Backbeat Bar, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Concerts - visiting Musicians

Jay Rodriguez @ Backbeat Auckland

Jay 2019 (1)Anyone who saw Jay Rodriguez play the last time he was in town will have tripped over themselves to catch him again last week. Rodriguez is a talented and engaging improviser and when he steps onto the bandstand he wins hearts from the get-go. This seemingly innate ability arises from a keen understanding of what will work best with a particular audience. He picks ups on and feeds off the energies in the room. He is also a skilled technician, but he is not there to show off his undoubted chops. His purpose is to involve and to engage at the deepest level; offering musicians and audience alike an unforgettable musical experience.    

These days, dozens of talented musicians pour out of the prestigious Jazz schools and as good as they are, they often have a similar approach and sound. Over time the best of them shake this off, but it takes work and road experience to do so. While Rodriguez attended music school, he also gigged from a young age; cutting his musical teeth on the bandstand and learning his craft at the feet of masters (Tito D’Rivera, Phil Woods and Joe Henderson – playing lead alto with Tito Puente at 15 years of age). Those early days shaped his trajectory and enabled him to move effortlessly across the breath of the Jazz world – and later – traversing the wider music scene (Elvis Costello, Prince, Ribot etc).  You gain the impression that every day on the road added a certain something to his sound. He can channel a raw Texas tenor sound in the same gig as he has people swooning over a ballad.  Once this was a commonplace accomplishment, but as the old road warriors pass, we hear this stylistic breadth less and less.

Here I must offer a disclaimer; I was involved in this Auckland gig. Rodriguez had reached out and generously suggested that we could join forces, adding some spoken word into his show. We had a number of exchanges while he was touring with Marc Ribot (the Songs of Resistance project). Various ideas were canvassed – unlike many improvisers, he is experienced in working with poets as he has associated with many including the late lamented Amiri Baraka. From across the time zones, we explored possible rehearsal times and as is often the case, a quick rehearsal just before the gig was the only possible option. When it came to hiring the band, he made another generous suggestion; he was happy to have some younger and freer spirited musicians on board – in fact, he welcomed that. Crystal Choi and Eamon Edmundson Wells joined Ron Samsom as the core group, with special guests Jonathan Crayford and myself appearing on select numbers. 

Rodriguez is proficient on multi-reed and wind instruments and he frequently travels with most of them. This time he arrived with one flute, a soprano, and a tenor saxophone. When rehearsal time came he unpacked dozens of charts and spread them around clock fashion. My favourite author does this, slowly walking among short stories until an order is fixed. So it was with Rodriguez. We had been pre-warned that what was rehearsed would not necessarily be what was played, as he often changed things around as he read an audience (and often mid-tune by way of signals).

The setlist had a few well-chosen standards and of course, tunes from his critically acclaimed ‘Your Sound’ album.  Although he amended the setlist as the gig progressed and extended numbers, fusing the tunes into a heady new amalgam, the performance had a flow that was preternatural. Working with a musician like this and trusting his instincts to guide you forward is exhilarating. I know that the band enjoyed themselves – the gig became bigger than the individual musicians and that how good gigs should work.    

I have posted a longish clip from the gig, one which demonstrates the energies flowing between the musicians. The clip reminded me of the early Alice Coltrane projects. Deeply spiritual and unafraid to move with the vibe. Choi delighted the audience with her wholehearted engagement, moving from minimalist figures to crystalline arpeggios as the moment demanded. Edmundson Wells, like Choi, often appears on the avant-garde scene and was perfect for the gig.  Samsom, the other experienced hand, offered solid support, creating a cushion and a heartbeat. Last, but not least was Crayford, a generous enabler, a mentor to musicians like Choi. He would normally have appeared as the listed keyboardist, as he and Rodriguez have a deep friendship and they collaborate when they can. This time he was heavily engaged in a project of his own and arrived back in town hours before the gig. He waited out the first set, respecting the established line-up, joining the band with keys for the second. This added a whole new dimension to an already great gig – creating the broader palette that Rodriguez thrives on. The capacity audience reacted to every facet of the gig with enthusiasm and Rodriguez return is eagerly anticipated.

In my case, the overall experience was particularly rewarding – a true learning experience – note to self – let my spoken lines breathe more at the start. When you fit words around live music quick decisions are required, Sometimes you have mere seconds to judge the rhythms of an unfamiliar tune. An opportunity like this is rare and precious and I’m glad I took it.

