gegrusst Viel Tausendmal’ (arranged by Chisholm). On Wednesday we also heard a delightful composition by Paul Dyne the Bass player. Adding the younger Dyne in the second half changed the mood and again the contrast between the duo, trio and quartet added to the whole. Julien Dyne is a fine drummer and I wish he appeared more often.
I must also comment on Chisholm’s playing over the Srusi Box drones. I love to hear good musicians playing over a drone and the quieter and multi-harmonic effects of the Srusi Box provided subtle wonders. Several times while the drone was sounding, Chisholm took the saxophone away from his lips and appeared to blow across the reed from a distance. As he did, a disembodied whistling sound emerged from nowhere – adding to the fading harmonics of the drone. I have no idea how he did this but it was spellbinding. To a microtonal pioneer, this is probably bread and butter – to an entranced audience it was no less than magic. I hope to put up a clip from one or both gigs later – check back in a few weeks.
Alargo has been around for several years now and Primacy is their second album. The first Alargo album, Central Plateau, was great, but Primacy has that real wow factor. It is a testament to the extraordinary imagination and musicianship of Alan Brown and Kingsley Melhuish. They have created a world just beyond our grasp, but palpable for all that. The idea that two musicians can create such a cornucopia of sound is astonishing. It is divine trickery; it is music that lives everywhere but nowhere; it is quite wonderful.
This fulfils every requirement of a good ambient album: it references many genres and many moods but never overemphasis one aspect over another. It floats and shifts like moments in a dream and above all, it invokes an etherial sensory imagery. The kaleidoscope of patterns may elude the conscious mind but the subconscious mind will form its own associations. This is the philosophy behind ambient music. Perhaps its most valuable attribute is its evanescence, that elusive quality where images fade shortly after they are fixed upon. This is the stuff of quantum physics and of good improvising musicians. This is the essence of Primacy.
The first track opens with a drone which pulses gently. As the modulation shifts the rhythms shift with it – subtly at first, and then as more voices are added you find yourself lost in the journey. This is an Alice like a dreamscape, but there are no bad-tempered queens down this rabbit hole. The sensation of floating is constantly enhanced, as snippets of music come and go; disembodied voices hinting at places as far-flung as the Himalayas, an old European cathedral or the South Pacific; mesmerised we follow. This piece and those after taking you into deep space (or an interior somewhere very much like it). Anyone who enjoyed Kubrick’s ‘2001 A Space Odyssey’ will love this. The sound clip I have posted is the first track titled ‘Vocale’.
If you are a fan of ambient improvised music you should rush to grab a copy of Primacy. If you are unsure, then listen to the sample clip, close your eyes and let your imagination guide you. This album is as good as the best of the Nordic Ambient Albums and I’m sure that Manfred Eicher could not have improved on the mixing and mastering. Two Nordic Jazz Musicians visited New Zealand recently and we spoke about artists like Eivind Aarset and Jan Bang. This form of live improvised music is very popular in Scandinavian countries and Jazz audiences are on board with it. I hope that Primacy reaches the European continent. I am certain that it would do very well there.
Kingsley Melhuish features on: vocals, trumpet, Ocarina, Koauau, Tuba, Conch Shells, Percussion, Loops, iOS effects. Alan Brown is on: Keyboards, Synthesizers, Loops, iOS synths/effects. The album is available from Primacy-Alargo-Bandcamp.
The Roberto Magris albums came to my attention some years ago as I have an interest in Italian and Mediterranean Jazz forms. While his albums fall into the straight-ahead Jazz category, a careful listening reveals his strong Mediterranean and Latin influences. His latest album ‘The Roberto Magris Sextet live in Miami’ is his most recent release and it has a distinctly international feel. This is partly down to the classy lineup but more to its edgy Latin-tinged hardbop vibe. Magris is a pianist in the classic mould – wearing his influences on his sleeve and unashamedly so. In interviews and in previous albums he has cited pianists like Horace Silver, Elmo Hope, Duke Jordan and Sonny Clark. He has an abiding fondness for the bop and hardbop swingers but stylistically he incorporates much of his own journey as an Italian pianist. He is extremely well recorded and has been a sideman for luminaries like Kai Winding, Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis and Sal Nistico. Of interest to me is his association with the west coast alto saxophonist Herb Geller. Magris is flawless in his articulation of ideas and his albums and his compositions don’t disappoint.
Given the above, it is unsurprising that Magris chose Brian Lynch in a leading role. The American born but outward looking Lynch is a significant presence in the Jazz world and particularly so on Latin projects. He has recorded extensively, has travelled everywhere and is a Grammy-winning artist. His solo’s here are impeccable, and like Magris, he favours a hardbop approach. This gives him an air of real authority.
On tenor saxophone is Jonathan Gomez, on bass (the renowned) Chuck Bergeron, on drums John Yarling and on percussion is Murph Aucamp. Magris is the musical director of a Kansas City based label ‘JMood Records‘ and this album and others can be sourced from there. I have put up a short clip ‘Blues for my sleeping Baby’, which reminds of the earlier East European pianist, Krzysztof Komeda. Magris is from Trieste, a once important free port on the Adriatic; a haven for great poets like Rilke and Joyce and now nestled quietly on the edge of faded empires. I visited there once and loved the place – I will certainly go again and when I do I will endeavour to track down a Magris gig.
This post and all on this site are by John Fenton, a photographer, videographer and professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association.
There are a finite number of notes in a scale or colours in the visual spectrum, but an infinite number of possibilities arise. Embracing the latter, multi-instrumentalist, multimedia sculptor and composer Finn Scholes constantly scans the landscape for new material. When he locates something shiny, he appropriates it as a magpie might, storing it in memory until he can bend it to a new purpose. A musician with few boundaries; a disruptor of complacency, his open ears and pioneering disposition equipping him well for his musical explorations. The genius of this music is that the listener will find any number of references, and each according to that persons taste. Any attempt to narrow the music down to a specific range of source materials, or to the prime influences, will, therefore, fall short; there is no correct answer.
There is an innate human urge to catalogue, look for pattern recognition and to compare and as I am a compulsive assembler of odd lists, I will offer up mine. This was: Bowie, Spaghetti Western movies, Surf guitar, Pink Floyd, a Mexican Soap opera, William Burrows, Lounge music, 70’s Jazz Space Funk, Bill Frisell and above all John Zorn (‘The Big Gundown’, ‘The Dreamers’). It was also Hokusai, psychedelic poster art and Crum The Bum comics. In my ears, it had Jazz sensibilities and in my eyes, it was the psychedelic Kings Cross of my youth.
