Alan Brown trio + 1@ CJC Oct 2013

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.  IMG_8550 - Version 2

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.

Who: Alan Brown (SK2 Hammond organ), Dixon Nacey (guitar), Josh Sorenson (drums).

Where: The (CJC) Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885 building, Auckland 16th October 2013

Glen Wagstaff Project @ CJC

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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.  IMG_8416 - Version 2

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.  IMG_8377 - Version 2

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.  IMG_8390 - Version 2

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.

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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

Emerging Artists Series: Alex Ward / Allana Goldsmith

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. IMG_8310

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.

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Her band was Ben McNicholl (tenor sax), Dave Fisher (guitar), Cameron McArthur (bass), Jason Orme (drums).

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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

When: 11th September 2013

Trudy Lile Quartet @ CJC

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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.  IMG_8013 - Version 2

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

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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.

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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).

Where: The CJC (Creative Jazz Club) Brittomart 1885, Wednesday 7th August 2013.

Caitlin Smith @ CJC (with Kevin Field trio)

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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.

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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.

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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.  IMG_7830 - Version 2

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).

Where: The CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 1885 Building, Brittomart, Auckland.

Album: ‘Stories to Tell: The Thorndon Project’  PVINZ imprint – available from www.caitlinsmith.com

Pretty in Blues – Molly Ringwald @ The Tuning Fork

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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 Prastiti band @ CJC

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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.

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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.

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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).

Rosie & The Riveters@CJC

Rosie & the Riveters

Rosie & the Riveters

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. IMG_7072 - Version 2

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). IMG_7053 - Version 2

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.IMG_7061 - Version 2 (1)

Vermillion Skies Launch – A Jazz April Highlight

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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’. IMG_5902 - Version 2

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.  644217_10152395531247588_299377990_n

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

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).

This is a Jazz April post – support Jazz April and International Jazz Day by visiting the Jazz Journalists Association website and JJA Facebook page

What & Where: ‘Vermillion Skies’ album gigs,  CJC (Creative Jazz Club) Brittomart, ‘Q’ Theatre Queen Street Auckland, various festivals and concerts.

Navareno Street audio clip:  

Rebecca Melrose Super Band @ CJC

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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.

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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.  IMG_6273

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.  IMG_6288 (1)

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).   IMG_6286 (1)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.

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Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 1885 Bar Auckland

When: 27th March 2013

Who: Rebecca Melrose Super Band