When Vivian Sessoms sings, she takes you deep inside the music. Whether singing the American Songbook, or her own compositions, her storytelling resonates. She sings of American life with all its contradictions; joy and pain both laid bare. Her rendering of Herbie Hancock’s ‘Butterfly‘ tender: the rendering of her own composition, ‘I Can’t Breathe‘, a song referencing the ‘black lives matter’ struggle – raw. As she sang ‘I Can’t Breathe‘, people brushed tears away; feeling the loss, the injustice; sharing in the incomprehension. She sang it for the families of the young lives so senselessly snuffed out; dying at the hands of those sent to protect them – she sang it for us, a people located an ocean away. We listened and understood the message. Art is at its best when it is fearless and truth-telling – Sessoms gets this.Sessoms is Harlem born and bred; an activist, the niece of Nancy Wilson, the daughter of musicians and a gifted performer with a long string of credits to her name. She was raised in the Jazz world but found early acclaim as a soul singer. Now she is returning to her Jazz roots with her ‘Life‘ album. The tour reviews have been overwhelmingly positive and no wonder; At age 9 she opened for Marvin Gaye, later working with Michael Jackson, Cher and Stevie Wonder. As a performer she is simply riveting; her voice a miracle – to have her here in an intimate Jazz club setting, a rare treat.What we were hearing was counter-intuitive. A voice of incredible power, but a voice filled with subtlety: A voice that dominated a room, but never at the expense of nuance. Although powerful, her instrument never strained, a voice which flowed as naturally as breathing. These are rare qualities when considered together in one package. Her material was also well thought out; The standards timeless but each one interestingly reinterpreted: ‘Tenderly’, ‘Love for Sale’, ‘Round Midnight’, ‘Never Let Me Go’, ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ and others. Sessoms New Zealand pick-up band was assembled at short notice and credit must go to Caro Manins for organising this. She chose well, but with Jonathan Crayford on keyboards, it was always going to work out fine. Just days after winning the New Zealand Jazz Tui album of the year, he stepped in as an accompanist, giving us a truly magical performance. His solos often stunning us with their brilliance, especially so the extended solo on Nina Simone’s ‘Feeling Good‘. The others in the rhythm section were Mostyn Cole (electric and upright bass) and Adam Tobeck (drums). They were every bit the professionals an artist like this deserves. Sessoms looked about her at one point and asked the audience; “Just what do you put in the water here – your musicians are amazing”?Sessoms is a generous entertainer, happy to mingle with the audience, comfortable enough to tease them a little; posing for endless selfies and promising faithfully to return. She even shared the microphone with several first-year students. That is the common touch – a thing Kiwis love; she read our love of informality well. For details about her ‘Life‘ album go to the website link below. If we support the album, it might just hasten her return.She departed New Zealand the next morning on an early flight; arriving in the USA to be greeted by the news, that yet another jury had acquitted a police officer of killing an unarmed black youth. In these troubled times, more power to her.
Vivian Sessoms (vocals, composition), Jonathan Crayford (keyboards), Mostyn Cole (electric bass), Adam Tobeck (drums). CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, Auckland, June 14th, 2017 – viviansessoms.com
Dan Bolton is an Australian born, New York based musician, at present touring New Zealand. His first show was at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) in Auckland. While singer, songwriters who accompany themselves on piano, are a firmly established tradition in Jazz, we see them on tour very rarely. Many Jazz vocalists (like Ella Fitzgerald) could accompany themselves well, but few choose to do so. A number of notable musicians mastered this skill, notably Nat Cole, Ray Charles, and Shirley Horn. Doing two jobs simultaneously is always harder than doing one and especially where vocals and piano are concerned. The energies and postures require careful coordination and I suspect that this is harder than accompanying yourself on guitar.Bolton is unusual in that he composes tunes which feel modern, but in a style reminiscent of the Great American Songbook; many of his tunes, are not dissimilar from those which came out of Tin Pan Alley, having the vibe of Irving Berlin or Cole Porter. The melodies are catchy in a time honoured way and the lyrics often biting; sometimes capturing our post-millennial angst. Many of Bolton’s tunes centre on the age-old themes of love and loss, others sarcastically critique modern American life. All maintain their sense of originality, in spite of the above comparisons.Travelling with Bolton is the perennially popular drummer Mark Lockett. Lockett, like Bolton, lives in New York, but for several months of each year, he travels as band-leader, (or as hired gun as in this case). Lockett was born in New Zealand and he always gets a welcome reception when he makes it back. Watch out on gig noticeboards for him. He has another tour coming up shortly and this time with an organ trio. On tenor saxophone and flute was Auckland’s Roger Manins, his swoon-worthy ballad chops manifesting in their full glory. Mostyn Cole featured on upright bass, a regular at the CJC and an able musician. We heard some tantalising snippets of arco bass from him – more of that, please.Dan Bolton (USA) (compositions, vocals, piano), Mark Lockett (USA) (drums), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone, flute), Mostyn Cole (upright bass). CJC (Creative Jazz Club), basement, Albion Hotel, downtown Auckland, 10th August 2016.
Last Wednesday saw the Venezuelan-born vocalist Jennifer Zea performing at the CJC. Her appearance was long overdue, the audience enthusiastic in anticipation of spicy South American Rhythms and the warm tones of the Spanish language in song form. When you look at where Venezuela sits on the map, you learn a lot about its music. Located in the northeast of South America, bordered by the Caribbean and by Brazil, positioned on a unique musical axis. Music blithely ignores the artificial barriers imposed by cartographers and politicians. Even Trump’s insulting wall could never be built high enough to stem musical cross-pollination. Music goes where people go, and remains as an echo long after they have moved on. Jennifer Zea is an embodiment of her country’s music; folk traditions, newer forms (Jaropo), Jazz, Soul, Bossa influences from Brazil and a pinch of Mambo, Salsa or Merengue.The Caribbean region is the prime example of musical cross-pollination; rhythms and melodies, vocal forms and hybrid harmonization, a constant evolution into new and vibrant forms while updating and preserving the discrete pockets of older folk music styles. A weighty tome titled ‘Music and the Latin American Culture – Regional Traditions’ makes two observations; the music of the Venezuelan region is mostly hot or vibrant (see the definition of Salsa) and there is a strong underlying tradition of shamanism (manifest in musical form). The hypnotic rhythms and chants remain largely intact according to Schecter. With percussionist, Miguel Fuentes backing her, Zea conveyed the compellingly hypnotic soulful quality of her traditional music to good effect. Fuentes was born in the USA but grew up in Puerto Rico. These days like Zea, he lives in Auckland. Music like this demands high-quality authentic latin percussion and that’s exactly what happened. Traps drums were not needed here. Regular Zea accompanist, Jazz Pianist Kevin Field was also in the lineup. Field plays in many contexts and his accompanist credentials are second to none. He has regularly worked with Zea and (like Fuentes) most notably on her lovely 2012 release ‘The Latin Soul’. If you have a love of Cubano or Caribean style music, grab a copy of this album. Even on straight-ahead gigs, I have heard Field sneak in tasty clave rhythms. If you want to hear cross-rhythms at their best – skillfully woven by Field and Fuentes, it is on this album. An added incentive are the compositions, mostly by Field and Zea (and Jonathan Crayford). On upright bass for this gig was Mostyn Cole, an experienced bassist now residing in the Auckland region.The gig featured some Zea compositions, three standards and to my delight some authentic Bossa. The Bossa tunes were mostly by the Brazilian genius Tom Jobim and sung in Portuguese (which is not her native language). Although Portuguese is the most commonly spoken language in Latin America, it is only the main spoken language of one country, Brazil. To learn Bossa she spent time with a teacher in order to understand the nuances and deep meanings. While respecting the Bossa song form she had the confidence to bring the music closer to her own Venezuelan musical traditions. Even her intonation was redolent of her region, unmistakably Hispanic South American.While hearing strong elements of Cuban or Brazilian music, North American standards (or a spicy salsa of the above) you also felt that each influence was deftly filtered through a Venezuelan cloth. Her rendering of ‘Fever’ (Cooley/Davenport) and ‘Georgia on my Mind’ (Carmichael) exemplified this. There was even a little Kiwi influence in there. I would like to think so because we all need happy music like this in our lives.
Jennifer Zea; (Vocals), Kevin Field (piano), Miguel Fuentes (percussion), Mostyn Cole (bass). CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Albion Hotel Basement, Wednesday 3rd August 2016.
Kevin Field has for many years been regarded as a phenomenon on the New Zealand Jazz scene. A gifted pianist and composer whose approach to composition and harmony is strikingly original. When you listen to many pianists you can hear their influences, discern the pathways that led them to where they are. With Field, those influences are less obvious. I suspect that this independence, originality, makes it easier for him to strike out in any direction of his choosing. On his ‘Field of Vision’ album, he moved into uncrowded space, one occupied by very few Jazz pianists. It was Jazz without compromise but utilising grooves, rhythms, and melodies of other genres. The music contained distinct echoes of the disco/Jazz/funk era, crafting it carefully and forging a new post-millennial sound.The tunes were all memorable and within a few listenings, you could hum the themes. This is not so common in modern Jazz and less so with music (like Fields) which retains its Jazz complexity. In Fields case, the clean melodic hooks do not come at the expense of harmonic invention. That is a tricky balancing act and one he achieves convincingly. His co-leadership of ‘DOG’ took him in a different direction again, but the same deftly crafted grooves astounded us. His recent album ‘The A-List’, was a further excursion into the disco/Jazz/funk realm. It is slightly tongue in cheek while still challenging the listener to think outside the square. Artists like this take the music forward, it is up to us to catch up.
The Kevin Field Group often meets up to work through new and old compositions – this work ethic is evident in what we hear. While personnel changes occur from time to time, the group has a core membership. Field, Dixon Nacey, Clo Chaperon, Cameron McArthur, and Stephen Thomas. While we heard tunes from recent albums there were also a number of new tunes on offer. The new material took his earlier conceptions further out, while the older material was cunningly reworked. I have heard this group a number of times and each time I hear them I sense the progressive momentum.They played at the Wellington Jazz festival recently and for many Wellingtonians, this was their first exposure to the group. I saw that show and I immediately noticed how the familiar tunes had subtly changed. ‘Perfect Disco’ with its energised danceable funk momentum was recast as a duo piece. Field and vocalist Chaperon wowed them with that number. We also heard this duo version last week. Other familiar tunes had developed into profoundly interactive exchanges. The sort that can only occur between highly attuned musicians. This is where the guitar mastery and the deep listening of Nacey came into its own. His Godin guitar soaring with stunning clarity while Field reacted in kind, urging them further out with each challenge.Again we see Thomas and McArthur doing what they do best. Working hard and rising to the challenge. Thomas laying down the tricky rhythms and while McArthur runs his bass lines. While pleasant to the ear, there is not doubt at all that these compositions required skill and concentration. It is on gigs like this that the musicians familiarity with the material and each other pays dividends. It was also nice to hear Chaperon on some new and old material. She is a real crowd pleaser – she looks great on stage and sings up a storm.Keven Field Group: Keven Field (piano), Dixon Nacey (guitar), Cameron McArthur (bass), Stephen Thomas (drums), Clo Chaperon (vocals), CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Albion Hotel 20th July 2016.
The Joni Mitchell/ Charles Mingus project is always ripe for reevaluation and I’m glad that Caro Manins was the one to explore it again. The connection between Joni and Jazz experimentalism runs deep. Rolling Stone Magazine figured it out early on, describing her as a ‘Jazz savvy experimentalist’. While the connection is obvious in her 1979 ‘Mingus’ album the move toward a freer music and towards harmonic and rhythmic complexity began earlier in the mid 70’s. Initially coming up through the American folk tradition, she gradually embraced a different style. She would later say, “Anyone could have written my earlier music, but Hejira (and later albums) could only have come from me”. From the 70’s on, she utilised her own guitar tunings and often incorporated pedal point, chromaticism, and modality in her compositions. If you look at her later musical collaborations, names like Jaco Pastorius, Herbie Hancock, and Wayne Shorter stand out.To her amazement at the time, a dying Charles Mingus asked Joni to call by. He told her that he had written a number of songs for her. Mingus passed before the completion of her project, but he heard all of the tunes except ‘God must be a Bogey Man’. Her ‘Mingus’ album followed soon after. “It was as if I had been standing by a river – one toe in the water. Charles came along and pushed me in – sink or swim”.
Taking on a project like this is more daunting than it may appear to the casual observer. Understanding that, Caro Manins got busy writing new charts. This is not the sort of gig that you just throw together; this is not a covers band. Joni tunes don’t always behave in expected ways, there is a high degree of abstraction, layers of subtlety, places where the tunes change direction under their own impetus. Doing the Mingus album justice is not for the faint-hearted. The listener tends to associate Joni Mitchel with her biting lyrics and adamantine melodic clarity. In reality, although accessible, her tunes pivot on clever musical devices. The end result here was well worth the effort. A genuine commitment to the project made this happen, imbuing it with the integrity it deserved.The project deserved a good lineup and it got one. Caro Manins, Roger Manins, Jonathan Crayford, Cameron McArthur and Ron Samsom. Crayford was especially interesting on this gig. His abstract explorative adventuring replaced by rich traditional voicings – his solos a history lesson; from locked hands chord-work to impressionistic delicacy. All of the musicians were respectful of Joni’s body of work and they understood that the best way to honour her legacy was by interpreting her work honestly and imaginatively. Not every tune came from Joni’s ‘Mingus’ album but all followed the Joni/Mingus/Jazz theme.The gig was very well attended (no surprise there) and the audience enthusiastic. This was a CJC (Creative Jazz Club) event and it took place at the Albion Hotel on 29th June 2016. Caro Manins (leader, arranger, vocals), Jonathan Crayford (piano), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Cameron McArthur (Bass), Ron Samsom (drums, percussion).