The Wine Cellar is the perfect venue for such a launch. Down Karangahape Road you go, past the revellers and the sirens, past Shanghai Lils with its delightfully dissipated vibe, along to St Kevin’s Arcade, down the wide staircase and through the narrow door (surprisingly not the entrance to a broom closet). Into the bar, through the bar and under the arcade itself. A true home of the Avant-garde and of underground music. It is a vibing place where the sound of music-past leaks out of the air conditioning unit months later. It is so alternative, that the word ‘genre’ gets you chucked out by a hipster bearded bouncer. On this night it was jam-packed with sweating bodies and raised swaying arms; the temperature, so hot that you could fire porcelain. There was no room to swing a cat, but if you did, you would fell several hipsters. It was dark as a nun’s habit at the back while the front pulsed in dancing light. Multicoloured cartoons appeared and vanished just as quickly, playing on the instruments and the faces of the band. And meanwhile, the excitement grew – it had no means of escape.
Up front, washed over with film and comic strip characters, the Carnivorous Plant Society; an organic entity with technicolour tendrils; the core band plus a steady procession of guest artists waiting for their cues. Finn Scholes the leader, on a bank of analogue keyboards, an ancient vibraphone, a trumpet and a tuba. At the rear, his brother Tam on guitar, Tam’s partner Siobhanne Thompson on fiddle and vocals. To complete the family involvement, Jeff Scholes, the father of Finn and Tam, read improbable parables, parables which may or may not have had a deeper meaning. The rest of the core line up were Cass Basil (bass and vocals) and Alister Deverick on drums. On vocals during the live performance were Hayden Eastmond, Ed Casterlow and Hollie Fullbrook. Additional instrumentalists were Tim Stewart (trumpet), Nick Atkinson (saxophone) and Lisa Crawley (recorder). .
The Carnivorous Plant Society has been around for a while. I first reviewed them at a CJC gig in 2015 and liked the way they appropriated media; above all, I liked their vision. Now, two years later, after festival appearances and many gigs, they stand as a fully formed and highly compelling unit; living at the heart of Auckland’s alternative music scene, where the cross-over between bands and styles enriches everyone. Scholes plays with bands like Hopetown Brown, Audrey’s Dance, Swamp Thing, Avalanche City and the Zestnicks. He is also an occasional presence in Jazz studies student performance ensembles and in experimental or avant-garde music lineups. Scholes lives where music is evolving and where genres bleed into each other. A Jazz musician as the ghost in a bigger machine. His Jazz background will remain our secret.
The album will officially be released around March 2018. Additionally performing on the album are Lawrence Arabia, Don McGlashan, Hollie Fullbrook, Hayden Eastmond, Tiny Ruins. The band’s website is www.carnivorousplantsociety.com
My son and his girlfriend were home for Christmas, so I took them to the gig. Both live in central San Francisco and they are therefore familiar with the alternative music and experimental media scene in the Bay Area. The gig resonated strongly with them and they felt right at home. Buy the album, support alternative music and get along to the release gig if you can.
The Carnivorous Plant Society performed at The Wine Cellar, 183 Karangahape Road, St Kevin’s Arcade, Central Auckland on 22 December 2017.
The fourth Auckland Jazz Festival was appropriately launched at the Thirsty Dog Tavern in Karangahape Road. A welcoming venue, nestled among ethnic food joints, strip clubs and private art galleries. It is timely that we pay tribute to the Thirsty Dog, who a year ago, generously offered the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) a regular Wednesday night slot. This occurred when the club most needed it. It is a good performance space and many visiting musicians have remarked on the rooms warm vibe.The first festival gig I attended was the Jennifer Zea group. The last time I saw her perform I liked by her Latin interpretations of the standards, but I particularly liked her rendering of the songs particular to her region (Cuba/Venezuela). She introduced more standards this time but it was the second set; a set of Venezuelan and bossa fused music that had the audience enthralled. These tunes were so infectious that they followed me home. I even woke up with one of them singing in my head the next morning. ‘Moliendo Cafe’ (Blanco/Perroni) has been popular in Venezuela (and the wider world) since 1959. Everyone from Jose Feliciano on has benefited from it. As Zea sang this wonderfully infectious tune, she danced to its rhythms, and along the back wall, a chorus of her countrymen and women sang along in unison. We seldom hear music like this and it is her forte. I have posted a bolero, Lagrimas Negras (or Black Tears – by Matamoras) a Cuban tune from the 1920’s. She was ably assisted by Kevin Field, Mostyn Cole and the wonderful Miguel Fuentes on percussion.
The next night was the Guy Buttery gig, a World musician who appeared at Backbeat. Buttery is a renowned acoustic guitarist from South Africa and a distinctive stylist. His musical influences are varied but always harnessed to his own vision. Although he played a six-string guitar (a truly beautiful instrument), he often reminded me of Egberto Gismonti (or perhaps Ralph Towner). His mastery of the instrument was simply astounding and his choice of material perfect for the occasion. He memorably played a saw at one point and accompanied the piece with a delightful story. Evidently, the piece has been adopted as a theme by a group of Roswell styled ‘alien watchers’. There were many devoted fans in the room and some who had travelled a long way to hear him. His gift is sound shaping, every harmonic given voice, every note sublimely resonant. The sounds he coaxed from his instrument were at times orchestral. All who came were delighted with the performance.
