Umar Zakaria is an easy-going soul, but on the bandstand, he is a sonic warrior. He evokes a Mingus like presence with his powerful resonating bass lines; pushing, urging, as he rides the momentum. Although he was situated behind the horn line, his presence was palpable. You could see him dancing in the shadows, as his bass moved frenetically, and your ears took you straight to the nexus of fingers and strings.
It is good to see that a band arising from Zakaria’s award-winning Fearless Music album survives. The album was marvellous and I would urge anyone who has not checked it out to do so. It brought a new perspective to New Zealand’s Jazz scene and one which we embraced. The album won the 2018 Jazz Tui against some very stiff opposition and deservedly so. It was a showcase for Zakaria’s compelling compositions, which drew upon the music of his Malaysian roots. It was a quartet featuring Roger Manins, Leo Coghini and Luther Hunt.
The current Fearless Music Collective has an expanded lineup. This time, there was a four-piece horn-line and that opened up new possibilities. Zakaria’s arrangements, in particular, were impressive, as the players were given room to interact organically. It was nowhere more evident than on ‘Deadline’ with its textural qualities and interwoven communicability. It kept to a simple theme but told a big story. It was slick and appealing, but with a controlled raggedness that you usually find in a New Orleans street-band (or in a Mingus ensemble).
The over-arching kaupapa of any collective is to provide a vehicle for its members to contribute, and they did. The compositions were varied in nature and often quirky, like the trombone players ’See You on the Launchpad’. Others were more reflective like Zakaria’s ‘100 Homes’, evoking the impermanence of his student years. Apart from the leader’s tunes, I was impressed by the pianist’s tune ‘Well Kept’, and the trumpeter’s titled ‘Freight Train’. The latter was a recreation of the trumpet led Hard-Bop era and it crackled with life. It is good to see young trumpet and trombone players coming through. Compared to Australia, New Zealand has lagged behind.
Throughout, however, it was the powerful presence of the bass which guided and spoke from the music’s heart. It was not that the bass overwhelmed, but that it spoke with such authoritative clarity. It was obviously a bass players band, and no one would wish it otherwise. The album can be sourced from https://www.umarzakaria.com or purchased from NZ retail outlets.
The Fearless Music Collective: Umar Zakaria (bass), George McLaurin (piano), James Guilford (trumpet), Martin Greshoff (trombone), Nicholas Baucke-Maunsell (alto saxophone), Aiden McCulloch (tenor saxophone), James Feekes (drums).
The gig took place at Anthology K’Road for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, December 9, 2020JazzLocal32.com was rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association.Many of these posts also appear on Radio13
Last weeks CJC/Anthology gig brought the Christchurch Brad Kang/ Jimmy Rainey duo to Auckland. While I have heard both artists before, this gig was a step up for them. Both looked comfortable on the bandstand and their confidence was justified. It is always a pleasure to witness early promise being realised and while neither could be considered veterans, both have received a measure of favourable attention. Both are well travelled and tested in the wider Jazz world.
I am more familiar with guitarist Kang as he has gigged in Auckland several times. The last time he played here he was just about to depart for the USA and that and his other trips have yielded dividends. He was always a competent player but a noticeable change has occurred. He is now playing fewer notes and the way he phrases resonates. I know that he has studied with Mike Moreno and it showed. The virtuosity is still there, but never at the expense of the music itself.
The last time I heard Rainey was at a CJC emerging artists gig but much has happened since then. He has benefited from overseas experience and his exposure to new ideas; particularly in his writing. This is a duo that writes to their strengths and because they understand that, they can play up a storm in consequence. At one point Rainey studied in Amsterdam, a Jazz loving genre-diverse proving ground. Anyone who has attended ‘Bim’ gigs will know what I mean. There’s a lot of freedom and innovation happening in that city.
From the first to the last tune they held us. The tunes while of varying tempos and alternating between the two composers, all spoke of the now. This is the type of music that is owned by younger players. It was unselfconsciously forward-looking and immediately brought ‘James Farm’ to mind. It did not lean heavily on harmony but the harmonic development was implied; there were clean unison lines and above all, the melody dominated. It was evident on the tune Spiral, where the cascade of lines emerged in sonic waves, while behind them piano, bass and drums carved up the rhythms.
And this was made possible by the skilled anchoring of Tom Botting’s bass lines and by the steady pulse from drummer Adam Tobeck. With Field, comping minimally the effect was enhanced. Wise heads and good players always adjust to accommodate. If he was alive today, it is tempting to think that Tristano might have embraced this direction?
The first tune Herfst was a majestic and evocative composition by Rainey. Herfst is a Dutch word meaning August (majestic and the season). This was a good warm-up tune as it gave us an idea of what would follow and the course once set, remained steady. Other tunes that Rainey penned were ‘Daze’ and ‘jubilate’. As well as the piece that I have posted on YouTube (Spiral), Kang composed ‘Passing Thoughts’ ‘A Quiet Place’ and ’Five Five Four’.
Brad Kang|guitar, Jimmy Rainey|tenor saxophone, Kevin Field|piano, Tom Botting|bass, Adam Tobeck|drums. The gig took place at Anthology K’Road for the CJC Creative Jazz Club October14, 2020
JazzLocal32.com was rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association.Many of these posts also appear on Radio13.co.nz – check it out.
As our local pandemic restrictions were lifted, so our spirits rose, and the easing brought us, welcome travellers, from Wellington. It felt like our old lives were creeping back, but we should not underestimate how difficult these lockdowns have been for musicians. They are performing again, but with fewer venues, and reduced availability of flights. To top that there is the perpetual hassle of finding affordable accommodation. Because this is a new reality, music lovers need to redouble their commitment; religiously attending gigs, purchasing albums and getting the word about town. Luckily, Jazz audiences get that and there was a solid audience on Wednesday.
The Band is named JCJ, which may or may not be a play on Auckland’s CJC Jazz Club; it does, however, align with the initials of the co-leaders forenames: Jasmine Lovell-Smith, Callum Allardice and Jake Baxendale. Together they represent a formidable presence on the bandstand with their international experience, various awards and accolades. In addition, the gig leaned heavily on their much-vaunted compositional skills. All have appeared on successful albums but never together as a co-led unit.
The soprano is Lovell-Smith’s primary horn and it shows. She is dextrous and inventive, she conveys deep emotion or surprises, but of equal appeal is her tone. There is a depth to it and because of that, she can move from the reflective to the edgy as naturally as breathing. When you hear her playing a ballad, it is tempting to think, how beautiful — that’s her forte then; but she will play completely free on the next number. I have heard her in a free ensemble and she’s as comfortable there as when tugging at the heartstrings with a lovely folksy ballad.
Baxendale like his co-leaders is Wellington-based and we have seen him in a variety of visiting bands since the Creative Jazz Club’s earliest days. Aucklanders will likely associate him with ‘The JAC’ ‘Antipodes’ or ‘The Troubles’, but he has fronted or played in a number of Wellington bands. He is primarily regarded as an alto player, but on this gig, he played mainly bass clarinet. The instruments earthy underpinning, providing a lush cushion beneath the airy registers of the soprano and guitar.
Allardice has had a long and fruitful association with Baxendale. They often share a bandstand, they have toured together, and both have won prestigious awards. I have always liked his tone on guitar, which is best described as silken. The first time I heard him perform there was an unmistakeable Rosenwinkel influence, but now I am hearing an original voice. His compositional skills have always been a forte and these were very much in evidence during this gig.
The set opened with a gorgeous number by Lovell-Smith. It was titled ‘leaves of grass’ and its Whitman reference was apt. Whitman was the bravest of poets and a favourite with Jazz composers (‘I Sing the Body Electric’ Weather Report or tributes by Fred Hersch). And this was not the only literary reference by Lovell-Smith as a later tune was titled ‘The Pillow Book’ — this had an appropriately Japanese vibe. Her other tune ‘Song for May’ is a stunner. I have heard it before as it is on her New York album ‘Towering Poppies’. I would have put it up as a video, but a music stand had obliterated all view of her (note to artists: if you are being filmed, angle the music stands sideways or keep them low).
Allardice’s compositions were as intriguing as ever, his moody ‘Dark Love’ and especially his upbeat tune with a beautifully memorable intro titled ‘Peaceful’. Baxendale brought some great tunes as well, and as he often does, he injected some off-beat humour. A tune titled ’Sleep (a glimpse of Plimpse)’ recounted a guilt-wracked dream. His tune ‘The Test’ was all that remained, of a failed attempt to break into the fantasy gaming genre (I think that I got that right). It was free-ranging and delightful and I have put that up as a video clip.
The pick-up rhythm section were Aucklanders. All three have been delighting Auckland audiences for years. To have them playing together and bouncing off a Wellington lineup was a rare treat. Firstly, Crystal Choi, who never puts a foot wrong and who is one of Auckland’s most inventive pianists. She is similar to her bass playing friend and bandmate, Eamon Edmundson Wells. Both lean heavily toward the avant-garde. On drums, there was Julien Dyne. Dyne is a powerhouse drummer and his beyond-genre approach allows him to excel in any given situation. These three are the other reason that I put up ‘The Test’ video clip. This is a space that the Aucklanders relish, and the Wellingtonians matched them note for note. A little freedom never hurts a gig.
JCJ were Jasmine Lovell-Smith (soprano saxophone), Jake Baxendale (alto saxophone & bass clarinet), Callum Allardice (guitar) with – Crystal Choi (piano), Eamon Edmundson Wells (bass) and Julien Dyne (drums). The gig was held at Anthology, CJC Creative Jazz Club, K’Road, Auckland October 7, 2020.
JazzLocal32.com was rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association.Many of these posts also appear on Radio13.co.nz – check it out.
My normal weekly post has been sitting in my ‘drafts’ folder for over two weeks. Since writing it, my attention has been focused elsewhere. Although in isolation, I am not referring to my personal situation but to the J JA‘Jazz on Lockdown’ project which has rallied Jazz Journalists from every corner of the globe and asked them to respond collectively to the pandemic. My colleagues and I are now working together using an online workspace and our individual blogs may be delayed. Those who are able to have volunteered to join an editing working group as we grapple with the challenges of a fast-moving situation. This is a Jazz Journalists Association project aimed at keeping improvised music current and to get updates to and from countries on lockdown.
Because of that, Spain first captured our attention. When the virus hit, a popular Jazz musician succumbed and soon every resident was under lockdown. As the virus spread, so did our focus and within days the problem had reached every country. One by one the great Jazz centres like New York closed and the iconic and much-loved Jazz clubs closed with them. When the city that never sleeps locks down, you know that you have urgent work to do. Jazz Journalists are not going to sit around moping; nor will we restrict ourselves to watching another era’s YouTube clips. It is the current musicians who need us the most. We are learning new ways of working and it is our intention to direct you to live gigs or the gigs of working musicians where we can.
We need Jazz fans and Improvised alternative music fans to keep buying current albums. If there is a live-stream concert with a tip-button give them a few dollars. This is a new version of the pass-the-bucket tradition which goes back to the earliest days of Jazz. Many of the live-streamed concerts will be free, some could be pay-per-view. Buy their music and on Bandcamp or their website if possible. ‘Jazz on Lockdown’ will inform you of the links.
The week before the virus arrived was a week of plenty in Auckland, but the above-named artists did not all appear in the same band. Nor at the same gig. They probably won’t mind if you think that though. Attending Ronnies a few years ago, I caught English pianist Kit Downes at the late show. This followed a sold-out earlier show featuring Kurt Elling. I informed Downes that my write up would begin ‘Elling opens for Downes at Ronnie Scotts’. He liked that.
Arriving in a rush, as if waiting for the cooler weather came Pat Metheny, Steve Barry, Mark de Clive-Lowe, Alchemy, Callum Passells, Trudy Lyle, Simona Smirnova, and Michael Martyniuk gigs. As always, painful choices were required.
Steve Barry Trio: Barry left Auckland many years ago; settling in Sydney and returning yearly to perform. Each time he visited there were new directions on offer, highly original material and each iteration offering glimpses of lesser-known composers. His recent albums have taken him into deeper waters still, moving beyond the mainstream. For those of us who like adventurous music, they have been compelling. Two albums were released last year. The first is on Earshift Music and the second on Rattle; both available on Bandcamp.
‘Blueprints and Vignettes’ trod a path reminiscent of 60’s Bley; boldly striking out for freer territory and edging its way confidently into the classical minimalist spaces. That album was followed by ‘Hatch’ which is an astonishing album of stark pared-back beauty. It is an album pointing to new possibilities in improvised music. This concert felt more exploratory, with denser compositions and jagged Monk-like moments. He played one Monk tune halfway through and this reinforced the connection.
Mark de Clive-Lowe: It was barely six months ago since de Clive-Lowe passed through Auckland during his ‘Heritage’ album release tour. He attracted capacity audiences then (and now). After years of living away from his home city, he is now reconnected to the Auckland improvised music scene and we hope that he will maintain that link. Having a room like ‘Anthology’ certainly helped, as its capacity is significant. During this tour, he treated us to a wider range of his innovative music; especially his Church Sessions. Showcasing the genre-busting underground gigs that he began in LA and which spread like wildfire throughout the world; giving fresh impetus to the improvised music scene and the endless possibilities looking forward.
On tour with de Clive-Lowe was the respected LA drummer Brandon Combs. A drummer who can hold down a groove beat while working it every which way; able to interact intuitively with the electronic beats generated by de Clive-Lowe as he dances across the multitude of keyboards and devices. Together with locals Nathan Haines and Marika Hodgson, they created wizardry of the highest order. This artist is the wizard of hybridity and we are happy to remind people that he came from this city. Live re-mix, dance, groove beats, jazz, whatever: it has all been captured, mined for its essence and released for our pleasure.