Thanks to Rodger Fox and the CJC management we were lucky enough to see five times Grammy nominee, Jazz vocalist Karrin Allyson in our Auckland Jazz Club last Wednesday night. Seeing an artist like this in a concert hall is one thing; seeing her in the warm intimate surroundings of a small Jazz club and just a metre away is quite another. Always a sucker for quality Jazz vocalists I first heard her in 1992 (the album ‘I Thought About You’ was the first of hers I purchased). On the basis of her recorded output, I booked for both the CJC gig in Auckland and the Wellington Jazz Festival concert. The flights between these cities are surprisingly affordable when you book in advance, and these opportunities don’t come around often when you live in the South Pacific.Following her 1992 release further albums came out and by the time ‘Ballads: for Coltrane’ and ‘In Blue’ were released there was no mistaking it. This was an important vocal interpreter. Her voice has particular qualities, an attractive smoky veneer, but then there’s that extra something. A sense of shared intimacy, a way of interpreting lyrics in an original way while still paying tribute to earlier interpreters. Her version of ‘O Barquino’ or ‘Double Rainbow’ (both by Jobim) immediately brings to mind the fabulous Elis Regina. Her ‘West Coast Blues’ conjures up Wes Montgomery just as much as the instrumentalists. She scats in ways that adds value to the narrative content of the song, never overdone and always wonderfully inventive. It came as no surprise, therefore, that she could conquer an audience in a heart beat.From the first vocal number, Allyson teased the audience, turning the lyrics into a conversation. Her set list spanned her Concord recordings including her recent release ‘Many a New Day: Karrin Allyson Sings Rogers & Hammerstein’ (When I think of Tom/Hello Young Lovers). Everything she performed was extraordinary but when she moved to the piano and accompanied herself on ‘Bye Bye Country Boy’ I was especially delighted. For some unaccountable reason, few vocalists interpret Blossom Dearie and more’s the pity. Dearie was a true original and a fiendishly clever Jazz vocalist. Her voice had a deceptive depth if you listened properly and like Allyson her ability to communicate was perfectly honed. It is fitting that Allyson should tackle Blossom Dearie as she is able to convey the same wry humour and wrap it up in a very attractive vocal package. She was simply killing in her interpretation.Accompanying Allyson was the Tom Warrington trio. Although it is five years since we saw them last, they have been regular visitors to New Zealand thanks to Fox. Tom Warrington is a superb bassist, having worked with everyone from Peggy Lee to Stan Getz. His list of credits is staggering. Formerly based in LA, where he was constantly in demand and no wonder. The choices underpinning each note he plays are beyond caveat. His musicality, teaching and compositional skills of the highest order. Today he lives a quieter life in rural New Zealand. When you hear his bass lines, and especially during a ballad, you recall the classic piano-trio bass players. Loading each note with meaning and carrying as much weight as any chordal instrument. Warrington has released four superb albums with this trio and all are highly recommended.On chordal duties was Larry Koonse, playing a lovely hollow body Borys guitar. An impressive guitarist and a stalwart of the LA Jazz scene. Again, he is widely recorded, also releasing a number of albums under his own name. In many ways, Koonse encapsulates the best of the pre-millennial guitar tradition. That said, his fresh approach to tunes is also very much evident. His voice leading is a masterclass; dissonant/consonant inversions that have more bottom than most guitarists can muster in a lifetime and a gorgeous warm tone which lingers in the memory long after the gig. This, together with his other skills, makes him the perfect accompanist for a vocalist. When he played ‘Bolivia’ (Cedar Walton) with the trio, it took on the urgency and excitement that the tune demands. On ‘Whisper Not’ (Benny Golson) he extracted unalloyed beauty. I have known Larry for a decade and speaking to him after the gig, I complimented him on those tunes. At that point, my mouth raced way ahead of my brain and I said, “that was ‘Speak Low’ wasn’t it”? That fact that my slip of the tongue had accidentally come up with an exact antonym of ‘Whisper not’ made his day.Last but not least is the Warrington Trio drummer Joe La Barbera. No one needs reminding of his long list of credits and impeccable credentials. As Warrington said during the introductions. “As everyone knows, Joe La Barbera was in the last Bill Evans trio. This puts us in some rarefied air”. Along with Marc Johnson, he breathed new life into that trio. While rightly famous for his superb drum work with Evans, he is a multi-faceted drummer; having also worked in avant-garde settings and with medium to larger sized ensembles such as ‘The West Coast All Stars’, ‘The Woody Herman Band’ and with ‘Kenny Wheeler’. He has often worked with famous vocalists such as Tony Bennett and Karrin Allyson. La Barbera has an inclusive quality that enhances bass and guitar but never overshadows them. When he solos, it is to the point. His stick and brush work add subtlety and texture – the effect always jaw-dropping. It is easy to see why he is so much in demand. A musical drummer who gives so much while working so hard to support the others.
Karrin Allyson records for Concord and her albums are easy to locate – for more information about the artist go towww.karrin.com
The Tom Warrington trio records on the Jazz Compass label which the artists created along with Clay Jenkins. Their latest album ‘Nelson’ is a good start point.
The Briana Cowlishaw/Gavin Ahearn gig is the second CJC gig featuring international artists in a month. For those who follow Australian improvised music, these are familiar names. Both have rock solid credentials as both have traveled extensively with their music and attracted glowing critical reviews. This is a fortuitous musical pairing, and it is particularly obvious during duets. There is a mutual awareness of space and nuance and an understanding of just where interplay works best; neither over-crowding the other. There are a lot of pianists who accompany vocalists convincingly, but the true art of accompaniment is rarely seen. Ahearn is a fine accompanist and soloist. Unusually, you could say the same for Cowlishaw – an aware musician who watches and listens to her collaborators carefully – works with what she hears. Never greedy to hog the limelight and making every line count.For an artist barely past her mid twenties Cowlishaw has achieved much. Performing at festivals all over the world and being nominated for prestigious awards along the way. She has studied with top rated teachers in three continents and it shows (including Gretchen Parlato, Aaron Goldberg, Kurt Elling). Her confidence, compositional abilities and musicianship shine through on the bandstand. Hers is a modern voice and more importantly a fresh young voice. What worked so well so well for Gretchen Parlato also works for her; a clean delivery, imaginative interpretations and an interesting approach.The first set saw Cowlishaw and Ahearn performing as a duo. This format gifts artists with a degree of freedom and it was well utilised. As they took us through a mix of standards and originals, we saw just how attuned they are. The Cowlishaw compositions are particularly interesting, with words, wordless vocalising and interesting harmonic underpinnings from Ahearn – a subtle weave, blending threads to create evocative soundscapes.Both have visited Norway and the sparse honest northern sound was particularly evident in their first set. A recent collaborative album recorded in Norway arose out of an earlier trip there. More recently they performed at the Hemnes Jazz Festival in that country. As Cowlishaw said of these compositions, “After spending a lot of time on the road and in big cities, I found myself in the Fjords. The wild lonely freshness was so appealing that the thought arose – was this a place that I would want to live in one day”? Arising from that proposition came the compositions on their ‘Fjord’ album. Cowlishaw is obviously keen on the outdoors. She told an audience member that she intended to explore a few of New Zealand wildness places as the chance presented itself.The second set swelled the bands numbers to a quintet – joining the duo were Mike Booth on trumpet, Cameron McArthur on bass and Adam Tobeck on drums. All fine musicians and well able to rise to any challenge. The expanded unit gave her much to work with and Ahearn in particular jumped at the opportunity; utilising a more aggressive hard-swinging style. There were more standards in this second half and Cole Porters wonderful 1943 composition from ‘Something to shout about’ – ‘You’d be so Nice to Come Home to’ stood out as a rollicking swinger. The other memorable standard came from the duo – Michel Legrand’s 1932 composition ‘You must believe in Spring’. To Jazz audiences this means one thing – The achingly beautiful Bill Evans Warners album of that name. The rendition was remarkably beautiful – Cowlishaw tackled the number as Norma Winstone might, while Ahearn stamped his own authority on the ballad while allowing Evans to shine through.
I strongly recommend ‘Fjord’ – it is simply exquisite and the delicate renditions of the originals and standards will stay in your head long after the last note is played – as well as the rarely heard ‘Estate’ (Bruno Martino) there is a version of Herb Ellis’s ‘Detour Ahead’ which won me over completely. For the ‘Fjord’ and ‘Detour Ahead’ tracks alone, the album is worth double the asking price.
On Wednesday the UK-based vocalist, arranger composer Louise Gibbs brought her Seven Deadly Sins project to Auckland’s CJC (Creative Jazz Club). The audience, unrepentant antipodean sinners that they are, found much to enjoy. When premiered in the UK the project received much acclaim and in 2013 the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ album’ was released. As I glanced through the liner note credits one name jumped out, Tim Whitehead; an important English saxophonist with equal facility on soprano, alto and tenor. For any number of reasons this is an album worth having. The song suite has seven parts plus prologue & epilogue. This aggregation of cardinal sins does not originate with Peter Cook (as someone hilariously suggested) but comes to us from the fourth century AD. These very human failings were the obsession of the middle ages and Chaucer, Dante and Brueghel utilised the themes to great artistic effect (and often with rye humour). Debates on morality are still very much part of the public discourse as the dreadful events of Paris, the Lebanon and Mali remind us. Gibbs invited us to examine the sins afresh; a parade of human failings as seen through a jazz lens. Her evocative contrasting pieces leaving us in little doubt as to which sin they represented; a strident drum solo during anger, the fulsome sound of the trombone for gluttony etc. It is unsurprising that the tenor saxophone portrayed lust; an entirely appropriate pairing given the repeated historic accusations of lasciviousness levelled against that sensual instrument. The suite while highly arranged gave ample room for the soloists to demonstrate their particular vice. Crystal Choi was ‘pride’ on piano, Pete France was ‘lust’ on tenor, Haydn Godfrey was gluttony on ‘trombone’, Mike Booth was ‘envy’ on trumpet, Cameron McArthur was ‘sloth’ on bass, Steve Thomas was ‘anger’ on drums, Andrew Hall was ‘greed’ on alto & baritone. Gibbs was vocalist on all numbers including a prologue and epilogue. Many of the band members like Booth, McArthur, Choi and Thomas are regulars but we see Hall, France and Godfrey less often. That is a shame because they were amazing. A shorter first set preceded the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ suite – all Monk compositions. The band used stock arrangements but there was a sense of boisterous freedom in the renditions. This provided an appropriate segue to the second half. While everyone embraces Monk these days, his dissonant choppy lines certainly raised eyebrows back in his heyday. Monk was an iconoclast who channeled the rawness of the human condition through pen and piano. With the Seven Deadly Sins and its often dissonant passages we also experienced that. Louise Gibbs has been teaching and performing in the UK for 30 years, but she grew up in Auckland. In recent years she moved away from a distinguished career in academia to concentrate on performance and composition. There is a confidence about her work and she is unafraid as a performer. Her voice can move from silk to raspy as appropriate to the piece. Footnote: Earlier I drew attention to Tim Whitehead (on the Gibbs album). He was once a member of Ian Cars ground breaking and popular group ‘Nucleus’ – the highly respected Kiwi born saxophonist Brian Smith was a founder member of that group.
‘The Seven Deadly Sins’ (New Zealand Septet) – Louise Gibbs (vocals, composition), Andrew Hall (alto & baritone saxophones), Pete France (tenor saxophone), Mike Booth (trumpet, Flugel), Haydn Godfrey (trombone), Chrystal Choi (piano), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Stephen Thomas (drums).
Because the human voice is the most primal of instruments it has the capacity to engage in unexpected ways. When a skilled vocalist performs we watch as carefully as we listen. The merest inflection, micro pause or slurred note can captivate, but it is also the non verbal cues; the ones we assimilate subconsciously that draw us ever deeper inside the song. When Caitlin Smith sings you are hyper aware of the entire performance. Hers are not gigs where listeners drift away or endlessly fiddle with phones. The audience are as engaged as she is. That is her gift as a musician.When Smith moves your attention moves with her. She will prance, dance, drop her head, pause for effect or sweep her hair back unexpectedly and all in service of the song. When you watch and listen to skilled performers like her (and they are few and far between) you discern a deeper truth. What appears extrovert can be something else. The actions and gestures are an act of losing oneself. This is the performers mask and behind it lies a certain vulnerability. When enough of this vulnerability informs the music we feel with them. During Smith’s performances there is a lot of interplay between band members. She is generous in her acknowledgements and genuinely appreciative of the musicians behind her – unlike some vocalists who make it very plain that this is all about them. She had two of her regular cohort with her, Kevin Field on piano and Oli Holland on bass. On drums was the talented Stephen Thomas and I had not seen him with Smith before. During the break I asked Thomas how he was enjoying the gig. His answer is worth repeating, as it illustrates the above points. Vocal artists who think disengaged equals cool might pick up a pointer here. “Working with Smith is perfect as you have so much to react to. Every gesture and look gives you new material to work with”. Smith followed her usual pattern of alternating originals with standards. The set list moved between Jazz and singer song-writer soul. She only repeated one tune from last Decembers CJC gig and that was the lesser known Ellington Number “I like the Sunrise”. This is from Ellington’s ‘Liberian Suite’ performed and recorded first in 1947. The original featured Al Hibbler on vocals, soon followed by a Frank Sinatra version (also with the Ellington orchestra). More recently Kurt Elling recorded a version but all of the aforementioned are at a slower tempo. At the risk of committing heresy, I like the upbeat punch and swing of Smith’s version best. The night was thoroughly enjoyable as I knew it would be, and with this rhythm section of Field, Holland and Thomas behind Smith that was guaranteed.
Caitlin Smith Quartet: Caitlin Smith (vocals, compositions, arrangements, percussion), Kevin Field (piano), Oli Holland (bass), Stephen Thomas (drums). The video is courtesy of Denis Thorpe
I made up my mind days before the Mexico City Blues gig that I would not, could not review it. It is some kind of crazy to review a gig where you’re in the band. Logic and custom sensibly warns you to walk swiftly in the opposite direction. The gig passed and I asked others if they would do the review; “You’re wrong man” they said, “You absolutely have to do it, but do it differently – tell a story about what it felt like performing for the first time, and what it felt like as a non musician being part of a high quality improvising band”. I thought about it for a while and gave in. In truth I had a world of stuff churning about in my brain and the subconscious urge to outline the experience was gnawing at me; my thoughts and impressions always seem to spill onto the page somehow (or into a poem) – so hell why not. It’s Gonzo journalism in its purest form; outlining crazy, using ones-self as the hapless protagonist.
Just over a week ago I got an email from Stephen Small. His email cut right to the chase; Would I consider performing Jack Kerouac’s poetry as part of his next gig. The invitation delighted me although I have a writers/photographers reticence about crawling out from behind the pen or the lens. Having read Kerouac from age fourteen I couldn’t resist. Those poems and that crazy-wonderful Beat vibe shaped my life and I needed to acknowledge that. I was certain that he wanted no more than one, or possibly two short verses; still daunting. I emailed Stephen asking how long we had to get this together. We’re up next Wednesday he replied, we will rehearse a few hours before the gig. Moments after agreeing a sense of terror overcame me; troublesome questions and self-doubt tumbled out the ether. Shit how do we do this, what will my voice sound like? Having never performed poems in front of an audience AND to music, I experienced brief bouts of wide-eyed terror over the next day. I confided my fears to a few knowledgeable friends, Chris Melville and poet Iain Sharp. Both were very sensible and reassuring in their advice; “Just own who you are man, own your voice. You know this stuff backwards and you know the music”, they said. When I explained the hazards of fitting existing verse to music, drummer Ron Samson told me, “Don’t worry man, we will follow you – your safe with us”. I discussed it further with Stephen and he gave me a set list. From that list I chose three poems that roughly matched the rhythms of tunes. For ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ (Mingus) I chose Kerouac’s chorus 66 from ‘Orizaba 210 Blues’, for ‘Blue in Green’ (Evans/Davis) I selected the beautiful mystical 1st chorus of ‘Desolation Blues’. I was sure that two poems would be more than enough, but as a precaution I prepared a third as back up – verse 116 of ‘Mexico City Blues’ to Horace Silvers ‘Peace’.