Two days later I picked up the Belgium pianist Jef Neve and his crew from the airport. I spent the next three days with them and wrote about the experience in my previous post. I got home at around midnight on Saturday after sitting through nearly 5 hours of rehearsal and a two-hour concert. I loved every second of it. If that makes me an improvised music geek then so be it. jazzlocal32.com/2017/10/18/jef-neve-spirit-control/
On Tuesday, Marjan appeared with the ‘Experience Band’ at the Auckland Jazz and Blues Club. The Experience Band is an 11 piece ensemble and consequently, it provided a very different flavour to her appearance with a quartet at the CJC last month. Her voice has real power and she’s a compelling performer; easily able to adjust to the bigger sound. The audience loved her. Her set list was skillfully tailored to the room as the audience was older than the CJC crowd. In particular, her cheeky take on ‘Making Whoopie’ brought the house down. At one point she paid tribute to her high school music teacher, saxophonist Markas Fritsch, who was in the front line of the ensemble. She credits him with steering her towards Jazz – something we should all thank him for.On Wednesday, the third headline festival act was presented at the Thirsty Dog. It has been over a year since the world-renowned bassist David Friesen was in New Zealand. During last years tour, his trio was recorded at the 1885 venue. The night was captured perfectly in the newly released Rattle album ‘Another Time Another Space’. Frieson is an improvised music celebrity and it was good to have him back. He has a unique approach to composition and performance and he caps that off with his engaging and witty bandstand banter. He was again accompanied by Dixon Nacey on guitar and Reuben Bradly on drums. This trio communicates superbly, reacting to each other like old friends. The recording is amazingly good, especially so considering that it was captured in the 1885, which is an acoustically lively space. Nacey’s singing lines blend perfectly with Frieson’s – the sort of woody resonance that high-end luthiers aim for.On Friday the Chris Mason-Battley band returned to the Thirsty Dog. I really like this band with their predilection for tasty modal grooves. There is no one in New Zealand who plays quite like the Mason-Battley – and as an entity, the group have a distinct footprint. I have written about them recently and I suggest you check them out if you get the chance – they are not heard about town very often and more’s the pity. As with the last gig; on the keyboard was David Lines, on electric bass Sam Giles and on drums the innovative Stephen Thomas. There is now talk of a new CMB project and perhaps one with more electronics? Friday nights are the hard-yards for Jazz musicians and this one was no exception. Throughout the performance, you could hear two blokes yakking, obviously pleased to be catching up and seemingly unaware that this was a listening gig. A number of ray-like stares were beamed in their direction but they proved quite impervious to hints. Loud chatting seldom happens on a mid-week night where listeners and improvisers own the space.The last gig at the Auckland Jazz Festival was Jim Langabeer’s ‘Secret Islands’ album release’. This is another Rattle album and the musicianship is stunning. A project which arose out of Langabeer’s multi-phonics explorations at Auckland University. There is a lot that is referred to as fusion these days and most of it is not. In this case, the term could be a good descriptor. Indigenous instruments, multiple reeds and winds; pedal steel guitar and fender; beautiful melodies placed in Mingus like settings. While the album sits comfortably on the Jazz spectrum, the material takes us way beyond that. With the authoritative elder statesman Langabeer at the helm, and assisted by Rosie Langabeer, Roger Manins, Eamon Edmundson-Wells, Neil Watson and Chris O’Connor, what else would you expect. For this and other ‘Rattle’ recordings, go to www.rattlerecords.net/
At some point in human evolution, the majority of humans decided to stay put. In consequence, the hunter-gatherers and the pastoral nomads became outliers. As civilizations grew, agriculture grew and large enclosures and granaries grew along with them. Beyond the walls and the jumble of enclosures; largely unnoticed, often unseen, foraging continued unabated. The homeless on the streets forage, philosophers forage, writers forage, wild and domestic animals forage and above all improvisers forage.
Martin Kay’s gig was a tribute to foraging; highlighting the activities of foraging animals, creatures large and small and to the improbable life lessons, they impart. It was about cultivating absurdity and profundity in equal parts, it was about following the ancient herds using postmodern skills. It nibbled at reality until you saw it afresh, building on overlooked narratives, finding the things we often miss; a Zen Koan wrapped in sound.I first saw Kay in 2013 with ‘Song FWAA’. The post from then and the accompanying sound clip is still available on this site (use site search, type in Song FWAA). On Wednesday, his charts were for a larger ensemble. This time offering fresh insights; taking us further down the Rabbit hole. The pieces were of variable lengths and sometimes in parts. At some point during the second set, he played a piece titled ‘Ligeti’s Goat (I first heard that back in 2013). While the piece has melodic hooks and a basic structure, it is more, a surrealistic journey. A place where imagining, spoken narrative and musical narrative meet. Ligeti’s goat is vividly embedded in my memory; it is not a piece easily forgotten, a goat wandering through pastures, locating carrots (perhaps forbidden carrots), digesting the vegetables in that mysterious way of all ruminants.
There was a piece titled puffer fish, another called ‘Thrice mice’ (that chart in a minuscule script like mice prints) and a vampire piece titled ‘Once bitten once shy’. There was also an appealing piece about a tracker dog, selling his skills to those who might have need of them. None of this was an invitation to anthropomorphize – Kay’s animals spoke for themselves. He spends much of his time in New Zealand these days as his wife works here. For this project, he selected a group of local improvisers to form the ensemble; younger players with an open approach to improvisation. In this respect, the location favoured him, bringing the gifted Callum Passels into the group. Also featuring Crystal Choi, Michael Howell, Eamon Edmuson-Wells and Tristan Deck; each one of these having a stake in explorative improvised music. The only non-original piece was ‘Turkish Bath’ by the innovative trumpeter Don Ellis. For material similar to Kays, you need not look any further than Ellis or perhaps Henry Threadgill. It is good to have Kay in our midst, as he’s an interesting, often challenging and worthwhile composer. I have put up two clips – Turkish Bath and narrative about the Tracker Dog.
Let’s go – much as that dog goes / intently haphazard….not direction, ‘but each step an arrival’ (poet Denise Levertov 1923- 1997)
Forage: Martin Kay (tenor saxophone, compositions), Callum Passels (alto saxophone), Crystal Choi (keys), Eamon Edmunson-Wells (bass), Tristan Deck (drums). CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, K’Rd, Auckland, 20 September 2017
This album had me from the first listen. The vibe is very much in the vein of Robert Glasper’s 2012 album ‘Black Radio‘; but while the comparison is inescapable, this tells a very Pacific story; one based on our own urban grooves. Anyone who has ever walked the black-sand beaches of Auckland’s west coast or chilled out with friends on a long summer evening will feel that this album is just for them. While Jazz rich it is beyond category; a Neo-soul, Jazz Funk, Hip hop album with a pinch of Disco groove thrown in. If you browse the credits you will immediately be grabbed by the line up; many are important figures from the New Zealand or European Jazz/Soul scene, but having such an international cornucopia of talent has in no way spoilt the broth. The album works all the better for it. It is beautifully mixed, the tracks flow together like a dream and the quality of the production is immaculate.
