Jef Neve – ‘Spirit Control’

 

Neve (8)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.Neve (3)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.Neve (7)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.Neve (6)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.Neve (4)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.Neve (5)‘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.jef_neve_-_spirit_control

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 & Tal Cohen

Tal & Jamie (4)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’.Tal & Jamie (1)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.Innocent DreamerThe 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.

 

Jay Rodriguez & Jonathan Crayford – music with heart & soul

Jay JoCray (2)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.Jay JoCray (1)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.Jay JoCray 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.Jay JoCray (3)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.Jay JoCray (4) 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.

George Garzone Down Under

GarzoneRoger Manins uncoupled the microphone and looked around the club. It was winter outside but you wouldn’t have known it. The windows were steamed up from the heat of a capacity crowd; all eyes were fixed on the stage and the stocky man holding the tenor saxophone. “You know how lucky you are …. right,” Manins asked the audience?  A loud cheer went up accompanied by whistles and foot stomping. George Garzone was in town and no one was in any doubt.

The Garzone phenomenon is hard to pin down, there are so many facets to it. While incredibly famous in Jazz education circles, revered by elite saxophonists; loved by club audiences and improvising musicians, he is under-mentioned in the Jazz press. The reason for this apparent contradiction cuts right to the heart of the man himself. Garzone has always plotted his own course and his playing reflects this. He travels less than most musicians of his stature, but he has never the less carved out a unique space; that of the underground hero, the musician to have on your tenor player bucket list, the artist that is talked of in hushed whispers, ‘the guy’. While a monster player, he is always happy to share his knowledge and to share the bandstand. Garzone (4)Most of the tunes were in long form and most were Garzone originals. All were perfect for the occasion. As you might expect, the Garzone tunes were springboards for deep improvisation; the heads, however, were memorable and so well-arranged that they stood out. I failed to catch all of the titles because the applause often drowned out the announcements. There was a catchy tune referencing Bourbon Street, A moving tribute to his friend Michael Brecker and a tune titled ‘The Mingus that I know’. They all had pithy stories attached. The two standards were Billy Eckstine’s ‘I want to talk about you’ and a wonderful earthy take on John Coltrane’s ‘Impressions’. I read somewhere that Garzone plays like he talks, in a Bostonian/Calabrian dialect. The cadences and rhythms of speech are part of who we are, it is, therefore, logical that they encompass how musicians express themselves and especially on a vocal instrument like the saxophone.Garzone (1)His pick up band were Kevin Field, Ron Samsom, Mostyn Cole and Roger Manins. Like every international who passes through, he heaped praise on the local musicians. Coming from Garzone this really counts. He and Manins go back a way and the synergies between them are evident (the Garzone influence is worldwide and Manins is no exception). Whether playing in unison or in counterpoint, they sounded right together – tenors who knew just how to compliment or when to keep clear. This was a very big sound and when trading fours they cajoled each other as friends might. The rhythm section was energised as well; Cole, Samsom and Field providing rhythmic and harmonic trickery.  And at one point, ‘Hey great, I heard some Salsa in that solo’, said Garzone looking in Fields direction.

The tour was put together by Roger Manins on behalf of the CJC Jazz Club and other clubs throughout the New Zealand Jazz touring circuit. Those who attended the two master classes at the Backbeat Bar and the two sold out Thirsty Dog gigs certainly knew how lucky they were. This was the night that Boston’s best; one of Americas finest tenor-men, came to town and blew like crazy. You had to be there to fully comprehend it, but this was a night to tell our grandchildren about.Garzone (3)

George Garzone (tenor saxophone, compositions, arrangements), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Kevin Field (piano), Mostyn Cole (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums). CJC Creative Jazz Club at the Thirsty Dog, Auckland, K’Rd 16th August 2017.

Rubim de Toledo (Canada)

Rubim (1)There have been two bass-player led groups at the CJC in as many months and both have been excellent. Last weeks featured group was a trio led by Rubim de Toledo: a Canadian from Alberta, of Brazilian origin and a well-established musician. Like many modern improvisers, his influences are diverse; that said his music fits squarely into the Jazz mainstream. The first thing to grab me was his big rounded tone, gifting the tunes with a richness and beauty that captivated from start to finish. While most bass sits deep within the mix, de Toledo’s voice spoke clearly; not by overcrowding his band-mates nor by punching through the others as an electric bassist might, but because every musical utterance sounded right. His melodicism and clarity of ideas were enhanced by devices which I found appealing; his occasional and appropriate use of vibrato at the end of a line, sometimes, rarely, he combined this with a slight bending of the note. He is definitely a successor to the Evans trio model; a bassist who communicates as an equal.Rubim (2)In a live setting and with unfamiliar sidemen, the best plan is to loosen the reigns. This he did and with Kevin Field on Rhodes and fellow Canadian and long time friend Ron Samsom on drums the gig gelled. Much of the gig showcased his compositions, some from his 2014 album ‘The Bridge”. The three standards he played were a killing version of Maiden Voyage (Herbie Hancock), Work Song (Nat Adderly) and a rendering of ‘Recordeme’ (Joe Henderson). His own compositions ranged from the thoughtful ‘Autumn Celeste’ to evocative panoramic tunes like ‘The Gap’ (about the Rockies) and ‘Red Eye’ (about a Brazilian train known locally as the train of death). The gig was a pleasure from start to finish and the enthusiastic audience response said it all.RubimAs I was leaving de Toledo handed me a copy of his recent album ‘The Bridge’ and it wasn’t until yesterday that I found time to play it. What a truly beautiful album this is; beautifully crafted arrangements and tunes which burn with a quiet intensity at any tempo.  On ‘The Bridge’, he is surrounded by an ensemble of talented Albertans and a guest artist from the USA. The lineup of bass, trumpet, saxophone, trombone, keyboards, drums (and on track 8 a vocal) is well conceived – balancing airiness with textural richness. The musicianship throughout is noteworthy; particularly Sean Jones on trumpet, a well respected musician from the USA: the keyboardist and everyone making this album memorable. As you would expect with an ensemble and with an album as skillfully recorded as this, de Toledo is less dominant. Here he lets his charts tell the story and they certainly do.

. The audio clip is ‘Winters Here’ from the album.

Rubim de Toledo Trio: Rubim de Toledo (upright bass, leader), Kevin Field (Rhodes), Ron Samsom (drums), The trio played the CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, K’Rd Auckland, July 19, 2017.