On the day of the gig crazy set in. It started with a series of small mishaps like an email and printer crash. I immediately recognised the portents. The Sirens of the unknown were calling me into uncharted waters. Luckily I had my three poems ready – printed off in large type (as befitting a person of my age). At the last-minute, as if by divine providence, I threw a paperback of Kerouac’s ‘Book of Blues’ poems into my bag and headed for rehearsal. What happened next was pure Zen. Jazz gig rehearsals tend to follow a formula, but viewing this process from the outside and being part of it are two very different things. From the inside your inbuilt detached observer gets fired from the cannon of weirdness. You realise just how random Jazz rehearsals are. They begin what becomes a slow descent into the controlled accident. The first hour of any rehearsal is a ‘hang’, insider jokes, war stories and talk of gear and gizmos. Then a sudden flurry of activity follows; disembodied items of musical machinery miraculously forming into new shapes. If the rehearsals are in a Jazz club the activity takes place in semi darkness. Instruments, microphones and amplifiers joined by a spaghetti of wires as the musicians stumble over precarious piles of instrument cases and zip bags. “Oh shit this channel is dead – (from out of the darkness) – don’t worry its the cable – have another in my car – its parked a few streets away. Can we route the cable through the Hadron-Collider? – clip click – sorry false alarm”.
Then the actual rehearsal begins; The rehearsal proper being tiny fragments of music accompanied by impossibly cryptic instructions in a language that sounds like computer machine code. “Twice through the head – I’ll lay out – transition to this key at 32 – we’ll play Kathy’s Waltz in 4/4 as 3/4 is way to corny”. None of this is reassuring to a first timer, but the band leader (Stephen) managed to communicate profound information subliminally. Above all and surprisingly, I learned that he had absolute confidence in me. This gifted me a deeper understanding of the leaders role. Zen Master. The communications were less about detail than vision, their main purpose to bind the collective and set them on a path to the promised land; a guiding hand in a deeply mystical process. On the band stand the subtlest of gestures hold the collective together. A glance is a cue or a change of plan – a call to ‘Jump now’ – everyone trusted to do the business – me included. I know poetry and especially Kerouac’s poetry – it was my job in the collective to sell that. Then came the truly random bit. “We can cue you in on each piece, or just dive in where ever you think best – we can follow”. The words ‘each piece’ threw me a curve ball. “I have only three poems printed off” I added lamely (or four if you counted a crumpled excerpt from ‘Desolation Angels’ tucked into the back of the folder). “No matter – just say anything – you’re a poet – it will be fine” said Stephen. Then I remembered the paperback of Kerouac’s ‘Book of Blues’ in my bag. “Great” said Stephen, “just pick the poems randomly – do it at the last-minute while we run through the head of each tune – perfect”. This was a band leader channeling the Zen Master – a role quite appropriate to a 1959 referencing gig – throwing me a Koan, an improbable musical puzzle, no escape route possible. When we got to the tune ‘Peace’ I gained confidence, “Ah I have something for this – yeah – Horace Silver”. At this point Stephen casually informed me that they were actually doing Ornette Coleman’s ‘Peace”, another tune entirely. Ornette, ORNETTE – holy crap – panic. Next the gig
I was tentative during my first seconds of delivery and that was entirely due to where my awareness was. I mistakenly looked out to see how it was coming across; people were giving me the thumbs up and the band sounded perfect. After that I just relaxed. Stephen’s final instructions were as brief as they were powerful. He leaned across and said to me; “There is only one thing to remember tonight and that’s to have fun”. Minutes into the gig the advice sank in and I did. As I relaxed the strangest thing happened. It was a quasi-mystical sort of thing and I can only explain it in those terms. All sense of self and separation vanished as I felt a golden thread of sound and colour run through me. I recall glancing about me and feeling totally at one with the band. These are exceptional musicians and I suspect that they were doing all the heavy lifting. They treated the poetry with respect and they treated me as an equal. As a non-musician I will never forget that. I was suddenly experiencing the music as an insider, a privileged viewpoint that few non musicians ever get to experience. I leaned across to Hadyn Godfrey (on trombone) and said, “Holy crap is it always this much fun, I’m totally tripping on this?”. As I read I started playing with the phrasing and found that as I moved, the band moved with me. Even more amazingly we managed to converse musically. Me clumsy and them eloquent, but it felt so fine, so damn fine. I have never previously experienced such power – the engine of a musical collective. I am a careful listener and I know this music backwards, but from the inside everything looks different. There is nowhere to hide but everything to gain; that’s what makes it so exciting.
The gig was about placing the famous Jazz standards of 1959 into a wider context. We all love these tunes, but few grasp the wider sociopolitical forces at work behind the times. These musicians were part of a vital modernist movement; A reaction against the suburban atrophy of racially segregated urban America. Miles, Colman, Coltrane, Brubeck, Mingus, Kerouac and the Beats were counter-culture warriors, bent on ushering in a better world. A place were fresh ideas, the arts and people mattered. I will not critique my performance, that is for others. What I will do however is comment on the extraordinary Stephen Small Group – the ‘Mexico City Blues’ musicians. Stephen Small is a man of broad musical tastes, real vision and very open ears. He empowered a wonderful band and under his skilful and subtle coaxing they gave it their best. His piano never gets in the way of others, but it adds amazing texture and substance to the performances. It is deeply in the blues tradition and lovely. Instinctively he knew who to hire and what to expect of them.
Olivier Holland brought his electric bass as well as his upright bass. I hadn’t previously heard Oli on electric bass, but he is simply killing. Ron is always marvellous and as a musician said to me, “With those beats pushing at your back and pulsating through your body anything seems possible”. Neil Watson on guitar and pedal steel is another talented musician; his feel for the blues is exceptional. He also has a happy grasp of the absurd and this is an essential prerequisite for any good improvising musician. Lastly there is Hadyn Godfrey, an experienced talented trombonist who effectively added electronics to his horn for this gig. The use of pedals, a small Moog and various forms of extended technique gave the gig an other-worldly dimension. 1959 never sounded so good.
I may never get to do this again but I will not forget this night. Stephen Small did what good leaders do. He made us all believe that the improbable could become magic. He took an idea from the margins and helped us realise it in a fresh way. Jazz at its best is a controlled accident, a high wire act, an intrepid exploration. For one truly wonderful night I was a small part of that.
Stephen Small Group: Mexico City Blues – Stephen Small (leader, piano, keys), Neil Watson (fender guitar, pedal steel guitar, electronics), Hadyn Godfrey (trombone, electronics), Olivier Holland (electric bass, upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums), John Fenton (Kerouac poems)
Special acknowledgement to Chris Melville for the photographs
‘The A List’ release has been a long time coming, or so it seems. Every recording of Kevin Field’s is noteworthy and when rumours of a New York album circulated I attempted to pin him down. Whenever I saw him playing as sideman about town or met him in the street I would pull him aside and say, “Kev, how is the album progressing, when will you release it?”. I invariably received iterations of the same cryptic answer; a knowing smile and a brief “it’s getting there, not too far away now”. the lack of specifics only fed my appetite. I have learned to read the signs and I can sense when an album pleases an artist. It is all in the body language, readable over the self-effacing vagaries of banter. Field had a look about him; a look that told me that he was nurturing a project that pleased him. As the months progressed I gleaned additional fragments of information in bite sized chunks. Firstly that Matt Penman was on the recording, and incrementally that Nir Felder, Obed Calvaire, Miguel Fuentes, Clo Chaperon and Marjan Gorgani also. The substantive recording took place at Brooklyn Recording in New York with additional recording in Roundhead Studios Auckland. That was pretty much the extent of my knowledge. I have encountered this phenomena before. Treating an album as a child, holding it close before sending it out into the world. It generally presages good things to come. In this case it certainly did. The title is probably tongue in check, but it speaks truth. There are a number of A List personnel on the album. Field is arguably Auckland’s first call pianist. No one harmonises quite like him and his consistency as pianist and composer is solid. New Zealand Jazz lovers also regard Matt Penman highly. His appearances with leading lineups and his cutting edge projects as leader always impress. In the same vein is Nir Felder; frequently mentioned in the same breath as the elite New York guitarists. Obed Calvaire the same in drum circles. This was an obvious next step for Field; having risen to the top of the local scene, it was time to record with New Yorker’s.
The album is a thing of beauty and satisfying on many levels. Under Field’s watchful eye a flawless production has emerged. Having an album released by Warners is a coup. The big labels rarely release New Zealand Jazz (Nathan Haines being an exception). All compositions are by Field (on the vocal numbers he is co-credited with Clo Chaperon & Marjan Gorgani). From the title track onwards the album engages. We generally hear Field in a straight ahead context but he wisely followed his instincts here. This album extends the explorations of his well received ‘Field of Vision’ release; turning his conceptual spotlight on genres like disco funk and the brightly hued guitar fuelled explorations of the New York improvising modernists. The album also features Miguel Fuentes tasteful percussion which is subtle but effective. Field has done what brave and innovative artists should do. Take risks in the search for new territory. The CJC (Creative Jazz Club) Auckland launch substituted ‘A’ List locals for the famous New Yorker’s. On guitar was Dixon Nacey, on bass Richie Pickard and on drums Stephen Thomas. The vocal section was; Clo Chaperon & Marjan Gorgani (as on the album). These musicians are superb and so the comparison with the album was favourable (Field is a little higher in the mix on the album and guitarist Felder is a little lower). The CJC was in different venue this time, owing to the refurbishment of the 1885. The Albion is no stranger to Jazz and in spite of the ‘livelier’ acoustics, it was a good space in which to enjoy the music. Dixon Nacey always sounds like a guitarist at the peak of his powers, but somehow he manages to sound better every time I hear him. This time he used less peddling and spun out wonderfully clean and virtuosic lines. Apart from a tiny amount of subdued wah-wah peddle on the disco number his beautiful Godin rang out with bell-like clarity (the clipped wah-wah comping was totally appropriate in recreating the tight disco funk vibe). The other standout performance was from Stephen Thomas, who is able to find a groove and yet mess with it at the same time. His complex beats added colour and he mesmerised us all. At the heart of the sound was Richie Pickard. Some of the material was definitely challenging for a bass player as timing was everything. Pickard navigated the complexities with ease. There are were three vocal numbers at the gig (two on the album). Chaperon and Gorgani are impressive together and well matched vocally. Hearing them on the album showcases them to best advantage, as sound mixing is harder in a club. Their presence certainly added excitement to the gig.Buy the album and if possible see Field perform this material live. This music is exciting and innovative; past and present rolled into a forward looking Jazz form.
Kevin Field: The A List – Keven Field (Piano, Keys), Nir Felder (guitar), Matt Penman (bass), Obed Calvaire (drums), Miguel Fuentes (percussion), Clo Chaperon & Marjan Gorgani (vocals). – Live performance: Kevin Field (piano, keys), Dixon Nacey (guitar), Richie Pickard (bass), Stephen Thomas (drums), Clo Chaperon & Marjan Gorgani (vocals). Performed at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Albion Hotel, Auckland, 19th August 2015. Available from all leading retailers.
Last Wednesday the CJC took a step towards Robert Glasper’s ‘Black Radio’ project. At the time of its release the Glasper project shocked a few purists and delighted many others. It all depended on your point of view and your understanding of Jazz history. That particular album brought the ‘now’ of the urban streets into a Jazz recording; rap and urban soul coexisting with jazz keyboard harmonies. It is surprising that it shocked anyone! Surely this is an old story in the retelling. It is not hard to find earlier examples. George Russell’s ‘New York N.Y.’ and Gil Scott Heron’s output spring to mind. Words as poems, wordless vocals and instrumental Jazz are inextricably linked and always will be. Siobhan Leilani brought a Kiwi version of that to the Jazz club and we loved it. It felt in place and the nimble-footed danced. This constant reconnection with the streets is an essential part of our music and we forget it at our peril.The first set to play was the Andy Smith Trio. Smith has played at the club as sideman a number of times, but it has been quite a few years since he brought us a project of his own. I have always enjoyed his slick guitar work and especially when he plays with an Alan Brown band. This gig was different as it reached deeper into the modern Jazz guitar bag. Smith has always used pedals convincingly but this time he dialled the effects right back. This was a purer form of modern Jazz guitar and in taking that route the music must stand on its own. It did. I like his approach to harmony and his compositions are compelling vehicles for improvisation.The gig undoubtedly benefitted from having the gifted Stephen Thomas on drums. While a regular in the club it has been a few months since we saw him. Thomas is a drummer’s drummer and he can tackle any project and shine. He constantly pushed the others to greater heights and his solos were tasteful, un-showy and tightly focused. The bass player Russell McNaughton was new to me, but I will be mindful of his presence in future. I particularly liked his arco bass work on ‘The Gypsy’s Dress’. The first number ‘CJC’ (Smith) was a good opener. There were plenty of meaty hooks to reel us in and an ever radiating warmth to dispel the chill rain outside. When they played a tune named ‘Awakening’ I recognised it instantly, but couldn’t recall where I’d heard it (or which group played it). It is actually an older tune of Smith’s and I had remembered it from three or more years ago. Again a solid composition and the fact that it had stuck with me after one hearing underlines that. A very nice trio.Siobhan Leilani (Siobhan Grace) is an interesting musician and one I hope we see a lot more of. Her association with the UoA Jazz school has yielded dividends. She utilised the services of former and current students for this gig; her guest Chelsea Prastiti most notably. There is an inherent risk in putting a soulful Jazz rapper together with an experimental improvising vocalist. The risk was well worth taking. These two feed off each others energy on up numbers and a force field of ‘happy’ seemed to emanate from them. The opening numbers were more in the soul/Jazz idiom and these were compelling in very different way. The lyrics spoke of angst and identity and this worked well for Leilani. What impressed me most was the authenticity. The language and sentiments were honest; heart-felt and purely ‘street’. I am only sorry that she was not a little louder in the mix (when it comes to vocals my hearing is not as sharp as it once was). This was poetry and good poetry. Word play, syllables stressed for emphasis, cadence; telling a story in an original way.On piano was UoA student Sean Martin-Buss. He caught me completely by surprise with his confident piano accompaniment. I had only seen him perform once previously and that was on bass clarinet. He mostly took a two-handed approach, soloed well on two occasions and engaged in a brief but effective call and response routine with Prastiti. The drummer and electric bass player were unknown to me but again they gave good a good account of themselves. The pumping drum and bass groove was right for the music. On electric bass was Joshua Worthington-Church, on drums Olie O’Loughlin.This was another testament to the gig programming at the CJC. With rare exceptions every Wednesday night brings an original project. The decision to encourage innovation and originality pays off time and again. The audience now expects it and they wouldn’t turn up week after week for a diet of well-worn standards. With gigs like this a bitter Winter is flying by.Footnote:’lyrics and poetry are two sides of the same thing‘ (Levitin). Poetry purists often express disdain for song lyrics and especially rap lyrics. The same can occur in reverse when a rapper dismisses poetry as high brow. There is only good poetry and bad poetry. The earliest surviving piece of literature ‘The Gilgamesh’ was written in poetic form. The greatest epics in any language are Homers Iliad and the Odyssey; also written in verse and probably sung. If you want ancient earthy lyrics sung or chanted by a woman then try Sappho: Stuffy (male) scholars have tried for two and a half millennia to purify her verse. “Batter your breasts with your fists girls/tatter your dresses/its no use mother dear/I can’t finish my weaving/you may blame Aphrodite soft as she is/she has almost killed me for love of that boy” – Sappho born 612 BC
Andy Smith Trio: Andy Smith (guitar, composition), Russell McNaughton (bass), Stephen Thomas (drums) @ CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 22nd July 2015
Siobhan Leilani: Siobhan Leilani (vocals, composition), Sean Martin-Buss (piano), Joshua Worthington-Church (electric bass), Olie O’Loughlin (drums) – guest Chelsea Prastiti (vocals) @ CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 22nd July 2015
The last time I saw Rebecca Melrose perform was at a CJC gig, not long after her graduation from the UoA Jazz School. That was well over a year ago. Since then she has made her way as a vocalist, exploring several musical genres and recording an EP (yet to be released). This gig was straight ahead Jazz; her interpretations of various Jazz standards. I remember being impressed by Melrose the last time I heard her as there is a rich quality to her voice and she knows how to play with lyrics. At the last gig she took risks with her choice of material and it paid off. This time the sets were more mainstream but she exuded an easy-going confidence; the sort that comes with time in front of audiences.Accompanying her were three graduates from the UoA Jazz Programme. Crystal Choi on piano, Eamon Edmunson-Wells on bass and Jared Devaux de Marigny, drums. CJC audiences have seen a lot of Edmunson-Wells over recent years and increasingly we are seeing Choi. Desvaux de Marigny is not seen as often. These are all fine musicians. Additional to the core lineup were guest artists Callum Passells (alto) and Liz Stokes (trumpet).