The project was the brainchild of Jazz keyboardist Michal Martyniuk, with the assistance of percussionist, multi-instrumentalist and producer, Nick Williams. If there was ever an album that oozes urban cool from start to finish, this is it. Along with the talented Martyniuk and Williams are instrumentalists Nathan Haines, Miguel Fuentes, Mike Patto, Karika Turua, Adam Cabacinski, Andy Smith, Jacub Skowbonski and others; on vocals Sharlene Hector, Keven Mark Trail, Matt Nanai and Angie Saunders. It took a while from conception to finish but the wait was well worth it. Martyniuk is at present in his native Poland and the album was well received there – last month it was featured as album of the week on a Polish radio station. This is an album that really deserves to do well. ‘After ‘Ours Odyssey’ is out on Studiozone and can be found in leading record stores, @afteroursnz – also at Bandcamp, Apple Music or iTunes
When Glasper was asked why he blended Soul Funk and Jazz he replied: “It was a slap on the arse of Jazz”. This album is more like a long kiss on a sultry summer evening
‘Leda’s Dream’ has been around for some time, but this is the ensemble’s first appearance at the CJC. When vocalist Chelsea Prastiti first conceived of the project, she saw it as a vehicle for unfettered collective improvisation. Her writing cleverly expands on that concept, encompassing real places, the past, abstract ideas, and opening the listener to endless possibility. There is a structure to her vision, but to grasp it you must let go of what you think you know. The pieces are mirage-like; if you look too closely they will disappear. As you listen, fragments of the familiar appear, then dissolve. These are seamless journeys; cleverly fusing reality with dreamscapes. Leda’s Dream is to be experienced and enjoyed, not pigeonholed.
This is avant-garde music, perhaps the bravest we have heard at the CJC this year. The traditional Jazz references were there, but the freedom to expand or contract themes characterised the tunes. During ‘Faster down ice’ I heard echoes of Mingus; driving, pulsating rhythms over which freedom was explored. Tristan Deck and Eamon Edmundson-Wells at the heart of this pulse (on drums and bass respectively). With a human voice in the mix, the ideas became multi-dimensional. The human voice is the oldest of instruments and when it moves beyond words, the forms which anchor it – a rawer emotion is exposed. Sometimes it is pretty or melodic, at other times a primal scream. Listening to this music is to experience sound on its own terms.Prastiti’s ‘Time Lapse Photography’ was filmic. Revealing the essence of unfolding plants – magical realism – biology expressed as music. In a similar vein was her piece,’Rain Flood’. As she sang, you experienced the droplets of water – falling slowly at first, then faster until they became a deluge. Communicating in this way is a gift few possess, the images seeming to emerge from nature or from experience, not from the musical form. I immediately thought of my favourite Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray and his mystical Monsoon scene from ‘Pather Panchali’. The effect created by Ray there, also swept us to the heart of a poignant interaction between man & nature (musically assisted in that case by Ravi Shankar and Mingus alumni Charlie Mariano).The Leda’s Dream ensemble are alumni from the UoA Jazz School. A lot of talent emerged during the years they attended and during this particular gig it coalesced. It was a pleasant surprise to see Crystal Choi playing this innovative abstract music. Choi is a musician who is fast evolving and growing in interesting ways. At Jazz school she stayed closer to traditional forms, or those referencing the folk infused ECM albums. Later I saw her giving a concert on solo piano, Jarrett like in its scope and quite wonderful. On Wednesday she embraced freedom. She was innovative, interactive and confident.
Callum Passells was the lead-horn on alto saxophone. Beside him in the front line for part of the gig was Liz Stokes on trumpet. Passells is especially comfortable in this space. Playing sparingly and never playing a note for the sake of it, each note meaning something. Michael Howel came on stage for the second set as the full Leda’s Dream experience emerged. First as a quintet then sextet and finally as a septet.
Leda’s Dream: Chelsea Prsatiti (voice, compositions), Chrystal Choi (piano, voice), Callum Passells (alto saxophone, voice), Liz Stokes (trumpet), Michael Howell (guitar), Eamon Edmudson-Wells (upright bass), Tristan Deck (drums), 16th May 2017, CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, K’Rd Auckland.
Tubular Live: Having earlier reviewed the long anticipated Neil Watson ‘Tubular’ album I looked forward to the live launch. The Thirsty Dog gig was well attended, the audience extremely enthusiastic and no wonder. Although we saw a slightly different line-up from the album band, they were on fire from the first note. Watson, always a confident performer, was more in command than I have ever seen him and he communicated his musical vision effortlessly. Perhaps this was due to the long gestation of the material, but now he had a platform to extend the concepts further and he grabbed the opportunity. The evening seamlessly covered the breadth of guitar jazz and beyond. While much of the material was influenced by Jazz/Rock or improvisations built on genres like surf guitar, the gentler mainstream Jazz heroes of the past like Johnny Smith and Errol Garner were also honoured. On the ‘Tubular’ album his musical influences are evident. At the live gig, he stared those influences down and carved out his own space. He is one of the few New Zealand musicians who can convincingly occupy Frisell or Ribot territory and he demonstrated that. The perfect example was his rendering of the classic five beat Mambo Picadillo by Tito Puente. He began with a solo intro, dissonant chords offering brief hints as to where he was heading. As he developed his theme the audience gasped in delight as Errol Garners ‘Misty’ emerged, morphing into the gentler Johnny Smith version of ‘Moonlight in Vermont’. That it worked at all is a tribute to his musicianship, that it was done so well all the more so. The Mambo was well-arranged and just superb, not a foot remained still and the bar staff stopped in their tracks, swaying. Another tour de force (not on the album) was his arrangement of ‘Hard rains are going to fall’ (Dylan). This followed his gentle ballad ‘Kerala’.
The band finished the last set with an upbeat number and there was no way the audience was going to let things lie there. Watson in keeping with his quirky humour and well within his brief; finished with the 1959 surf/rock guitar classic ‘Sleepwalk’ (Santo & Johnny). Accompanying him he had the talented and versatile Ron Samsom (drums) and Olivier Holland (upright bass). Replacing Grant Winterburn on Keyboards and Roger Manins on tenor saxophone was Cameron Allen. If anyone can replace two talented musicians and do so convincingly it is Allen. Instead of a tenor he played baritone saxophone and at other times his array of keyboards and ‘doogon’. I have video but I am still experiencing upload problems – I will upload when sorted.
Crystal Choi (private concert): This particular invitation-only concert was organised by Jonathan Crayford and the invitations were swiftly taken up. Crayford is a legendary figure on the New Zealand music scene and when he gets behind a young artist, people pay attention. I have watched Choi develop musically over the years, but I had not seen her perform for some time. In the past she has appeared with students, part of an ensemble, seldom stepping into the limelight for long. This was a departure, a brave step into the challenging world of improvised solo piano. Developing artists (and even experienced performers) struggle with this format, some panic and resort to noodling. When Crayford introduced the concert he stated, “Crystal is amazing, and what you are about to hear will speak for itself”. He was right.