Alchemy Live: This was the first live performance of the ‘Alchemy’ project. It followed the successful release of the eponymous album which got good airplay and deserves ongoing attention. The concept was the brainchild of producer Mark Casey and its realisation by the musical director and Jazz pianist Kevin Field. The pianist has created some truly fine Jazz charts and the assemblage of musicians he brought into the project brought it home in spades. The tunes have been selected from the New Zealand songbook. Perennially popular and chart-busting classics like ‘Royals’ and ‘Glad I’m not a Kennedy’. Artists as diverse as Herbs, Split Enz and Phil Judd. Because of mounting travel restrictions, several of the artists on the recording were replaced for the live gig. New to us, was Jazz student vocalist Rachel Clarke and she won us over that night.
Pat Metheny: This concert had been long anticipated and it was only the second time that he has appeared in New Zealand. In spite of the looming health scare, the town hall was packed. This was a retrospective of sorts as it featured his best-known tunes. Who would not want to hear a fresh version of Song for Balboa or the joyous ‘Have you Heard’? I loved the concert but two quibbles. I didn’t like the way the piano was miked and mixed except for one number. Gwilym Simcock is a great pianist. It would be nice to hear him in a trio and with an acoustically mic’d up Steinway. The star of the show (Pat aside) was bass player Linda May Han Oh. How stunningly melodic and how sensitive she was in each situation she encountered; solos to die for.
Simona Smirnova: This was Smirnova’s third trip to Auckland. By the time she had arrived in the country, people were becoming cautious about attending crowded gigs. She still attracted a good audience and those who did come were delighted with her show. The setlist was similar to her last year’s show but in the bigger Anthology venue, it sounded stronger. Smirnova interacts extremely well with audiences and they respond in kind. Her beautiful ballads (accompanied on the Lithuanian Kanklas) and her upbeat Slavonic styled scatting were the highlights. Her material is delightfully exotic, being an original blend of Jazz, Lithuanian folk music and beyond. Her voice is simply beautiful and her zither playing beguiling. She was accompanied by Auckland veterans Alan Brown on keys, Cam McArthur on bass and this time, Jono Sawyer on drums & vocals). I have some nice footage which says it best.
Michal Martyniuk: The last gig I attended before isolating myself was the Michal Martyniuk Trio. I did not have video equipment with me but I captured the concert in high-quality audio. I will post on that shortly and will be adding sound clips. You can purchase Michal Martyniuk’s albums at michalmartyniuk.bandcamp.com His ‘Resonance’ album review can be viewed on this site if you enter his name in the search button.
‘Jazz On Lockdown‘ posts will now move to the principle page and the Jazz on Lockdown page will feature information and links from around the world as the information comes in.
The lockdowns won’t stop jazz! To assist musicians who’ve had performances canceled, get their music heard around the globe. The Jazz Journalists Association created a Jazz on Lockdown: Hear It Here community blog. For more click through to https://news.jazzjournalists.org/category/jazz-on-lockdown/.
The artists featured were:
Steve Barry (piano), Jacques Emery (bass), Alex Inman Hislop (drums),
Mark de Clive-Lowe (keys), Brandon Combes (drums), Marika Hodgson (bass), Nathan Haines (saxophones).
Marjan Nelson (v) Allana Goldsmith (v) Chelsea Prastiti (v) Lou’ana Whitney (v) Rachel Clarke (v) Kevin Field (piano), Roger Manins (saxophone), Mike Booth (trumpet), Mostyn Cole (bass) Ron Samsom (drums), Stephen Thomas (drums)
Pat Metheny, Gwilym Simcock, Antonio Sanchez, Linda May Han Oh
Simona Smirnova (v, Kanklas) Alan Brown (piano, keys), Cameron McArthur (bass), Jono Sawyer (drums).
Michal Martyniuk (piano), Cameron McArthur (drums), Ron Samsom (drums).
Norman Meehan and Hayden Chisholm are always well received when they perform at Aucklands CJC Creative Jazz Club. There have been various iterations of their line ups over recent years and all of them compelling in different ways. The Unwind quartets attract big audiences and rightly so. This particular band was co-led by Chisholm, Meehan and Griffin, with Julien Dyne and Cameron McArthur rounding off the quintet. I was particularly delighted to see Hannah Griffin on the bill, as she occupies a unique and interesting musical space among improvising vocalists. The gig showcased iconic twentieth century New Zealand poets and Griffin’s impressive vocal skills were exactly what was required.
Jazz lovers of a certain age often categorise vocalists according to how well they enunciate their lines. Whether that is important or not is debatable and it depends very much on context. I am generally more focused on phrasing and time feel and I like to hear a word stretched to fit an interpretation. If it’s a standard, then we know the words and having them messed with is part of the joy. I also listen to a lot of wordless vocal improvisors like Sidsel Endresen.
When it comes to interpreting poems though, the clarity of the words does matter and Hannah Griffin gave a master class in balancing the many aspects of vocalisation. She does not merely intone a poem, she is part of the band and her melodicism is paramount in the mix. She can enunciate and still pay phrasing its due.
The first thing about this band is the way they respond to each other, sometimes finishing each others musical sentences. This seamless interaction is especially evident between the three leaders. Meehan is a master of understatement and his gentle swing can quickly bring a smile. His default minimalism always serves the music well but it is on reflection that you realise just how powerful and judiciously placed those chords and sparkling runs are. He doesn’t require a percussive touch to make a big statement. I suspect that most of the arrangements are his as well.
Chisholm always takes your breath away and from the first note, the emotional content in his playing is quite unmistakable. This is the sort of gorgeous alto playing seldom heard and you dwell on each note and phrase, marvelling at the purity of tone and the compelling story telling. His ability to deploy his multi-phonic technique, simply jaw dropping.
The other thing which grabs you is the sheer beauty of the bands sound. By that, I do not mean just pretty for it goes well beyond that. All of the emotions are engaged and the effect on a room is noticeable. Dyne is a popular local drummer who works across genres and who is sought after around town. He has played with Meehan and Chisholm previously. Griffen has appeared predominantly with Meehan and in gigs similar to this. McArthur was the new-comer to this particular lineup but you wouldn’t think so. His reading abilities and his intuitive grasp of the music maintaining his usual high standard.
At the previous Griffin, Chisholm, Meehan gig the band had Bill Manhire on stage, and as icing on the cake he introduced the poems. Gigs like that are hard acts to follow, but fast forward to 2020 and the band more than pulled it off. By extending the range of poets and poems our interest was engaged in new ways. My greatest pleasure was hearing more poems by the much lamented Dave Mitchell. More gigs like that please. You can purchase albums featuring these artists from Rattle Records at rattle-records.bandcomp.com
JazzLocal32.com was rated as one of the 50 best Jazz blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association.
It is seldom that we encounter a critically acclaimed New York Jazz Trumpeter with an Auckland tour itinerary, but this week the drought was broken. Charlie Porter is a versatile musician and one with impeccable credentials. He is a Grammy-winning artist whose star is on the rise. When you check out his bio you learn many things of interest, for instance, that he has parallel careers in Jazz and classical. The inclusion of Auckland was partly down to bass player Mat Fieldes (and of course Roger Manins). Fieldes is a popular musician who has recently returned from a long stint in New York and he has worked with Porter previously. Sharing the top billing was Grammy-nominated New York drummer David Rozenblatt. Rozenblatt is another musician who works across genres and like Porter, his Jazz chops are something to behold.
I arrived early and watched the brief rehearsals, noting that Porter exhibited a focussed down-to-business demeanour on the bandstand. The sort of discipline you need to survive in New York. As soon as he was satisfied he smiled and thanked the musicians, then moving among those setting up the club, he introduced himself, friendly and relaxed. These are the hallmarks of the professional. Playing with an unfamiliar rhythm section may be commonplace in Jazz but pulling together a good performance while on the road, and with pick-up musicians requires a good leader. Porter and Rozenblatt share a history, performing together often. The remainder of the group were Mat Fieldes (bass) and Dixon Nacey (guitar). The latter was meeting the two New Yorkers for the first time.
Porter possesses a fulsome clean tone (think Brownie), but his rich strong sound can change in an instant when he swoops to the lower register, his trumpet emitting a dirty growl and rises as the bell emits a cascade of fluttering squeaks. While the growls and flutters are not dominant features of his playing they add vital splashes of contrast and colour. You can hear the deep south in his sound, and especially New Orleans, but on upbeat numbers, he can edge closer to the second Miles quintet. The elided phrases, the sting. His compositional strength was on show as well and although there were a variety of moods there was a logical arc to the setlist. His eponymous new album has the same logical progression and on that, there is an even greater stylistic variance. He is not a slave to style or even genre and perhaps this why he sounds so fresh.
When performing before an audience Porter exudes easygoing confidence, that belies his years. Such confidence is usually found in older musicians, but check out his story and all of the above makes perfect sense. He was trained in classical trumpet and won a Fulbright scholarship to study in Paris, he was mentored by Winton Marsalis and is connected spiritually to the music of the deep south. During the evening he played one or two numbers which referenced New Orleans (particularly Rhumba for Sticky) and on his album, the tune ‘Morning Glory’ caught my attention. I have just returned from New Orleans and Morning Glory connected me back to Henry Red Allen.
David Rozenblatt’s drumming fascinated me. It was joy-filled, wildly exuberant but purged of unnecessary clutter. Many of the younger drummers I hear are time tricksters, and while this is impressive it can also clutter up a sound canvas. Rozenblatt had something of the swing drummer about him, but overlaying that was a colourist sensitivity, the warmth of a great rhythmic conversationalist. Fieldes was also right on the money. His melodicism and lovely time feel filling out the sound without getting in the way. We export many great bass players from New Zealand, but having Fieldes back on home ground is our good fortune. Dixon Nacey needs no introduction to either Aucklanders or to wider New Zealand. He is rightly regarded as one of our finest guitarists and consequently, his work schedule is frantic. Because of the many projects he juggles, he has less time to perform in local Jazz venues but happily, he was available for this. He is a favourite with club audiences and a draw in his own right. We have come to expect the best of him over the years as his trajectory is ever upward. He has long been noted for his Sco-like credentials but as we saw last Wednesday, he can adapt to a variety of improvising situations with ease.
I have posted a track from the gig titled ‘divergent paths’. It was the first up and it set the tone for a crackling evening to follow. To purchase the album go to www.charlieportermusic.com (digital downloads, CD’s and vinyl available. The posted track was supplied by Charlie Porter.
I was barely off the plane and my brain was full of dense fog, no doubt a legacy of San Francisco Karl who had been circling me like a spectre for a good month. I gamely fought the malaise off and because I am a creature of habit, dutifully made my way down to Auckland’s CJC Creative Jazz Club. In my experience, it pays never to miss a live improvised music gig, because if you do, you risk bitter regret. Believe me, I often lie awake lamenting a missed chance to see John McLaughlin.
Last week the Australian Duo, Emma Gilmartin and James Sherlock were on the bill accompanied by Christchurch Bass player Michael Story and Wellington drummer Mark Lockett. Lockett, who helped organise the tour, is a mainstay of the Wellington Jazz scene and offshore musicians like this arrive due to the skilful tour-on-a-shoestring wrangling of his ilk. We get to hear these Aussie, European and American bands in our New Zealand Jazz clubs, largely because of the work put in by a handful of dedicated musicians like Roger and Caro Manins (and Lockett). These organisers pitch in uncomplainingly as they lock down the events and we benefit as a result. Consequently, New Zealand has developed a rich improvised music circuit and a debt of gratitude is owed to the organisers (and to the volunteers who quietly assist).
Emma Gilmartin is a Melbourne based vocalist, composer and teacher and it was her first time performing in Auckland. She has received praise from the Australian music press and is one of an increasing number of gifted vocalists emerging out of the Australian Jazz scene. She is pitch-perfect and her appealing voice finds the corners of a room with ease. Like all good Jazz vocalists, she imparts a mood of engaging intimacy. Her co-leader on this tour, was guitarist James Sherlock, a notable musician and the perfect foil for a vocalist. An accompanist who understands how to enhance vocal performance by offering challenges and he knows how to comp without getting in the way. He is a gift to any vocalist.On solos, he also excels, at times bringing to mind earlier greats like an Oscar More (behind Nat Cole). Christchurch Bass player Michael Story rounded off the quartet nicely and it was obvious that he was enjoying himself. Again, he was the right person for the ensemble.
The program was a mix of tasteful standards and interesting originals. I have put up a clip which demonstrates the strengths of the quartet – witness the tasteful musicality of Lockett’s drum solo as the band digs into a swinging version of ‘Nica’s Dream’ by Horace Silver.Gilmartin appeared to be relishing her time in New Zealand and she announced that she would try and return next year. We hope so.
Emma Gilmartin (vocals), James Sherlock (guitar), Michael Story (bass), Mark Lockett (drums). The gig took place at Anthology, K’Road, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, 4 December 2019
Louisa Williamson is a gifted young tenor saxophonist who has visited Auckland on previous occasions. This time, and for the first time, she visited as a bandleader, showcasing her beautiful compositions. I have always admired her tone and improvisational abilities, but this was a step up. Freed from the comfort of a band she knew well, she cast herself among an array of experienced Auckland musicians. Stephen Thomas on drums, Tom Dennison on bass and Michael Howell on guitar. The only Wellingtonian (besides Williamson) was pianist George Maclaurin and together as a band they delivered. This was engaging straight-ahead Jazz.
In the history of this music, only a handful of female tenor or baritone saxophonists have received their due. If Williamson keeps playing like this she will surely inspire others and that is how the music grows. She has already come to international attention when she became the first New Zealander to join the JM Jazz World Orchestra in 2016. She is at present working towards a Masters in composition at the NZSM. After hearing her compositions on this date, the outcome should prove interesting. Her tunes possess an appealing melodicism while underpinned by an unfussy harmonic cushion. It is post-bop mainstream but there is nothing stale about it.Afterwards, a band member from among the Auckland pick-ups remarked how well the charts were constructed.
I have put up the first tune from the first set titled ‘Slightly run-down’.A tune where the underlying motifs are opened up as the theme develops. It is a story with a beginning, middle and ending and it is told without artifice. Everything felt in balance, the short phrase of arco bass during a changeup, the staccato restatement of the theme on the guitar, and above all the horns careful parsing of the melody.