The Bridge (Album): Rubim de Toledo (bass), Guest artist: Sean Jones (trumpet), Jim Brenan (saxophone), Carsten Rubeling (trombone), Chris Andrew (keyboard), Jon McCaslin (drums), Allison Lynch (vocals).Rubim (3)

Ari Hoenig as Time Lord

Hoenig (1).jpg
When drummer Ari Hoenig was among us recently, it was as if he came from another dimension; he was future and past – a Jazz time lord. The elements of the old were all there at his finger tips, but also something that was forward looking. He could lead with a melodic line, he could set up a groove, he was a colourist plus and he could subdivide time in ways that made me doubt reality. As he played, stuff happened on the kit that I had not seen before; it felt like a new dawn of drumming, but here’s the thing; as fresh as it was, it was also the most natural thing imaginable – nothing jarred – everything flowed from a deep well of musical knowledge. He was deep inside the music, looking half crazy – inside the tune and outside. He was so integrated with the keyboardist Nitai Hershkovitz that they appeared as a single unit. I detect Ari’s influence in modern drummers and because his influence is so palpable, I thought it a good idea to engage some local Jazz drummers on the topic. Here are Ron Samsom, Mark Lockett and Stephen Thomas with a few insights.Hoenig (2).jpg

JL32: Ron, when you introduced Ari and Nitai in Auckland you spoke of Ari’s influence on modern Jazz drumming. You described him as an innovator; suggesting that he may not be aware himself of the extent of his influence. Could you expand on that and tell us why?

Ron Samsom: Well, Ari is a pretty humble guy really and I didn’t want to embarrass him in my introduction. But in reality, what he has accomplished in terms of the development of new drumming language, is pretty remarkable. I mean coming out of the tradition of implied pulse modulation with drummers like Tony Williams, Elvin Jones or even newer generation players like Jeff Watts, Ari has developed the ability to stay “outside” the ground rhythm for what seems like an eternity. The influence on younger players coming out of NYC is pretty evident. Just check out Henry Cole, Marcus Gilmore to name a couple of guys who seem to be going even further with this concept and their own language.

JL32: Mark, I think that you have had previous contact with Ari and maybe with Nitai as well. Can you tell me something about that and about bringing the project to New Zealand?

Mark Lockett: I studied with Ari for six years, I would travel to NYC and take several lessons go away transcribe my lessons and practice like crazy for a few months then do it all again.  Last year we were hanging at Smalls after Ari’s gig one night and I said ‘Hey you should come out to New Zealand sometime I’ll hook it up.’  As soon as we moved back to NZ Ari contacted me and asked if we could do something so I organised a New Zealand tour on the back of him visiting Australia.

JL32: Stephen, I saw you at the Auckland gig and like the rest of us you were blown away. How do you evaluate Ari’s work and how do you see his place among modern drummers?

Stephen Thomas: Ari Hoenig is the type of drummer who has inspired a whole generation of jazz drummers and music enthusiasts in general. Because of this, we were all amazed to see Ari play “in the flesh” as for us kiwis, our exposure to his playing comes from things like YouTube and mp3’s and the like. When I went to his gig in Auckland, from the very first stroke of the cymbal it was clear to me he was on a completely different level to anything I’d really seen before. Ari is clearly a pioneer of modern jazz drumming that has inspired a whole generation of musicians. His mastery of rhythmic subdivisions, polyrhythms and musical time has inspired not just jazz drummers but musicians in general far and wide. He really is at the forefront of modern drummers.

JL32: Ron, Ari appeared to hold the sticks differently, firmer, at times further down – perhaps because of this his flurries and modulation were so precise. Old school drummers must puzzle at this. Can you tell me a little about these evolving hand positions?

Ron Samsom: When he was in the workshop, Ari was quick to point out that “praying mantis” was a visual term used by one of his early teachers as a descriptor of his unorthodox style. I think we need to remember that the ‘drum set’ is a fairly new instrument and there are lots of options in terms of technical approach. The bottom line is really ’the sound’ and I don’t think you could ever fault Ari in terms of dynamic control and timbre. I think he is all about the sound. He plays drums that are wide open in tuning and resonance but finds a way to control this through his approach. You can hear him use the harmonics of the drums to create colour and depth – it’s a beautiful thing. How he achieves this is a great question.

JL32: Mark, I have seen you hold the sticks in a similar way. Can you talk us through this and explain how it alters control?

Mark Lockett: A lot of drummers in NYC e.g. Bill Stewart and Paul Motian hold the sticks a bit more rigidly and different to a lot of drummers I see out here.  I remember Michael Brorby at Acoustic Recording Studio (NYC) saying that this grip which is using more forearm helps create a much more accurate and defined cymbal pattern.  It was the great Australian drummer Darryn Farrugia who turned me on to holding the sticks a lot further up closer to the middle as this gives you more bounce and it worked for me.

JL32: Stephen, I think that so called Jazz drumming orthodoxy is being subtly deconstructed post millennium. Can you comment on his technique from a drummers perspective?

Stephen Thomas: I think this question really sums up the music world we find ourselves in post millennium especially in the internet era. We are exposed to such a wide variety of music through online mediums that it is hardly surprising the traditional art form of “jazz” is evolving at a rapid pace and taking on influences from many other sonic worlds and styles of music. I think in this same vein, individual drummers are finding their own voice which is informed not just by the history of jazz but also by other distinct styles and sounds of music. Although this is not a new concept, Ari Hoenig is very far down this road, as he is such a unique voice behind the instrument, you would know his playing from just hearing the first few measures of music. This is no easy feat and something we all aspire to.

In terms of technique, I think Ari has developed his own technique which has allowed him to pursue this unique voice. In some ways, his technique is quite unorthodox and from my humble observation, it seemed to me he was using a lot of tension in his physical body to generate his sound. The fact he has been able to make this work for him is very unique and I think is a good reminder that there is no real ‘right or wrong’ in terms of technique as it is what brings the individuality out in drummers. As as a small side note, however – although this works for Ari, mere mortals like myself who have had body tension/pain issues in our playing have found it to be a stumbling block that we are seeking to overcome and I think long term, too much tension can become an issue.