What we witnessed was a rapidly maturing artist. She exuded a confidence I had not seen before and her ideas were well-developed, all communicated with the utmost clarity. There were two sets and most of the compositions were her own. It was a large crowd for such a small space, but not a soul talked, shuffled, clinked glasses or coughed. She had them all in rapt attention as she wove her stories around themes and explored harmonic visions. This is the right musical space for Choi and I hope she develops it further. A sound that is more European in concept than American, where space, melody, and nuance are dominant. As she worked her way through the sets, everything flowed. If this is what she is like at 22 years of age, I can’t wait to hear her at 32. The sound was well captured and surprisingly, there were no awkward echoes or untoward harmonics considering the size of the room. It certainly helped that she had a ‘Grotrian’ grand to perform on. I hope that we see more solo piano from Choi.
Neil Watson ‘Tubular’ Live: Watson (guitars, compositions), Cameron Allen, (baritone sax, keyboards, electronics), Ron Samsom (drums), Olivier Holland (upright bass) @ the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Thirsty Dog, Auckland.15th February 2017
A review copy of the album ‘Studies in Tubular’ arrived in my letterbox a few days ago and it is vintage Neil Watson. It was recorded in 2011 and left to mature like a fine wine; it was worth the wait. I haven’t asked Watson why he titled the album ‘Studies In Tubular’, but the title feels appropriate. My first thought was that it might reference Mike Oldfield’s trippy minimalist classic ‘Tubular Bells’, and then I recalled that the word ‘tubular’ was once surfer slang for ‘exceptionally good’. Whatever the reason, this is exceptionally good music. The surf reference is not such a great stretch either when you listen carefully. This is deliciously eclectic music and although it touches on many sources, it is an original and highly satisfying offering. Referencing many things but never beholden to any of them.
Watson’s influences are seldom mainstream, but in spite of his touchstones like Sonny Sharrock, Bill Frisell and Marc Ribot, he always brings fresh ideas to the music. His trademark humour is always present in abundance and the ability to avoid taking himself too seriously is a gift that more musicians could adopt to advantage. This is an album made for a long drive, a lazy day at the beach or a sultry summer evening. Track two ‘Wes da Money’ opens with a nod to Wes Montgomery, then deftly takes us into very different territory, this without losing the essence of the opening bars. Guitar surf music (the Atlantics), Jimi Hendrix (Band of Gypsies), early Rock, & Roll. It’s all in there – wonderfully overlaid, motif upon motif.
The beautiful track ‘Kerala’ starts as folksy Americana, evoking a vibe reminiscent of Bill Frisell or Greg Leiz. On ‘Five Bye Blues’ he adds organist Grant Winterburn and what a treat that is. While drummer Ron Samsom lays down a groove beat and bass player Olivier Holland locates the heart, Winterburn comps tastefully behind a lovely guitar line; this reminiscent of the groove merchants like Pat Martino. There is Booker T, Boogie, Zorn and more in this package. This is a music of heart and soul and it brought a smile to my face. The weather has been a problem this month but with this album you can dispell that memory and lock in an endless summer vibe. Purchase a copy from www.neilwatson.co.nz or alternatively come to the launch at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) which has relocated to the Thirsty Dog, Karangahape Road, 8pm, 15th Feb 20017
Watson was accompanied on all tracks by Holland and Samsom – Winterburn added his grooves to 2,3,& 5 – additional guests Lewis McCallum and Roger Manins played on tracks 6 & 7 respectively. With a lineup like this, Watson was in good company, but so were they.
Studies in Tubular: Neil Watson (electric, acoustic & synth guitars, compositions), Olivier Holland (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums and percussion), guests; Grant Winterburn 2,3,5, (organ & Wurlitzer), Lewis McCullum (alto saxophone), Roger Manins (baritone saxophone) – (disclaimer: the album rear photograph is mine)
Mooga Fooga are well travelled, and as they move about they carve deep grooves into the sonic landscape. Their music is deliberately genre blending, with funk, rock, soul and Jazz shuffled together. Their music is often loud but they can play in a muted voice. While all of those influences are unambiguously in the mix, based on what I saw on Wednesday, they can tilt the emphasis any way they choose. This eclecticism is not the result of a random amalgam, but a clever fusing of the base metals underpinning the genres. In some of their online clips they are reminiscent of groups like Cream (albeit funked up), but on this gig, their Jazz Funk roots were most in evidence. I suspect that saxophonist Kushal Talele was the compass in that regard.Years ago I picked up a guitar trio album featuring Bareli Lagrene, Jaco Pistorius, and a European drummer (I can’t recall his name). I marveled at the seamless blending of styles, as they performed Hendrix and Shorter with equal integrity, paying due respect to each. This music has a heavier funk element; Jazz funk with a little touch of metal and the occasional the choppy lines of Monk thrown in. Apart from their punchy lines and the exchanges during the head, there was room for improvisation as the tunes developed.I am familiar with Kushal Talele, Adam Tobeck and Joel Shadbolt as I have encountered them all before. Each in different situations to what was on offer last night. Talele has a distinct post-Coltrane sound and is very much in the camp of the New York modernist tenor players. He returned last year from overseas and played a gig at the CJC. Sadly, we are to lose him again as he heads to New York for a few years. Tobeck is versatile and notable for his tightly focused groove beats. He was essential to this lineup and this band was a natural fit for him. I have seen Shadbolt less often but I enjoyed his loud bluesy funk at the 2015 Tauranga Jazz festival. He is a crowd pleaser and looks every inch the part as he pumps out his ear-pleasing lines and phrases. While I had not previously heard electric bassist Rory Macartney, he is well-respected about town. There is a real bite to his playing, a bite that is perfect for a lineup like this.The tunes were seldom given titles and I suspect that most were originals. Details like that don’t matter on a gig like this – it is about the groove. I gained the impression that the three regulars, Macartney, Shadbolt and Talele all contributed compositions and arrangements. There are some good YouTube clips up from this group and I have added one more from this gig.
Mooga Fooga: Kushal Talele (tenor saxophone), Joel Shadbolt (guitar), Rory Macartney (electric bass), Adam Tobeck (drums) at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Albion Hotel basement, 27th July 2016.
