I was out of the country when Umar Zakaria came to the Backbeat Bar in September. I was particularly sorry to have missed Zakaria’s Fearless Music Tour as they had just won the 2018 Jazz Album Of The Year. Because I was away it took me a while to get my hands on the album and when I did I was deeply impressed. While the name Zakaria may be unfamiliar to many outside of Wellington, he is hardly a newcomer to the scene. He is a graduate from the New Zealand School of Music and the Boston Conservatory and he has performed and studied with significant improvisers from around the globe. Already, accolades are coming his way and when you consider the fact that he is at the beginning of his career, you comprehend just how significant that is.
Fearless Music is a beautiful album in so many ways; the artwork, recording quality, compositions, and individual performances. An increasing number of highly regarded Jazz recordings come from outside of the US and this must surely count among them. It frequently draws on motifs and themes from outside of the European or American world and perhaps that is the secret to its authenticity. There are no awkward attempts to blend styles here as everything falls naturally; the music is deeply rhythmic and recognisably Jazz in spite of the obvious Middle Eastern or Asian influences and scales. ‘Suite Melayu’, the bulk of this recording is the gem within. it sticks with you. There is undoubtedly a good story behind the suite segment titles but there are no liner notes, the music, however, is more than enough. Suite Melayu felt like the sort of material that the brilliant Dhafer Yousef might write.
The tune ‘Archimedes’ has a deeply contemplative quality to it. Archimedes was a polymath who lived in Siracusa Sicily and he is a hero of mine. This feels like a fitting tribute to the greatest physicist, engineer, mathematician, astronomer, and inventor of the ancient world. There is a subtle Mediterranean feel to this track and if like me you’ve travelled around that ancient Island you will pick up the Moorish vibe right away. -especially in Leonardo Coghini’s lines. Zakaria is a gifted bass player but his compositions, in particular, mark this out as an exceptional album. He deserved to win the Jazz Tui with this project and I look forward to the sequels which must surely follow.
His fellow musicians are also exceptional here. Coghini I have heard before and after this performance, I will pay him much closer attention. His touch is so clean and purposeful, but also delicate. His lines breathe as good lines should. The drummer Luther Hunt, has been around on the wider Wellington music scene for some years and more recently he studied Jazz Performance at the New Zealand School of Music. Again, an exceptionally sensitive performance, knowing when to lay out and when to be supportive. Lastly, there is Roger Manins. I hear him in so many diverse situations and in every one of them, he sounds as if that is his thing. This excellence in versatility is the mark of a really good musician. At his best, which is almost all of the time, there is no one in New Zealand to touch him. What he brings to performances like this is professionalism with heart. We are lucky to have him in our midst.
Auckland got a chance to see Zakaria again when he came to Auckland recently in a co-led trio. the Kang/Lockett/Zakaria trio. Of these, drummer Mark Lockett is the best known as he has appeared at the CJC numerous times and is a popular performer. He also runs the WJC in Wellington. Brad Kang, a formidable technician on guitar did a gig earlier in the year. The writing duties had been spread between the three musicians and many of the numbers were hard-hitting burners, especially in Kang’s hands.
Fearless Music: Umar Zakaria (bass, composition), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Leonardo Coghini (piano), Luther Hunt (drums) – Recorded and mixed and produced by David Lisik at New Zealand School of Music, SkyDeck Records http://www.skydeckmusic.com
Kang/Lockett/Zakaria appeared at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 5 December 2018
A lot of great live music happened this year but this gig was a favourite. It was danceable, visceral and the deeply rhythmic pulse found its way straight to your heart. As the band played the room radiated an infectious joy and the swaying of the audience amplified it. One by one the feet tapped and the hands moved until no one was left unaffected. Yes, this was music to wash away your cares but underneath that was something of real substance. Latin music that misses its groove is unsatisfying but when it’s done well like this was, it’s simply wonderful. No one in New Zealand could pull this off better than Jonathan Crayford and with co-leader Nathan Haines on board, it was locked down. The final ingredient to this potent tropical brew was master percussionist Miguel Fuentes.
This project has an impressive provenance as it is derived from the Bobby Vidal songbook, a selection arising out of his much-loved New York Latin/Bebop band. In the early nineties Crayford was living in New York and because he was intent on soaking up as many influences as possible he soon came across Bobby Vidal’s regular East Side, St Marks Bar gig. He loved the vibe and desperately wanted to become part of it and he started attending the gigs regularly. Through perseverance and after many knock-backs, he finally got an introduction to Vidal. Before long he was hired. After that, he spent three years with the band, describing the experience as ‘a pure joy’. The songbook was a heady fusion of Bebop and Afro-Cuban (or more accurately Afro-Rican as Vidal was from Puerto Rica). When Crayford initially agreed to take the Vidal gig he knew little about Latin music, but a quick phone call to his friend Barney McAll gave him valuable tips. Fast forward to 2018 and it is obvious to anyone who hears him that he absorbed the complexities and rhythms of the music beyond caveat. Although the rhythmic patterns are fixed, for the music to work well it needs something else – a controlled fluidity – the ability to react to the other musicians. Crayford once described it as being a weave which can be tightened and loosened at precise times – without the shape being lost. When you hear the clave patterns skilfully executed and interwoven, the experience is unforgettable.