Jay Rodriguez: (tenor & soprano saxophone, flute), Crystal Choi (piano), Eamon Edmundson Wells (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums, percussion), – guests Jonathan Crayford (keys), John Fenton (spoken word) – at ‘Backbeat’, CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 27 February, 2019 – Jef Rodriguez recent album ‘Your Sound’ is available on Amazon, through record stores or go to jayrodriguez.com

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CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Concerts - visiting Musicians, experimental improvised music

Simona Minns, Auckland 2019

Simona (1)This was New York artist, Simona Minns second visit to the CJC, her appearances occurring one year apart to the day. Her 2018 show ‘The Hunger Games’ referenced a Kafka short story. This tour was billed ‘My Urban Spells’, expanding her ever-evolving themes of universality and free-spirited improvisation.  Minns musical education and life, have gifted her with many powerful themes to draw upon and out of these, she has crafted a powerful synthesis. Her initial training as a classical Lithuanian Zither player is never far from what she does, but neither are the Jazz and Rock worlds she discovered when she emigrated to America.

Minns is a compelling performer and this underpins her shows. There is always an engaging theatrical element to her stage presence; something akin to an off-Broadway show. When you factor in her vocal chops, fine compositions, and originality you get an enjoyable whole. It is more than a mere cobbled eclecticism, it is well-judged performance art. Simona

Like last time, she was accompanied by Alan Brown on Keyboards, Cameron McArthur bass and Stephen Thomas on drums. Because this was the bands second time around (and because they can), they stretched out more and Minns let them, confident in their abilities.  Brown in particular is accustomed to reaching into new musical spaces. His beyond Jazz explorations into ambient and ethnic music equipping him perfectly.  Some of the tunes were standards reinterpreted, others were Jazz/Rock mash-ups with electric guitar (Minns). It was though, when she sang her own compositions in her own mother tongue that she shone brightest.  Her ethnically fused Jazz, enormously appealing.

Simona Minns (vocals, compositions, guitar, zither), Alan Brown (keyboards), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Stephen Thomas (drums) – Backbeat, CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 20 February 2019.

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Concerts - visiting Musicians

Matt Penman & Will Vinson

The year has barely begun but musically 2019 is proving to be auspicious. Having survived January’s mid-summer improvised-music drought, we were anxious for the gig season to resume.  Then, as if by magic, the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) was back in business again. With February the gigs came thick and fast. The first week brought us Chisholm/Meehan/Dyne/Dyne and two days later there was a special CJC event at the KMC. The event was titled Matt Penman & Will Vinson (with New Zealand friends).  Matt Penman is one of the worlds premier Jazz bass players and because he hails from our city, we claim him as ours to anyone who’ll listen. We speak of him with the same pride that we do when we mention the likes of Mike Nock or Alan Broadbent.  These are sons of Auckland and they rank among the finest of improvisers anywhere. A New York musician who I spoke with recently put it this way; there are a number of very good bass players in New York and then there are those like Penman who stand above the rest. Penman

The CJC gig was doubly special as Penman brought with him the London born altoist Will Vinson. Those who follow the Jazz Press or visit New York clubs will be familiar with this musician. He and a few of his compatriots are reviving the popularity of the alto saxophone and elevating it to new heights. Like Penman, Vinson has a number of well-received albums to his credit and the company he keeps on those albums and the quality of the offerings talks volumes. His tone is never harsh but it never-the-less has a particular bite to it. As the notes flow, and the ideas develop you sense rare confidence. It is the sort of confidence that can only emanate from a musician completely at one with his horn. Even the way he holds the horn is instructive. A saxophonist sitting next to me put it this way. ‘You can’t get a unique sound or flow of ideas like that unless body and horn are as one’.  The friends were, Kevin Field (piano), Steven Thomas (drums) and for one number Dixon Nacey (guitar). Field is no stranger to performing and recording with New York musicians (including Penman), Nacey is highly rated on the New Zealand music scene and the up and comer Thomas is eating up the competition as he rises like a rocket. The New Zealand cohort also have an interesting musical connection. The majority including Penman went through Avondale college. The far-reaching influence of gifted music teacher Paul Norman is astonishing. Together the band blazed like a perfect summers day and the gig was definitely one out of the bag.