The alternative music scene in Auckland is surprisingly strong and although at times appearing hermetically sealed against the outside world, it flourishes in discrete self-contained units. There are no neon signs proclaiming ‘underground music found here’. If you visit Karangahape Road on the right night, deploying a seismometer to the footpath outside St Kevin’s Arcade, or to the walls of the Parisian Tie Factory, the readings will red-line. The digital spikes an indication of subterranean life. I love these basement venues and reclaiming them in the right way is an art form. The basements I refer to were once utilitarian storehouses from a bygone era, a monotoned boring past wearing walk shorts – now softened by memory. Now they emit a frisson of mystique and risk – alternative music lives here. A towering presence in this shadowy world is musician Jeff Henderson. The aptly named ‘Dreamville’ project came to my attention when Henderson appeared at the CJC in 2015 it floored me, the concept grounded in a reality we often overlook at our peril. The primal bubbling energy underpinning sound itself. The first time I heard ‘Dreamville Jazzmares’ the lineup was different – a quintet; reeds, vibes, guitar, upright bass and drums. Now, the album features an octet and for the Auckland release, Henderson added an extra horn and electric bass. While it is tempting to reference a Sun Ra band or perhaps Zorn’s Electric Masada, this is overwhelmingly a manifestation of Henderson’s originality. A gifted composer, talented musician and tongue in cheek visionary.While the careful listener may initially find a lot that feels familiar, the familiar is illusionary, snatches of past and future, wearing clothes made of mist. The relationship to other projects is in the end superficial. This is an important original work and there is no mistaking that. When listening to the Auckland release an additional realisation struck me. Rhythm is the dominant force in Henderson’s compositions. His deeply woven rhythms extend way beyond the drums and percussion (there are two drummers – at times three). Here every instrument is rhythmically charged under his guidance. During the live performance in Auckland Henderson often picked up a bright red parade bass drum. As he tapped out rhythms on the side or accented beats behind the complex interwoven traps drummers, a marvelous polyrhythmic effect occurred. An effect heard in Polynesian drumming. The beats, strums, wails and chords often falling in step – primal morse – dot-dash-dah in myriad combinations.
The Dreamsville Wellington recording band is: Jeff Henderson (alto, baritone, c-melody saxophones, voice, bass drum), Bridget Kelly (tenor saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet), Gerard Crewdson (trumpet, trombone, tuba, voice), Daniel Beban (guitar), Julian Taylor (guitar), Tom Callwood (acoustic, electric bass), Joe McCallum (drums, Percussion), Anthony Donaldson (drums). This is a suite that lends itself to variation and interpretation like few others. Kelly and Crewdson worked well with Henderson, creating a cohesive multi-horn dialogue, rich in texture and fulsome. Having two drummers, two guitars, and a strong doubling bass player, gave the contrast and gut punch required.The Auckland band were; Jeff Henderson (alto, c-melody, baritone saxes, voice, bass drum), Jim Langabeer (alto flute, sopranino, tenor, soprano saxes), Liz Stokes (trumpet, trombone), Tom Rodwell (guitar), Phil Dryson (guitar, voice), Tom Callwood (electric bass), Eamon Edmunson (upright bass), Anthony Donaldson (drums, percussion), Chris O’Connor (drums, percussion). Although different, this was a rich heady brew – the composition loosened, but always guided by Henderson’s astute hand. His method of guiding the composition riveting to onlookers, his signals unusual but effective, call and response signalling a new direction. An entire language developed – a conduction that could lengthen, shorten or guide a musician towards untapped zones.
My favourite signal his use of voice – eerie otherworldly high pitched vocal phrases – mimicking instruments, some of which have not yet been invented, strangely beautiful, deeply human. Langabeers alto flute was the counterweight, earthy, sonorous, but his sopranino was freed from gravity (at times he played multiphonics on tenor or played two horns at once). Everyone gave their best – exhausted as they were afterwards.
The album is selling out fast but copies can be obtained or ordered from Henderson in Auckland or in Wellington from Slow Boat Records or Rough Peel. It is also available on Bandcamp at iiiirecords.bandcamp.com. I strongly advise ordering the double CD as it is a thing of beauty, the size of a penguin paperback. The artwork was created by band member Gerard Crewdson, a multi-talented artist, and musician. The images are simply exquisite with a subtle disquiet lurking behind the peaceful overarching beauty. Here I am minded of the engravings of John Buckland Wright (a New Zealand born illustrator and engraver who attained considerable fame in 1930’s London). The live gig took place in the Wine Cellar on the 23rd June 2016.
To the best of my knowledge, Jonathan Besser has not played at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) before. While he is best known as an important composer for The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, The New Zealand String Quartet and The Royal New Zealand Ballet, he is also a significant leader of small ensembles. Ensembles which venture far into the territory of experimental, electronic and improvised music. It is impossible to separate the man from his music. It is eclectic, original and often plaintive but generally with a sly twist of humour thrown in. In spite of his standing in the music world, Besser is modest. At the CJC he was happy to lead from the piano, which was in partial darkness and at the rear of the ensemble. His instructions were brief and staccato as if part of the unfolding suite. When he did pick up the microphone to speak to the audience he exuded an eccentric charm, bandstand asides peppered with self-effacing humour, garnished with sudden smiles.
I first encountered Besser’s work in 2011 when Rattle released ‘Campursari’. This is an amazing album featuring some of my favourite musicians (Chris O’Connor, John Bell, Nigel Gavin, Jim Langabeer etc). It resonated immediately as it referenced a number of genres that interest me. Ambient improvised music, crossover World/Jazz. The album is intensely filmic, deeply evocative of vast exotic landscapes and since obtaining a copy I have played it often.I met Besser briefly during Natalia Mann’s ‘Pacif.ist’ tour and later at the Auckland Art Gallery during the opening of Billy Apples ‘Sound Works’ exhibition. On that occasion, the Nathan Haines Quartet played Besser’s innovative compositions. I really hope that someone recorded that. It was extraordinary music, based upon prescribed letters of the alphabet. These were then allocated using the 12 tone scale as a formula to locate equivalent notes. The order of Billy Apple’s words dictating the order of notes.
The ‘Zestniks’ is a newer incarnation of the many Besser ensembles. The main focus of the CJC gig was the performance of ‘Gimel Music’, a suite composed by Besser and performed at the ‘Shir Madness Jewish Festival in Sydney in 2012’. Gimel is a Hebrew word associated with the third letter of the Hebrew alphabet (The Kabbalah, in particular, makes much of the mystical numeric and alphabetic association). 3/4 time, three chords, three inversions, three bars conjoined, the melody often running over the 3 bar lines, but never manifesting as waltz time. While not the complete story, embedded in the music were strong elements of Jewish music and to my ears, the distant echoes of Argentinian music.The music was not Klezmer and later I asked Besser about his influences – were there strong Jewish influences? “I am a Jewish man and I used Jewish scales, but apart from that no. I draw upon many, sources”. It interested him that I heard Argentinian references. “I have done Tango projects in the past and that is possible”. It was partly the combination of instruments, the delicious overlay of melancholia and the accents – not so far from the music of master musician Dino Saluzzi.The segments of music making up the suite seldom lasted longer than 4 minutes. The spaces between them brief. The mood seldom deviated from the wistful, evoking a sense of intangible longing – for something remembered – but just out of reach, a nostalgia as ancient as time itself. There were a few cheerful pieces as well, but I preferred the former. The Zestniks update themselves regularly, this time adding Caro Manins vocal lines, her wordless vocals followed the viola or clarinet in gentle unison. No one is better suited to this than Manins – she has worked with the likes of Norma Winstone after all.