The rhythm section worked well as accompanists and stood out during the brief solo spots (when they functioned as a trio). In this space Choi stood out in particular, her piano work showing edge and maturity. For a recent graduate she shows enormous promise and her own gig (to follow this) will be one to catch. I have put up the clip ‘Afro Blue’ (Mongo Santamaria) as it has a modernist feel about it. Her take being closer to the Robert Glasper/Erykah Badu version than the original.Melrose has been selected as a semi-finalist in the prestigious Shure Vocal Competition (the only Australasian/Pacific finalist). She will fly to Montreux shortly to compete in the finals at the 2015 ‘Montreux Jazz Festival on Lac Lemon. This gig and other events are to help her get there. I wish her well.
Quartet: Rebecca Melrose (leader, vocals), Crystal Choi (piano), Eamon Edmunsen-Wells (bass), Jared Desvaux de Marigny (drums).
CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, 17th June 2015
It has been a while since Julie Mason performed as leader. Mason is a pianist/vocalist who over the years taught and influenced a number of younger musicians. After a difficult few years battling health issues she has now started performing again and her new project titled: ‘compositions by piano playing Jazz Musicians’ is what she brought to the CJC. Most of these tunes are not standards in the American song-book sense and so they often lack wider recognition. That’s a pity because the tunes written by these musicians are some of best to come out of the last 90 years. It is always good to delve into this material. A perfect example of a composer/performer who deserves wider recognition is Enrico Pieranunzi. He is all too often overlooked outside of Europe. This formidable Italian improviser has performed with artists like Charlie Haden, Art Farmer, Kenny Wheeler, Chet Baker, Jim Hall and dozens of others. His output stands favourably when compared to the finest of the American Jazz issues. Of particular note is ‘Live in Paris’ and ‘Don’t forget the Poet’. The latter is a tribute to Bill Evans. Mason performed the title track from that album beautifully. She captured the lyrical quality of the piece.she has performed with these musicians for many years; Lance Su’a (guitar), Alberto Santarelli (bass) and Frank Gibson (drums). Her partner, the well known Jazz Pianist Phil Broadhurst sat in while Mason did a vocal number. The set list was split between vocals and instrumental pieces. The number Broadhurst accompanied her on was the fabulously evocative ‘The Peacocks’ (Jimmy Rowles/Norma Winstone). It is one of those tunes that is so aligned to Evans and Rowles that musicians tend to shy away from it. That’s a pity in my view: it was nice to hear it performed live. Other artists featured as sources were Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Billy Childs and Jacky Terrason.
Caitlin Smith is a vocalist who can quickly put a smile on your face or shamelessly tug at your heart-strings. She always finds a way to connect her audience to the essence of a song; deftly locating that illusive sweet spot. While there is often power in her delivery, there is also remarkable subtlety. You could describe her voice in many ways; pitch perfect, having an almost operatic range, but there is much more to Smith than chops. In the parlance she owns each song she sings and embeds it with a uniqueness. Like a seasoned saxophonist she tells beguiling stories in a distinctive way. There is a well-worn cliché that vocalists hog the limelight and in truth many go through their careers with barely a reference to the musicians that they work with. Caitlin Smith is the opposite. You are left in no doubt that her gigs are a shared project as she interacts with band and audience, picking up on every nuance from either. She works with a band as a vocalist should and she is comfortable giving them space to solo. There is a generosity of spirit about her persona and this manifests in the music. I have also witnessed her solid support for emerging artists. The ultimate litmus test for me, is that gifted improvising musicians enjoy playing in Caitlin Smith lineups. While Smith is widely acknowledged as a gifted singer-songwriter, it is her Jazz repertoire that is turning heads of late. Her performance with the AJO at the Tauranga Jazz festival won her many new fans. She is a wonderful interpreter of Jazz standards and this aspect of her repertoire deserves critical attention. Her vocal gifts and incredible musicality thrive with this space; of particular note is the delightful way she plays with lyrics. Smith is a natural performer and there is something wonderfully theatrical and engaging about her stage presence. This gives her gigs an added spark of life. On Wednesday she included some of her own compositions like the beautiful ‘In between’, but the audience was particularly wowed by her take on jazz standards such as Ellington’s ‘I like the sunshine’. I have heard her sing Ellington and Strayhorn at other gigs and I am always impressed by the way she freshens these standards up.
Her innate ability to carry off the more difficult of the Ellington/Strayhorn song-book tunes is beyond question. ‘Lush life’ in particular requires real vocal skills to pull it off well and her interpretation is flawless. This affinity cries out for her to record the material. It would be great to see an Ellington album someday; accompanied by the Kevin Field Trio, alternating with the AJO. Another song from a different genre was ‘River’ (Joni Mitchell). This classic Mitchell song was recently reinterpreted by Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. As Smith delivered her version she phrased it in such a way that I could hear those elided Shorter fills in my head. Her delivery was crystalline and it brought her two worlds together perfectly.
Who: Caitlin Smith (vocals, arrangements), Kevin Field (piano), Oli Holland (bass), Ron Samsom (drums) (acknowledgement to Dennis Thorpe for the River video)
If you patrol the margins of the music world you will find inestimable treasures. Beyond the notice of mainstream media and mainstream audiences there is a joyous revolution underway. Not an austere revolution but one peopled by astonishing musicians, colourful characters and sonic explorers. Like a good street protest, it is often bubbling with noise, insistent beats and a multiplicity of messages. Last Wednesdays gig epitomised that. The alternative music scene is often denigrated for its imagined ‘high brow’ complacency or its snobbish rigidity. In this regard the Jazz police and lazy uninformed commentators have done improvised music a grave disservice. Improvised music has been with us since the beginnings of art and the whole point of it is to shift the focus away from the mundane or the obvious. The appropriation and assimilation of traditional forms is only a staring point. Sandhya Sanjana and her gifted ensemble took the shamans path here; conjuring shapes and colours from the ether, re-harmonising, daring us to look at the familiar and the exotic from an entirely different vantage point. This night cut right to the heart of improvised music. Different worlds merged and they did so without compromising the integrity of the traditions they came from.
This was World/Jazz singer Sandhya Sanjana’s night but we have Auckland’s Ben Fernandez to thank for organising the gig. I had not heard Fernandez play before this, but had long been aware of his reputation as a gifted, successful and multifaceted pianist. Some months ago he invited me to his ‘Raag time’ fusion gig, but sadly I was unable to attend as I was heading out-of-town. Later he messaged me to say that he would teaming up with Ms Sanjana in November. Gigs like this are irresistible to me as I am enthusiastic about all of the great improvised music traditions. The merging of these traditions has risks, but done well it’s marvellous. The successful assimilation of middle eastern rhythms and the idioms into Jazz has long been achieved in Europe. Fusions of traditional Indian music and Jazz are now emerging across the globe and those with an open mind and the right ears are the happy beneficiaries.
The band members were; Sandhya Sanjana (vocals, leader), Ben Fernandez (piano), Jim Langabeer (flute, reeds), Manjit Singh (tabla & vocals), Jo Shum (bass), Jason Orme (traps drums). Anyone familiar with the Auckland Jazz scene and the Indian music scenes will know what a great lineup this is.
Sandhya Sanjana is from Bombay, but based in Holland these days (Ben Fernandez is a Kiwi but he also hails from Bombay). She has performed with the greats in the World/Jazz field like Alice Coltrane and Trilok Gurtu. She has an easy confidence about her that informs her performance and under her guidance a seamless fusion of styles occurs. With Fernandez you get another strong influence as he imparts a distinctly Latin feel. This classical and Jazz trained musician has chops to burn. Out of this melange of rich influences a vibrant new music emerges. It is compelling and exciting to hear. There is a constant visual and sonic interplay between singer, tabla, traps drums, piano, bass and reeds (winds). The shifting rhythms creating intricate cycles that pulse and swing.
Manjit Singh, originally from the Punjab is another Auckland resident and he is an acknowledged master of the Tabla and of Indian music. I am often reminded of what a rich and diverse drum landscape we have in Auckland. A world that I am still coming to grips with. This man is a major talent and it is our good fortune that he is making forays into the Jazz/fusion music scene. On traps was the veteran drummer Jason Orme and he was well-chosen. The gig required a drummer who could play quietly but strongly and one who had the subtlety to interact with Singh. On bass was Jo Shum who has not played at the CJC for some time. She is an aware bass player and acquitted herself well. Lastly was the reeds and winds player Jim Langabeer. Langabeer is well-respected on the New Zealand scene and is one of a select group of doubling reeds musicians who are equally strong on flute (and he swings like a well oiled gate). This gig had an embarrassment of riches and once again Roger Manins gets a big tick for his innovative programming.
In the You Tube clip that I have put up, the breadth of Sanjana’s influences are immediately evident. After a few bars of latin feel on piano we hear a Tala. I know very little about the technical aspects of traditional Indian music but the rhythmic patterns (or Tala) are generally established early on. This can also include a vocalised manifestation of the Tala rhythms. Manjit Singh the Tabla player counted in the Tala and Sanjana responded with Mudras, claps and vocals . The traps drummer and others responded to the patterns and so the piece built upon itself. If done well, cross fertilised music is like water; it will soon find its own level. This did.
Who: Sandhya Sanjana (vocals, compositions, leader), Ben Fernandez (piano, arrangements), Jim Langabeer (winds & reeds), Jo Shum (bass), Manjit Singh (Tabla & vocals), Jason Orme (traps drums).
Trudy Lile is always in demand whether it’s cruise liner gigs, winery gigs or bar and club gigs. Last night she was at the CJC with Kevin Field on piano, Cameron McArthur on bass and Ron Samsom drums. This particular quartet is a regular lineup for Lile and it is hardly surprising. Musicians like this are a gift to a leader, as each of them has pulling power, but they operate as a high functioning unit when together. Lile is also an energetic and engaging performer and the enthusiasm she radiates is always evident in her music.
As a singer/flutist Lile often favours standards or latin material, as these suit voice and flute so well. She still surprises though with appealing lessor known tunes or sometimes popular tunes which lend themselves to wider explorations under her coaxing. She is keen on finding new standards from the latter and we often hear material from sources not usually tapped by improvising musicians. This use of popular material is becoming more commonplace and another recent example of this was Benny Lackner opening with a number from the latest Bowie album. Lile also brought some interesting new compositions to the gig.
The clubs audience numbers could have been better during the last month, perhaps they were saving for the festival, but Lile being a true professional worked the room and fed off the interaction. She has an abundance of charm, humorous banter and above all musicality. The band responded to her lead with enthusiasm, amping up their performances to match hers. Kevin Field is the sort of pianist who understands the accompanists role, comping sparingly at times and launching into heart stopping solos at others with McArthur and Samsom responding to each nuance. I have posted a clip from the gig which is a favourite of Lile’s. An Eliane Alias number titled ‘An Up Dawn’ from the album ‘The Three Americas’.
Footnote: My ability to comprehend the softly spoken human voice with any accuracy has declined in recent years; probably due to the endless procession of loud gigs in intimate spaces that I attend. What I heard Lile announce was a tune called “An Up Storm’ and so I labeled the You Tube clip accordingly. When I saw Lile a few days later she laughingly told me what the actual title was. Unfortunately I misheard that as well, as ‘An Up Swarm’. The clip now correctly refers to ‘An Up Dawn’, but I do like my rogue re-titling. Perhaps Trudy Lile could reharm the tune, utilising my imaginative and thought-provoking title(s)? I am sure Eliane wouldn’t mind. There is more than a hint of Chaos Theory in what I had originally settled on; An up swarm of bees in Brazil causing a storm in Auckland.
Who: Trudy Lile (leader, flute, vocals), Kevin Field (piano), Cameron McArthur (bass), Ron Samsom (drums)
Chelsea Prastiti could be said to represent an intergenerational change in the direction Jazz Vocals are headed. I have watched her grow in confidence since her time at the Auckland University Jazz School and she is always ready to try brave new experiments. Because her default is the use of wordless vocal lines, she has better been able to explore the relationship between voice and the other instruments. This integrated approach is possible for two main reasons. Her keen awareness of what is happening around her and above all her compositional skills.