The tunes played were from Matt Penman’s recent album ‘Good Question’, Will Vinson’s repertoire and to my joy the Tristanoite classic by Lee Konitz ‘Subconscious-Lee’. There are very few tunes that I like as much as that one and with the exception of Konitz’s own renditions, this version is truly the business. Subconscious-Lee’ was pianoless and rightly so – freeing Penman, Vinson, and Thomas to open out and enjoy the space. IMG_7562

Penman’s album ‘Good Question’ is a must purchase for all Jazz lovers. It is an in-the-moment testament from the New York scene and replete with the best of band mates. Penman has long been associated with Aaron Parks and on this album, Parks soars. Like Penman, he has an uncanny knack of making every voicing or phrase sound fresh. In this supportive role, he is also unafraid to fall back on delicate comping and minimalist painterly abstractions. The album also features tenor heavyweight Mark Turner, Obed Calvaire (bass), Nir Felder (guitar), Will Vinson (who was persuaded to exchange his alto for a soprano on track three) and Rogerio Boccato (percussion). There is so much to like about this album that I hardly know where to start. The track ‘Copeland’ is dazzling – a painting of a vast landscape, Big Tent, Little Tent is a deeply satisfying exploration of interplay. My favourite track, however, is ‘Blues & the Alternative Truth’ – a reference to the Oliver Nelson album ‘Jazz and the Abstract Truth’. To my ears, it also gives a gentle nod in the direction of Claude Thornhill’s 1941 standard Snowfall. This track like the album itself is a sonic journey and from start to finish, a pleasurable one.

‘Good Question’ was released by SSC Sunnyside Communications: To purchase go to www.mattpenman.bandcamp.com  – The gig was at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) Auckland, Feb 2019.

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Concerts - visiting Musicians, vocal

Vivian Sessoms CJC 2018

Vivian (3)When the Soulful vocalist Vivian Sessoms visited in June last year, we were stunned by her voice and by her powerhouse delivery. We seldom get to experience American R & B styled vocalists in New Zealand and if we do we never see them in intimate settings like the Backbeat Bar. Her voice carries the history of her music and her vocal range and control are approaching the operatic. Sessoms is a vocalist with serious chops and an interesting backstory. Last week she returned.

Since her last visit, she has released a Soul/Jazz album titled ‘Life’. The album is receiving favorable attention and it is not surprising that she has been picked up by the Ropeadope recording label. During her two Auckland gigs, she performed a number of tunes from the album; including a few that were recorded at the same time and will likely appear on a future release. The first set opened with her take on the Stevie Wonder classic ‘I can’t help it’. This was pure R & B, but the set swiftly dived into bold reharmonisations of Jazz standards plus one or two pop tunes (‘Love is a losing game’ – Amy Winehouse and ‘Under the Cherry Moon’ – Prince). Vivian (1)

The Standards in that set were the lovely ‘Stella by Starlight’ (Victor Young), ‘Lush Life (Billy Strayhorn) and ‘The Waters of March’ (Tom Jobim). All of the above were reharmonised and made fresh. ‘Lush Life’ conveyed that sad world-weary vibe that Strayhorn penned so well and ‘The Waters of March’ (Aguas de Marco) was sung in English.  Jobim wrote both the Portuguese and the English lyrics and the song is a masterpiece. Sessoms infused it with a subtlety reflecting modern American life. When she came to the line ‘the shot of a gun, in the dead of the night’ you picked that up immediately and understood her message.Vivian (4)

Sessoms is an activist for civil rights and this thread runs through all of her shows (and the ‘Life’ album).  Last time she came to New Zealand it was her ‘I can’t breathe’ number – this time it was her take on ‘People (make the world go round)’, a tune made popular by the Stylistics  (composed by Thom Bell + Linda Creed). Before the tune, she spoke a little of her life growing up in Harlem and how normalised that daily struggle was to African-American people at that time. This tune in her hands was a plea for people to do better and to fight on until equality is a reality, not just a distant hope. An interesting song choice which got the Sessoms treatment was ‘I who have nothing’. We associate it with Shirley Bassey or Joe Cocker but long before that Ben E King released it. Actually, it is an old Italian song titled ‘Uno Dei Tanti’ (by Carlo Denida).

This time Sessoms had her husband Chris Parks touring with her. Parks is a well-known bassist and producer on the New York scene and on the album, he is co-credited in all of the arrangements. Parks played a punchy electric bass, Jonathan Crayford and Ron Samsom were the band members for this gig, Crayford having accompanied her convincingly last time she came.

The album is widely available and I have included a Spotify clip from ‘Life’. Her take on Strange Fruit is the standout for me. A harrowing song based on the poem by Abel Meeropol and made famous by Billie Holiday. In light of recent comments made during the US primaries and on the banners of the Alt-Right, these issues are scandalously still with us. I have also put up a clip from the gig – ‘Waters of March’ (the sound quality is quite good but the glare of the spotlights affected the focus slightly in places).