JL32: Ron, I saw some astonishing neo-colourist drumming; subtle accenting and gentle cymbal work, but then turning on a dime. Ari seemed to extend the concept way beyond the Paul Motian model. He would suddenly create a melodic line or just tap out an accelerating beat in the centre of the snare. Can you comment on this extension of the colourist palette?

Ron Samsom: I don’t really know enough of Paul Motian’s playing to offer a solid opinion – but the trio records with Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell are pretty great examples of how a drummer can colour and support melodic ideas or become an entity in its own right. I think what Motian’s playing did for everyone, is suggest that the drummer could be more. Drums could be melodic, textural, a motivating soloist/accompanist, a complete musical statement onto itself. Ari’s playing has all of these things in spades but I’d hesitate to say it’s beyond Motian’s achievements – It’s just context. Ari is communicating with his generation of improvisers that are versed in rhythm scale, odd time, implied modulation etc. but these are just tools to convey music. They are not music without context and personalisation.

JL32: Mark, that was some seriously deep stuff that Nitai was playing. I have heard Brad Mehldau do something similar. This is brave, as it will leave the purists behind. It sounds exciting to me. Would you like to comment on their use of deep improvisational groove music as a vehicle?

Mark Lockett: I don’t really think this is anything new, but in this setting, there was only a duo so this gave Ari and Nitai lots of space to stretch out and they weren’t confined to a bass player or another comping instrument being in the mix.  I think the rhythmic vocabulary they draw upon brings a real element of excitement to the music.  I think Ari chooses his sidemen very wisely and consequently, they sound like a band and want to play together rather than have their own agenda.

Stephen Thomas: I really dug how at the Auckland show I was at, Nitai had some PHAT bass synth going on. So much so that at one point, because he and Ari were so locked in, I thought the bass drum had like a sub-bass mic or something on it which was a good indication of how impeccable their time feel was and how locked in they were even just as a duo! This is probably what I meant before about jazz taking on influences from other sound worlds and musical styles, with electronic timbres in the fold more and more. What stood out to me and I said this to Ron after the show, was that although there were only two musicians playing, you never felt like there was any lack in terms of sound or textures which was kind of mind blowing. Also, it was clear that both Ari and Nital are so versed in jazz vocabulary that even though some of what they played was “non-traditional”, there was a depth to what they were playing which was hard to describe. The well of musical concepts and language that they both had was very deep, to say the least, and I was left feeling very inspired indeed.

JL32: Guys, what do you want your students to take away from this experience?

Mark Lockett: The students I spoke to after the concerts were totally blown away and I saw them beaming.  I heard one student say ‘this concert changed my whole musical trajectory’.  I think if the students can be inspired to listen, learn, practice, want to get better and create that’s really all anyone could hope for their students.

Stephen Thomas: think Ari gave us a fantastic provocation to pursue individuality behind the instrument, whilst reminding us to pursue a depth of knowledge and language of the jazz tradition. Although this can sound like an oxymoron, Ari Hoenig seems to personify this as he is such a unique voice whilst having all the language and depth there too. This is inspiring for students to keep checking out the history whilst also pursuing what gets them going musically and sonically, to hopefully find their own place in the music world and create something which is ultimately fun and rhythmically/musically satisfying! Every time I see an inspiring player, the thing that really gets me is the amount of joy and playfulness they have whilst making music and Ari had this in spades, which I think we can all learn from. It’s a great reminder that music ultimately should be a joyful and playful experience which we can bring our own personality and emotions to which can ultimately move people and bring joy and healing to a world which needs it!

JL32: Thanks for your insights guys. I know how busy you all are and I appreciate that you put down the sticks to answer these questions so thoroughly. Finally, thanks for supporting JazzLocal32.com.

Ron Samsom is a Canadian born Kiwi and the course coordinator at the University of Auckland Jazz School. He is well recorded and has worked with Jazz musicians from many continents. Mark Lockett has just returned after many years in New York and he teaches, tours and gigs around Australasia. Stephen Thomas is a gifted New Zealand drummer who is increasingly in demand for high-end gigs and highly regarded on the New Zealand Jazz scene.Hoenig.jpg

Vivian Sessoms (New York)

Vivian SessomsWhen Vivian Sessoms sings, she takes you deep inside the music. Whether singing the American Songbook, or her own compositions, her storytelling resonates. She sings of American life with all its contradictions; joy and pain both laid bare. Her rendering of Herbie Hancock’s ‘Butterfly‘ tender: the rendering of her own composition, ‘I Can’t Breathe‘, a song referencing the ‘black lives matter’ struggle – raw.  As she sang ‘I Can’t Breathe‘, people brushed tears away; feeling the loss, the injustice; sharing in the incomprehension. She sang it for the families of the young lives so senselessly snuffed out; dying at the hands of those sent to protect them – she sang it for us, a people located an ocean away. We listened and understood the message. Art is at its best when it is fearless and truth-telling – Sessoms gets this.Vivian Sessoms (6)Sessoms is Harlem born and bred; an activist, the niece of Nancy Wilson, the daughter of musicians and a gifted performer with a long string of credits to her name. She was raised in the Jazz world but found early acclaim as a soul singer. Now she is returning to her Jazz roots with her ‘Life‘ album. The tour reviews have been overwhelmingly positive and no wonder; At age 9 she opened for Marvin Gaye, later working with Michael Jackson, Cher and Stevie Wonder. As a performer she is simply riveting; her voice a miracle  – to have her here in an intimate Jazz club setting, a rare treat.Vivian Sessoms (5)What we were hearing was counter-intuitive. A voice of incredible power, but a voice filled with subtlety: A voice that dominated a room, but never at the expense of nuance. Although powerful, her instrument never strained, a voice which flowed as naturally as breathing. These are rare qualities when considered together in one package. Her material was also well thought out; The standards timeless but each one interestingly reinterpreted: ‘Tenderly’, ‘Love for Sale’, ‘Round Midnight’, ‘Never Let Me Go’, ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ and others.