Chelsea Prastiti is writing good material. At times it feels brave and edgy, but it is always interesting. Perhaps another factor is the musical familiarity with her band mates. Her bands generally feature Matt Steele (piano), Callum Passells (alto saxophone), Liz Stokes (trumpet), Eamon Edmunson-Wells (bass) and Tristam deck (drums). Because they were students together and because she has played with them often, I have gained the impression that she may even write material with them in mind. One of her best recent performances was as guest artist on Callum Passells last CJC gig. These two always work well together, but hearing them moving in lockstep as they traversed standards and amazingly innovative free numbers was a joy.
There were a few newer compositions and some re-arranged takes on earlier compositions. Everything in the sets was composed by Prastiti. I like ‘Bells’ which begins with a simple peal of bells, but quickly evolves into an altogether more complex piece. Steele was standout on this, never over-playing but making every note count. His comping was at times minimalist but he conveyed a certain strength. The rhythmic feel that he laid down was further enhanced by Deck and Edmunson-Wells. This allowed Passells and Prastiti to explore the tune in a methodical manner. Steles solo is worth a particular mention on ‘Bells’, as it underscores his growing maturity as a pianist.
Prastiti is involved in a number of local projects including an ethnically influenced a capella group. It is however her ability to edge toward the avant-garde that always interests me the most.
One of the strengths of the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) is its varied program. Sixty years ago improvised music meant only one thing to the western world. Mainstream Jazz. From the late fifties onwards the music drew from an ever-widening array of influences, experiments with unusual and exotic instruments occurred, not always successful as the attempts were often self-conscious. At worst they felt like a size twelve-foot being jammed into a size six shoe, at best they tantalised, leaving us wanting more. Among the best of these explorations were Jimmy Giuffre’s. A Texas tenor man with open ears and an innate ability to double on reeds and winds. By the sixties his folk tinged Jazz with Jim Hall and Bill Crow (Train and the River) was considered mainstream. By then Giuffre had moved on to explore open skies atonal explorations with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow and to dabble in the ‘third stream’. The third stream referenced modern classical music as it sought to make a hybrid of the two forms. Attempts to bring in the exotic sounds of the Mediterranean, in spite of Django, were slower coming. The exotic of the sixties was more likely Cuban influenced Jazz or the music of Tom Jobim. Both wonderful, but unmistakably music rooted in the Americas, in spite of their ancient African influences.
Post millennium, there are interesting and innovative Jazz Projects proliferating across the globe. ECM in particular has long been adept at broadening Jazz tastes and over the last two decades it is repeatedly voted as the best-loved Jazz Label. Not once has it compromised its mission. Not once has it tried to travel down the populist route. It survives in a space where the iconic Jazz labels disappear, engulfed by amoral corporate machines or buried in an increasingly harsh market place. One ECM album in particular comes to mind, a wonderful collaboration between premier Italian Jazz trumpeter Paulo Fresu and a traditional Corsican mens choir, ‘Mystico Mediterraneo’. This acapella song form is combined with improvisation much like Caroline’s and Tui’s projects. Improvising around ancient forms and bringing back deeply evocative all but forgotten songs. This feels natural in 2014 and this brings me to the original point. Jazz now coexists comfortably around a variety of genres, from deep Americana (Bill Frisell), to Middle Eastern music (Dhafer Youssef). The self-consciousness is gone and the younger audiences in particular are more open. This feels right in a globalised world and from an ethnomusicological view-point, it helps catalogue musics that are fast fading from thecollective memory.
The ‘Acapollination’ project illustrates the above points perfectly. This acapella group, four women (two established Jazz vocalists), explore the harmonies and rhythms of Bulgarian folk music. I knew little of Bulgarian music but was keen to learn. What I now know is that there is an ancient tradition of folk singing and that the style is quite distinct. Differing markedly from other European or Slavonic music. When Bulgaria became communist the authorities appropriated these folk songs and under their guiding hand they morphed in propaganda tools. Complex meters became the norm, no longer left in the sole hands of peasants who had preserved them by oral tradition. In some cases purged of unwelcome minority ethnic influences. It is to the credit of Ron Samsom and the Auckland University Jazz School that this project was accepted. There are many improvising traditions in the world, some new, some ancient. When they meet new horizons open before us.
The second set was Carolina Moons Mother Tongue. This project has been around for a few years and has travelled extensively. There have been a few changes to the original line-up but the core performers remain. Wherever the Mother Tongue project has appeared it’s received to wide acclaim. Once again this is an ancient music, a hybrid form emerging from multiple sources in medieval Sephardic Spain. Not only are the melodies of the Jewish Diaspora heard, but the songs of the Moors and the other races surrounding them. This truly exotic and rich music just begs for modern interpretation and Carolina Moon has achieved that exceptionally well. Her voice is wonderful and her arrangements perfect. I have heard this group many times, but at each listening I gain new insights, fresh enjoyments. They are evolving with time and different facets emerge or fade as they progress. Nigel Gavin is always extraordinary but Roger Manins intense short modal improvisations on Bass Clarinet, Flute or Soprano saxophone make this special. Carolina Moon, Roger Manins, Kevin Field, Ron Samsom and Nigel Gavin are the original members. Cameron McArthur is a newer addition. This is a cohesive working group and long may they remain so.
I like the inventiveness of Callum Passells both as an alto player and a composer. There is something of the risk taker about him and his instincts seldom fail him when reaching for fresh ideas. His quartet was bristling with edge last week, a band without a chordal instrument and utilising the talented Chelsea Prastiti as vocalist. Chelsea is always up for these types of sonic explorations and perfectly able to handle the challenge. This was a gig crafted around a particular range of sounds, but more importantly it appeared to have particular musicians in mind. On bass was Cameron McArthur and on drums Adam Tobeck. The bass player and drummer handled the challenges confronting them perfectly, creating texture, nuance, colour and anchor points appropriate to the diverse range of music. I often praise Cameron McArthur and in this situation his skilful bass lines were crucial. I was pleasantly surprised by Adam Tobeck’s versatility, as I had only seen him in straight ahead gigs. He is a tight focussed drummer, but in this situation he showed just how broad his skills base is.
The set list was skilfully constructed, offering endless contrasts and explorations into a number of Jazz related subdivisions. During the first set Chelsea sang the ballad ‘My Ideal’ (Robin/Chase/Whiting). The intro was just vocals and bass, but when the alto and drums came in they took a minimalist approach. The interesting thing is that the arrangement had a fulsome quality to it, almost orchestral. This is a tribute to Chelsea and definitely to the arrangement.
At the other end of the spectrum was a free piece titled ‘N+/-1’. This was an extraordinary piece of music with all of the excitement and theatrics that you could wish for. Callum had warned the audience that they were about to hear a free number and suggested that those who were queasy about such offerings could move to the bar area at the side. I am unsure if anyone took him up on that, but in reality ‘N+/-1’ had the opposite effect. Drawing people into the bands orbit; all of them smiling and whooping in delight. While the piece followed its own internal chaotic logic it never-the-less communicated a strangely cohesive and exciting narrative. There were distinct parts to the piece and each more marvellous than the last. Voice, bass and drums weaving ever deeper, as if sucked into an alternate reality by the brilliance of the alto. People watched transfixed, marvelling at the cascade of sounds and the flow of musical ideas. This number was a tour de force for the group but there was no mistaking Callum’s influence. Even though he gave the others plenty of space, his presence was always felt, guiding, cajoling and demanding that bit more. As I watched and listened completely engaged I cursed that I did not have a movie camera on hand to record the moment.
With a few exceptions Chelsea sang wordlessly and this style is definitely a forte for her. She can sing a unison horn line so convincingly that you do a double take, scanning the bandstand to see if there is an instrument you have missed. Her range, timbre and musicality enriched the group. This was particularly evident on ‘Lennies Pennies’ (Tristano). I love all Tristano compositions but especially this one. As they negotiated the exciting fast paced, measured lines a special synthesis was evident. This was innovative and original; adding something of value to an already rich Tristano-ite output.
There were other original tunes such as ‘Tashirojima’, ‘Monte Cecelia’ ‘Sons Multiples’ ‘Indifference’ and a number of standards (‘Yardbird Suite’, ‘Mood Indigo’ and ‘Straight no Chaser’). They were all captivating in one way or another but one original deserves special comment. Sometimes there are layers of meaning in titles and ‘Indifference’ certainly qualifies in that regard. Written by Callum in tribute to his father who is gravely ill. The power of this composition and the delivery by Callum spoke to me deeply. It is clearly not about casual indifference. It felt to me like the struggle to view life in a wider context when faced with mortality. Perhaps the indifference of the universe to our small world suffering and how to make sense of that. The sound of the alto cut so deep that for a time nothing else seemed real. This is what raw emotion sounds like. The audience were quieter and as I looked up at the light show playing against the wall, I saw a brief skeletal picture flash up on the screen. One brief frame in the play of an endlessly looped digital sequence. While this fleeting spectral apparition was pure happenstance, it was strangely apposite. This piece was so much more than elegiac; it placed a marker of just what it means to be human.
Who: The Callum Passells Quartet: featuring Callum Passells (alto sax, compositions), Chelsea Prastiti (vocals), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Adam Tobeck (drums).
There are a number of enigmas in the music world and why this Fondue Set album lay unreleased for so long is one of them. A recent New Zealand Herald article described Caitlin Smith as one of New Zealand’s best known singers and that’s true. Because she is so well respected I can’t help wondering why she’s not profiled more often in the mainstream media. Her voice is simply stunning and the material she choses, her choice of musicians and the way she plays with the lyrics sets her apart.
The Fondue Set have been part of the music scene for more than a decade. Founded by Graeme Webb, the group has gone on to gain a kind of cult status and perhaps that imparts an added cache. There have only been two previous Fondue Set CD’s released and both remain popular. This album was recorded on mini disc in 2004 and it will be a welcome addition to their recorded output.
Caitlin’s voice is a real draw card, but as anyone who has seen her perform will know, her stage presence adds yet another compelling dimension. As this is a live recording much of that magic is communicated. Founding member Graeme Webb is not performing on ‘Down To The Rind’ but the other original member Steve Gerrish is. The new addition is Nigel Gavin who is well known about town for his stellar musicianship and the wonderful sounds he coaxes from his guitars. These musicians work well with Caitlin, providing all the support she could wish for.
The arrangements are by Smith, Garrish and Webb and what fine arrangements they are. Caitlin Smith is known for appropriating songs from other genres and turning them into earthy Jazz vehicles. It’s the fine arrangements that underpin that process. I was particularly drawn to ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ (Trad), ‘Secret Love’ (Pain/Webster) and the red hot treatment of ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ (Mingus). There is also a gorgeous version of ‘Tennessee Waltz’ (Stewart/King). This song is very much in vogue with Jazz-Americana musicians and well it might be. Nigel Gavin works his special brand of magic on Tennessee Waltz and the echoes linger happily in the memory long after the track is finished.
We learned in late November that an excellent Australian jazz singer Natalie Dietz would be the featured artist for the last CJC gig of 2013. She recently recorded with Aaron Parks and Mike Moreno in N.Y.C and the fact that she had connected with these heavyweights of the modern American Jazz Scene told me that we could expect something out of the ordinary. She had toyed with bringing some Australian Musicians over with her but instead elected to use locals. Not surprisingly these locals were drawn from among our finest musicians Kevin Field (piano), Dixon Nacey (guitar), Oli Holland (bass) and Adam Tobeck (drums).
Natalie is the complete package, as she not only has a fabulous voice and an appealing bandstand presentation, but she is a gifted writer. It is common to see charts laid out for bands, but these were especially well written and complex charts. Not simple lead sheets. The standards had been slightly reharmonised or re-interpreted and the original numbers voiced in such a way as to maximise her vocal lines. These were not numbers belted out, but well crafted tunes which required subtle interplay.
Natalie’s own compositions were pleasing and especially ‘The Mood I’m in’. This gorgeous tune is reminiscent of Sara Serpa’s output and this is no accident. Natalie mentioned a number of influences and Sara Serpa is one of them. The piece opens with Natalie singing wordless lines in unison with the guitar. Dixon Nacey’s Godin sings anyhow and the blend was beautiful. This lovely tune reinforces my bias towards wordless vocalisation in an ensemble. As much as I enjoy lyrics, adding the human voice as an instrument feels archetypal and so right to my ears.
There were a number of standards as well and I was initially surprised to see ‘Body and soul’ (Green/Heyman/Sour/ Eyton) in the set list. This is one of the most recorded songs in history and perennially popular. It is hard to look at such a well-travelled tune from a new angle but Natalie did just that. Her take on it was slightly dark and brooding and it sounded tantalisingly fresh. Among the other standards was Skylark and a few Jobim tunes. Natalie was well received by the CJC audience and she appeared to appreciate that.
Who: Natalie Dietz (vocals), Kevin Field (piano), Dixon Nacey (guitar), Oli Holland (bass), Adam Tobeck (drums)
Alan Brown is such a gifted musician that we always expect something special from his club gigs. The October gig not only lived up to expectations but found something extra to offer us. Alan is always on safe ground with Dixon Nacey on guitar and Josh Sorenson on drums, as these musicians don’t need any warm up. They have played together so often that their understanding of what is required is intuitive. Deep energised mesmerising grooves are quickly established and maintained. As we progressed through the first number, the warm grooves took us somewhere else. Transported on mass to a place where winter became a distant memory.
A state of grace, suspended somewhere between reality and a multi hued dream state. This is a place where the familiar is transformed into the extraordinary and we felt incredibly happy about that.
As I watched the interplay between these three I could not help wondering how that felt. How it felt making that music, in that way and with that much soul. The looks on their faces gave me the answer. They also knew that this was one out of the bag and that some special chemistry was happening. The Alan Brown trio were on fire and we were not just witnesses but integral to the performance. There was a shared collective energy and we were each and every one of us connected in a web of pure creation.
I have written a lot about Alan over the last two years and he deserves every accolade thrown his way. If this sounds like hyperbole I will quickly argue otherwise. He consistently delivers performances and compositions that grab the attention and on nights like this he finds something extra. The audiences from the High Street days have never forgotten ‘Blue Train’ and the fact that Alan keeps the crowds coming; still creating new audiences, speaks volumes. This is not about reliving the glory days, but about bringing fresh and exciting perspectives to an ever unfolding musical output.