Life Tour: Vivian Sessoms (vocals), Chris Parks (electric bass), Jonathan Crayford (keys), Ron Samsom (drums) – Backbeat Bar for the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 22nd November 2018).

 

Big Band, Concerts - visiting Musicians, Swing, USA and Beyond

Basie Orchestra’s Auckland gig 2018

Basie (1)There are a number of things that should be on every music lovers bucket list. Experiencing a Basie Orchestra gig live is one of them. This band has the history of modern music in its DNA and after 83 years on the road, they are in their prime.  Goodman was always referred to as the ‘king of swing’ but in my view Basie was a better contender for that title. His brand of swing had it’s nascent stirrings in 1927 when Basie joined Bennie Moten. When that band folded he took many of the musicians with him to form the Basie Band in 1935. The Basie band possessed a unique sound, fueled by a nine-piece line up featuring legendary greats like Lester Young, ‘Papa’ Jo Jones and Walter Page. Johnny Hammond heard them in 1936 and invited them to New York where at his suggestion they expanded to become a thirteen piece jazz Orchestra. At this time they were joined by Freddie Green and others. Skillfully, they incorporated the nimbleness of the Kansas City small ensemble swing-feel into a new sound.

When we listened to the Orchestra in Auckland a few nights ago, every iteration of their 83 years was touched upon. Early and contemporary charts, the gorgeous highly arranged charts from Neil Hefti, Frank Foster and Quincey Jones ‘second testament’ era, some newly arranged material, plus a fabulous tribute to the Basie/Amstrong/Fitzgerald collaborations. Giving added weight to that celebration was the inclusion of vocalist Carmen Bradford. Bradford was originally hired by Basie himself and so she has a long association with the orchestra. Hers is a big voice and an instrument perfectly suited to Ella’s songbook. She is a Jazz vocalist in the traditional sense and it is no wonder that Basie gave her a shot.  At times she sang duets with various of the band members, but it was when she and Scotty Barnhart got together that the sparks really flew. Basie (3).jpg

Barnhart, a two times Grammy winner is the musical director of the Basie orchestra and a featured soloist. His Louis Armstrong tribute captured not just ‘Pops’ but the great man’s contemporaries, an often overlooked cohort who deserve to be examined more often than they are. Modern trumpet styles are a long way removed from the street rich dirty growls and blues-infused storytelling of those times. A sound which always communicated a world of raw emotion and deep humanity. As the tribute tunes moved through the era, we heard everything from the lighter-hearted ‘A Tisket a Tasket’ (a traditional nursery rhyme), to Gershwin classics like  ‘A Foggy Day in London Town’ or ‘Summertime’.  Some of the numbers predated the Basie bands like ‘Struttin With Some Barbecue’ (Armstrong 1927) while others were more contemporary like the gorgeous arrangement of Stevie Wonders ‘Ma Cherie Amour’.

Among the most enjoyable moments were the sensitive trio rendition of ‘Hello Dolly’ (Herman) and the ever wonderful and always compelling Hefti arrangement of ‘April in Paris’ (Duke/Harburg). Doug Lawrence the tenor soloist astounded as always (I was sitting next to a young tenor player and his jaw dropped in amazement during Lawrence’s solos). These musicians are so tight that an atomic blast couldn’t separate them and they swing like crazy.  I guess 84 years on the road will do that.  I have seen this orchestra before and with any luck, I will see it again and again.  There is only one thing you can say in summing up a Basie Orchestra performance; “ONE MORE TIME – please”.

The concert took place at the Aotea Centre, Auckland City, New Zealand, July 30, 2018

Backbeat Bar, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Concerts - visiting Musicians, vocal

Berardi/Foran/Karlen – NZ tour

KBerardi (1)When Kristin Berardi, Sean Foran and Raphael Karlen started to play I knew exactly what I was hearing. It was modern and original and it rekindled fond memories of the Winstone/Wheeler/Taylor group Azimuth. A world of beautifully crafted harmonies communicating their message with effortless clarity; the individual voices of the musicians hovering in the air like free spirits but interconnecting in profound ways. There was also a  contemplative essence to their music which took us deep inside the music, a quiet centre that emanated strength and vibrancy. This fine balance of opposites was evident throughout – it was a performance to remember for its soul touching beauty.