Co-leader Haines ranks among our best known and most loved musicians. His experience and good taste are always on display and on this gig, he pulled out an extraordinary performance. After his recent surgery and health issues, it would have been excusable for him to hold something back, but Haines is averse to half measures. His primary instrument on this gig was flute (although he did play saxophone as well). Anyone who has followed his career will know that he was in New York around the same time Crayford was and he undoubtedly absorbed gigs similar to this. A subsequent move to London had him performing with a variety of Afro Caribbean musicians. His wonderfully peppery flute playing attests to these tropical influences. Many Jazz musicians avoided the flute, believing it to be expressionless, but when Haines blows, it has life, character, and edge. As a horn, it has pride of place in Latin ensembles and Latin lineups are diminished without it. Watching these two feed off each other’s lines or grooves is to attend a masterclass. Many years of collaboration has gifted them an acute situational awareness. An awareness that is now instinctual.
Then there is Miguel Fuentes. This is where the magic becomes supercharged. Fuentes like Crayford and Haines is an acclaimed musician and his background as a percussionist is mind-blowing. While skilled in the numerous percussion styles and on numerous percussion instruments, he played congas, Afro-Cuban style on this gig. He has performed with a large number of important artists (e.g.George Benson and Isaac Hayes) and since moving from New York to New Zealand he has been the first call percussionist.
Beside him on cencerro (cow-bell) was Adån Tijerina, his instrument being the ‘hammer’ – the instrument which holds the centre and it was deployed well. On upright bass was Mostyn Cole, a versatile and able musician who fits in perfectly whenever he is called upon. At the end of both sets, an electric bass player was called to the bandstand. A young woman named Jacqui Niman from the South Island. The ease with which she hit her groove and dived into this deceptively complex music was impressive.
Both gigs were filled to capacity and due to the size of the audiences, dancing was rendered impossible. As Crayford later pointed out, “I’m sorry that there is no room to dance but do so if you can’. The Mambo Macoco music invites movement and deserves to be danced to. It is rumoured that a gig, perhaps even a residency, could occur soon at the nearby Anthology Lounge. I hope so – count me in.
Mambo Macoco: Jonathan Crayford (keyboards), Nathan Haines (winds and reeds), Miguel Fuentes (congas), Adån Tijerina (cencerro), Mostyn Cole (upright bass), Jacqui Niman (electric bass). The gig took place at the Backbeat Bar, Auckland for the CJC Creative Jazz Club 28th November 2018.
When the Soulful vocalist Vivian Sessoms visited in June last year, we were stunned by her voice and by her powerhouse delivery. We seldom get to experience American R & B styled vocalists in New Zealand and if we do we never see them in intimate settings like the Backbeat Bar. Her voice carries the history of her music and her vocal range and control are approaching the operatic. Sessoms is a vocalist with serious chops and an interesting backstory. Last week she returned.
Since her last visit, she has released a Soul/Jazz album titled ‘Life’. The album is receiving favorable attention and it is not surprising that she has been picked up by the Ropeadope recording label. During her two Auckland gigs, she performed a number of tunes from the album; including a few that were recorded at the same time and will likely appear on a future release. The first set opened with her take on the Stevie Wonder classic ‘I can’t help it’. This was pure R & B, but the set swiftly dived into bold reharmonisations of Jazz standards plus one or two pop tunes (‘Love is a losing game’ – Amy Winehouse and ‘Under the Cherry Moon’ – Prince).
The Standards in that set were the lovely ‘Stella by Starlight’ (Victor Young), ‘Lush Life (Billy Strayhorn) and ‘The Waters of March’ (Tom Jobim). All of the above were reharmonised and made fresh. ‘Lush Life’ conveyed that sad world-weary vibe that Strayhorn penned so well and ‘The Waters of March’ (Aguas de Marco) was sung in English. Jobim wrote both the Portuguese and the English lyrics and the song is a masterpiece. Sessoms infused it with a subtlety reflecting modern American life. When she came to the line ‘the shot of a gun, in the dead of the night’ you picked that up immediately and understood her message.
Sessoms is an activist for civil rights and this thread runs through all of her shows (and the ‘Life’ album). Last time she came to New Zealand it was her ‘I can’t breathe’ number – this time it was her take on ‘People (make the world go round)’, a tune made popular by the Stylistics (composed by Thom Bell + Linda Creed). Before the tune, she spoke a little of her life growing up in Harlem and how normalised that daily struggle was to African-American people at that time. This tune in her hands was a plea for people to do better and to fight on until equality is a reality, not just a distant hope. An interesting song choice which got the Sessoms treatment was ‘I who have nothing’. We associate it with Shirley Bassey or Joe Cocker but long before that Ben E King released it. Actually, it is an old Italian song titled ‘Uno Dei Tanti’ (by Carlo Denida).
This time Sessoms had her husband Chris Parks touring with her. Parks is a well-known bassist and producer on the New York scene and on the album, he is co-credited in all of the arrangements. Parks played a punchy electric bass, Jonathan Crayford and Ron Samsom were the band members for this gig, Crayford having accompanied her convincingly last time she came.