Sessoms New Zealand pick-up band was assembled at short notice and credit must go to Caro Manins for organising this. She chose well, but with Jonathan Crayford on keyboards, it was always going to work out fine. Just days after winning the New Zealand Jazz Tui album of the year, he stepped in as an accompanist, giving us a truly magical performance. His solos often stunning us with their brilliance, especially so the extended solo on Nina Simone’s ‘Feeling Good‘.  The others in the rhythm section were Mostyn Cole (electric and upright bass) and Adam Tobeck (drums). They were every bit the professionals an artist like this deserves. Sessoms looked about her at one point and asked the audience; “Just what do you put in the water here – your musicians are amazing”?Vivian Sessoms (7)Sessoms is a generous entertainer, happy to mingle with the audience, comfortable enough to tease them a little; posing for endless selfies and promising faithfully to return.  She even shared the microphone with several first-year students. That is the common touch – a thing Kiwis love; she read our love of informality well. For details about her ‘Life‘ album go to the website link below. If we support the album, it might just hasten her return.Vivian Sessoms (1)She departed New Zealand the next morning on an early flight; arriving in the USA to be greeted by the news, that yet another jury had acquitted a police officer of killing an unarmed black youth. In these troubled times, more power to her.

Vivian Sessoms (vocals, composition), Jonathan Crayford (keyboards), Mostyn Cole (electric bass), Adam Tobeck (drums). CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, Auckland, June 14th, 2017 – viviansessoms.com

Neil Watson gig / Crystal Choi gig

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Neil W 128.jpgTubular Live: Having earlier reviewed the long anticipated Neil Watson ‘Tubular’ album I looked forward to the live launch. The Thirsty Dog gig was well attended, the audience extremely enthusiastic and no wonder. Although we saw a slightly different line-up from the album band, they were on fire from the first note. Watson, always a confident performer, was more in command than I have ever seen him and he communicated his musical vision effortlessly. Perhaps this was due to the long gestation of the material, but now he had a platform to extend the concepts further and he grabbed the opportunity.  The evening seamlessly covered the breadth of guitar jazz and beyond. While much of the material was influenced by Jazz/Rock or improvisations built on genres like surf guitar, the gentler mainstream Jazz heroes of the past like Johnny Smith and Errol Garner were also honoured. Neil W 130.jpgOn the ‘Tubular’ album his musical influences are evident. At the live gig, he stared those influences down and carved out his own space. He is one of the few New Zealand musicians who can convincingly occupy Frisell or Ribot territory and he demonstrated that. The perfect example was his rendering of the classic five beat Mambo Picadillo by Tito Puente. He began with a solo intro, dissonant chords offering brief hints as to where he was heading. As he developed his theme the audience gasped in delight as Errol Garners ‘Misty’ emerged, morphing into the gentler Johnny Smith version of ‘Moonlight in Vermont’. That it worked at all is a tribute to his musicianship, that it was done so well all the more so. The Mambo was well-arranged and just superb, not a foot remained still and the bar staff stopped in their tracks, swaying.  Another tour de force (not on the album) was his arrangement of ‘Hard rains are going to fall’ (Dylan). This followed his gentle ballad ‘Kerala’.Neil W 131.jpg

The band finished the last set with an upbeat number and there was no way the audience was going to let things lie there. Watson in keeping with his quirky humour and well within his brief; finished with the 1959 surf/rock guitar classic ‘Sleepwalk’ (Santo & Johnny). Accompanying him he had the talented and versatile Ron Samsom (drums) and Olivier Holland (upright bass). Replacing Grant Winterburn on Keyboards and Roger Manins on tenor saxophone was Cameron Allen. If anyone can replace two talented musicians and do so convincingly it is Allen. Instead of a tenor he played baritone saxophone and at other times his array of keyboards and ‘doogon’. I have video but I am still experiencing upload problems – I will upload when sorted.

Cryst 128.jpgCrystal Choi (private concert): This particular invitation-only concert was organised by Jonathan Crayford and the invitations were swiftly taken up. Crayford is a legendary figure on the New Zealand music scene and when he gets behind a young artist, people pay attention. I have watched Choi develop musically over the years, but I had not seen her perform for some time. In the past she has appeared with students, part of an ensemble, seldom stepping into the limelight for long. This was a departure, a brave step into the challenging world of improvised solo piano. Developing artists (and even experienced performers) struggle with this format, some panic and resort to noodling. When Crayford introduced the concert he stated, “Crystal is amazing, and what you are about to hear will speak for itself”. He was right.Cryst 129.jpg

What we witnessed was a rapidly maturing artist. She exuded a confidence I had not seen before and her ideas were well-developed, all communicated with the utmost clarity. There were two sets and most of the compositions were her own. It was a large crowd for such a small space, but not a soul talked, shuffled, clinked glasses or coughed. She had them all in rapt attention as she wove her stories around themes and explored harmonic visions. This is the right musical space for Choi and I hope she develops it further.  A sound that is more European in concept than American, where space, melody, and nuance are dominant. As she worked her way through the sets, everything flowed. If this is what she is like at 22 years of age, I can’t wait to hear her at 32. The sound was well captured and surprisingly, there were no awkward echoes or untoward harmonics considering the size of the room. It certainly helped that she had a ‘Grotrian’ grand to perform on. I hope that we see more solo piano from Choi.

Neil Watson ‘Tubular’ Live: Watson (guitars, compositions), Cameron Allen, (baritone sax, keyboards, electronics), Ron Samsom (drums), Olivier Holland (upright bass) @ the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Thirsty Dog, Auckland.15th February 2017