The septet personnel at the CJC were, Jonathan Besser (piano, leader), Asher Truppman-Lattie (clarinet), Iselta Allison (viola), Finn Scholes (vibes, trumpet), Eamon Edmundson (double bass), Yair Katz (drums), Caro Manins (voice). The combination of voices worked well, viola and clarinet giving strength to the melodic figures. The vibes cutting deep into our psyche – at times ringing clear, then softening as melody dissolved into subtle counterpoint, woven into the piano lines, the latter adding harmonic depth. The drum kit interested me as it was not the Jazz kit we normally see. Larger drums and fewer of them, ride cymbal and high hat, the beat suited to this ancient to modern music. There was once talk of Besser recording for John Zorn’s Tzardik label and the synergies are obvious. That said, his current home with Rattle Records is an excellent fit.
When we talk about Wayne Shorter’s music we immediately run into obstacles. Wayne is like a Zen Master, deliberately confounding our every expectation. To begin such a journey our rational minds need emptying. As the journey unfolds we move beyond comforting reference points; this requires a letting go, real courage. The 2016 Wayne Shorter band is a musical ‘Voyager’, a spacecraft assembled out of earthly components, but sending encrypted sonic messages from an unknown place. What is on offer is a shared journey – but only if we are brave enough. Once you commit there is no looking back.
To attempt a detailed description of a concert like this is utterly pointless. Only the ears, eyes, spiritual mind, can evaluate this experience. That is the point – you have to be there – really be there – engaged – then let go. All I can say is how lucky I feel to have seen this band twice in my life. Once in a Roman amphitheatre in Verona Italy during the ‘Standards Live’ 2002 tour. Now 14 years later almost to the day, at the Wellington 2016 Jazz festival. The same band, Wayne Shorter, Danilo Perez, John Patitucci and Brian Blade. Immortals all. Back in 2002, the band unbundled tunes from Wayne’s long career – a career always advancing beyond the edge. It sounded brave and edgy back then. On this tour, he transcended those earlier reference points. Yes, there was form, even charts; just as a spacecraft has a shell. Inside the craft, the band moved freely in the weightless air.
This tends to confound some critics, people who need firm ground beneath their feet. A few have even puzzled over the constant adjustment of saxophone mouthpiece and neck. The perpetual adjustment phenomenon is common to all great saxophonists – it is a manifestation of the never-ending journey deep into sound. In the marvelously written Cook & Morton Penguin Jazz Guide, the word elided appears when describing Wayne’s sound. He often puts the saxophone to his mouth, then pauses and takes it out again – interpreting this or his frequent adjustments as uncertainty is missing the point entirely. The dictionary definition of Elision is; deliberately omitting components of speech or sound. When taken to its logical conclusion the remaining sounds (or letters) become a code. A code we must decipher unaided.
I think it was Lee Konitz who said. ‘Old men should play like old men. When I hear them trying to play like their young selves it sounds wrong’. Old men have important things to say from the viewpoint of life experience. Wayne played like his older self, wiser, braver and unafraid to show vulnerability. I am glad that he did.
After the gig, I spoke to a number of musicians. Almost all were in a deeply reflective mood, basking in the experience. Dixon Nacey a prominent New Zealand Jazz guitarist said to me. Man, I was thinking of you in there and wondering how you could find adequate words to review that? Of course, I can’t.
Dixon and I decided to walk a while, needing to clarify our thoughts. We walked the back streets, weighing it all up, sometimes discussing a particular facet, seeking to understand the importance of what we had seen and heard. Dixon said at one point, “I found that I needed to abandon my trained musician’s brain, the brain that looks for fixed rhythmic, melodic or harmonic structures. A profound lesson I learned from this was, if you decide not to come in, to lay out in unexpected places, that is OK. Trusting another band member to pick up the thread”. There were probably mistakes and this also created deep connections. This music is humanism personified. That vulnerable sound that Wayne emits from his horns is his Bodhisattva voice – it can confront precisely because it is so human.