The keyboardist Maclaurin was familiar with the leader’s tunes and consequently, he was the perfect harmonic anchor point. He also delivered some nice solos. The Auckland contingent of Howell on guitar, Dennison on upright bass and Stephen Thomas on drums took no time in establishing their credentials. I was particularly happy to see Dennison on the bandstand as he is seldom seen at the club these days. A fine bass player who always finds the best notes; a melodicist and a musician who has an impeccable feel for time. Howell and Thomas we see regularly and both are deservedly popular with audiences. I look forward to Williamson’s continued journey as she is learning to show more of herself. Being the leader, she spoke and told stories and I hope she does more of that. Jazz is at its best when it shows some emotion and in live performance, the artist’s engagement with an audience is the X factor lifting the music ever higher.
Louisa Williamson Quintet: Louisa Williamson (tenor saxophone, compositions), George Maclaurin (keyboards), Michael Howell (guitar), Tom Dennison (upright bass), Stephen Thomas (guitar). The gig was at Anthology for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, 25 September 2019Louisa
Music is the highest form of communication. It is universal. It reveals truths, tells stories, entertains, and in Mark de Clive-Lowe’s case, it evokes other realities. This was a masterclass in storytelling; an unfolding kaleidoscope where the contradictions and sublime realisations about the human condition were brought into focus. ‘Heritage 1 + 2’ the albums reflect his personal story, a journey of reconnection, an exploration of culture and of family history. He revealed it through moments of spoken narrative, but above all through his reverential musical examination of Japanese art forms. This was a musical journey where the highly personal overlapped the philosophical. It was a journey back to his Jazz roots and undertaken entirely on his own terms.
At least twenty years have passed since I last heard MdCL perform in Auckland. Back then he was regarded as a youthful Jazz prodigy and people flocked to hear him.Accompanying such acclaim comes expectations and that can be a straight jacket. It was the era of the media-hyped ‘young lions’, when up and coming Jazz musicians were expected to showcase standards and reclaim a glorious past. While the die-hards repeated their time-worn mantras, something else bubbled beneath the surface; musicians like MdCL shucked off others expectations; in his case moving a world away to engage with the hybrid music/dance scene in London. From there he moved on to LA where he built a solid and enduring reputation. These days Auckland has a flourishing improvised music scene and audiences value innovation. In this space, Jazz and other genres merge effortlessly. Because of that, it was exactly the right moment for MdCL to bring this project home. Auckland heard the call and the concerts reached capacity club audiences.
When MdCL introduced the sets he talked about his childhood and of cultural disconnection. Experiences like this although disquieting feed the creative spirit. The recent album and the tour follow a time spent in Japan where he immersed himself in his mother’s culture. The album opens with ‘The Offering’ an apt and beguiling introduction piece. Like a ritual washing of hands before a tea ceremony, a moment to sweep away preconceptions. Another standout honoured his mother by evoking her family name. ‘Mizugaki’ is perhaps the most reflective and personal tune of the sets. This cross-cultural feel is evident from the opener to the tunes which follow. While the scales and moods speak of Japan, the interpretations belong to an improviser. Throughout, MdCL maintains this fine balancing act. Evoking the unique moods of the haiku or ink wash. Illusory moods that are best described in the Japanese as no English phrase is adequate. And to all of this, he brings his lived experience. A kiwi-born musician with a foot in many camps.
With the exception of two traditional folk tunes, the compositions (and arrangements) are his own, other elements of his musical journey are also evident: tasteful electronics, drum & bass, Jazz. For copies of the two albums and MdCL’s other recordings go to Bandcamp (links below). Perhaps we can lure him back more often as he certainly has a following here. On the New Zealand leg of his tour, he was joined by Marika Hodgson on electric bass, Myele Manzanza on drums (and in Auckland by Lewis McCallum on flute and alto). The Kiwi contingent sounded good alongside MdCL and for a return-home tour, there was a rightness to utilising Kiwi musicians. I have posted a tune from the Auckland gig titled ‘Silk Road’. The Silk Road carried music, ideas, goods and culture, travelling by any means and from Japan to Spain; and now New Zealand.
Subject to availability, Richard Hammond is the kind of bass player that you would consider first for an important gig or recording.He is known for his musicality, authenticity and above all for his deep groove. His upright-bass chops are immaculate, deep in-the-pocket; his electric bass, as punchy as a kicking mule. It is therefore unsurprising that he works among the elite ranks of New Yorks first-call session musicians. He also gigs around NYC, tours with well-known vocalists and works on shows like Hamilton.Sometimes, when the luck falls our way, he visits Aotearoa. This time he returned primarily to play bass at Nathan Haines ‘Shift Left’ Civic Theatre gig.The above show has garnered rave reviews.
Hammond has real presence and his human qualities shine through all that he does.I refer there to his warm and engaging persona, his instinctive friendliness and generosity. I mention those qualities because they appear to inform his playing. In his case, the man and his music are as one. Of late this has been a theme in my posts. I find myself increasingly looking inside the music to see if I can locate the human being behind the instrument. Seeking a musicians ability (or inability) to show us something of themselves. Such a manifestation can change a listeners perception and with improvised music, it is the bread and butter of good interactions. Hammond spends most of his time in the studio but he has never forgotten these essential communication skills. In live performance, this can be critical. It could be termed as ‘character’ and inevitably it feeds musical choices. A room filled with notes is one thing, but a room bubbling with musical life is quite another.
The setlist was a tribute to Hammond’s homeland. Apart from the two tunes written by a US musician, the rest were composed by Kiwis.It was great to hear these tunes reprised and especially with a fresh and fired-up lineup. The most significant contributor was Kevin Field whose talent for composition and arranging is well known. Nothing appears to unsettle Field. At one point the sound was lost from a monitor (and from the piano). He immediately moved to the Rhodes and as usual, played at the top of his game. I have posted the version of his tune ‘Good Friday’. A familiar tune with numerous iterations but perhaps, never played as joyfully as this; the bass lines from Hammond giving it supersonic lift-off.
The band were Richard Hammond (electric and upright bass), Kevin Field (piano and Rhodes),Michael Howell (guitar),Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Stephen Thomas (drums) and guest vocalist Marjan. Together, they celebrated aspects of New Zealand improvised music’ much of it upbeat and funk orientated. Marjan showcased some of her own tunes plus a well known New Zealand tune ‘Brown Girl’ which had been reimagined as a Jazz tune by Kevin Field (more on that in a future post).
This is Hammonds third visit home in as many years and I hope that he makes it a regular fixture. We seldom hear electric bass like that.The gig took place at the CJC Creative Jazz Club, Anthology, K’Road, Auckland, New Zealand on 21 August 2019
Brad Kang has previously appeared at the CJC, but this time he was here with his own quintet. It is not too much of a stretch to say that most emerging Jazz guitarists during the last decade have demonstrated a liberal dose of Kurt Rosenwinkel in their playing. It is in their sound and their approach to melody and it was unmistakable with Kang. That clean bright tone and the fluent unison lines as he and saxophonist Louisa Williamson ran through the head arrangements.
His compositions were vehicles for showcasing a formidable technique and the tunes were internalised, allowing him to play the sets with barely a glance at his charts. It is common for older and more experienced musicians to internalise the music, but less common for younger musicians who like to keep the charts close at hand.Kang’s confident familiarity with the music paid dividends for him.
Kang and Williamson are a natural fit; not only when they run those tight unison head lines, but also during solos. Williamson adding a necessary weight to counter-balance Kang’s guitar, which mostly traverses the higher register. On stage, Williamson tends to hide behind the horn, giving little of her self away. That is, until she solos. Then, she’s suddenly authoritative and an expansive storyteller. Her tone rich and her fluency beyond question.
Unlike Williamson and Kaa, the pianist George Maclaurin was new to the audience as were bass player Hamish Smith and drummer Hikurangi Schaverien Kaa. They hail from either Wellington or Christchurch; part of a nationwide and pleasing renaissance invigorating the New Zealand Jazz scene.
Since his return from North Texas where he studied previously, Kang has become a fixture on the Wellington and Christchurch Jazz scenes. This New Zealand tour will be his last for a while as he is moving to New York shortly to study at the Manhattan School of Music.When he returns, his musical journey can be updated and he will no doubt share that with New Zealand audiences.
Brad Kang Quintet: Brad Kang (guitar), George MacLaurin (piano), Louisa Williamson (tenor saxophone), Hamish Smith (bass), Hikurangi Schaverien Kaa (drums), at Anthology, CJC Creative Jazz Club, 24th July 2019. Photograph by and with thanks to Barry Young.
As Wednesday nights at the new Anthology venue move into high gear, a tried and trusted CJC programming philosophy remains constant. To provide a quality venue for local and international musicians to showcase their original projects, and to provide a performance space that up and comers can aspire to. As before, two or three gig slots are kept for emerging artists, and this year those slots have expanded to include Wellingtonian and Christchurch improvisers. Performing on Wednesday were Wellington musicians Frank Talbot and Ella Dunbar-Wilcox. Both sets had the same rhythm section; pianist Kevin Field, Bassist Cam McArthur, and drummer Adam Tobeck.
First up was Frank Talbot. A tall tenor player with a clean tone and nimble articulation. Talbot is a recent graduate of the New Zealand School of Music and he is currently completing his honours degree. New Zealand produces many good tenor players and judging by Talbot’s confident performance on Wednesday, he will go from strength to strength. He is certainly making all of the right moves and testing himself in varied situations, so he will certainly be one to watch.On his setlist, there were all originals and I have posted his interesting tune ‘Inquisition’. I also liked ‘Intervalic’ and a moving tune (which I heard as) ‘Steak and kidney pies, no goodbyes’. The latter was dedicated to his mother who is going through very tough times health wise. A nice heart-felt tribute.
The second set featured Ella Dunbar-Wilcox. A vocalist in her third year of studies (also at the New Zealand School of Music). Her performance showed considerable maturity as she tackled some challenging arrangements and tunes. Not many emerging vocalists would tackle the more upbeat Coltrane tunes or a tricky stop-start McLorin Salvant arrangement. She navigated these charts with ease. I also liked the balance in her set list which provided us with pleasing contrasts. The cheerful, upbeat (and rarely heard) Bobby Timmons number ‘That There’. This followed her own ballad ‘Lonely Eyes’. Then there was ‘Night Hawks’, a reference to the Edward Hopper painting and capturing perfectly that sense of isolation and ennui.I have put up her interpretation of ‘I didn’t know what time it was’.
Engaging a quality local rhythm section for both sets was a sensible move. Field, McArthur, and Tobeck are adept accompanists and used to working with unfamiliar musicians. And more importantly, all have worked extensively with vocalists. This draws upon very different skills and in this regard especially, Field is superb.
Frank Talbot (tenor saxophone)
Ella Dunbar-Wilcox (vocals)
Rhythm Section: Kevin Field (piano), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Adam Tobeck (drums) The gig was for the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) @ Anthology, K’Road, Auckland, 3 July 2019
The original‘Jazz Committee’ was formed while bass player Mat Fieldes was still living in New Zealand.Back then he had quite a few fans, and many who remembered him turned out for his recent CJC gig.Anthology, the new CJC venue, was packed to capacity and that was good news. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since Fieldes left and New York has long been his base. When he arrived in that city 25 years ago he studied at Juilliard. From there he went on to establish a solid career that spans genres and continents. He has played with symphony orchestras, on Broadway and with out-jazz musicians like Ornette Colman. He is a master of fusion and comfortable with Hip Hop. That he is always in demand is a tribute to his abilities as the US music scene is extremely competitive. It is apparent to me, that our New Zealand bass players do very well in hothouse environments (e.g. Fieldes, Hammond, Penman).
It is not often that Fieldes gets back here as he has a busy performance schedule, but this time he was open to doing some local gigs. The vehicle, a collective, was an updated version of the ‘Jazz Committee’ now simply called ‘The Committee’.In its new incarnation, Fieldes is on upright bass and electric bass, Dixon Nacey on guitar, Roger Manins on tenor and Ron Samsom on drums. The program was fusion heavy or as Fieldes put it, ‘I don’t know if this is Jazz, I’ll let you decide’. Manins clarification muddied the waters further. ‘If you like it then it’s Jazz, and if you don’t, then it’s still Jazz’.
It was a compelling grab you by the collar type of music; it was punchy, improvised and drawing upon many streams; tilting towards an updated but funkier Return to Forever or Electric Miles vibe. Many of the tunes were Fieldes but the others submitted originals as well.Among them, Samsom’s funk offering, Nacey honouring Scofield and Manins showcasing his wonderful tune, Schwiben Jam (see clip). That tune featured on last years ‘No Dogs Allowed’ album and I am happy to see it in this setlist. Occasionally, I hear a tune that could become a standard or at the very least a local standard. Here it was in a different context and with Nacey and Fieldes steering it into fresh waters. It was immaculate and I hope that I hear it played often (perhaps, with Rhodes fills for additional texture and Nacey as a must-have).
It’s always interesting when the diaspora of improvising musicians return.They bring with them the stories of their new home and the influences of those who they’ve played alongside.It is also instructive to see how they interact with their old bandmates (and some new ones). If last Wednesday is anything to go by, the answer is, very well. This type of gig is increasingly important in our fast burgeoning scene. We have hit a sweet spot and the audiences are responding. When artists like Fieldes return there is cross-pollination. As a consequence, we are enriched. And just maybe, some of that essence finds its way back into the New York scene.
Committee: Mat Fieldes (upright & electric bass), Dixon Nacey (guitar),Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Ron Samsom (drums). The gig was at Anthology, K’Road, Auckland, 19 June 2016
About eighteen months ago I was contacted by Jeff Henderson. He suggested, that I might be interested in a gig featuring two great Norwegian musicians who were passing through. I certainly was. The musicians were John Pal Inderberg and Hakon Mjaset Johansen. I was particularly interested because the baritone saxophonist John Pal Inderberg is associated with Lee Konitz and the late Warne Marsh. I make no bones about it, I am an unapologetic devotee of the Tristanoites. During that particular visit, the duo played a number of Scandinavian folk tunes and in their hands, these became melodic springboards for improvisation and a cloak for standards (with local bassist Eamon Edmundson-Wells). The Nordic region has a rich history of improvised music and it is therefore unsurprising that so many innovative US improvisers have ended up living and working there. With artists of this quality to work with why wouldn’t they? Inderberg and his band are great ambassadors.