Chrystal Choi: Solo piano – 12th February 2017

Hayden Chisholm Trio

Chisholm 129.jpgWhile not located on the Jazz touring circuit in the way Europe is, New Zealand gets some surprising and unexpected treats throughout the year. This was certainly one of them. Because I’ve been travelling recently, I had not noticed this gig coming up and it caught me quite off guard. From time to time I’ve heard mention of the New Zealand born composer and saxophonist Hayden Chisholm, but I had never heard him play. The little that I did know, was that he’d lived in Europe for many years and that he’d been a microtonal innovator. His CV reveals an amazing diversity of achievements and among them; teaching, composing for large ensembles, recording around the world, film soundtrack scoring, festival directing, touring extensively and collaborating with installation artists. He is obviously not a musician to be pigeonholed easily and my expectations inclined me toward multi-phonic explorations or something akin to the wonderful Bley /Giuffre/Swallow ’61 trio’. What I heard was closer to the equally wonderful Bley (Karla)/Swallow/Shepherd trio.Chisholm 127.jpgThe gig subsumed us in pure unalloyed ballad beauty – beauty of a kind that is exceedingly rare. The programme (with one exception) was of original ballads; pieces composed by either Chisholm or Norman Meehan.  Meehan was exactly the right pianist for this gig – a tasteful musician who knows when to lay out, and who never over-ornaments. His sensitivity and minimalist approach creating a bigger implied sound; each note or voicing inviting the audience deeper into an unfolding story. Later when I commented on this he repeated Paul Bley’s advice, “If somebody else sounds good, you’re not needed. So you are like a doctor with a little black bag coming to a record date” (from ‘Time will Tell’ Meehan). Paul Dyne on bass was the ideal foil for Chisholm and Meehan. Again he made each note count without busyness. Because this was an acoustic trio with the piano and saxophone unmiked, the resonance of the bass carried more weight, every harmonic adding a subtle layer. With Meehan playing so sparsely and Chisholm sailing in the clean air above, the subtlties of the soundscape were liberated until the room sang.Chisholm 131.jpgThe compositions were varied but all were marvellous. Some so gorgeous as to take the breath away – others possessing edge – all beautifully constructed. The trio worked as an effective unit, but the Chisholm effect was inescapable. The man is simply exceptional, his lines, phrasing and tone jaw dropping. I have no doubt that his technical skills are second to none, but listening to him you never give that a thought. Every musical utterance plunged deep into your soul in the way a Konitz line does. Chisholm is quite original and modern but I fancied that I heard some faint echoes of the great altoists on Wednesday night. Perhaps that was just my imagination, but Lee Konitz (and surprisingly to me), even Art Pepper came mind; especially during Meehan’s wonderfully soulful tune ‘Nick Van Diyk’.  I have posted that clip (which is bookended with a lovely Chisholm tune ‘In Day Light Mourning’, where he plays a lament against a drone). The lament references the music of India and Japan, utilising extended technique (Chisholm has studied in both countries). Chisholm 128.jpgIt was one of those concerts that made you feel lucky. The sort of concert that you will recall in later years and regale those who missed it with vivid descriptions – enough to make them green with envy. For those who missed the gig or for those who want to relive it, the trio are recording this week. I will keep you posted on that and on where to obtain the album. In addition Norman Meehan has a new book out – a history of New Zealand Jazz. That can be ordered through any main street book outlet (my order is in).

Hayden Chisholm Trio; Hayden Chisholm (alto saxophone, compositions), Norman Meehan (piano, compositions), Paul Dyne (upright bass) – CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Kenneth Myers Centre, Shortland Street, Auckland 23rd November 2016.

 

Wayne Shorter Quartet – beyond the time/space continuum

Shorter 099When we talk about Wayne Shorter’s music we immediately run into obstacles. Wayne is like a Zen Master, deliberately confounding our every expectation. To begin such a journey our rational minds need emptying. As the journey unfolds we move beyond comforting reference points; this requires a letting go, real courage. The 2016 Wayne Shorter band is a musical ‘Voyager’, a spacecraft assembled out of earthly components, but sending encrypted sonic messages from an unknown place. What is on offer is a shared journey – but only if we are brave enough. Once you commit there is no looking back.

To attempt a detailed description of a concert like this is utterly pointless. Only the ears, eyes, spiritual mind, can evaluate this experience. That is the point – you have to be there – really be there – engaged – then let go. All I can say is how lucky I feel to have seen this band twice in my life. Once in a Roman amphitheatre in Verona Italy during the ‘Standards Live’ 2002 tour. Now 14 years later almost to the day, at the Wellington 2016 Jazz festival. The same band, Wayne Shorter, Danilo Perez, John Patitucci and Brian Blade. Immortals all. Back in 2002, the band unbundled tunes from Wayne’s long career – a career always advancing beyond the edge. It sounded brave and edgy back then. On this tour, he transcended those earlier reference points. Yes, there was form, even charts; just as a spacecraft has a shell. Inside the craft, the band moved freely in the weightless air.

This tends to confound some critics, people who need firm ground beneath their feet. A few have even puzzled over the constant adjustment of saxophone mouthpiece and neck. The perpetual adjustment phenomenon is common to all great saxophonists – it is a manifestation of the never-ending journey deep into sound. In the marvelously written Cook & Morton Penguin Jazz Guide, the word elided appears when describing Wayne’s sound. He often puts the saxophone to his mouth, then pauses and takes it out again – interpreting this or his frequent adjustments as uncertainty is missing the point entirely. The dictionary definition of Elision is; deliberately omitting components of speech or sound. When taken to its logical conclusion the remaining sounds (or letters) become a code. A code we must decipher unaided.

I think it was Lee Konitz who said. ‘Old men should play like old men. When I hear them trying to play like their young selves it sounds wrong’. Old men have important things to say from the viewpoint of life experience. Wayne played like his older self, wiser, braver and unafraid to show vulnerability. I am glad that he did.

After the gig, I spoke to a number of musicians. Almost all were in a deeply reflective mood, basking in the experience. Dixon Nacey a prominent New Zealand Jazz guitarist said to me. Man, I was thinking of you in there and wondering how you could find adequate words to review that? Of course, I can’t.

Dixon and I decided to walk a while, needing to clarify our thoughts. We walked the back streets, weighing it all up, sometimes discussing a particular facet, seeking to understand the importance of what we had seen and heard. Dixon said at one point, “I found that I needed to abandon my trained musician’s brain, the brain that looks for fixed rhythmic, melodic or harmonic structures. A profound lesson I learned from this was, if you decide not to come in, to lay out in unexpected places, that is OK. Trusting another band member to pick up the thread”. There were probably mistakes and this also created deep connections. This music is humanism personified. That vulnerable sound that Wayne emits from his horns is his Bodhisattva voice – it can confront precisely because it is so human.