The album is widely available and I have included a Spotify clip from ‘Life’. Her take on Strange Fruit is the standout for me. A harrowing song based on the poem by Abel Meeropol and made famous by Billie Holiday. In light of recent comments made during the US primaries and on the banners of the Alt-Right, these issues are scandalously still with us. I have also put up a clip from the gig – ‘Waters of March’ (the sound quality is quite good but the glare of the spotlights affected the focus slightly in places).
Life Tour: Vivian Sessoms (vocals), Chris Parks (electric bass), Jonathan Crayford (keys), Ron Samsom (drums) – Backbeat Bar for the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 22nd November 2018).
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
Whenever a young and talented vocal improviser appears on the scene, it piques the interest of Jazz lovers and beyond. Lauren Nottingham fits this bill perfectly and she is definitely someone we should take notice of. She is bound to have an upwards career trajectory over the coming years and with the talented pianist Mark Donlon as a collaborator, this is all the more assured. She has previously toured as co-leader with Donlon, but this time she stepped out as sole leader.
The setlist was a mixture of original compositions and reharmonized standards from well outside of the Jazz songbook; David Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Stole The World’ and The Beatles ‘Lady Madonna’ (McCartney). Both of the latter went down well. There were also a number of compositions by a singer-songwriter Matt Sagen and above all Nottingham’s own offerings. We also heard a tune by her drummer and one by Donlon. Her satirical ‘You can’t spell triumph without Trump’ and ‘Who you are’ felt personal while the composition ‘On a rooftop in China’, composed by drummer Dexter Stanley-Tauvao had a delightfully swinging feel to it. I have posted Donlon’s tune titled ‘Sarabande’ (Nottingham wrote the lyrics for this). This was a nice band all round with tasteful playing from Beernink and Stanley-Tauvao.
Nottingham began singing publically at around the age of fourteen and before long she was singing in the National Youth Choir. She always had an interest in Jazz and in her senior year won a competition run by the NZSM. Later she completed a Jazz Studies degree with the NZSM. Following that she spent a year in Berlin, where according to her bio, she worked in a Jazz bar and did a lot of listening. For any developing artist, moving out of their comfort zone is important as academic learning is only a starting point; character and authenticity arise from life experience. The harder won and the greater the risks the better the stories. Nottingham through composition and her vocal interpretations has tales to tell us and her original approach is already evident.
Some time ago I heard a different tune by Donlon also titled ‘Sarabande’. I particularly love this latter one, as in Nottingham’s hands, the tune conveys a crystalline and even a lachrymose quality – entirely fitting for the wistful sarabande; that slow dance beloved of Baroque composers and with ancient Spanish origins. My only complaint about the gig – I hope that we get more wordless vocalising next time – we love her doing this (ref. her work with Mark Donlon’s Shadowbird Quartet).
The Band: Lauren Nottingham – leader, vocals, Mark Donlon – piano, Chris Beernink – bass, Dexter Stanley-Tauvao – drums. The gig took place at The Backbeat Bar for the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), November 14, 2018.
Julie Mason’s gap year gig came hot on the heels of my returning home from Northern Europe. Unlike Mason (who was in Europe for a year), I was only missing for two months but my fogged brain was telling me otherwise. As I headed for the CJC, using my windscreen wipers as indicators and constantly telling myself that driving on the left-hand side of the road was now acceptable, I congratulated myself. I was back into the rhythms of my normal life. This self-congratulatory phase was all too brief as I soon discovered that I had forgotten to charge the camera and the video batteries. A few hours later an unscheduled power outage occurred, making me wonder if that was caused by an oversight on my part. Luckily, none of the above spoiled an enjoyable gig.
The gig title ‘Julie’s Gap Year’ references two recent and significant events in Mason’s life. Firstly the year she spent in France with her partner Phil Broadhurst during which time she wrote some new material and reworked a few favourites. And secondly, it drew a line under some very tough years health-wise which occurred preceding the Paris sojourn. The latter is thankfully now behind her. At one point during the night, she played a solo piece which referenced her mental health struggles and every one was deeply moved by the honesty and raw beauty of it. Everything she played and spoke about she did with confidence and her skills as a vocalist, composer and pianist were all on display. This was the Mason of old and the audience was delighted.
Her rhythm section was Ron Samsom (drums) and Olivier Holland (bass). Her guests were Phil Broadhurst (piano), Roger Manins (saxophone), Maria O’Flaherty & Linn Lorkin (backing vocals) and for the last number a French accordionist. The night was not without its challenges though, as the power outage could have brought the gig to an abrupt close. Instead under Mason’s guidance, the band morphed seamlessly into an acoustic ensemble and played on in the darkness. Nothing of the previous mood dissipated during a half hour of darkness and when the club regained partial lighting the programme continued as if the whole thing had been planned.
This was a nice homecoming and In spite of passing through a number of wonderfully exotic places and experiencing interesting music on my travels, it was nice to be back home.
The gig took place at the Backbeat Bar, K’Road, 5 November 2018 – a CJC (Creative Jazz Club) event.