Last week, John Pal Inderberg returned to New Zealand, but this time with his trio. Accompanying Inderberg was bass player Trygve Waldemar Fiske, and again, Johansen on drums. The gig was superb from start to finish and Inderberg’s trademark humour constantly delighted the audience. What we heard were new-sounding tunes, but inside these were older tunes, and in turn, many of the latter emanating from even older standards. These multilayered ‘reharmonisations’ are the bread and butter of skilled Jazz musicians and especially the Tristanoites. A beautifully modal folk tune became Cole Porter’s ‘You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To’ but with reharmonised Konitz lines adding to the sonic puzzle.The nearest thing to a straight ahead Jazz standard, and played as written, was their beautifully respectful rendition of the popular Benny Golson classic ‘Whisper Not’.
It was a night of extraordinary musicianship with the players communicating at the highest level. Inderberg is a master saxophonist and his baritone has a tonal quality few could emulate. A number of saxophonists play the ‘Bari’ as a doubling instrument but few make it their primary. In Inderberg’s hands, the mighty beast appeared to float. I recall noticing the same thing when watching a film of Gerry Mulligan, the weighty horn somehow defying gravity and as if imbued with a weightless quality. This lightness of being is, of course, an illusion. One bolstered by the nimble lines and airy tone.Every so often Inderberg would recite in Norwegian. Norwegian in triple-time, elevating the strangely accented utterances into an unusual form of ‘scat’. The other two, playing straight-men, would roll their eyes. Occasionally, and effectively, the trio would also sing an introduction; softly and movingly.This was a well-rounded show; free flowing but enjoyable from start to finish.
The bass and drums in a cordless setting are exposed and naked. Fiske and Johansen are great musicians and they demonstrated just how to meet that challenge. This was a master class in how to create a rich tapestry with a handful of well-chosen threads. Beautifully melodic bass lines with innovative solos and at times, singing arco bass. While the drumming was melodic, it was also orchestral; reaching across the entire spectrum of Jazz drumming and without once resorting to cliche (watch the clip). A Trio without a chordal instrument is not the norm, but they do hold a special place in Jazz. It’s about freedom and unencumbered melodic lines. It’s also about the interactions and of course, counterpoint.
There is an ideological synergy between Norway and New Zealand and long may such cultural exchanges continue. Norway is almost an antipodes away, but I sincerely hope the Inderberg Trio returns. This visit, like the last, was a rare treat.
Again, the CJC Creative Jazz Club has made good on its promise to deliver diverse and interesting projects.Last week saw a collaboration between the Bengali born sitar maestro Purbayan Chatterjee and the Auckland based World-Jazz fusion group Takadimi.What at first glance may appear to be an improbable collaboration – a famous Indian classical master and a Jazz fusion group was, in fact, a perfect alignment.Having Alan Brown on keys with Cam McArthur on bass and with the nimble, talented Daniel Waterson on drum kit, plus leader Manjit Singh on tabla – we expected and heard excellent music.
These two great improvising traditions, one ancient, the other emerging just over 100 years ago, are able to comprehend each other’s basic forms. Both traditions produce talented and versatile musicians who are thoroughly trained in song cycles, scales, and rhythms. A perfect illustration of this occurred last Wednesday when Maestro Chatterjee and Takadimi decided to create a spontaneous improvisation. With nothing prearranged, it began with an audience member asking about an ancient Greek scale called the Lydian Mode. All of the musicians were familiar with this mode and Maestro Chatterjee said that it was practically identical to the fundamentals of a particular Raga mode. He fingered the scale briefly on his sitar and then asked Alan Brown to form a motif using that scale. Thus began a cross-discipline, cross-cultural musical conversation like few I have heard.
Purbayan Chatterjee is a Bengali born musician residing in Mumbai. He has an international reputation and has performed in concert halls all over the world. The recipient of prestigious awards including the President of India award and with a discography which includes best selling albums. He was trained from a young age in the Northern or Hindustani School of Indian classical music. Like the famous tabla player Ustad Zakir Hussain (who he has performed with), he has frequently ventured into the Jazz/World fusion space. Auckland’s Takadimi, under the able leadership of the highly respected tabla player Manjit Singh, has for some years been exploring that same fusion space. Putting Maestro Chatterjee together with Takadimi was inspired. Together, they brought transcendent joy to our club and in a troubled world, this is a precious commodity.
The tone of the evening was set by the first offering which was a beautiful meditative raga performed in a classical style on sitar and tabla. I have been listening to Indian classical music since age 14, but I am certainly no authority. To the best of my knowledge, the basics are as follows. There are two main branches, the northern Hindustani and the southern or Carnatic branch. These, in turn, have many sub-genres and sub-styles, especially in the North. Both schools use the raga (usually a 7 note scale) performed over a drone. The structure begins with the Alap (in 3 sections) which is performed without the tabla and is a preparation or gradual development towards a climax. In this first phase, melodic ornaments and shapes are formed.The second major segment is the Gat (and Dhrupad) which is where the tabla joins in. The tabla introduces the complex meters that characterise Indian classical music and these are called tala (a cycle of weak and strong beats). Improvisation and interplay occur mainly in this second stage. Although the music is referred to as classical it does not refer to a fixed point in time. It is a constantly evolving music and new styles are still being developed within the classical framework.
I have posted an excerpt from the raga and also the spontaneous improvisation piece. This intensely beautiful music brought fitting closure to our tenure at Backbeat. We will miss the staff and the small club vibe, but it’s time to move to our new home, Anthology. The audiences have followed the club to new venues 5 times over the last 11 years. With such great music on offer, I am sure that this will continue. Purbayan Chatterjee summed up the vibe perfectly when he praised the audience. He plays in the worlds great concert halls but he told us that intimate clubs like this, with engaged cheerful audiences, are the best of places. His gift of the raga – perhaps an evening raga, felt like it was performed just for such an occasion. Thank you musicians – see you at Anthology for the All-Star, 3 Saxophone opening night. Click through to the CJC Creative Jazz Club web site.
The UK born Mark Donlon is an internationally renowned musician who joined the New Zealand School of Music as a senior lecturer in Jazz Piano in 2013. He has previously appeared at Auckland’s CJC, but never with a quintet. The small ensemble format is clearly a forte as it revealed his many skills. After hearing his recent recording and attending the CJC gig it was evident to me that this particular project hit a sweet spot. What we heard on Wednesday was something special.An evocative programme built around stories of displaced peoples.
There is no separating a good musician from their musical origins and Donlon wears his origins on his compositional sleeve. I am not referring to nationality but to something more ethereal. That wellspring of melodic and harmonic invention that bubbles from the musical homeland and feeds sonic identity. If I didn’t pick it up before I certainly did this time, an unmistakable sound.A sound manifest in John Taylor, John Surman and expat Canadian, Kenny Wheeler – perhaps it is strongest in Guildhall musicians. Wheeler was referenced several times and early into the first set the quintet played a superb version of his ‘Kind Folk’.Donlon’s original compositions, the rest, also capturing that very English and often wistful vibe. That and the slick head arrangements setting the tone – perfect vehicles for the tales he told.
This type of composition is sometimes characterised as sad (or dark), but I hear more than that in Donlon (or Wheeler). I prefer the word melancholy in its Shakespearian sense. “A melancholy of mine own, compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects, and indeed the sundry contemplation of my travels, which by rumination, wraps me in the most humorous sadness”. Shakespeare knew that emotion is seldom one dimensional.
The music also speaks of human dignity in the face of oppression, the titles traversing the sweep of history – of personal loss. There’s ‘Aleppo’, a lovely tune about a tragic city, trampled under the boots of sectarian and superpower violence – this, aptly told by juxtaposing dissonance and sweetness. There’s ‘Windrush’, the story of the Jamaican immigrants and their history of mistreatment – more recently at the hands of Brexiteer Amber Rudd. Then there’s ‘Zanj’, the old word for an African slave.While the topic may be grim, the musical treatment is not devoid of hope. Good composers do not resile from such difficult topics; they aim to touch our hearts, offer up hope, and this did.
That the album is so good is not surprising, given the New York heavyweights on board; Alex Sipiagin and Seamus Blake for starters.Appearing at the CJC was a Wellington lineup; Mark Donlon (piano), Louisa Williamson (saxophone), Luca Sturney (guitar), Lance Philip (drums) and Seth Boy (bass).It’s been a while since I heard Louisa Williamson and these days, she is everything that she is hyped to be. A stunning performer with a silky tone and a plethora of coherent ideas flowing from her horn. Her use of dynamics is minimal, but this is not a deficit.She conveys her message through skillful phrasing and the delivery of imaginative lines.I had not seen Luca Sturney before but his musical abilities are unmistakeable (what a nice sound and what solid solos). The same with Seth Boy.Lastly, there is Lance Philip, who along with Donlon, is the veteran in the lineup. An incredibly able drummer who covers all styles and who lifts any performance. Donlon was obviously thrilled to have him on the tour, and no wonder.
The track I have posted on YouTube is from the CJC gig and titled ‘Zanj’ – ‘The NY album is available from fuzzymoonrecords.co.uk or from Mark Donlon, New Zealand School of Music, Victoria University Wellington – he has a facebook page – The gig took place at Backbeat, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, Auckland, 8 May 2019.
Album: Mark Donlon (piano, compositions), Alex Sipiagin (trumpet, flugelhorn), Seamus Blake(saxophone), Boris Kozlov (Bass), Donald Edwards (drums).
Auckland gig: Mark Donlon (piano), Louisa Williamson (saxophone), Luca Sturney (guitar), Seth Boy (bass), Lance Philip (drums)
Australia produces some fine vocal talents and Kate Wadey certainly fits that category.Her relative youth is contrasted by a stylistic maturity and when she sings you are transported. She has a way of engaging an audience and of personalising a story. It is a communicated sincerity, a something of herself that hangs in the air as the notes fall. She makes it look easy, but I doubt that mere happenstance lies behind her skilled delivery. It was the little things that caught my attention; the flashed smile during a lyrical punch line as if inviting you to share in a hidden aside. The way she moved from coy to world-weary in an instant – changing the pronunciation of certain vowels or consonants to good effect – and occasionally leaning back on a word.Holding it just long enough for its import to hit home.
Many vocalists sing ‘The Great American Songbook’ but with such universally loved and familiar tunes, choices must be made with care.Picking a few favourites and belting them out will only set you among the pack. To add distinction a fresh interpretation is needed. These days that means a reharmonisation or taking an angular approach to the tune. There is another way, however. Make the tunes your own while still approaching them in a traditional way. This is where superior storytelling skills and subtle vocal mannerisms come into play. The ability to inject freshness while referencing the best of what has gone before. She did this, not by mimicking the greats but by communicating the essence of what made those versions timeless.
As if to underscore this I found myself thinking of Anita O’Day and June Christy. It’s not that Wadey sounded like either, but there they were, living inside her delivery.That flash of vulnerability in a sideways glance, the vibrato-less hard hitting clean tone, The sass, the time feel, the supreme confidence – it is hard to put into words but it was all there without being overt.
The other strength was the way the setlist was put together.Both sets were opened with guitarist Peter Koopman playing instrumental originals. A good warm-up for what was to follow, Wadey launching into a spirited ‘East of the Sun, (and West of the Moon)’ or the lesser known standard, ‘There’s a Lull in my Life’, which was lush and beautiful. After that a composition of her own ‘The Moon Song’ – followed by a stunning rendition of ‘The Song is You’.It could be risky to perch such beautiful standards on each side of an original but the standards were as much enhanced by ‘The Moon Song’ as the converse.The last song in the first set, while from the ‘Songbook’, is seldom sung. What a great tune it is; ‘Nobody Else But Me’ (Kern/Hammerstein), and how clever to eliminate verses from the original. In doing this the song was modernised and brought into line with modern sensibilities without needing to change a word.She also achieved this in the second set with ‘Sweet Loraine’ – singing it woman to woman – earlier referencing the belated passing of the same-sex marriage legislation in her country.
On tour with her, was expat New Zealander Peter Koopman and it was good to see him in this role. Koopman is popular here and although we have seen him in many guises, never as vocal accompanist. With a musician as accomplished as this, it is a good test to see how they perform in a supportive role. Koopman was superb – never once making it about him and giving the vocalist exactly what she needed – pushing when required of him and fitting gorgeous chords neatly beneath the lyrics.On bass was Sydney musician Samuel Dobson, alternating between standard playing and arco to good effect, a long time musical associate of Wadey’s.Local musician Stephen Thomas was on drums and as superb as always. A duo number featured Wadey and Thomas doing ‘Goody, Goody’ (Maineck/Mercer) was a treat.I will put that up on YouTube shortly – I have posted a cut of ‘Nobody Else But Me’ with this post.There are a number of very good YouTube clips of Wadey but I highly recommend that you purchase her albums.‘Moon Songs’ & ‘A Hundred Years From Today’.
Wadey (vocals, compositions), Peter Koopman (guitar), Samuel Dobson (bass), Stephen Thomas (drums). The gig was at Backbeat for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, 24 April 2019Kate Wadey
March fifteenth began as good days should, with sunshine, a cool breeze off the ocean, and a message from a Jazz Journalist colleague in Australia. ‘Would I like to meet some award-winning Greek Jazz musicians’? I had stuff planned, but the plans were easily shelved and I drove from my leafy hilltop retreat into the city. The musicians had flown into Auckland to join a passing cruise ship and were only in town for eight hours. Ahead of them lay four months of playing standards, original material (if lucky), and the inevitable but often regrettable requests. We met up in a central city cafe. ‘John’, they yelled as I walked around the corner. For the briefest second, I wondered how they had recognised me, ascribing it to a Jazz sixth sense, then remembering my tee shirt was emblazoned with the words Prahu Jazz. We introduced ourselves, and headed for the waterfront at my suggestion, chatting as if we’d known each other for years. That’s the way in the Jazz community. You travel to a place you’ve never been before and someone will message you with the contact details of ‘cats’ to hang with. Such hangs generally follow a well-trodden path. ‘Do you know this or that cat – killing?’ Always followed by outrageous road stories and laughter.