Dixon Nacey is another musician who always pleases. When ever I see that beautiful Godin guitar I know that something extraordinary could happen and this was just such a night. Dixon is a musician who can communicate as much by his body language as by his soaring inventive solos. You know how deeply he observes and engages because the evidence is in his face and at his fingertips. When exchanges are being traded with drummer or keyboards, his expressions mirror the intensity. When the solo or the interplay really works well, a huge smile lights up the bandstand. That smile and those magical voicings tell us so much about the man and his music.
The remaining trio member is Josh Sorenson and I have heard him on two or three previous occasions. Josh has specialised in groove drumming and he is exceptionally good at it. This is a specialist skill as there are a million deceptive subtleties built into it when done well. I spoke to Josh at some length about this and what he told me was illuminating. It is very hard work and although it sometimes appears straightforward it is not. I gathered the impression that a night of holding such tight grooves together is more exhausting than bebop or rock drumming. The concentration required to move around the kit while holding a tight multi faceted beat together is tremendous. It is not just the concentration required, but the ability to sink into a beat in an almost trance like fashion.
Towards the end of the final number Josh launched into a drum solo and what unfolded was almost supernatural. As he moved all over the kit, the deep-groove pulse never wavered by a fraction. I have never seen this done before and I found it incredibly impressive. That solo and in fact the whole number ‘Inciteful’ (had the audience on their feet, whooping and shouting with enthusiasm). Sadly I had run out of video tape by then, but I did capture some of the magic.
Part way through the gig we had another treat in store when the soulful Jazz Singer Chris Melville came to the band stand. I like male Jazz singers and I worry that their numbers are so few. Chris has a terrific voice and he tackled the old Juan Tizol standard ‘Caravan’ in a mature and engaging way. I enjoy listening to his interpretations and to the timbre of his voice, but noticed that it had a tendency to become a little lost in the acoustics of the room. Some small adjustments to the sound levels would remedy that. As the extraordinary Mark Murphy steps back and the fabulous velvety baritone Andy Bey performs less, there are other male singers coming forward like Jose James, Kurt Elling and Gregory Porter. It is a tradition worth keeping and I hope that we see continue to see singers like Chris keeping the faith.
We heard old favourites like ‘Shades of Blue’, some new material and even a rock classic from Led Zeppelin ‘No Quarter’. ‘Charlie’s Here’ cast a warm bluesy aura over the room and I have put that up as a video link. The kicker however was definitely ‘Inciteful’. It was an amazing rendition packed with high-octane solos, clever ideas and groove so deep that even speleologists could never hope to explore it.
The organ was a Hammond SK2 which is not Alan’s usual keyboard. Coupled to a Leslie Unit and the resulting sound was perfect. This lighter modern offshoot of the C3/B3 certainly earned its stripes on this night. It was just right for the room.
Just when I think that I am getting a handle on the extent of the New Zealand Jazz scene something new comes along that tells me I don’t. I humbly admit that I am only just beginning to comprehend it. As the CJC attracts more offshore Jazz visitors it is also attracting more Wellington and Christchurch bands and those have been great. If this trend continues I half expect to see the Gore chapter of the ‘Balclutha John Zorn Tribute Band’ on the billing sometime soon.
A particular case in point is the Christchurch Jazz scene which is producing some astonishing Jazz musicians. A slow but steady stream of these musicians has been drifting northward (Andy Keegan, Dan Kennedy & Richie Pickard to name but a few). In the last few years we have had the Tamara Smith trio and Reuben Derrick’s quartet (both of which gave an excellent account of themselves) and now the Glen Wagstaff Project. Roger is never wrong about this stuff and he told us that we were in for a treat.
Jazz is a broad deep river and the tributaries running into it are now so numerous that it is easy to overlook one. I have long been urging the better writers among our Auckland musicians to do more ensemble writing (or even better write a some charts for a nonet). They have patiently explained that this is a big task and one which requires a commitment of time. I have continued to engage these musicians on the likes of Kenny Wheeler and almost everyone loves what he does. As much as he’s admired, his compositions or similar work is seldom performed. Following the progress of such outlier writing is confined to selective offshore artists.
When the Glen Wagstaff project flew in last week all I knew about them was that Glen is great writer and that Roger Manins was enthusiastic. Three of the band were familiar to me as they have played at the CJC before. I sat back expecting a quick few bars as they ran through an arranged head and then numerous solos to follow. What I got was a rich gorgeous feast of ensemble playing. I couldn’t have been more delighted. These charts are crafted with consummate skill and like any well-arranged medium to large ensemble charts they imparted a sense of space and breadth. To get the feel of a bigger unit while retaining the airiness and space of a small one is what such writing is all about. The effect of well written charts like these is profound. The choice of instrumentation is also important as it allows for very particular textures and voicings. These charts were well written and well played. I was there from the first number and remained captivated throughout.
Most of the numbers were original but several were re-arranged from the likes ‘The Brian Blade Foundation’ and ‘Kenny Wheeler’. A version of “Kind Folk’ from the amazing Kenny Wheeler ECM disk ‘Angel Song’ was breath-taking. The Wheeler disk had a pared back lineup (Kenny Wheeler, Lee Konitz, Dave Holland & Bill Frisell) but in Glens hands this expanded for an octet. The gig was divided between septet and octet and this allowed the various band members to take short solos’. On guitar was Glen and he resisted the urge to perform long soaring virtuosic lines as they would have been out of place. That said his guitar work was just great and the little hints of Abercrombie or even Rosenwinkel stylings gave us a glimpse of his prowess as a player. Tamara Smith has been to the CJC before and along with Auckland’s Trudy Lile she owns the flute space. Tamara is a gifted musician who can utilise extended technique or just floor you with her breathy soulful notes. Having both flute and voice in the mix worked well for me and the fact that they were able to blend while never appearing to crowd the others space, tells me a lot about their abilities and the charts.
On tenor sax was Gwyn Renolds (who also doubled on soprano) and on alto was George Cook. Both played superbly and both had solo spots which were enthusiastically received by the audience. Once again these guys showed how well they could modulate their sound and fit tightly into the mix. Ensemble playing of this sort requires an unusually disciplined approach and the naturally louder horns resisted the impulse to dominate where that would have been inappropriate. On piano was Catherine Wells and while she had few solos, she added just the right touch to the ensemble. A minimalist approach was called for and that was delivered. This sort of band is about texture and her occasional mid to upper register filigree added value.
Andy Keegan and Richie Pickard are increasingly seen about town and they are well appreciated by CJC audiences. They are both skilled readers and able to deliver deeply nuanced performances or knock out punches as the job in hand requires. They have often featured in louder, frenetic bands but have also shown how tastefully they can play when presented with charts like this. I have high regard for both as musicians.
Lastly there was Toni Randle who sang wordless lines and approached the charts much as a non chordal instrument would. Adding the human voice into charts like these is to impart a degree of magic when done well. It takes writing skills and well honed performance skills to pull this off. One again this worked incredibly well. I have long been a fan of Norma Winstone and Toni followed very much in her footsteps. The human voice is a powerful instrument and to hear it freed from the job of interpreting lyrics is a joy. The tune ‘Maylie’ that I have put up, is one of Glens and it illustrates that point perfectly.
During the dying years of the big band swing era the Claude Thornhill Orchestra and a few others were doing things differently. Musicians like Lee Konitz and Gerry Mulligan came up through these bands and then came the seminal ‘Birth of the Cool’ and Gil Evans. This sort of writing has never gone away but it is certainly on the periphery. I’m thrilled that Glen Wagstaff is writing in this way and I hope that he continues to do so. His band and his charts have real integrity and the club crowd reacted to that. I left the gig deeply satisfied and that’s what this music is all about.
Who: The Glen Wagstaff Project – Glen Wagstaff (leader, guitar, compositions), Tamara Smith (flute), George Cook (alto), Gwyn Renolds (tenor, soprano), Toni Randle (vocals), Catherine Wells (piano), Richie Pickard (bass), Andy Keegan (drums).
Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), basement 1885 building, Brittomart Auckland
Two or three times a year the CJC reserves a gig night for emerging artists. On Wednesday there was a double billing and while they could legitimately be termed emerging artists, they showed a confidence and polish that bespoke experience. In fact both have been performing about town and in Allana’s case for some time. This was a moment to show a discriminating Jazz audience what they are about and they delivered.
First up was pianist Alex Ward. He has recently graduated with honours from the NZSM Massy campus. I last saw Alex play just over a year ago and he showed real promise then. Now the hard work and years of study are bearing fruit. He appears to play with even greater confidence and this obvious self belief has influenced his performance. His set was mainly a showcase for his own compositions and they were interesting and varied. There were ballads, uptempo burners and a (new) standard on offer. Standards always give us points of comparison and his rendering of Robert Glasper’s ‘Yes I’m Country (and that’s Ok)’ from the Blue Note, Double Booked album did just that. It was flawlessly executed and delivered with real heartfelt exuberance. Among his own compositions I really liked ‘Litmus Test’ for its edgy hard bop feel and the more reflective ‘Lighthouse Keeper’ (a recently written tune). There was also a reharmonisation of ‘Beautiful Love’ but with dark voicings and with an oblique approach to the melodic structure. These tunes while all quite different, hung together well as a set.
On Bass he had the gifted Cameron McArthur and on drums Ivan Lukitina (who I had heard about but not seen before now). They both provided solid support for Alex and delivered good performances during solos. Cameron was particularly energised during ‘Litmus Test’ and Ivan was right there with him. Ivan excelled on ‘Yes I’m Country (and thats OK)”.
This should be a right of passage for Alex and he will surely become a fixture about town if he continues performing at this level.
Allana Goldsmith has appeared in a number of bands and her musicality and stage presence are pleasing to ear and eye. I have heard Allana a number of times now and on those occasions her role as ‘part of a lineup’ gave me a brief taste of what could be. She has performed with various sized bands but most often as part of a duo with guitarist.
She is a current member of the ‘Sisters of Swing’, which is an Andrews Sisters tribute band and co-member Trudy Lile speaks highly of her abilities. I recently saw her with Peter Scotts ‘Bad Like Jazz’ project and I was very impressed; especially as she sang a stunning rendition of ‘Freedom Jazz Dance’ (Eddie Harris). It is this preparedness to take on challenging projects and to do them well that sticks with you. Her voice is strong without being loud and in many ways she is reminiscent of the great singers of the past. What is not redolent of past singers however, is her preparedness to tackle adventurous modern projects.
For this gig Allana had selected a few well-known and some lessor performed standards and to stamp her own mark on them, sung often in Te Reo Maori. While Whirimako Black has already moved into this territory, Allana has her own unique approach to the music. Hers is an original voice. It is tempting to think of songs sung in Te Reo Maori as being different or apart from European traditions. In Allana’s case that is not so as she has maintained the integrity of both traditions. The best illustration of this was her brilliant rendition of the Miles Davis tune, ‘In a Silent Way’. This was the first tune of her set and she used it as a Karakia or blessing. The notion of using this open, spiritual number to unify us all and to call down blessings was a perfect beginning.
Her band was Ben McNicholl (tenor sax), Dave Fisher (guitar), Cameron McArthur (bass), Jason Orme (drums).
I have always rated Ben highly on ballad material. His concise soloing and the atmospheric vibe that he created behind Allana worked well. When backing a singer on a ballad, tasteful minimalism trumps busy, every time. This sort of restraint is counter intuitive to a musician, but the balance between Ben and Allana was pitched just right. I know that he took care to select just the right reed for the job in hand.
I thought that I knew all of the Jazz guitarists about town, but clearly I don’t. Dave Fisher has played with Allana for some time and he picks up on her every nuance. The voicings that he uses are those of the skilled accompanist and the warmth of his tone caresses and underpins her vocals perfectly. This was mostly chordal work, which shifted, swung and shimmered like the guitarists of an earlier era. It was an effect deliberately aimed for and it was easy on the ear. His guitar is an Epiphone Hollowbody of the sort used by Joe Pass and that made sense as well.
Cameron McArthur was also the bass player on this second set. Because he works so often about town he has developed a keen ear and had no trouble fitting into this different groove. Unlike the earlier piano trio gig, with challenges thrown down and returned in kind, he needed to keep more out-of-the-way here. Seeing him perform so well in such a variety of situations certainly increases my respect for him.
The remaining band member was drummer Jason Orme and I am very familiar with his playing. Oddly though, I had never seen him playing in this sort of situation, which at times required a very nuanced approach. His skills in such a setting were immediately apparent and his brush work was especially fine. Like the guitarist and the tenor he focused on the singer, enhancing every inflection of voice or following every whispered line. Each accent delivered with a quiet flurry on the snare or a tap on a muted cymbal.
Allana is currently studying performance at the NZSM Massey and this was her first CJC gig. She will certainly be back.
* Thanks to Dennis Thorpe for the high quality video material
Wh0 (first set): Alex Ward (piano), Cameron McArthur (bass), Ivan Lukitina (drums).
Who (second set): Allana Goldsmith (vocals), Ben McNicholl (tenor sax), Dave Fisher (guitar), Cameron McArthur (bass), Jason Orme (drums).
Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 1885 Brittomart Building, basement, Auckland
Trudy Lile has unerring radar when it comes to locating tunes from the lessor known jazz lexicon. Tunes that she skilfully transforms into glowing vibrant flute friendly arrangements. Her choice of ‘Steppin Out’ is a good example. Kurt Elling recently sung this wonderful (but difficult) Joe Jackson tune on his ‘At The Gate’ album. Not only was it a great choice and well executed but her new lineup rose to the occasion; giving her all the support she needed and more.
Trudy Lile last performed at the CJC about 8 months ago and she had a different line-up then. Last Wednesday she had assembled a particularly solid rhythm section in Alan Brown (piano), Cameron McArthur (bass) and Ron Samsom (drums). Trudy is often adventurous in her choice of material, mixing reworked standards, originals and virtually unknown tunes scavenged from interesting nooks and crannies. On Wednesday she held to this course and it paid off.
Among the other numbers performed was a beautiful rendition of ‘Niama’ (Coltrane), ‘Flute Salad’ (Lile) – I love this tune with its swinging happy vibe and another Lile original ‘Domestic Bliss’. Trudy explained that this number was somewhat tongue in cheek, as her own experiences of domestic bliss at times resembled the TV character Miranda’s.