All worthwhile journeys lead back to the start point, a place where art, imaginings, and life merge. We already understand this music, we just need reminding. Shorter 099 (2)Wellington Jazz Festival 2016, Opera House, Manners Street, Wellington

Karrin Allyson with Tom Warrington Trio

Allyson 089Thanks to Rodger Fox and the CJC management we were lucky enough to see five times Grammy nominee, Jazz vocalist Karrin Allyson in our Auckland Jazz Club last Wednesday night. Seeing an artist like this in a concert hall is one thing; seeing her in the warm intimate surroundings of a small Jazz club and just a metre away is quite another. Always a sucker for quality Jazz vocalists I first heard her in 1992 (the album ‘I Thought About You’ was the first of hers I purchased). On the basis of her recorded output, I booked for both the CJC gig in Auckland and the Wellington Jazz Festival concert. The flights between these cities are surprisingly affordable when you book in advance, and these opportunities don’t come around often when you live in the South Pacific.Allyson 096Following her 1992 release further albums came out and by the time ‘Ballads: for Coltrane’ and ‘In Blue’ were released there was no mistaking it. This was an important vocal interpreter. Her voice has particular qualities, an attractive smoky veneer, but then there’s that extra something. A sense of shared intimacy, a way of interpreting lyrics in an original way while still paying tribute to earlier interpreters. Her version of ‘O Barquino’ or ‘Double Rainbow’ (both by Jobim) immediately brings to mind the fabulous Elis Regina. Her ‘West Coast Blues’ conjures up Wes Montgomery just as much as the instrumentalists. She scats in ways that adds value to the narrative content of the song, never overdone and always wonderfully inventive. It came as no surprise, therefore, that she could conquer an audience in a heart beat.Allyson 091From the first vocal number, Allyson teased the audience, turning the lyrics into a conversation. Her set list spanned her Concord recordings including her recent release ‘Many a New Day: Karrin Allyson Sings Rogers & Hammerstein’ (When I think of Tom/Hello Young Lovers). Everything she performed was extraordinary but when she moved to the piano and accompanied herself on ‘Bye Bye Country Boy’ I was especially delighted. For some unaccountable reason, few vocalists interpret Blossom Dearie and more’s the pity. Dearie was a true original and a fiendishly clever Jazz vocalist. Her voice had a deceptive depth if you listened properly and like Allyson her ability to communicate was perfectly honed. It is fitting that Allyson should tackle Blossom Dearie as she is able to convey the same wry humour and wrap it up in a very attractive vocal package. She was simply killing in her interpretation.Allyson 090Accompanying Allyson was the Tom Warrington trio. Although it is five years since we saw them last, they have been regular visitors to New Zealand thanks to Fox. Tom Warrington is a superb bassist, having worked with everyone from Peggy Lee to Stan Getz. His list of credits is staggering. Formerly based in LA, where he was constantly in demand and no wonder. The choices underpinning each note he plays are beyond caveat. His musicality, teaching and compositional skills of the highest order. Today he lives a quieter life in rural New Zealand. When you hear his bass lines, and especially during a ballad, you recall the classic piano-trio bass players. Loading each note with meaning and carrying as much weight as any chordal instrument. Warrington has released four superb albums with this trio and all are highly recommended.Allyson 094On chordal duties was Larry Koonse, playing a lovely hollow body Borys guitar. An impressive guitarist and a stalwart of the LA Jazz scene. Again, he is widely recorded, also releasing a number of albums under his own name. In many ways, Koonse encapsulates the best of the pre-millennial guitar tradition. That said, his fresh approach to tunes is also very much evident. His voice leading is a masterclass; dissonant/consonant inversions that have more bottom than most guitarists can muster in a lifetime and a gorgeous warm tone which lingers in the memory long after the gig. This, together with his other skills, makes him the perfect accompanist for a vocalist. When he played ‘Bolivia’ (Cedar Walton) with the trio, it took on the urgency and excitement that the tune demands. On ‘Whisper Not’ (Benny Golson) he extracted unalloyed beauty. I have known Larry for a decade and speaking to him after the gig, I complimented him on those tunes. At that point, my mouth raced way ahead of my brain and I said, “that was ‘Speak Low’ wasn’t it”? That fact that my slip of the tongue had accidentally come up with an exact antonym of ‘Whisper not’ made his day.Allyson 095Last but not least is the Warrington Trio drummer Joe La Barbera. No one needs reminding of his long list of credits and impeccable credentials. As Warrington said during the introductions. “As everyone knows, Joe La Barbera was in the last Bill Evans trio. This puts us in some rarefied air”. Along with Marc Johnson, he breathed new life into that trio. While rightly famous for his superb drum work with Evans, he is a multi-faceted drummer; having also worked in avant-garde settings and with medium to larger sized ensembles such as ‘The West Coast All Stars’, ‘The Woody Herman Band’ and with ‘Kenny Wheeler’. He has often worked with famous vocalists such as Tony Bennett and Karrin Allyson. La Barbera has an inclusive quality that enhances bass and guitar but never overshadows them. When he solos, it is to the point. His stick and brush work add subtlety and texture – the effect always jaw-dropping. It is easy to see why he is so much in demand. A musical drummer who gives so much while working so hard to support the others.

Karrin Allyson records for Concord and her albums are easy to locate – for more information about the artist go to www.karrin.com

The Tom Warrington trio records on the Jazz Compass label which the artists created along with Clay Jenkins. Their latest album ‘Nelson’ is a good start point.

The gig took place at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Albion Hotel, Auckland, June 1, 2016.

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Jamie Oehlers @ ‘The Burden of Memory’ tour

Jamie 2016 091When the word gets about that a Jamie Oehlers gig is imminent, excitement mounts. Having turned people away last year, due to a capacity audience, the CJC offered two sessions this time. As expected, both were well attended. Oehlers is highly regarded in the Jazz world and it is not surprising. His astonishing mastery of the tenor saxophone is central to his appeal, but it is more than that. Every note he plays sounds authentic as if no other note could ever replace it, and all conveying a sense of musical humanism.

He introduced the numbers by painting word pictures; creating an expectation that the best is soon to come. The audience anticipating an interesting journey happily followed. He always gives us something of himself and it serves him well. Audiences like to glimpse the human being behind the music and not all musicians are capable of that. If done well (not forced), it must convey warmth. Oehlers is a natural in this regard. This affability applies to the man and to the musician. His egalitarian world-view inevitably seeping into his playing. This is how it is with all the greats. Their sound and their life eventually merge. The horn becoming breath.Jamie 2016 094Oehlers has a new album out titled ‘The burden of memory‘ and we heard many of the pieces as the sets unfolded. Accompanying him on the album is a dream rhythm section: Paul Grabowsky on piano, Reuben Rogers on bass and Eric Harland on drums. Each a heavyweight and living up to their formidable reputations. For the Auckland gig, there was Kevin Field on piano, Olivier Holland on bass and Frank Gibson Jr on drums. Jumping in where Grabowsky, Rogers, and Harland had gone was no doubt daunting but they pulled it off in style. All played exceptionally well, but Gibson was a standout. The exchanges between him and Oehlers memorable. These men have history and the old conversations were clearly rekindled on the bandstand. Roger Manins joined Oehlers for the last number of each set and the two dueled as only they can. Weaving skillfully around each other and sounding like two halves of a whole; grinning like Cheshire cats.Jamie 2016 092The album title and the song titles speak clearly of the musicians thought processes. He talks of his motivations and his horn takes us there. The burden of memory is a phrase he heard while listening to talkback radio and it resonated with him. He thinks deeply, examines the world about him and this communicates throughout the album. The second track ‘Armistice’ is a good example, possessing a melancholic beauty, and while it throws up the obvious images of a war ending, it also speaks of families and the tentative steps towards new possibilities.