Evgenia Karlafti is a B3 organist, pianist, and vocalist. Her husband Nester Dimopoulos is a guitarist. They were joined on the cruise by Argentinean bass player Julia Subatin and Mexican drummer Gerardo Lopez. Everyone spoke English which is lucky because I have no Greek or Spanish. After hours of discussing music, the topic took a political turn. Earlier the musicians had made a point of referencing the peaceful laid back Auckland vibe. I recall boasting that our geographical isolation, independent foreign policy, and nuclear-free legislation protected our Island from many of the problems besetting other parts of the world. “We are an independent social democracy very like Norway,” I said, little realising how strong the synergies were. I pointed towards the Pacific ocean at our doorstep, adding, “trouble is inclined to lose its way long before it reaches our shores”. We discussed the Greek political situation and I asked how the Syrian refugee situation had impacted on everyday life. We discussed compassion and the problem of compassion fatigue. We discussed Turkey and the unhelpful belligerence of President Recep Erdogan.
Evgenia and Nestor promised me a physical copy of their latest album titled ‘Cut to the chase’, messaged me a link and we agreed to meet up again when the ship was in port next. After we had parted I grabbed my phone and listened to a track from their album titled ‘Senior Citizen’. Perfect. As I drove home I recall thinking that this was a day among days and then I turned on the car radio. The news spoke of an attack on a Muslim community. I am used to hearing such reports. Tragedies which occur elsewhere – reported on by Christiane Amanpour or Lyse Doucet. In this case, I heard a tearful Kiwi voice. Had one of our foreign correspondents been caught up in a terror attack in London or Paris? The word Christchurch soon dispelled that notion and numbness set in as more facts emerged. A massacre of fifty innocents was happening on our soil and perpetrated by an Australian Neo-Nazi white supremacist. The carnage had started at around the exact time I was boasting about our immunity from such horrors. I don’t remember driving the rest of the way home.
Our amazing Prime Minister set the tone for what followed while we glued ourselves to the TV sets silently grieving. Why here we all asked and the Prime Minister gave us the answer we needed.“For those of you who are watching at home tonight, and questioning how this could have happened here, we, New Zealand, we were not a target because we are a safe harbour for those who hate. We were not chosen for this act of violence because we condone racism, or because we are an enclave for extremism. We were chosen for the very fact that we are none of those things. Because we represent diversity, kindness, compassion. A home for those who share our values. Refuge for those who need it. And those values will not and cannot be shaken by this attack”. Norway and New Zealand were now linked in more ways than I had ever imagined.
The next day New Zealand fell silently numb as people watched TV or visited the local mosque with flowers and cards. The Prime Minister’s words “They are us” rang out as we donated millions of dollars to the survivors and their families. Biker gangs offered themselves as bodyguards and our sadness grew as we contemplated the fifty innocents slain in our midst. Powerful images flashed across our screens. Jewish Rabbis, Imams, Anglicans, Catholics, Buddhists, Hindus and Coptic Christians arm in arm outside the Mosques. For the first time, our police carried weapons in public as our terror alert went from low to high. It had never been anything else but low. The unusual spectre of armed police, softened by the policewomen wearing headscarfs and clutching roses to their weapons. An entire nation heard the muezzin call the Adhan when the Islamic prayer rang from our Parliament the next day and from our public broadcast outlets. Surely, one of the most beautiful and evocative pieces of music ever conceived. For a day, following the lead of the Prime Minister, secular and Christian woman donned the hijab out of respect. ￼
This was an outrage hard to talk about; it was so new to us and so raw. We let the images guide us through our grief and as if urged by an unspoken force, started to debate our colonist past. The evils of racism and wrongs yet to be righted. Some days later I was back in our local Jazz club and the place was packed. There was no mention of the horror but it hung in the air. We had come there to be transported and to heal. Albert Ayler put it well when he said, ‘Music is the healing force of the universe’. On offer was Ron Samsom’s much-loved band ‘The Neutrino Funk Experience’. The band, understanding the vibe went absolutely wild as they sent their crazy danceable tunes heavenward. They turned happy into crazy happy and the barman, moved by it all, turned on the rock-effect strobe lighting. Each funk ridden note healed our bruised souls. We didn’t need overly complex or sad tunes; we just needed this.
Ted Gioia recently tweeted a finding by scientists, indicating that music may possess mass. A day later I read a piece by a prominent scientist reminding us of the absolute interconnectedness of life forms. It is likely then, that music is the glue; music that most ancient of languages. In my world, improvised music is super glue and the balm for all life’s ills.I have played both the Neutrino Funk Experience album and the Music Soup album endlessly during the last few weeks and with each hearing, my belief in humankind restores.
Dedicated to the victims of the Christchurch Massacre and to the musicians who heal us.
With thanks to Rom Samsom, Roger Manins, Grant Winterburn and Cam McArthur of The Neutrino Funk Experience & to Evgenia Karlafti and Nestor Dimopoulos of Music Soup.
From a young age, I chose improvised music as my soundtrack. The harmonies, in particular, intrigued as they sounded like real life. Full of rich contrasts and polyrhythms. By comparison, the endless radio replays of popular songs offered diminishing returns. The miracle of improvised music is that it promises depth, and if done well it reveals more with each listening. This sets a high bar for innovation, so when I hear musicians described as compelling and original, I check them out. Ben van Gelder and Reinier Baas are so described and after attending their gig I agree without reservation.
While theirs is essentially a European sound, it is also original. The compositions draw inspiration from identifiable sources but they also reach beyond the predictable. The music falling fresh to the ears and without a hint of over-reach. When musicians like this hit the road, a buzz proceeds them. Insightful reviews appear because the critics have something novel to pour over, and more importantly,respected musicians put the word about; ’don’t miss these guys, they’re heading your way and they’re astonishing’.Baas and van Gelder are a commanding stage presence, beguiling sound, musicality and something new to communicate.
In New Zealand, Baas & van Gelder appeared as a duo – the guitarist and alto saxophonist bathed in defused coloured light; their physical presence diminutive against the tower of amps looming behind. Calmly they adjusted their microphones, then Baas began. What followed caused jaws to drop, his voicing quite unlike anything we had heard before. A gently percussive and often discordant string of utterances which filled the room – winning us not by force but by persuasion. Then van Gelder began to play his alto – an altogether sweeter sound and contrasting perfectly with the guitar. When experienced as a whole the effect was quite extraordinary. It felt like a brand new dialect and one that was accessible, strangely beautiful also. Rarely, Baas would apply a pedal, but this music did not require electronic effects.As hard I try I can’t bring to mind any duo quite like this.The Jazz club was packed and many younger musicians sat upfront, eyes sparkling in delight as they took in every aspect of this exciting music.
Their recent album ‘Smash Hits’ is a must purchase for those who love innovation and fine writing. The tongue in cheek title, a good clue to what follows. If you gained the impression that the music might be confronting then I will disabuse you. An intense melodicism and raw beauty inform all that they do. ‘Smash Hits’ has them fronting the renowned Metropole Orkest – the Grammy-winning premier Jazz orchestra of the Netherlands (a big band and a classical orchestra combined). I couldn’t count the number of instruments in the YouTube clips but they are many and varied.Sometimes a large ensemble can muddy a composition, but not here. These charts are masterworks – the palette is clean and rich in texture – the pieces feeling incredibly modern. Yes, there are distant echoes of Gil Evans but these orchestrations stand strongly on their own feet.
The above clip ranks among the most beautiful pieces of arranged music that I have heard. Reinier Baas (guitar, arrangements, compositions), Ben van Gelder (alto saxophone, arrangements, compositions) – Backbeat, CJC Creative Jazz Club, Auckland, 13 March 2018
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When the Soulful vocalist Vivian Sessoms visited in June last year, we were stunned by her voice and by her powerhouse delivery. We seldom get to experience American R & B styled vocalists in New Zealand and if we do we never see them in intimate settings like the Backbeat Bar. Her voice carries the history of her music and her vocal range and control are approaching the operatic. Sessoms is a vocalist with serious chops and an interesting backstory. Last week she returned.
Since her last visit, she has released a Soul/Jazz album titled ‘Life’. The album is receiving favorable attention and it is not surprising that she has been picked up by the Ropeadope recording label. During her two Auckland gigs, she performed a number of tunes from the album; including a few that were recorded at the same time and will likely appear on a future release. The first set opened with her take on the Stevie Wonder classic ‘I can’t help it’. This was pure R & B, but the set swiftly dived into bold reharmonisations of Jazz standards plus one or two pop tunes (‘Love is a losing game’ – Amy Winehouse and ‘Under the Cherry Moon’ – Prince).
The Standards in that set were the lovely ‘Stella by Starlight’ (Victor Young), ‘Lush Life (Billy Strayhorn) and ‘The Waters of March’ (Tom Jobim). All of the above were reharmonised and made fresh. ‘Lush Life’ conveyed that sad world-weary vibe that Strayhorn penned so well and ‘The Waters of March’ (Aguas de Marco) was sung in English. Jobim wrote both the Portuguese and the English lyrics and the song is a masterpiece. Sessoms infused it with a subtlety reflecting modern American life. When she came to the line ‘the shot of a gun, in the dead of the night’ you picked that up immediately and understood her message.
Sessoms is an activist for civil rights and this thread runs through all of her shows (and the ‘Life’ album). Last time she came to New Zealand it was her ‘I can’t breathe’ number – this time it was her take on ‘People (make the world go round)’, a tune made popular by the Stylistics (composed by Thom Bell + Linda Creed). Before the tune, she spoke a little of her life growing up in Harlem and how normalised that daily struggle was to African-American people at that time. This tune in her hands was a plea for people to do better and to fight on until equality is a reality, not just a distant hope. An interesting song choice which got the Sessoms treatment was ‘I who have nothing’. We associate it with Shirley Bassey or Joe Cocker but long before that Ben E King released it. Actually, it is an old Italian song titled ‘Uno Dei Tanti’ (by Carlo Denida).
This time Sessoms had her husband Chris Parks touring with her. Parks is a well-known bassist and producer on the New York scene and on the album, he is co-credited in all of the arrangements. Parks played a punchy electric bass, Jonathan Crayford and Ron Samsom were the band members for this gig, Crayford having accompanied her convincingly last time she came.
The album is widely available and I have included a Spotify clip from ‘Life’. Her take on Strange Fruit is the standout for me. A harrowing song based on the poem by Abel Meeropol and made famous by Billie Holiday. In light of recent comments made during the US primaries and on the banners of the Alt-Right, these issues are scandalously still with us. I have also put up a clip from the gig – ‘Waters of March’ (the sound quality is quite good but the glare of the spotlights affected the focus slightly in places).
Life Tour: Vivian Sessoms (vocals), Chris Parks (electric bass), Jonathan Crayford (keys), Ron Samsom (drums) – Backbeat Bar for the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 22nd November 2018).
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Rarely, do we get to experience something truly sublime and for this to occur a number of planets must be perfectly aligned. Art at this level cannot be forced as the realization is dependant on both tangibles and intangibles. The musician might be in peak form, but if the room or the instrument is mediocre then the fine edge of perfection is blunted. It is harder to achieve in a capacious concert hall; easier in a well-appointed studio or an intimate vibing Jazz club. There is no manual to guide us to the point of departure. It is a divine alchemy pure and simple.
When I heard that Jonathan Crayford would be touring the country with a Steinway D Concert piano and one with considerable provenance, my first inclination was to doubt. This was no small undertaking. The piano in question was special, played by luminaries such as Lily Kraus, who signed it. It was formerly owned by a branch of the Guggenheim family and if Crayford had not asked a friend to purchase it, we would have lost it to an offshore purchaser. The friend, surprisingly, agreed and said, “Now use it”. Crayford is one of the few musicians who could pull this off.
The piano and Crayford travelled up from Wellington a few days ago and the first concert took place on the day of their arrival in Auckland. The lovely Uxbridge Arts Centre in Howick was the first venue; a pleasant, modern 100+ seat auditorium with good acoustics (especially for a piano) and an intimate cosiness. I arrived early as I was videoing and sat quietly in the darkness; watching Crayford and his magnificent piano get acquainted.
Crayford approaches pianos with reverence and sensitivity. I watched as he played a few phrases – then he paused when a particular voicing took his attention. Putting his ear close and playing it again with a look of delight. He was learning the secrets and subtleties of the instrument. Later during the concert, he gently tapped out a note which had taken his fancy. “Listen carefully”, he said to the audience, pointing to a particular key. A soft harmonic-rich sound reverberated gently through the room – revealing a warm golden timbre. As he shared these insights we felt privileged. Crayford treats fine pianos as living entities; beings to be understood, curated, exalted. When he finished a piece he would gently lift his hands and time would stall as the slow decay of chord or phrase created new harmonics and textures. Sound bouncing off wood, frame and room until it faded into infinity.
He opened with a composition of his own, a reflective piece of deep spacious improvisation, perfectly realised and just the right length to reel us in. The awed hush from the audience said it all. This concert was special and everyone there swiftly grasped that. Next, we heard his take on an obscure but unmistakable Monk tune, the familiar jagged lines morphing into new shapes as he went. There was no set playlist, no charts to guide him; just a small black notebook with dozens of possible tunes written down and in no particular order. The piano and his musician’s instinct informing him of the journey as he went. Tunes were chosen or rejected on the fly. His programme consisting mainly of reflective material but with a few faster-paced tunes to balance these out. A tune from the Spanish civil war attributed to Garcia Lorca was an example of the latter. On the slower reflective pieces like a Satie Gymnopedie, he left space for the music to breathe – space for the spirit of the piano to sing through. He would often play three pieces together and then rise from the piano to quote a line from Shakespeare or to offer an insight into a piece. He is a fascinating speaker and his enthusiasm utterly infectious. Nothing was out of place, everything he did conveyed the magic of the moment.