Trudy Lile is well-known about New Zealand as a gifted flutist. While the flute is her prime instrument she also demonstrates impressive vocal skills. We saw both on Wednesday. I have always sensed a pied-piper quality to her work and as she dances and sways during the flute solos it is impossible not to be captivated. Dedicated Jazz-flute players have been rare over the years and some critics have been disparaging about the lack of expression in that horn. If they listened to Trudy they would shut up, sit down and recant. In her hands the flute has all of the expression you could ever want
I must zero in on Alan Brown here as he was just superb. OK, Alan always puts on a great performance but this facet of his playing is not seen as often. Alan is rightly famous for his soul infused Jazz funk. He was a power house of inventiveness on Wednesday,but more importantly he established beyond a shred of doubt that he is a stellar straight-ahead Jazz pianist. His playing is always strongly rhythmic and that is what we expect from Alan, but to see him as an accompanist in this context was revealing. Anyone hearing a Kurt Elling number such as ‘Steppin out’, notices his arranger and pianist Laurence Hobgood. Hobgood is a dedicated accompanist of the highest order. Alan communicated a special quality also. He supported vocals (and flute) in the way Hobgood does and it was pure gold. After seeing him in this context I would really like to hear him do a piano trio gig sometime, complete with a few straight-ahead standards.
Cameron McArthur has become the first choice bass player for Auckland gigs and every time he appears (which is often) he impresses afresh. He is gaining a substantial group of supporters about town and his solos always elicit enthusiastic calls and strong applause.
Ron Samsom is quite simply the best there is on traps and his tasteful underpinning of any band is inspiring. On this gig he alternated between quieter brush or mallets work and power house grooves which lifted the others to greater heights. Sometimes when I hear Ron’s drumming I can discern a pulse that goes way beyond the room. Perhaps it is the pulse of the Jazz tradition itself, the history and the future rolled together in a beat.
This band was the perfect foil for Trudy and she took full advantage of it.
Who: The Trudy Lile Quartet – Trudy Lile (leader, vocals, flute). Alan Brown (piano), Cameron McArthur (bass), Ron Samsom (drums).
Caitlin Smith is well-known to those who follow the Auckland music scene, where she is highly respected as a vocalist and voice coach. Scrolling down her resumé reveals just how active she has been over the years and just how far-reaching her influence is.
She sits comfortably on the Soul to Jazz spectrum, often occupying a stylistic space similar to that of Joanie Mitchell or Ricky Lee Jones. Her material’s drawn from a mix of originals, standards and pop covers but all interpreted in her own unique way. She has an impressive vocal range and she can captivate an audience with incredible ease. She is a true performer and her elegance and professionalism are immediately evident. It takes years for a performer to look this comfortable in front of an audience and many never achieve it. The fact that she has a severe vision impairment just adds to her allure.
The set list was mainly from her latest album ‘Stories to tell: The Thorndon Project’. Sponsored by The Disabilities Commission and PVINZ (Parents of Vision Impaired New Zealand). Caitlin and the drummer on the album Mark Lockett (also vision impaired) had pulled together an impressive lineup for the session. Caitlin (vocals), Alan Brown (organ), Paul Van Ross (saxophone, flute), Mark Lockett (drums). The purpose of the album is to raise awareness around disability issues and to highlight the dedication of the parents caring for those with disabilities. This hit me right where I live, because my granddaughter has cerebral palsy and I know just how incredibly hard it is for her. I am also hyper aware of the sacrifices that her mother (my daughter) lovingly makes each day.
The creative arts are often at the forefront of such campaigns and this one is personal and special. The personnel assembled for the album are all renowned musicians and while three hail from New Zealand, they are a truly international lineup. Paul Van Ross is from Melbourne, but he is currently in New York. Mark Lockett is originally from Wellington but he recently moved to New York. Alan Brown has a legendary status on the New Zealand music scene and works, performs and teaches around Auckland.
Caitlin had a different band when she appeared at the CJC. Kevin Field, a regular accompanist for Caitlin had just returned from recording in New York (I am particularly excited about that, as he recorded with Matt Penman and Nir Felder). Kevin is an extraordinary pianist and leader but he also knows how to accompany a singer. Anything involving Kevin Field will be worth hearing. On bass was Vanessa McGowan who bowled me over with her sound and musicality. I have heard her before but with bigger groups, where she had blended into the mix as a good bass player should in such situations. In this trio setting she shone. Her lines were great, but it was the fat warm sound that really captivated me. She can sing as well. More of her in trio settings please. The remaining member was Ron Samsom and he can bring out the best in any band. Whether on mallets, sticks or brushes, Ron is the person you want in your band. He is simply one of the best traps drummers in New Zealand.
Caitlin’s own composition ‘In Between’ was impressive and her interpretation of ‘I Don’t Want to Waist my Time on Music you Don’t Really Need’ (Over the Rhine) was edgy and soul infused. I have chosen a video clip from her CJC band to post; Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’. When I panned to the audience, what the camera failed to pick up out of the darkness was Trudy Lile coming in on the chorus. Vanessa McGowan also sang beautiful harmony on the chorus. Jazz singing is evolving and while perhaps this was not Jazz singing in the traditional sense it was a pleasure to hear. The feel good factor should never be overlooked and Caitlin delivered this.
Dedicated to those with severe disabilities and to their support networks – for Mala and Jennie especially
Who: Caitlin Smith (vocals, leader, composition), Kevin Field (piano), Vanessa McGowan (bass, vocals), Ron Samsom (drums).
A month ago an LA based Jazz Journalist friend emailed me to say that Molly Ringwald was coming to Auckland. I learned that she would be singing a selection of Jazz Standards from the ‘Great American Songbook’. He suggested that I should hook up with her arranger and pianist Peter Smith and we duly made contact. After that I watched for the promotional material to hit the papers and I was not surprised to see that there was a heavy focus on Molly’s former life as an actress. It is almost a reflex action for the print media to pose the question; yes she is a Hollywood celebrity and we loved her in this and that role,but can she sing? I determined from that point on that I would focus solely on the music and leave the Hollywood trivia to the experts.
There are a number of things that can make or break a vocal artist and foremost among these is their ability to connect emotionally with an audience. Their choice of material and arrangements and the quality of the supporting musicians is also paramount. It should not surprise anyone to learn that Molly Ringwald can sing well, because she has been singing all of her life. First as a child with her Jazz Pianist father Bob Ringwald and later in big Broadway productions. Being multi-talented is not that unusual in the acting fraternity. Singing Jazz however is a riskier path and one that is not embarked upon lightly. It is seldom if ever the road to riches and the audiences are filled with armchair critics. Especially if the vocalist is a movie star.
Molly can sing beautifully. She also found ways to connect with her audience by telling a mixture of personal anecdotes and engaging stories about the songs. The choice of material was also solid, as it mixed the well-known with the lessor known ‘songbook’ standards. All of the material suited her voice but some especially so.
She opened with Dorothy Fields ‘exactly like you’ but it was the second number that really caught my attention. It was Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘I get along without you very well’. I pride myself on knowing the stories behind standards, but this ‘songbook’ story as told by Molly was quite new to me. Evidently a woman in the audience had thrust a poem into Hoagy’s hand after a concert. He forgot about the poem and then rediscovered it months later. After reading the poem he felt that he had to record a version and so he wrote music for it. The problem that then presented itself was how to find this unknown lyricist. That’s where broadcaster Walter Winchell came in. The woman was eventually located and it turned out that the poem was not about a relationship that had gone sour, but about dealing with loss after her husband died. After this poignant story the song took on a new life for me and Molly managed to convey that well.
Next up was ‘They Say Its Spring’ (Marty Clark/Bob Haymes). Blossom Dearie absolutely owned this song and while this version was not a slavish copy of Blossom’s , it clearly alluded to that version. I loved it. As the sets unfolded we heard; ‘My Old Flame’ (Johnson/Coslow), Don’t Explain (Billie Holliday), ‘Mean to Me’ (Fats Waller), ‘I’ll Take Romance’ (Rogers/Hart) , ‘It Never Entered My Mind’ (Rogers/Hart), ‘If I were a Bell’ (Frank Loessor), ‘The Very Thought of You’ (Ray Noble), ‘Just You Just Me’ (Greer/Klages), and ‘Ballad of The Sad Young Men’ (Landesman/Wolf). Not from the songbook was a carefully arranged version of ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ (Simple Minds)
I like many versions of ‘Ballad of the Sad Young Men’, but Anita O’Day, Roberta Flack, and Keith Jarrett’s versions are particularly fine. Molly Ringwald’s version compares very favourably with these. This is not a torch song but a world-weary reflection on the emptiness that consumed the lives of many young men after the war (like ‘Lush Life’ in sentiment). Delivering such a powerful song to an audience expecting a lighter fare requires courage and skill and Molly nailed it.
Behind these songs were some very clever arrangements and with charts written specifically for the album and tour. These are the work of the respected LA pianist/arranger Peter Smith. Peter has worked with Molly for some time and so he understood exactly what is required. He is a talented pianist with great chops but he followed the most basic rule of all. An accompanist must never get in the way of the singer. It is matter of utilising just the right voicings and the chord placement must accent the singer’s performance not dominate it. Whether comping or taking a brief solo Peter was always tasteful. Not every accompanying pianist knows how to perform their duties so skilfully. The next night I invited Peter to a newly opened Jazz venue and he sat in with local musicians. In this situation he was able to let loose and he did, keyboards not withstanding.
Two well-known Auckland musicians completed the rhythm section for the Auckland leg of the tour; Tom Dennison (bass) and Frank Gibson Jr (drums). Tom has worked with many international artists and his fulsome rich tone and perfect base lines added enormous value to the performance. He often works with vocalists. Frank is also very experienced at working with offshore visitors and like Tom he has worked with many vocalists over the years. His brush work on this night was especially fine as it whispered and propelled in equal turns. Together they made for a good swinging lineup.
For just a moment I had a window into that glamorous world long past where the likes of June Christy mesmerised audiences. And yes Molly Ringwald is still stunningly beautiful. The 16-year-old Molly with the red hair and the alluring smile still shines through her more mature self. Her stage presence won’t hurt her Jazz career a bit, but it is her ability to keep singing at this level that will keep her recording and us listening.
What: ‘Except Sometimes’ by Molly Ringwald
Where: ‘The Tuning Fork’, Vector Arena Auckland 13th June 2013
Chelsea has only just graduated from the Auckland University Jazz School but she is already somewhat of a veteran performer about town. I often spot her name in gig notifications and I have seen her in the role of leader at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) at least three times. Chelsea is popular, original and able to assemble good lineups.
I have avoided using the correct descriptor for her most recent band after Chelsea ran into an unexpected problem with the name. The band is actually called the Chelsea Prastiti sextet, but Facebook abbreviated it to read; Chelsea Prastiti Sex……. As she later bantered with the audience, “If your here for that go home”. There is a sense of easy-going effervescence that permeates all Chelsea’s gigs and audiences quickly warm to her. It is a credit to her that this is so, because her specialty is wordless singing (or a mix of wordless singing and lyrics). Thus following in the not so well-worn path of Eddie Jefferson, Norma Winstone and others. This adventurous exploration of vocal sounds is not all that she does, but it is a hallmark of her repertoire.
Her style of singing moves the focus to the timbre of the human voice. Using it as another instrument, adding colour, tight unison lines and performing solos much like a guitar or horn would do. Like other young singers Chelsea often includes numbers from the likes of Sera Serpa, Gretchen Parlato or Esperanza Spalding. At this last gig those influences were felt in different way, more as reference points. Most of the material (if not all of it) was Chelsea’s own. Her composition skills are developing fast as she reveals her own musical stories. Modern in sound, touching on the history of Jazz singing, but above all communicating the intensely personal.
As with previous gigs she has drawn upon musicians from her own generation. Friends from the Auckland University Jazz School and especially those she had been most closely associated with. Matt Steele (piano), Callum Passells (alto), Liz Stokes (trumpet & flugal), Eamon Edmunson-Wells (bass). Newer to the line up was drummer Tristan Deck – this was his first appearance at the CJC and on the basis of his performance this night I’m sure we will see him more often. Liz Stokes, Matt Steele and Callum Passells were all in good form, each delivering some great audience pleasing solos. It was also good to see Eamon Edmunson-Wells, who is a bass player we don’t see often enough. As friends they feed off each others energies and the familiarity works well for them. The ultimate test will come when they plunge in at the deep end beside highly experienced ultra challenging musicians.
It was particularly nice to hear Chelsea’s composition ‘Bells’ performed once again. The interwoven melodic lines and the lovely harmonies are deeply compelling. I like her compositions and the CJC crowd certainly shared that view.
What: Chelsea Prastiti sextet
Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 5th June 2013
Who: Chelsea Prastiti (vocals) (leader) (compositions), Matt Steele (piano), Eamon Edmunson-Wells (bass), Tristan Deck (drums), Elizabeth Stokes (trumpet), Callum Passells (alto saxophone).
The name ‘Rosie & The Riveters’ grabbed my attention immediately as I come from an activist family. The derivation goes back to WW2 when women had to work on the production lines while their men were away fighting. When the men returned after the war they were expected to return to obedient domesticity but many resisted and the ‘Rosie’ symbol became a potent feminist statement. Roseann Payne understands this history as she referred to it in her introduction but she also had a more prosaic explanation on offer. “My name is Rosie and I hope we will be riveting”.
Rosie Payne had graduated from the Auckland University Jazz School on the day of the CJC gig and her upbeat mood reflected this achievement. She had assembled her support band mainly from fellow students and alumni: Ben Devery (p), Cameron McArthur (b), Adam Tobeck (d), Callum Passells (alto & baritone sax), Asher Truppman-Lattie (tenor sax) and Elizabeth Stokes (trumpet & flugal). It was a night of celebration and the cheerfulness communicated itself to everyone present.
The set list alluded to the time-honoured influences such as Ella Fitzgerald but mainly it spoke of the forces that are shaping young singers post millennium. The influence of Sera Serpa and Esperanza Spalding were evident in the source material, interpretations and compositions. Along with Gretchen Parlato, these are the new influences on Jazz singing and they bring a vibe that is modern and in some ways quite nuanced. At times there is a hint of Blossom Dearie in this new way of singing and I make no judgement about that (I like Blossom Dearie and her ability to poke subtle digs at the male hegemony while singing in that wispy girlie voice). Jazz singing is as much a journey as jazz instrumental playing and good improvisers should dive into the sounds about them for fresh inspiration. Interpretation and authenticity is everything and while it is important to acknowledge the past it is not necessary to dwell there permanently.
I have put up a You Tube Clip from the night, which is a slightly reharmonised version of ‘Body & Soul’ sung in Spanish (probably influenced by the Spalding version). This interpretation ably illustrates the juxtaposition between past and present. ‘Body & Soul’ (Johnny Green Edward Heyman, Robert Sour) is one of the oldest jazz standards and for a long while it was the most recorded song in the history of music. Standards survive because they have depth and subtle hooks. Just possessing a hummable melody will not cut the mustard as many a pretty tune has fallen by the wayside. There must be an ‘X’ factor and in Jazz the tune needs to be a good springboard for improvisation. It was the great tenor player Colman Hawkins who again elevated it from obscurity and its wide appeal caught him by surprise (1940). “It’s funny how it [body & Soul] has become such a classic” he mused. “It is the first and only Jazz record that all the squares dig as much as the a Jazz people”. Hawkins hadn’t even bothered to listen to it after the recording session and it surprised him to learn that he had such a big hit. His version only briefly toyed with the melody which makes it all the more surprising. The song was written in haste by the relatively unknown Johnny Green; commissioned by Gertrude Lawrence who quickly rejected it. Whiteman, Goodman, Tatum, Hawkins, Holiday and a thousand others are glad it survived (source references Ted Gioia).