All worthwhile journeys lead back to the start point, a place where art, imaginings, and life merge. We already understand this music, we just need reminding. Wellington Jazz Festival 2016, Opera House, Manners Street, Wellington
As I write this it is International Jazz Day, a UNESCO sponsored day honouring the diversity and depth of the world improvising scene. It was, therefore, serendipitous that Carl Dewhurst and Simon Barker brought ‘Showa 44’ to town – especially in the days immediately preceding the big celebration. This gig offered actual proof that the restless exploration of free-spirited improvisers, lives on undiminished. I have sometimes heard die-hard Jazz fans questioning free improvisation, believing that the music reached an unassailable peak in their favourite era. To quote Dexter Gordon. “Jazz is a living music. It is unafraid …. It doesn’t stand still, that’s how it survives“. While a particular coterie prefers their comfort zone, the music moves on without them. Younger ears hear the call and new audiences form. Life is a continuum and great art draws upon the energies about it for momentum. Improvised music is not a display in a history museum.It is through listening to innovative live music that our ears sharpen. When sitting in front of a band like this the mysteries of sound become visceral. This was an extraordinary gig, at times loud and confronting, mesmerising, ambient and always cram-packed with subtlety. Fragments of melodic invention and patterns formed. Then subtly, without our realising it, they were gone, tantalising, promise-filled but illusory. We seldom noticed these micro changes as they were affected so skillfully – form and space changing minute by minute, new and yet strangely familiar – briefly reappearing as quicksilver loops before reinventing themselves.With the constraints of form and melody loosened new possibilities emerge. In inexperienced hands, the difficulties can overwhelm. In the hands of artists like these the freedom gives them superpowers. Time is displaced, tonality split into a prism of sound, patterns turned inside out. The first set was a single duo piece, ‘Improvisation one’ – unfolding over an hour and a quarter; Dewhurst and Barker, barely visible in the low light. This was about sculpting sound and seeing the musicians in shadow added a veneer of mystique. Dewhurst began quietly, his solid body guitar lying face up on his lap. The sound came in waves as he stroked and pushed at the strings, moving a slide – ever so slightly at first, causing microtonal shifts or new harmonics to form, modulating, striking the strings with a mallet or the palm of his hand. The illusion created, was of a single drone repeating. In reality, the sound was orchestral. As you listened, really listened, microtones, semitones and the occasional interval appeared over the drone. Barker providing multiple dimensions and astonishing colour, responding, reacting, crafting new directions.In this context, the drummer took on many roles, a foil to the guitarist, creating silken whispers, insistent flurries of beats and at times building to a heart-stopping crescendo. I found this music riveting and the audience obviously shared my view. In the quiet passages, you could hear a pin drop. If that’s not an indication of the musical maturity of modern Jazz audiences, nothing is. One of the prime functions of art is to confront, to challenge complacency. This music did that while gently leading us deeper inside sound itself. No one at the CJC regretted being on this journey. This is territory loosely mapped by the UK guitarist Derek Bailey, the Norwegian guitarist Aivind Aaset and the American guitarist Mary Halvorson. They may take a similar path, but this felt original, perhaps it is an Australian sound (with a Kiwi twist in Manins). The long multifaceted trance-like drones suggest that. The second set was shorter, ‘Improvisation two’ had Roger Manins aboard. I should be immune to Manins surprises but he frequently catches me off guard. His breadth and depth appear limitless. ‘Improvisation Two’ began with a broader melodic palette. Dewhurst and Barker set the piece up and when Manins came in there was a stunning ECM feel created. Barker tap-tapping the high-hat and ride. Achingly beautiful phases hung in the air – then, surprisingly they eluded us, unravelling as Manins dug deeper – dissecting them note by note. These interactions give us a clue as to how this music works, each musician playing a phrase or pattern and then re-shaping it, passing the baton endlessly.
This requires deep listening and turn on a dime responses; as the overarching but perpetually shifting theme guides them. By the time Manins had played for five minutes, the mood and pace had mysteriously changed. By fourteen minutes we were in free territory – at twenty minutes the Tom fell over. Barker swept it up and changed to brushes in an eye blink. The falling drum was seamlessly blended, a fresh percussive option. I have seldom seen such captivating responsive drumming. Making an accident a virtue.
I have watched the twenty-two-minute segment of ‘Improvisation two’ ten times in a row and it is just as jaw-dropping each time. It is not the purpose of this Blog to rate and compare, but if it were, I would need extra stars to do this gig justice.
Showa 44; Carl Dewhurst (guitar), Simon Barker (drums & percussion), with guest Roger Manins (tenor saxophone) – CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Albion Hotel, Auckland, New Zealand, April 27th, 2016.
Footnote: After posting this I spoke with Carl Dewhurst. I explained that I had an overwhelming sense of the Australian desert – hearing the textures and wide open spaces in the improvisations. In the end, I was overly cautious, not wanting to offend indigenous sensibilities, deleting a reference to the Didgeridoo and Clapsticks. After speaking to Carl I am adding the references back in here. He informs me that this project actually began in the vastness of the northern deserts, playing alongside indigenous Australians. I heard right.
When I recently interviewed visiting Flamenco dancer Isabel Rivera Cuenca she told me that she had met some wonderful New Zealand improvising musicians and, in particular, she mentioned Jonathan Crayford. They met at a party and briefly discussed doing a project together. As they had not been able to make contact since I supplied email addresses and the project quickly took shape. A talented sensuous Flamenco dancer from Barcelona and a gifted Kiwi improviser; irresistible.Jonathan Crayford has long been one of my favourite musicians and any project of his I will follow with enthusiasm. The thought of him doing a Jazz/Flamenco project filled me with joy. It takes a particular type of musician to reach across genres, and to do so with authenticity is a challenge. If anyone could pull this together at short notice it was Crayford; with his open ears and extraordinary musicality, he ticked all of the boxes. In recent years, he has performed in Spain, but only on Jazz projects. When I spoke to him two weeks before the gig he told me how pleased he was to work on this project, but that he knew little of Spanish music; I had no doubts that he would locate a pure essence and work with it and Isabel Cuenca was the perfect foil. As soon as they appeared on the bandstand the chemistry was obvious. There is a real synergy between Jazz and Flamenco; they are musical cousins. Both musical forms fuse North African Rhythms with unique harmonic approaches, both created out of harsh repression. Underlining the driving rhythms of Flamenco is pure passion, contrasting a sad but beautiful dissonance. The musicians and dancers frequently call to each other in encouragement and this is not so different from the call and response in jazz. That they are similar in essence is hardly surprising – when the chants, dance and polyrhythms of Congo Square met with Creole melody, fed by a multitude of European influences (including Spanish music), Jazz was born.
Early in the first set, Crayford played a variant of his composition ‘Galois Candle’. This appears on his ‘Dark Light’ album nominated for a Jazz Tui award last year. This memorable tune although rhythmic is not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of danceability. The synergy between dancer and pianist soon located a sweet-spot in the heart of the tune. I recall Cuenca telling me that everything else in Flamenco was subordinate to honest deeply felt emotion. That is where the Duende resides. A little later we heard an innovative and compelling version of ‘Will o’ the Wisp’ (from El Amor Brujo) by Manuel De Falla. Not the brooding version that Gil Evans used on Sketches in Spain but a paired down version. Stripped to the barest essentials of melody and rhythm. Crayford dampened the strings with one hand and created a simple clipped strumming effect, while Cuenca sang gently over this, softly clapping all the while. It could not have been more effective. After that came a tune by Fredrica Garcia Lorca, the poet who died at the hands of Franco’s Nationalists. This tune ‘Los Cuatro Muleres’ sounds pretty, even jaunty, but it hides a deep sadness as with all Lorca poems and tunes. Again done movingly, and both Crayford and Cuenca sang verses.During the second set we heard tunes which moved closer to the Flamenco idiom. In these free-ranging highly improvised tunes Crayford has few peers. Towards the end of the evening, the two were in absolute lock-step; Cuenca reacting to every nuance of the music and bringing her fluid kinetic brilliance to bear, dancing her way into the hearts of everyone there. The communication was simply electric.
I have posted a video clip from the first set (Galois Candle [Crayford]) and an audio clip from near the end of the second set. I hope that Crayford records some of these tunes as they were magical. Cuenca has many fans in new Zealand and she says that she will return here soon. I hope so because more of this project would please us.