The dreaming‘ references the indigenous peoples of Australia. An ancient meditative practice, the dreaming is an altered state of consciousness, where the past and future appear to those open enough to receive that gift. Of the two standards, the reharmonized version of ‘Polka Dots and Moonbeams‘ particularly appealed. The gig featured several tunes, not on the album; we were especially delighted by the ‘fast burner’ take on ‘After You’ve gone’. That particular standard by Turner Layton harks back to 1918. it was soon picked up by Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, and Fats Waller. This bebop referencing version breathed fire into the room. Those who attended the gigs were abuzz afterward and rushed to purchase the album. If you missed the tour and wanted a copy of the album I have included a link below. Recorded in Brooklyn New York at the System 2 studios, the album had the support of the WA Department of Culture and the Arts. Oehlers wrote six of the tunes and co-wrote a further three with Rogers, Harland, and Grabowsky. The remaining three tunes were by Grabowsky, Jobim and Van Heusen.

The event took place at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 02 March 2016. Britomart 1885 building, downtown Auckland, New Zealand.  You can purchase the album and learn more about the artists at www.jamieoehlers.com or http://www.jamieoehlers.bandcamp.com

 

Briana Cowlishaw & Gavin Ahearn

Briana C 092The Briana Cowlishaw/Gavin Ahearn gig is the second CJC gig featuring international artists in a month. For those who follow Australian improvised music, these are familiar names. Both have rock solid credentials as both have traveled extensively with their music and attracted glowing critical reviews. This is a fortuitous musical pairing, and it is particularly obvious during duets. There is a mutual awareness of space and nuance and an understanding of just where interplay works best; neither over-crowding the other. There are a lot of pianists who accompany vocalists convincingly, but the true art of accompaniment is rarely seen. Ahearn is a fine accompanist and soloist. Unusually, you could say the same for Cowlishaw – an aware musician who watches and listens to her collaborators carefully – works with what she hears. Never greedy to hog the limelight and making every line count.Briana C 088For an artist barely past her mid twenties Cowlishaw has achieved much. Performing at festivals all over the world and being nominated for prestigious awards along the way. She has studied with top rated teachers in three continents and it shows (including Gretchen Parlato, Aaron Goldberg, Kurt Elling). Her confidence, compositional abilities and musicianship shine through on the bandstand. Hers is a modern voice and more importantly a fresh young voice. What worked so well so well for Gretchen Parlato also works for her; a clean delivery, imaginative interpretations and an interesting approach.Briana C 094The first set saw Cowlishaw and Ahearn performing as a duo. This format gifts artists with a degree of freedom and it was well utilised. As they took us through a mix of standards and originals, we saw just how attuned they are. The Cowlishaw compositions are particularly interesting, with words, wordless vocalising and interesting harmonic underpinnings from Ahearn – a subtle weave, blending threads to create evocative soundscapes.Briana C 091Both have visited Norway and the sparse honest northern sound was particularly evident in their first set. A recent collaborative album recorded in Norway arose out of an earlier trip there. More recently they performed at the Hemnes Jazz Festival in that country. As Cowlishaw said of these compositions, “After spending a lot of time on the road and in big cities, I found myself in the Fjords. The wild lonely freshness was so appealing that the thought arose – was this a place that I would want to live in one day”? Arising from that proposition came the compositions on their ‘Fjord’ album. Cowlishaw is obviously keen on the outdoors. She told an audience member that she intended to explore a few of New Zealand wildness places as the chance presented itself.Briana C 090The second set swelled the bands numbers to a quintet – joining the duo were Mike Booth on trumpet, Cameron McArthur on bass and Adam Tobeck on drums. All fine musicians and well able to rise to any challenge. The expanded unit gave her much to work with and Ahearn in particular jumped at the opportunity; utilising a more aggressive hard-swinging style. There were more standards in this second half and Cole Porters wonderful 1943 composition from ‘Something to shout about’ – ‘You’d be so Nice to Come Home to’ stood out as a rollicking swinger. The other memorable standard came from the duo – Michel Legrand’s 1932 composition ‘You must believe in Spring’. To Jazz audiences this means one thing – The achingly beautiful Bill Evans Warners album of that name. The rendition was remarkably beautiful – Cowlishaw tackled the number as Norma Winstone might, while Ahearn stamped his own authority on the ballad while allowing Evans to shine through.

I strongly recommend ‘Fjord’ – it is simply exquisite and the delicate renditions of the originals and standards will stay in your head long after the last note is played – as well as the rarely heard ‘Estate’ (Bruno Martino) there is a version of Herb Ellis’s ‘Detour Ahead’ which won me over completely. For the ‘Fjord’ and ‘Detour Ahead’ tracks alone, the album is worth double the asking price.

Briana Cowlishaw & Gavin Ahearn – Cowlishaw (vocals, compositions), Ahearn (piano), Mike Booth (trumpet & flugel), Cameron McArthur (bass), Adam Tobeck (drums). performing at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) Britomart 1886, Downtown Auckland 24th February 2016.

 

The Matt Penman 2015 Auckland concerts

Penman (3)2015 was an amazing year for the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) and just when we thought the gigs couldn’t get any better this gig happened. It was an unexpected bonus, appearing out of nowhere. During the break of the CJC’s penultimate gig, Roger informed us that an extra gig would occur just two days before Christmas. Matt Penman was in town and he would appear with Kevin Field, Dixon Nacey and Steve Thomas. A buzz of excitement ran through the room and within a few days the gig was booked out. A second gig was quickly announced and that sold out as well.