Young musicians like Rosie are acknowledging the history while giving us their own perspective and that is as it should be. The band was right for her and as they moved through the sets we heard flashes of brilliance. Callum on Baritone sax really stood out, especially when you consider that this is not his principal horn. Adam Tobeck is a drummer that engages the attention and Cameron McArthur is fast becoming a fixture at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club). New to me was Pianist Ben Devery and tenor player Asher Truppman-Lattie. Both did well by Rosie. Lastly there was Liz Stokes who had also graduated on that day. Her skills gave an added dimension to the line up.
After the success of ‘Poets Embrace’ it is hardly surprising that Nathan Haines new album ‘Vermillion Skies’ has climbed so high in the charts. The album was the fifth best selling New Zealand album the last time I looked and this happened within days of its release by Warners. For a modern Jazz album anywhere to achieve this success is unprecedented. This has followed hot on the heals of ‘Poets Embrace’ winning the Tui Awards ‘Best Jazz Album of 2012’.
Anyone who knows Nathan will hardly be surprised to learn of his obsessive commitment to the last two projects. His approach has been Ghandalf like, as it involved a long period of woodshedding, an epic journey in search of analogue equipment and a reconciliation with the gods of past times. While Poets Embrace plumbed the depths of Coltrane’s vocabulary, Vermillion Skies has opened up the perspective and tapped into the wider ethos of 1950’s Jazz. What Vermillion Skies is not however is a cosy journey down memory lane.
It is about examining the epiphanies and sounds of the 50’s era and interpreting them with modern sensibilities. With the exception of one number, these are fresh compositions; a happy synthesis between past and present. Deliberately retro though is the analogue recording methodology. A one-take take approach and sound augmented by the use of reverb (not using a plate).
I followed the Vermillion Skies project from its inception and because I was in contact with the musicians via Face Book it was not difficult to keep abreast of progress. Alain Koetsier was returning from China, Nathan was returning from the UK and to use ‘GCSB speak’ there was a heightened level of ‘chatter’ about town.
Their fist gig was at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) and at this point the tunes had never been aired before. Some tunes were in embryonic form and they had only been rehearsed briefly. We were a focus group Nathan informed us; musical crash test dummies. The audience loved the gig but they knew that even better was to come.
A month later the musicians and veteran London Producer Mike Patto headed into the York Street studios to cut the tracks. The album was recorded in around two days of mostly live takes. To obtain an authentic reverb sound Nathan used the studio car-park, which is a huge cavernous brick building, resembling a stripped out Victorian cathedral. The neighbours in the posh Edwardian apartments next to the studio lacked the cool to appreciate this innovation. The reverberating horns made one of them complain (in tears) as the fulsome brassy sounds echoed across Parnell rise.
A few weeks after the recording Nathan contacted me and asked if I would interview him at York Street for the promotional video. I turned up a few hours before the appointed time and asked Jeremy (who runs the studio) if I could hear the masters. Hearing the material in its final form and in that space was a revelation. I quizzed Jeremy and Nathan about aspects of recording. I learned that the piano was isolated in a booth, but the drums and horn section were in the larger space with the saxophone. When it came to the vocals the band went home; those tracks were recorded without onlookers.
Nathan has sung on a previous album but he readily admits that it is not his comfort zone. It interested me that he didn’t have the same degree of confidence in his singing abilities as his voice is simply superb. In my view it compares favourably with Mark Murphy’s. The charts are well written and the hooks in ‘Navareno Street’ are so powerful that I am still hearing them in my head weeks later.
Interviewing Nathan Haines is a pleasure as he is knowledgeable, articulate and expansive when prompted. Because he is across his topic he can talk at length about the minutia of the project, but what was surprising was they way he allowed me to discuss his vulnerabilities. His warmth and often self-effacing commentary gave the interview an added depth.
On April 9th the official launch occurred at the ‘Q’ Theatre in Queen Street Auckland. The tickets sold out quickly. The theatre is well suited for such a performance as it has the space, sight-lines and well padded surfaces. This enabled good sound control. Unlike the CJC gig, there were twelve musicians appearing (not quite the full album line-up which had a 15 piece band on one track). The first half featured the basic quartet with a few guest artists such as brother Joel Haines on guitar and two others. Joel can channel the rock god thing while fitting perfectly into a Jazz ensemble. His sound is modern but his lines are Jazz. Also on stage was John Bell the multi talented vibist. John Bell’s contribution added texture and depth. He does not rely on heavy vibrato, favouring a more minimalist approach. I reflected that I had last seen him in a decidedly avant-garde setting. This was far from Albert Ayler but as always his musicianship impressed. Mike Booth (lead trumpet in the horn section) also appeared in the first half. Mike Booth has a clean tone on trumpet and flugal and is the go to guy for anything involving horn sections or Jazz orchestras. His sight-reading skills are as impressive as his performance skills.
by John Chapman
In the second set, a six piece horn section joined in and the arranger Wayne Senior conducted the ten piece band. Wayne Senior is part of the history of New Zealand Jazz and he is especially renowned for his work with TV and Radio orchestras. His ensemble arranging is legendary. The six piece horn-section was two French horns, Two trumpet/flugal horns, a trombone and a bass trombone.
I love nonets and tentets as they have a big sound while leaving room for a band to breathe. The textural qualities of this tentet and the rich voicings were particularly noteworthy. ‘Frontier West’ (by Nathan Haines) left the audience gasping in delight as the ‘Birth of the Cool’ vibe in modern clothing gave us a rare treat. Such wonders are seldom heard in this country. The last item (and the only tune not written by Nathan) was the aching beautiful ballad ‘Lament’ by J. J. Johnson. The best known version of this is on the ‘Miles Ahead’ album. That Gil Evans arrangement involves a 20 piece orchestra. Wayne Senior re-arranged this for tentet and the results are amazing. Nathan caught every nuance of the tune as he built his improvisation around the rich voicings. I am in no doubt that the ‘Lament’ on ‘Vermillion Skies’ compares favourably with the best historic versions (Miles, JJ Johnson, Rahsaan Roland Kirk).
The performances on the album and at the various gigs have all been different. This is because it is Jazz where ‘you never play anything the same way once’ and because there have been personnel changes along the way. As leader and player, Nathan Haines always seems to squeeze that bit extra out of each performance. His intense focus on the tenor of late has been good for him and good for us as his approach to this material while fluid, never looses its edge. He is arriving at that enviable place where people will say after one bar, “oh….that has to be Nathan Haines”.
Kevin Field and Nathan go back a long way and their chemistry is evident. Kevin is the pianist of choice for many local and visiting bands. As an accompanist he never looses sight of what an accompanist is there for. He can shine during the piano solos, but his fills, deftly placed chords and subtle comping speak to his other strengths. It was often necessary for him to keep out-of-the-way of the other instruments (such as the horn section which occupied a register that he would normally utilise). Drummer Alain Koetsier returned to New Zealand for the recording and his drum chops and musicality had not subsided during his sabbatical away from Jazz performance. He is a fine musician and sorely missed on the Auckland scene now that he resides in China. The bass player Ben Turua is also rock solid on the recording. I have heard him play often but never better than here. Sadly he has since departed for Sydney, where he will no doubt flourish as do many Kiwi Jazz expats.
The departure of Alain Koetsier and Ben Turua left a gap and so the original recording lineup was amended for the gigs to include Stephen Thomas on drums and Cameron MacArthur on bass. I cannot speak highly enough of Stephen Thomas. He has been on the scene for a few years and if anyone was going to fill Alain’s shoes it would be him. He is a hard-working young drummer who demonstrates his passion and skill every time he sits at the kit. The other replacement was Cameron McArthur who is still a student at Auckland university. This was a big step up for him and he took it with ease. His bass solo at the ‘Q’ Theatre brought a huge applause and like Stephen Thomas we can expect great things of him.
This album marks another high watermark in New Zealand Jazz as it is brave enough to confront the past without being captured by it. Nathan Haines is heading back to London in a few weeks and we can’t begrudge him that. His ascendency offshore is our gain and we should never forget that these two great albums have been recorded in Auckland, New Zealand and with Kiwi musicians.
Who: The Nathan Haines Band. Album – Nathan Haines (tenor sax, vocals, leader, composer). Kevin Field (piano), Ben Turua (bass) , Alain Koetsier (drums), Joel Haines (guitar – 2,5), Leon Stenning (guitars -5), Mickey Utugawa (Drums – 5), Mike Booth (lead trumpet, flugal), Paul Norman (trumpet, flugal), David Kay (French horn), Simon Williams (French horn), Haydn Godfrey (trombone), John Gluyas (bass trombone), John Bell (vibraphone 2-5), ‘Big’ Cody Wilkington (steel guitar, vocals, percussion – 5), Wayne senior (arranger, session/launch gig conductor). ‘Q’ Theatre and later gigs replace Koetsier with Stephen Thomas (drums), replace Ben Turua with Cameron McArthur (bass).
Rebecca Melrose is fairly new to the Auckland scene but she is already gaining a reputation for excellence about town. Although young she has several recordings under her belt and her career is gaining momentum. She is a singer/songwriter with an engaging voice and this gives her considerable scope. It means that her own material gets aired alongside that of Gretchen Parlato and Esperanza Spalding during a gig. This was her second performance at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club)
Parlato and Spalding are clearly strong influences for her but she can also sing challenging standards from an earlier era. She not only choses well when adding standards but executes tricky numbers superbly. Like many emerging singers of the post millennium she has a multi genre appeal and whether she moves into a more ‘soul’ space is a moot point. On this night she was a primarily a jazz singer and if the enthusiasm of the audience is anything to go by that route will work very well for her.
Last year she was more tentative during her between number introductions, but that hesitancy has now fallen completely away. The Rebecca that we saw tonight was sassy, confident and on top of her game. She played with the audience and tried out various lines of patter. Not all of the jokey asides worked as intended (some went over very well) but it didn’t matter a damn and her good-natured handling of the audience captivated everyone. She is on the right track here and I encourage her to keep going in this vein. Music is a performance art after all and Jazz and banter go together like the reverse sides of a rich tapestry.
The last time I saw her perform she had Dixon Nacey on guitar and Andrew Keegan on drums. This time with a much bigger line up she utilised the additional scope that this afforded her . She performed several times with singer Chelsea Prastiti (once in duo doing the Esperanza Spalding arrangement of the Jobim Tune ‘Inutil Paisagem‘ – which was magical to say the least ). In other numbers as a quartet, quintet or octet This set list struck out for higher ground and the risk paid off.
On trumpet and flugal was Liz Stokes, who stepped up with an impressive solo in the second set. Alex Ward did a great job on piano and especially on ‘Lush Life‘. I have not seen him play very often and enjoyed his contribution as he tackled numbers that were often demanding. It was also good to see Jarad Desvaux de Marigny (drums) and Eamon Edmunson-Wells (bass) teamed up again. This pair work extremely well together and have a more subtle colourist approach which is especially suited to singers and the less percussive of piano players. On guitar,Manaf Ibrahim and on Tenor Scott Thomas.
In guest spot was Callum Passells who played a couple of numbers which absolutely floored me; especially his masterful alto solo on ‘Lush Life‘. Every note in that solo was perfectly placed and with the rhythm section meeting the challenge, we were given a rare treat. I will say more about Lush life later.
Rebecca’s own compositions are interesting as are the modern standards she likes, but I have especially singled out the two older standards for praise. ‘Tea for Two‘ is not terribly challenging as written, but as a singer you immediately fall under the shadow of Ella, Anita and Frankie. The tune was written in 1930 by Tin Pan Alley song plugger Vincent Youmans,who was unsure if he liked it at first. The lyricist Irving Caesar later admitted that his lyrics were intended only as a stop-gap. they never were replaced thank goodness. The song is from the musical ‘No, No, Nanette‘ and it quickly became a runaway success. Why this song works so well for Jazz is exactly for the reason Youmans worried about it; a simple form. There is so much an improvising musician can do with it. Before long Art Tatum had played it (1933), Benny Goodman (1937), Fats Waller (1937), Django Reinhardt (1937), Dave Brubeck (1949), Bud Powell (1950) and Thelonious Monk 1963. The singers who performed it were legion but Anita O’Day absolutely tagged it as her own in ‘Jazz on a Summers Day‘. Rebecca quoted from Anita, took the number at the same fast pace, but wisely interpreted it in her own way.
The other track that I can’t resist posting is Rebecca’s ‘Lush Life‘ by Billy Strayhorn. This song is the antithesis of ‘Tea for Two‘ as it didn’t emerge from the Great American Songbook and it is very challenging to perform. To my sensibilities it is almost the perfect song. This is one of the great Jazz Standards and apart from Frank Sinatra’s version it has not been sung much outside of Jazz. Sinatra only performed it once and refused thereafter, which is one of the enigmas of his musical life. Recently unearthed rehearsal tapes from the recording session with Nelson Riddle provide an answer. He struggled with it and at one stage blamed fly dirt on the page for making ‘a very hard song harder’ (Google Sinatra, ‘Lush Life’ and you can hear that rehearsal).
The definitive version for most is probably the Johnny Hartman/John Coltrane Impulse recording (1958). My personal favourite is the more recent Fred Hersch /Andy Bey version (from the ‘Passion Flower’ album on Nonsuch) – quietly dedicated to gay Jazz musicians past and present. Strayhorn was of course an out-gay man at a time when this was almost unheard of. Ellington revered Strayhorn and regarded him as his chief calibrator (‘my other hand’). Oddly this tune which written in 1936 remained unperformed until 1948 when Strayhorn performed it in a duet with Kay Davis. The song was never adopted into the Ellington repertoire and did not become famous until the 50’s. Its gay innuendoes is probably one reason but its sophisticated complexity is certainly the other. Well done Rebecca and well done her accompanists’. Callum Passell’s alto solo was to die for as he breathed the musical history of the song into the solo. I liked the drums and bass contributions and especially Alex Ward’s sensitive but firm rendition.
Rebecca is a young woman with a big voice. It will be interesting to see whether she keeps her Jazz chops honed or whether she’s tempted toward singing mostly soul. Either way the best of luck to her.