I urge music lovers to clear their calendars and attend these extraordinary concerts as Crayford travels throughout New Zealand. It is seldom that we get to experience projects like this and extremely rare to hear them in such intimate spaces. The most difficult gig in Jazz is the free-ranging improvised solo piano concert. When it works (and this certainly did) it is the most rewarding. This was deep improvisation, sensitive interaction and piano/sound curation at it’s best. It paid respect to the solo art form and above all to a very special Steinway piano. It was Jarrett like (but without the abuse). It was Crayford at his best and that is enough to satisfy any music lover.
The heart of the modern improvised and experimental music scene is always an interesting place to be. Audiences tend to be open-eared and accustomed to music from a wide variety of sources. Improvising musicians have always drawn on diverse influences and it is a narrow-minded few who whine about dilution or the good old days. We should never undercut the deeper purpose of music, which is to share stories, communicate on a primal level, interpret. We tell stories to live and how we listen or react to music speaks to our musical maturity. When Simona Minns performed in Auckland last week, she brought with her a variety of influences. and all were approached with integrity.
She is billed as a Jazz Singer, composer, arranger and artistic director, and she is unafraid to mash up or blend genres. All of the above descriptors were on show when she performed at the Backbeat Bar and everything she did, communicated an innate sense of fun and adventure. She is a natural performer, but behind that lies careful preparation. Her easy-going confidence disarms, but it arises out of hard work and commitment. A good example of the care she brings to her art lies in her charts. The musicians all commented on how beautifully they were crafted and judging by the solo’s, they were not constrained by them. We heard Jazz standards, old Lithuanian folk songs, tunes from her musical ‘A Hunger Artist’ and some jazz-mashed classic rock. The audience loved it all and got the musical jokes embedded therein. The fact that she was cleverly comedic in her introductions, enhanced the overall effect.
I first read Franz Kafka as a 14-year-old, and once read, his tales cannot easily be forgotten. They are dystopian and thus disturbing, but a mature reading reveals clever questions, posed for our consideration. Kafka’s ‘A Hunger Artist’ is just such a tale – disturbing, yet raising important issues for all times. Issues which cut to the heart of performance art itself.
The tunes from Minns musical were delightful, and the fact that she could frame them without overdoing the pathos reminded us of the deeper questions posed. Her choice of standards appeared commonplace until you heard them and then they took on a life of their own. All were either re-harmonised or arranged in unique ways. As if to underline this point of difference she created mash-ups from them – blending classic rock and Jazz; often dancing as she delivered her lively performances.
She had a very fine Jazz unit backing her – a truly superb band and ideal for the task. Alan Brown on keyboards, Cameron McArthur on bass and Stephen Thomas on drums. She also played a classic Lithuanian harp (the Kanklas). While it is a small instrument, it is capable of producing extraordinary melancholic sounds. The sort you hear throughout the eastern block (and even down as far as Turkey or Greece). My favourite number was her mash-up of Gershwin’s Summertime. The band really broke loose on that number and the effects were electrifying. An Alan Brown band in full flight is a wonder to behold indeed.
Simona Minns was born in Lithuania where she obtained a music degree, later moving to Berklee (Boston, USA) where she obtained a degree in composition. She also founded ‘Syntheatre’ a performance company in Boston. Her albums can be sourced from her website or from iTunes or the various streaming platforms. Her website is simonaminns.com The Performance was at the Backbeat Bar in K’Road and presented by the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) and the Auckland Fringe Festival on Tuesday 20, February 2018.
I have posted a short clip of her performing a song from the Kafka inspired ‘A Hunger Artist’ – where she plays the Kanklas.
It is rare to have a Viking encounter in New Zealand as our Geographical isolation makes it difficult. A foolish few, claim, that Eric the Red visited here after he sailed to America. That is as fanciful as Trump’s claim to possess genius IQ. I have had four significant Viking encounters in my life. The first was when I visited Yorvik in York. The second occurred in a crowded hall when a booming female voice hushed everyone by proclaiming – ‘Lookout a Viking has entered the room’ and pointed directly at me. Wives were gathered close as all eyes turned nervously in my direction (the embarrassment subsided after extensive counselling). The third occasion was when my DNA revealed that I was 21% Viking (the woman was right). A few nights ago, I had another Viking encounter and this one was perfect. A descendant of Eric’s finally made it, with a baritone battle horn and batterie in tow.
It was 10 degrees below when John Pal Inderberg left Norway and 40 degrees above when he and Hakon Johansen landed in Sydney. By the time they visited Auckland, there was only a 38-degree temperature differential. This gig, was as unexpected as my previous Viking encounters – coming out of nowhere. Jeff Henderson had pulled it together at short notice and those who attended will be eternally grateful that he did. Henderson and Inderberg go back some way. Baritone saxophone gigs are extremely rare; baritone chordless trio gigs like hens’ teeth. Inderberg opened with a long intro; a beautiful Norwegian folk-influenced melody – the deep resonant notes bubbling up from the depths – pleasurable from the first instance. His rich tone, northern European, his ideas as he improvised, an endless stream of Nordic sagas. I have only heard one baritone player who sounds like that – John Surman (who also lives in Norway).
The setlist was a mix of originals and standards – the standards sounding wonderfully original, as breathy stories were unpicked. Woven into the tunes, were snatches of multiphonics – between the tunes, a cornucopia of humour. This was Nordic humour and extremely funny. At one point, he told us that a particular tune was difficult and required a lot of rehearsal. “This tune has a lot of de-crescendos and Vikings are very crescendo orientated. Loud shouting is embedded in our DNA after all of that pillaging”. He later explained that the band were enjoying their new uniform (although no one was dressed the same). “Not one of us is wearing underpants on stage,” he added. “In Norway at 10 below, our underpants stretch from here to here,” indicating his chest and ankles. In this heat, they are not welcome.
Inderberg has an impressive resume. He has toured and recorded with Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Chet Baker, Gil Evans and Bob Brookmeyer. He teaches at Trondheim, is a multi-award-winning musician and a key member of many ensembles and Jazz orchestras. He has definite Tristano leanings and this shows in his approach to improvisation. We discussed Warne Marsh’s sad final performance – dying as he played ‘Out of Nowhere’. We call it ‘Out of Norway’ he told me.
We were extremely lucky to have both Inderberg and the trio drummer Hakon Mjaset Johansen in New Zealand. Johansen was also extraordinary – whether as a colourist or laying down a steady pulse, he showed himself to be the perfect partner (the percussively finicky Lenny would have approved – no kick drum bombs). On bass was the Auckland musician Eamon Edmundson-Wells. Was the Nordic-sounding name an X-factor? It may have been as he played as if he had been with the trio for a long time. It is always gratifying when our local musicians kill it alongside the greats.
Inderberg has over 30 albums to his credit. He will likely return before too long. Watch out for that, as his gigs are not to be missed. The Trio recorded an album in 2016 titled ‘Linjedalsleiken’ and it is superb. I have embedded two gig clips, just case people need further convincing and a sound clip from the album.
The above album is recorded for Ponca Jazz Records and is available from that site, or from iTunes. Also available, are a number of recordings of Inderberg with Lee Konitz – ‘Steps towards a Dream’ is astonishingly beautiful. Well worth the download if you have a fondness for the post-Tristano movement as I do.
The Australian saxophonist Paul Van Ross is a regular visitor to New Zealand, but there was a four-year gap between his recent Auckland gigs. He is a talented improviser, an interesting composer and an artist brimming with ideas, so his gigs are always worth catching when he passes through. As he did last time, he toured with drummer Mark Lockett, a friend and longtime collaborator. They were joined in Auckland by the in-demand bass player Cameron McArthur. Van Ross’s last visit featured Alan Brown on organ; this trip, however, was pianoless, providing him with clear skies and lots of space to stretch out in. All three grabbed at the opportunity enthusiastically and the audience benefited from the subsequent aerobatics.
While the tour focussed on his trio chops there was a secondary purpose; to showcase his Cuban Album “Mi Alma Cubana’. The trio played mostly originals and a number of tunes from the album. As much as I enjoyed the trio (and I did), it was the Cuban septet which really floored me. I have put up a video excerpt from the chordless trio gig, and I can’t resist adding two sound clips from the album. What an album this is – what unbounded joy and groove. It was almost impossible to choose which track to put up as they are all so great – ‘Break a Tune’ (an earlier composition), La Negra Tomasa (G. Rodriguez) the only non-original, the ballad ‘Melody for Mum? In the end I opted for ‘Swami in the house’ and ‘Hacienda de la Salsa’ (the latter containing hints of tango under infectious Cuban rhythms – a truly spicy salsa.
‘Mi Alama Cubana’ was recorded in Cuba during a visit in 2013. All of the musicians were hired in Cuba and the recording took place over two days in the EGREM studios Havana. In between tunes, Van Ross regaled us with stories of the recording session. No wonder the album turned out so well. The picture he painted was compelling; tales of wonderfully colourful musicians; the epitome good humour and remembered with real fondness. The pianist who didn’t need charts. the scantily clad percussionist, the innate professionalism.
It is our good fortune that these talented people came together at this time and that they injected such joyful enthusiasm into the Van Ross Australian/Cubano project. I highly recommend the album – it will make you smile and cause your feet to move unbidden. The weave of the clave will work its magic on body and soul. making summer that little bit brighter. It is important to support such endeavours right now; each time we embrace this extraordinary music we give a one finger salute to the bigotry that keeps such projects away from our ears.
Trio: Paul Van Ross (saxophones, compositions), Mark Lockett (drums), Cameron McArthur (bass). CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, Auckland, 13 Dember 2017
Mi Alma Cubana: Paul Van Ross (saxophones, flute), Alejandro Falcon (piano), Jorje Aragon (piano 3-5), Gaston Joya Perellada (bass), Oliver Valdes (drums), Jose Luis Quintana (timbales), Yoraldy Abreu Robles (conga, shekere, shaker, guiro)
The album was crowd-funded and released by the artists. Purchase from iTunes or from the Paul Van Ross website.
The last time the Jelly Rolls Jelly Rolls played at the CJC was two years ago and they are just the right band for a pre-Christmas 2017 gig. To my ears, nothing sounds more like Christmas than the Jelly Rolls. Forget your formulaic Christmas albums – this is good times music and you can feel it deep in your bones. The Jelly Rolls are important for a number of reasons, but not least because of their outreach to both provincial and urban New Zealand. The year has gone well for them and after touring the band to unlikely corners of the Island, they arrived in Auckland in peak form. Their particular brand of swing-infused music is seldom heard live and it’s a delight to hear it done (and done so well). To a new generation of listeners, this is often an eye-opener and so it should be. Their playlist comprises originals but also showcases an all but forgotten improvised treasure trove.
Much of the Jelly Rolls music comes from an important moment in the development of Jazz. It digs into the repertoire of musicians like Erroll Garner, Fats Waller, Ahmad Jamal, Jack Teagarden and Oscar Peterson. These musicians were far more important than mere historical footnotes – they were vital stepping-stones to where we are today; larger than life musicians who entertained and made us smile. In the Jelly Rolls hands, all of the above are referenced; not in a ‘let’s do some retro stuff’ way but by encapsulating style and essence. Those who know their music history will pick up these threads but will also enjoy the immediacy. This is music to be enjoyed in the now, enjoyed at a visceral level; foot-tapping body-swaying music. Some of what we heard, the swing material, was from their earlier ‘Live in Cromwell’ album (I love that title).
When I last saw Ben Wilcock he was about to move to Rotorua. His new location among the lakes and geothermal marvels prompted him to write some fresh material. The Phantom Canoe is an ambitious project focusing on Te Arawa legends of the central North Island. In deference to local Iwi and Hapu, he consulted elders as the project unfolded. Armed with their blessings and advice, he told the stories in his own voice. The album arising out of that project is on data-card and it includes a short video. There is a piece about a Taniwha, the epic of Hinemoa and Tutanekai is told in several parts but the most dramatic tale is the title track ‘The Phantom Canoe’. Beautifully paced, gently evocative of the landscape and the mysterious story behind it.
A Phantom Canoe appeared on Lake Tarawera on the 13th May 1886 and it was seen by the wiser Maori inhabitants as a portent of the coming eruption. The volcano erupted violently 10 days later, obliterating the villages around the shore and the iconic pink and white terraces. No such canoe had ever been on the lake and those in the canoe were dressed in traditional shrouds. Michael Barker’s vibraphone melody over a repeat pattern on piano and bass was just right for this, Wellington drummer John Rae completing the piece nicely as he evoked the final eruption sequence. It was obvious that the band enjoyed performing together and the audience picked up on that and responded. The line up on Squeaky Weasel, an earlier Jelly Rolls album, was as now Wilcock, Rae and bass player Yeabsley. The addition of Michael Barker on percussion and vibraphone is an evolution that makes perfect sense. Trumpeter Finn Scholes joined them for one number and delivered a well thought through high energy solo. To pick up a copy go to Ben Wilcock Thick Records Ltd – www.thickrecords.co.nz They appeared at the CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog Tavern, K’Road, Auckland on 29 November 2017
New Zealand is an incubator of creative spirits and many of the best are hidden in plain sight. They deserve better attention but we fail to notice them because the soulless dazzle of consumerism obscures our sight lines. Last week Richard Hammond, an important New York bass player flew into Auckland and a lucky few got to hear him play live. Hammond is a legend in music circles, but many who are familiar with his work don’t realise that he is an ex-pat New Zealander; raised in the North Kaipara region and establishing himself on the New Zealand music scene while still at high school. Later he won a scholarship to attend the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston. After moving to New York he studied at the Manhattan School of Music where he completed a Masters. Hammond has toured with many significant artists; he gigs regularly in New York clubs, works in Broadway shows and is a first call bass player in the recording studios.