This was the band’s first stop on a whirlwind tour of New Zealand and as soon as the weather gods realised that Queenslanders were approaching they behaved capriciously. As Brisbaneites, imagine the shock of leaving 24-degree temperatures, only to be greeted in Auckland by an unseasonable 13 degrees. Berardi told us that her under-utilised ‘warm coat’ was finally getting an outing. The temperature shock certainly didn’t hold the trio back, and those who braved the wet and cold were well rewarded for their perseverance. KBerardi

Berardi, Foran and Karlen are well-respected musicians in their own right. All are well recorded and between them, they have many significant music awards. This project is their first collaboration as a trio and their recent album titled ‘Hope in your pocket’ was available at the gig. That album has a particular theme as it captures the dislocation and poignancy of Australian family life during WW1: a mothers letter to a 15-year son who had enlisted far too young,  a soldier struggling to comprehend the wasteland of the European battlefields, a nurses story, a family holding fast to hope.KBerardi (3)

Many of the tunes were based on actual letters written at the time. All of them moving and all disquietening. Perhaps to leaven the mood, a few older or more recent compositions featured. For example, the first number of the first set, Berardi’s ‘Revolving Doors’. I have posted that clip here as it was simply stunning. Later when talking to the pianist Foran I mention Azimuth and he acknowledged the trios debt to that music. He was once a pupil of the lost lamented John Taylor and very familiar with the northern European Jazz scene. Foran is a gifted educator and a pianist with a beautifully light touch. He has interesting things to say musically and his minimalism is exactly right for this trio.

The vocalist Berardi is highly regarded in Australia. Among her successes are two Bell awards and the best vocalist award at Montreux. On a subsequent Montreux visit, she accompanied Al Jarreau and George Benson. She also completed a project with the inimitable Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra. The saxophonist Raphael Karlen is another gifted musician – also the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships. Together they are formidable. For those in Wellington or Christchurch about to attend the gigs, savour it. For those who are tossing up whether to go – make the effort. You won’t regret it. IMG_0433

Kristin Berardi (compositions, vocals), Sean Foran (compositions, piano), Raphael Karlen (compositions, tenor saxophone). The performance was at the Backbeat Bar, CJC Creative Jazz Club, May 23rd, 2018.

Concerts - visiting Musicians, Lewis Eadys, New Zealand Jazz Gigs, Piano Jazz

Michal Martyniuk Trio + Jakub Skowronski

Martyniuk (1)When Michal Martyniuk left Auckland for Poland last year, it was hot on the heels of a successful appearance at Java Jazz; the biggest Jazz festival in the world.  It was always on the cards that Martyniuk’s Auckland trio would fare well, as they are the epitome of an inventive, high energy unit and all of that is wrapped up in a very European sound.

While it was obvious to Kiwis and to the enthusiastic Java Jazz festival goers, I wondered how Martyniuk would be received in Europe. I have travelled there often and there are thousands of good Jazz musicians and many fine trios vying for attention. Jazz is valued there, especially in the northeast, and audiences are inclined to be very discriminating. I got my answer shortly after Martyniuk’s arrival, as notifications of media events, club gigs, radio and TV interviews started appearing. He had broken through the clamour and received acclaim in his birthplace. His co-released warm as toast Jazz-soul-funk album ‘After ‘Ours’ and his Jazz gigs, equally acclaimed.  Martyniuk (2)

The journey back to the country of his birth had been important for Martyniuk and he has returned with heightened confidence, exuding a sense that anything is possible. This was evidenced by the trio’s live performance at the Lewis Eady showroom. Many New Zealand improvising bands have a laid back organic feel as that is generally our thing. In contrast, this band is tightly focussed, but without that in any way detracting from its appeal. The tunes by Martyniuk are melodic and often rhythmically complex. This is counterbalanced nicely by Samsom and McArthur who create contrast and interwoven texture. The first set was a mix of old and new tunes. His older tunes like The Awakening and New Beginning, familiar in the same way standards are – always pleasing, always yielding up something fresh. His more recent compositions a mix of burners and ballads. Martyniuk (3)

The Lewis Eady gig was augmented by the addition of visiting Polish saxophonist Jakub Skowronski. Skowronski has a beautiful even tone on tenor and like Samsom and McArthur, he’s the perfect foil for Martyniuk. While he made it all look effortless, his solos took us deep inside the music. These guys were made to play together and I hope they remain a unit. They have a lot more to tell us yet and with any luck, we will get to enjoy the continuing story as it unfolds. Those who wish to be part of this journey can contribute via a recently set up ‘Kickstarter’ campaign following this link. There was some really exciting new material recorded in Poland over the last year and the Kickstarter campaign is about getting that released into the world. No one ever regretted supporting great music like this.

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Michal Martyniuk (piano, compositions, leader), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums, percussion) + Jakub Skowronski (tenor). You can follow this band and order albums from Empire Agency Co. Bands / Michal Martyniuk Trio