When I learned that he would be recording in Auckland, I made sure that I had an invitation to the recording session. My head was still spinning after a crazy two weeks in Australia, but I wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity to hear him play. The recording session took place at the UoA School of Music in Shortland Street, where Maggie Gould was laying down a few cuts for an album. On this session, Hammond played upright bass, extracting a beautifully rounded tone from a ‘seen better days’ borrowed instrument; living proof that good musicians sound good on any old instrument. Recording sessions are not concerts, but they are never the less fascinating places for those beguiled by the process of music making. What strikes me on a good recording session is the heightened collaborative element; the way an artist gives without invading another’s space, and all of this in slow motion as they mull over playbacks. I positioned myself behind Hammond (who was well baffled) and I watched, listened and photographed between takes. Photography in a studio or a rehearsal is generally easier than at a gig.
The CJC, sensing an opportunity and knowing that they had only a few days, organised a special one-off Richard Hammond gig and billed it as an all-star event. The programming fell to keys player Kevin Field. Field playing Rhodes, Ron Samsom on drums, Nathan Haines and Roger Manins on saxophones and Marjan on vocals. Hammond alternated between upright bass and electric bass and he wowed us on both instruments. On upright bass, he has a tone to die for; one that only the best bass players locate; on electric bass his lines bite, speaking the language of Jaco or Richard Bona.
The tunes were mostly Field’s and Haines, but it was also a pleasure to hear Marjan’s evocative Desert Remains performed again. Every time she sings her vocal and compositional strengths astound listeners. She gains fans every time she steps up to the microphone. The gig was held at the Backbeat Bar in K’Rd, the venue packed to capacity. The musicians were all in excellent form; clearly feeding on the shouts of encouragement from an enthusiastic audience. First up was Haines, who goes back with Hammond at least 20 years – Hammond appearing on Haines first album ‘Shift Left’. You could sense the old chemistry being rekindled as they played. I also enjoyed Manins playing, especially on one of the Field tunes. Perhaps because they hit their stride so early, and made it look such fun, it was the trio of Hammond, Field and Samsom that will stick in my mind. These cats talk music in the dialect of joy. In this troubled world, we need a lot of that.
Richard Hammond: (upright and electric bass)
The All Stars: Kevin Field (Fender Rhodes), Nathan Haines (Tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, flute), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Marjan (vocals), Ron Samsom (drums). Backbeat Bar, K’Road, Auckland Central, 21 November 2017
I like South American music and the more I hear, the deeper I am drawn in. A rich and ancient fusion of African, European and Amerindian music, each coast and region nurturing distinct flavours. There are also highly localised variations; all rhythmically complex and all deeply infectious. This week the CJC featured the highly respected Brazilian musician Nanny Assis and New Zealand born vocalist Maggie Gould. Assis was born in Salvador, North Eastern Brazil; a region especially rich in musical traditions and heavily influenced by African rhythms. The coast below Bahia nurtured Tom Jobim, Roberto Menescal and a cohort of like-minded innovators; the creators of the Bossanova (new music) form. In a world where saccharine versions of great music often assail us, it is necessary to return to the source from time to time in order to refresh our ears. Listening to Tom Jobim and Elis Regina on the album ‘Elis & Tom’ – ‘Chovendo Na Roseira’ especially, is a good place to start. The time feel is subtly different from North American versions and the unique rhythmic tensions dance with life. Jobim is long gone but authentic practitioners of the various traditions are still there if we look. Assis is just one of these; a master of rhythm and of the many distinct Bahia styles.Gould was a successful photojournalist in an earlier life. When the pressures of that lifestyle became too much, she decided to abandon the frenetic media world and follow her passion instead. Rekindling a youthful dream she became a Jazz vocalist and has followed that path ever since. Eventually, her journey took her to New York where she met Assis and a musical collaboration began. While living in New York Gould has performed with a number of luminaries, notably the pianist John de Martino (who has also recorded with Assis). Gould and Assis have just toured New Zealand, appearing in festivals and clubs throughout the two Islands. They have toured with great musicians and they intend to record soon in Auckland. When they do, the well-known New York-based ex-pat Kiwi bass player Richard Hammond will join them.
It was not only the gentle Bossa rhythms that we heard on Wednesday but other livelier types of South American influenced music as well. These were danceable and energy fueled treats. During one such number, the room morphed into a seething mass of swaying bodies, hands raised as they danced. The last number, Magalena was a type of North-Eastern Brazilian rap – fast-paced and reminiscent of Jon Hendricks’ scatting. There were also quieter numbers, some Brazillian and a few from the USA; the standout among the latter being Gould singing the gorgeous ‘Some other time’ (Bernstein). On that, Roger Manins added whispering fills and Kevin Field provided the perfect understated accompaniment on piano. It is said that Latin American music is ‘the other swing music’. That makes for great synergies between Jazz and Latin musicians. It can work well, but only if the musicians have the ears and the courage to submit to the weave. Utilising the considerable skills of pianist Kevin Field, Alex Griffiths on 5 string bass and drummer Ron Samsom (plus for the CJC gig, saxophonist Roger Manins). The mix of Jazz musicians and Brazilian created a spark. Alex Griffiths is obviously well versed in Brazilian rhythms as his lines could not have been better placed. Field has for some time been immersed in this music and he is no stranger to the various clave rhythms either. His understated delicate lines in place of comping held the echoes of Jobim’s own tasteful piano accompaniment. During solo’s he gave both hands full reign in clave rich explorations. Samsom is a talented drummer and throughout the night, he and Assis worked in concert. With Assis on percussion and Samsom on the kit, a wonderfully rich sound scape emerged. At one point Assis beat a cowbell to hold the centre – allowing Samsom additional freedom to move. This was a moment of pure magic.
I read once, that a Jazz drummer playing Bossa or Samba is doing three basic things; the right hand replaces the shaker or cowbell, the left hand has the clave pattern and the kick drum follows the bass line. Add in actual congas shakers or cowbell and the interplay has the magnitude of a sonic earthquake.The number that I have posted is ‘O Barquinho’ or ‘My Little Boat(of Love)’ – a tune by Roberto Menescal and sometimes wrongly attributed to Jobim. It is a nice example of the Brazilian Bossa rhythms; rich in subtlety and contrast. It is a long-held tradition in this music to have a female and a male voice – call and response. Gould in English, imparting the wistfulness of the lyrics – Assis in Portuguese – taking me back to the master Joao Gilberto. The Portuguese language is extremely pleasant to the ear, while often masking incredibly sad songs. We didn’t need a dictionary or interpreter on Wednesday as we were transported without them. Nanny Assis’s voice, like his percussion and guitar playing, is pure magic – together the musicians gave us a great night.
They open the Wellington Jazz Festival this year on 30 November. The bottom photograph is by Reuben – the top 3 are mine.
Nanny Assis (percussion, vocals, guitar), Maggie Gould (vocals, arrangements), Alex Griffiths (electric six-string bass), Kevin Field (piano), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Ron Samsom (drums) – at the Thirsty Dog, CJC Creative Jazz Club, 25 October 2017
The fourth Auckland Jazz Festival was appropriately launched at the Thirsty Dog Tavern in Karangahape Road. A welcoming venue, nestled among ethnic food joints, strip clubs and private art galleries. It is timely that we pay tribute to the Thirsty Dog, who a year ago, generously offered the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) a regular Wednesday night slot. This occurred when the club most needed it. It is a good performance space and many visiting musicians have remarked on the rooms warm vibe.The first festival gig I attended was the Jennifer Zea group. The last time I saw her perform I liked by her Latin interpretations of the standards, but I particularly liked her rendering of the songs particular to her region (Cuba/Venezuela). She introduced more standards this time but it was the second set; a set of Venezuelan and bossa fused music that had the audience enthralled. These tunes were so infectious that they followed me home. I even woke up with one of them singing in my head the next morning. ‘Moliendo Cafe’ (Blanco/Perroni) has been popular in Venezuela (and the wider world) since 1959. Everyone from Jose Feliciano on has benefited from it. As Zea sang this wonderfully infectious tune, she danced to its rhythms, and along the back wall, a chorus of her countrymen and women sang along in unison. We seldom hear music like this and it is her forte. I have posted a bolero, Lagrimas Negras (or Black Tears – by Matamoras) a Cuban tune from the 1920’s. She was ably assisted by Kevin Field, Mostyn Cole and the wonderful Miguel Fuentes on percussion.
The next night was the Guy Buttery gig, a World musician who appeared at Backbeat. Buttery is a renowned acoustic guitarist from South Africa and a distinctive stylist. His musical influences are varied but always harnessed to his own vision. Although he played a six-string guitar (a truly beautiful instrument), he often reminded me of Egberto Gismonti (or perhaps Ralph Towner). His mastery of the instrument was simply astounding and his choice of material perfect for the occasion. He memorably played a saw at one point and accompanied the piece with a delightful story. Evidently, the piece has been adopted as a theme by a group of Roswell styled ‘alien watchers’. There were many devoted fans in the room and some who had travelled a long way to hear him. His gift is sound shaping, every harmonic given voice, every note sublimely resonant. The sounds he coaxed from his instrument were at times orchestral. All who came were delighted with the performance.
Two days later I picked up the Belgium pianist Jef Neve and his crew from the airport. I spent the next three days with them and wrote about the experience in my previous post. I got home at around midnight on Saturday after sitting through nearly 5 hours of rehearsal and a two-hour concert. I loved every second of it. If that makes me an improvised music geek then so be it. jazzlocal32.com/2017/10/18/jef-neve-spirit-control/
On Tuesday, Marjan appeared with the ‘Experience Band’ at the Auckland Jazz and Blues Club. The Experience Band is an 11 piece ensemble and consequently, it provided a very different flavour to her appearance with a quartet at the CJC last month. Her voice has real power and she’s a compelling performer; easily able to adjust to the bigger sound. The audience loved her. Her set list was skillfully tailored to the room as the audience was older than the CJC crowd. In particular, her cheeky take on ‘Making Whoopie’ brought the house down. At one point she paid tribute to her high school music teacher, saxophonist Markas Fritsch, who was in the front line of the ensemble. She credits him with steering her towards Jazz – something we should all thank him for.On Wednesday, the third headline festival act was presented at the Thirsty Dog. It has been over a year since the world-renowned bassist David Friesen was in New Zealand. During last years tour, his trio was recorded at the 1885 venue. The night was captured perfectly in the newly released Rattle album ‘Another Time Another Space’. Frieson is an improvised music celebrity and it was good to have him back. He has a unique approach to composition and performance and he caps that off with his engaging and witty bandstand banter. He was again accompanied by Dixon Nacey on guitar and Reuben Bradly on drums. This trio communicates superbly, reacting to each other like old friends. The recording is amazingly good, especially so considering that it was captured in the 1885, which is an acoustically lively space. Nacey’s singing lines blend perfectly with Frieson’s – the sort of woody resonance that high-end luthiers aim for.On Friday the Chris Mason-Battley band returned to the Thirsty Dog. I really like this band with their predilection for tasty modal grooves. There is no one in New Zealand who plays quite like the Mason-Battley – and as an entity, the group have a distinct footprint. I have written about them recently and I suggest you check them out if you get the chance – they are not heard about town very often and more’s the pity. As with the last gig; on the keyboard was David Lines, on electric bass Sam Giles and on drums the innovative Stephen Thomas. There is now talk of a new CMB project and perhaps one with more electronics? Friday nights are the hard-yards for Jazz musicians and this one was no exception. Throughout the performance, you could hear two blokes yakking, obviously pleased to be catching up and seemingly unaware that this was a listening gig. A number of ray-like stares were beamed in their direction but they proved quite impervious to hints. Loud chatting seldom happens on a mid-week night where listeners and improvisers own the space.The last gig at the Auckland Jazz Festival was Jim Langabeer’s ‘Secret Islands’ album release’. This is another Rattle album and the musicianship is stunning. A project which arose out of Langabeer’s multi-phonics explorations at Auckland University. There is a lot that is referred to as fusion these days and most of it is not. In this case, the term could be a good descriptor. Indigenous instruments, multiple reeds and winds; pedal steel guitar and fender; beautiful melodies placed in Mingus like settings. While the album sits comfortably on the Jazz spectrum, the material takes us way beyond that. With the authoritative elder statesman Langabeer at the helm, and assisted by Rosie Langabeer, Roger Manins, Eamon Edmundson-Wells, Neil Watson and Chris O’Connor, what else would you expect. For this and other ‘Rattle’ recordings, go to www.rattlerecords.net/
This piece was almost titled ‘my career as Jef Neve’s Driver’, but in the end, I shied away from that. In truth, my tenure as a roadie/driver was brief (although fulfilling). The term roadie was perhaps a bit of a stretch also because I only lifted one suitcase (and that was with help). I decided early in life that my ideal job was working as a roadie for a Jazz pianist. I figured that the obligation to lift heavy things would be minimal and that I could consume endless supplies of live improvised music. With regard to the first point, I was woefully under-researched. In Europe, Neve actually travels accompanied by his piano, but luckily for me, the airlines are reluctant to accept a piano as stow-on luggage. The Auckland airport pick-up went flawlessly (apart from the suitcase to person ratio which was resolved by Neve who is used to fitting notes into improbable spaces). As we drove, I chatted; easing my way into the story in true Gonzo journalist fashion. So there we were jammed into my car like Hanseatic cod; Jef, Pieter, Dieter and me; heading for a piano, a rhythm section and a string quartet. This was going to be fun.I met Neve once before and I have followed his career over the years. He is a major artist and a household name in Belguim. A year ago I passed through his beautiful city of Ghent, and I vividly recall a young woman behind the hotel counter asking me what I knew about the city. It was actually Robert Browning who introduced me to Ghent, but I replied Jef Neve. Oh yes, he’s famous she said. When I told her that I had once interviewed him, she was obviously impressed. In her eyes, I was no longer some grey haired tourist but a guy who had met Jef Neve.The KMC is a venue with good acoustics; not too dry – not too wet. It was once a television studio and before that the principal home of radio in New Zealand. Now it houses the UoA Jazz School and the School of dance. I found a swivel chair and slid my self across to the listening sweet spot as the trio rehearsed. Then, the string quartet turned up and the work began in earnest. Into that darkened space the music spirits descended; channelling themselves through Neve’s fingers and entering the musicians one by one. I sat there through four and a half hours of rehearsal; soaking up the sound; awestruck and utterly engrossed from start to finish. Cam McArthur was on bass and Ron Samsom on drums. Both are very fine musicians – on this gig they manifested as truly great musicians.Experienced improvising musicians are quick to read cues; usually conveyed by a brief glance. Things can change in a moment as new ideas develop; it is a core skill – the ability to interpret subliminal signals and react accordingly. For a classical string quartet, it is different. Cues are generally pencilled into their charts or perhaps conveyed by a conductor. The Black Quartet tackled these difficult charts with vigour, questioning Neve throughout and writing in minute changes or subtle expression marks. I heard Neve remark afterwards how enormously impressed he was with their musicianship – “I would be happy to work with these musicians anytime”, he said. Throughout the day the musicians rehearsed the knotty bits and acclimatised themselves to function as an ensemble. Watching music like this take shape is a joy.Concerts like this are underpinned by hard work and it usually takes a number of rehearsals to achieve tight ensemble playing. Occasionally I get to observe bands in rehearsal or in a recording studio and as the hours go by you can feel the energy shift. An evolution occurs as the music is properly understood and internalised. So it was with this ensemble and after hours of concentrated work, they breathed in unison. The key to this was Neve who is a gifted communicator and patience personified. When energy is harnessed in this way it becomes spirit. Neve had two assistants with him and as the ensemble poured over the charts these two quietly wove their magic. Both sat at consoles and throughout the day they tweaked, miked-up and fine-tuned the sound. The string section was miked to perfection, giving out a sweet woody sound but subtly amplified to exactly the right place in the mix. An audience is seldom aware of the hours a good sound technician puts in (that is unless they do a poor job). This was sound mixing as an art-form. The results were perfection.
I watched the string section throughout the day as layer after layer of complexity was added to already complex charts. I wondered how they would ever remember it all but they did. The performance sang like the gods had blessed it. After all of that work, they yielded to the spirit control. It is often said that Rock is simple music made to sound complex and that Jazz is complex music made to sound simple. As they played this beautiful music, it flowed with such ease. All of the intricacies and fine tuning of the rehearsal were subsumed into the greater whole. This is Neve’s gift; a master musician who blends genres seamlessly, who breathes life into the notes on a stave and takes others along with him. For me, that sublime performance was enhanced by the journey proceeding it. On that day, I was not only a driver but a music voyeur; the best job in the world.‘Spirit Control’ is a lovely album. It is richly satisfying and with a clarity of purpose that cuts through genre and preconception. There is an orchestral quality to Neve’s piano so when the orchestra comes in or fades out the transition feels seamless. There are so many clever references in this music – often shimmering – mirage-like; Tango, folk, modern classical, Nordic improvised Ambient, even pop. This is, however, Jazz of the highest order. Not drawing on the blues but on the many musical forces of Neve’s continent. Jazz has many homes in the modern world. While most of the pieces on the album were played at the Auckland concert there were also new arrangements and pieces from previous albums. There were also hard swinging trio passages. During these, Samsom and McArthur were astounding, moving from arco bass or colourist drumming to a dizzying, exciting, take no prisoners swing. The cross-appeal of this album is evidenced by the fact that it appeared on the Belgium pop charts and stayed there for weeks.
The next day a smaller concert was held at the Lewis Eady showrooms in Epsom. This was a solo piano gig and Neve took a very different tack to the day before. While he played a few of his own compositions, he also played some Jazz standards – Monk’s ‘I mean you’ was a rare treat – with a stride piano left hand accentuating Monk’s delightfully quirky tune. Strayhorn’s ‘Lush Life’ was moving and Joni Mitchell’s ‘A case of you’ was delicate and beauty manifest. After the concert, we ate tapas in K’Road and then I drove them into the Waitakere hills. We stopped at the highest trig point and later at Rose Hallaby’s cottage. As they looked out over the vast expanse of native bush and the smells of forest washed away the smells of the city, I saw the amazement and wonder on their faces. When you live in the lowlands views like this are rare. I told them of the many artists and musicians who live in these hills. When your attuned to the creative spirit then life is good.
These performances were part of the Auckland Jazz Festival. Jef Neve is a Universal recording artist and the album and other information is available from JefNeve.com
All photos except the album cover were taken by me during the rehearsal on Saturday 14 October 2017
Jamie Oehlers is a tenor saxophone heavyweight who earns widespread respect. His playing is conversational, and like all good conversationalists, he listens as well as he articulates his own point of view. An unashamed melodicist, a musician of subtlety, a dream weaver with a bell-like clarity of tone. Oehlers tours regularly and we are lucky enough to be on his touring circuit. This trip, he was accompanied by Tal Cohen; an Israeli born, New York-based pianist; an artist increasingly coming to the favourable attention of reviewers; an artist praised by fellow musicians. Cohen and Oehlers have been playing together for years and over that time they have built an uncanny rapport. Out of that has emerged something special; their 2016 duo album titled ‘Innocent dreamer’.As far as I know, this was Cohen’s first visit to New Zealand and it was certainly his first visit to the CJC. He’s a compelling pianist and the perfect counter-weight for Oehlers. On duo numbers, they responded to each other as good improvisers should, each giving the other space and expanding the conversation as the explorations deepened. Intimate musical exchanges of this type work best when the musicians care deeply about the project. They work best between friends. We saw two sides to Cohen on this tour. The thoughtful, unhurried, deep improviser and the percussive player who found a groove and worked it to the bone. The second half of the gig brought a rhythm section to the bandstand; Olivier Holland and Ron Samsom. Having such an interesting contrast between sets made both halves work better. The second set was approached with vigour; Oehlers digging into a standard, often preceded by a nice intro, through the head and then… boom. This was when the fireworks happened.
The chemistry between Oehlers and Cohen was obvious in the duo set, but adding in the hard-swinging Holland and on-fire Samsom shook up the dynamic once again. Suddenly there were new and wild interactions occurring, short staccato responses, dissonant asides, crazy interjections; these guys were bouncing off each other and above all, they were enjoying themselves. When musicians live in the moment, and the audience feels that magic, they feed it back. The virtuous loop that sustains all performance art. I spoke to Cohen later and talked about playing styles. He is not impressed by pianists who strive to sound like the past. You can respect the past, bring it to your fingertips but still sound like your taking it somewhere new. He did. This night was the proof of the pudding; the standards performed were all living breathing entities.The first set opened with a heartfelt ‘Body & Soul’ (Green) which set the tone. The tune that really took my attention though was Oehlers ‘Armistice’. A beautiful piece conjuring up powerful images and telling its story unequivocally. There was also a nice tune referencing Cohens family. The first set finished with the lively Ellington tribute – ‘Take the Coltrane’ . The second set (the quartet) opened with the lovely ‘It could happen to You’ (Van Heusen), followed by a tune that Oehlers has made his own; ‘On a Clear Day’ (Learner/Lane) – (a recent Oehlers album title). Next, the quartet performed ‘Nardis’ (Evans/Davis) – this was wonderful and it reminded me of the endless re-evaluation and probing of that tune by Evans in his final years. This version did not sound like Evans – it was born again – if any modal tune deserves to live forever, it is surely this one.
Lastly, and in keeping with their tradition, Oehlers invited tenor player Roger Manins to the stand. After a quick discussion, they settled on ‘I remember April’ (de Paul). Back and forth they went, weaving arpeggios in and out of each other’s lines – moving like dancers; counterpoint, trading fours, all of the band responding to the challenge and reacting in turns. A KC set piece at the bottom of the Pacific.
Jamie Oehlers (tenor saxophone), Tal Cohen (piano), plus Olivier Holland (bass) and Ron Samsom (drums) – for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, K’Rd Auckland, 27 September 2017. Google Jamie Oehlers Bandcamp.com for a copy of the album.
Behind the doors of the beautiful Kauri villa, down the long corridor and the wide descending staircase, past the crush of people eagerly awaiting a significant and unique musical event, we edged forward; shuffled by the crowd, finding ourselves in a surprisingly large room; large enough to hold seventy people, a gorgeous warmly lit room with mirrored walls – an old dance studio brought back to life. As we crossed the room Jay Rodriguez greeted us, behind him, Jonathan Crayford shuffled through sheet music; both framed by an elegant grand piano and an array of horns on stands. I had interviewed Rodriguez earlier and had attended his sell out gig at the CJC Creative Jazz Club. There was never any doubt that this night, like the one a few nights earlier would deliver something special.If ever two musicians were destined to play duo format, it is these two. It is a challenging format as the safety nets are gone; it is deep level communication and frighteningly intimate. It requires deep listening and empathy as much as storytelling; it requires conversational dexterity. This was a night never to be forgotten, a night when great music became sublime. Rodriguez and Crayford have been friends for a long time, meeting up in New York in the late 90’s and forming an instant connection; Rodriguez’ ‘Groove Collective’ and other projects the meeting ground. They refer to each other as musical brothers and their communication during the last three days underscored that. The first time I saw them together was around eight years ago. The gig stuck in my mind for many reasons, but especially because of one tune; Bob Dylan’s ‘I pity the poor immigrant’. It spoke directly to me as it oozed with humanity. When I interviewed Rodriguez I teased out this a theme; pointing to the set lists, the tunes which cut to the heart of the human condition, tunes communicated with deep empathy. For example, their rendition of Keith Jarrett’s ‘The rich (and the poor)’, Coltrane’s ‘Alabama’. The former, a blues, reminding us that the blues is more than just a musical form. In their hands, it informs us about inequality, discrimination, hurt and hope. The human condition again. The latter, ‘Alabama’, moved me to tears. Jazz lovers know this story, but it has seldom been told so well. The piece is based on the cadences of a Martin Luther King speech, a speech given immediately after four little girls were killed as they worshipped, murdered by an unrepentant KKK. The musicians dived straight into the emotion of this awful tale; the incomprehension and anger, then a plea for humanity, an exhortation to do better, the hope; it was all in there.
In answer to the question about humanism, Rodriguez pointed out the realities of American life. “We are living through hard times back home and the blues is about reality. Expressing life from the heart is something that can’t be taught in Jazz school. Jazz school gives you the basics, but your voice is something else, you have to search; some never find it”. He told me that he had been lucky enough to find his own musical voice early on and he was comfortable with it. He can play in many styles with ease and the key to this is the man himself. He is intelligent, open-minded and well-informed, but it’s his friendliness and warmth that impresses most. The man and his music are one.He is a multi-reeds and winds player and his command of each instrument is strong. I asked him if he favoured one horn over another or had been tempted to double less? This was prompted by a similar discussion with Bennie Maupin. Maupin’s answer had cut to the point, “It’s mostly about dedication, hard work and five times the amount of practice”. Rodriguez answer was a little different. “Man, I love these instruments, every single one of them, and I couldn’t abandon any of them”. It is impressive to hear an artist sounding so strong and so individualistic on so many instruments; bass clarinet, tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, flute (he also doubles on alto and baritone saxophone). His bass clarinet is rich and woody with a tone production like John Surman – his tenor can range from low down raspy bluesiness to the light vibrato-less sound of ‘Pres’; and all of this in a clear authentic voice.
Crayford is an extraordinary musician, but last week he pulled out something extra. This was about personal chemistry (or perhaps alchemy). It was largely down to him that the project was conceived and he certainly made the most of it. He is the New Zealand ‘Tui’ Jazz artist of the year, a respected international troubadour, a pioneer reaching beyond the stars. The CJC quartet gig was a satisfying and joyous occasion but there was even better to come. When I interviewed Rodriguez a few days later he and Crayford invited me to a private event; the mysterious duo gig: so here I was in this amazing space, the mirrored dance studio, an oasis hidden in deep suburbia. As soon as they began playing the conversation deepened, each revealing new subtleties and wearing their hearts on the sleeves; … humanity. As far as I know, none of it was recorded and while that is sad, perhaps it is only right. Sometimes magic should be left well alone – left untrammelled, lest it changes like Schroedinger’s cat. During the dance studio gig, their song choices delighted and astonished. For example, Monk’s ‘Epistrophy’, A Puccini aria, Michel Legrand’s ‘You must believe in spring’, McCartney’s ‘Long and winding road’; all in all an improbable and extraordinary journey. The CJC set list included Yusef Lateef’s stunningly beautiful ‘Morning’, Victor Young’s ‘Golden Earrings’ Keith Jarrett’s ‘Rich (and the poor man)’ – from the Dewey Redman/Jarrett/Haden Impulse era, John Coltrane’s ‘Alabama’ and a lovely original by Rodriguez (I think it was titled ‘Your Sound’). Mostyn Cole and Ron Samsom were amazing as well. They are both fine musicians and a good choice for this line-up.
When you look at the Jay Rodriguez discography or bio, it is no wonder he is so comfortable in such a variety of musical spaces. He started on saxophone as a child and soon came under the tutelage of the greats. His mentors along the way included Paquito D’ Rivera, Phil Woods, Sir Roland Hannah, Barry Harris, Kenny Werner, George Coleman, Joe Henderson, John Gilmore, Gil Goldstein and so it goes on. It reads like the history of Jazz. I can think of few players who have worked with both Doc Cheatham and John Zorn (yes he evidently played Cobra and has performed at the Knitting Factory). He is Grammy nominated and has guested on the Jimmy Fallon show.
Music is a universal language, but its primal source is often overlooked. Scientists tell us that it is, the original and most profound form of communication; it is the lingua franca of our polyglot planet. All too often we focus on the scaffolding or the dialect; all too often we marvel at technical skills or frown at the lack thereof. The older I grow, the more I desire something different; the sound of the human spirit; communication straight from the heart. While Jay Rodriguez and Jonathan Crayford possess a grab bag of wizardry, they also transform notes into an unforgettable life experience. Long may this collaboration continue.
Rodriguez/Crayford Quartet: Jay Rodriguez (tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, Flute), Jonathan Crayford (Rhodes, electronics), Mostyn Cole (upright bass), Ron Samson (drums). 30th August 2017, CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, Auckland.
Rodriguez/Crayford Duo: Jay Rodriguez (tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, flute) – Jonathan Crayford (piano). 1st September 2017, Grey Lynn.