Having Penman perform in the club was a coup. I had not seen him since the Scofield/Lovano gig in the Sky City theatre. Like most Jazz enthusiasts I had numerous recordings of him, including those he released as leader. It was his work with The San Francisco Jazz Collective, Aaron Parks and James Farm that took him to a wider audience and since those albums Penman’s acknowledged as one of the great bass players. Even though he has been in America for a long time, we love that he is an Auckland born musician. Because of his origins (like Alan Broadbent and Mike Nock) we happily claim him as ours.Penman (4)Fittingly the gig opened with ‘Two Steps’ (Penman) which is from the second James Farm album. Everything about the number is compelling and it oozes a post millennial Americana vibe – close to that espoused by artists like Brad Mehldau. James Farm are an extraordinary group co-led by Joshua Redman, Aaron Parks, Matt Penman & Eric Harland. A super-group where everyone is a gifted writer and virtuosic player. This is the pinnacle of modern American Jazz and we were lucky enough to get an up close taste of it. A warm glow swiftly enveloped us and from the first pull on the bass strings and we sensed on mass that this a different type of bass playing; supremely authoritative, melodic and with more momentum than a downhill freight train. We were especially fascinated to hear that Split Enz inspired him to write this tune. We heard other James Farm compositions – the moody ‘Juries Out’ (Penman) and Otherwise (Aaron Parks). Delightful Penman originals dominated the rest of the set (with the exception of a haunting Jewish folk song).Penman (2)As approachable as this music is, there are many rhythmic and textural complexities. Putting such a set list together with a band not used to playing the material, perilous. Two factors undoubtedly assisted here. Penman, Field and Nacey are old friends. Nacey attended Avondale college with Penman and Field has known him since his time at Auckland University. Field also recorded with Penman in New York on his recent Warners album ‘The A List’. The remaining band member was Stephen Thomas, the youngest of the quartet. He only met Penman the day of gig. When you examine Penman’s contributions to James Farm, the SF Jazz Collective and other albums, you realise that he writes with unusually gifted improvising musicians in mind. For a young drummer to step into the space occupied by Eric Harland and Obed Calviare and not only pull it off but to do it well is a credit to him. Penman singled him out for praise and told us we were lucky to have a young drummer of his ability on the scene.Penman (1)Of Field and Nacey we expect only the best and we got it. Replacing Redman, Moreno or Rosenwinkel with Nacey’s singing Godin Guitar felt a natural choice. I have heard Mike Moreno perform and Nacey is heading for that level of virtuosity. He is a good reader and a master musician and he always delivers. Field was also at his best that night and his best is something to behold. Losing himself in a music quite different from his own and doing it with utter conviction. Collectively they brought Christmas joy to everyone present. The best of Christmas presents from the best of Jazz clubs. I hope the CJC features Penman again soon – we love him down under.

Buy the James Farm album and support these artists – it is readily available from leading stores, Amazon or iTunes

Matt Penman (bass, Leader, compositions), Kevin Field (piano), Dixon Nacey (guitar), Stephen Thomas (drums) – CJC (Creative Jazz Club) – 30th December 2015

Auckland Jazz Festival 2015 – part two

AJO picBy the time the second week of the Auckland Jazz Festival arrived, I began to feel my age. I had already experienced a number of late night gigs and a further week of music stretched ahead of me. This was no time to flag, as some interesting and innovative music lay ahead. The festival programme structure provided audiences with variety. The depth and breadth of the improvising scene was on show and I wanted to see everything possible. The week started well with the Meehan/Griffin/Manhire poetry project (see earlier review for this). That gig brought a new audience and I was still AJO pic (1)buzzing come Tuesday.

On Tuesday night the AJO (Auckland Jazz Orchestra) shoehorned into the CJC for the release of their Darkly Dreaming album. The AJO have a growing fan base and this was an eagerly anticipated event. Having earlier witnessed the actual recording session and a pre-taste performance of the suite, I was happily expectant. With charts as demanding as this, a thoroughly rehearsed band is essential and I knew that they would be. It was clear that this would be the definitive live performance so I couldn’t wait to hear that first swell of sound and to get my hands on the album.  AJO @ Festival (5)I had volunteered for door duty that night, turning up early to help. I enjoy the Jazz orchestra set-up process – in this case nineteen musicians and a conductor configuring a behemoth in an impossibly small space. It was like witnessing Nasa scientists beginning the launch sequence. Instruments and gauges checked, tapped and rechecked, cabling run out; each adding a layer to the criss-cross tangle of shoes, stands and chairs.  Soon there were rows of brassy instruments standing in an (almost) orderly line, with the odd human interloper spoiling their symmetry. Random buzzing sounds came from warming up lips; and all punctuated with honks and plucked notes from far-flung corners of the room. this is the counterfactual of the sounds that follow.  AJO @ Festival (7)Band leader Tim Atkinson composed and arranged the suite. He has carefully shaped this ground breaking project as befitting a work of this importance. This is a modern piece of music in the mould of Darcy James Argue. Richly textured, evocative of the title and especially in the warm multi layered dissonance that swells out of the quieter passages. The work has captured a mood and an orchestra going places. This is a moment which benchmarks the growing maturity of the Auckland Jazz scene and I am truly glad to have witnessed it. The overall performance on the night was flawless, but if anyone stood out it was altoist Callum Passels. His solo on ‘The Dark Passenger’ was wonderful. it was a feat of story telling, of mood and it oozed freedom – as if he had somehow escaped the confines of room and orchestra. Importantly, he managed this without once deviating from the logic of the composition. I urge people to purchase this album and I guarantee that you will play it over and again. AJO @ Festival (1)On Wednesday I spent time with the Benny Lackner Trio. A popular USA/German (French) trio who seldom passed up an opportunity to playfully ambush each other and often along the lines of nationality. Their mock combative banter acting as a counterweight to the cohesion they showed on the bandstand. I have seen this trio three times as they have a long association with New Zealand. In my view they are the true successor to Sweden’s lost lamented EST, but there is more to them besides. Their approach is similar but additional elements inform their music. The influence of Lacker’s former teacher Brad Mehldau is discernible but the band is forging a new sound. This is the confident face of post millennium European Jazz. Never compromising, unafraid to appropriate elements from their native culture, and done without a hint of self-consciousness. These guys are heavyweights and we are bound to hear a lot more of them in years to come.  Benny AJF picThe trio’s set list was a mix or originals and some very interesting covers. What was not composed by Lackner or by the drummer Chazarenc, were often unexpected tunes; Brahms, Cold Play, David Bowie, Rodriguez and Jimmy Hendrix. ‘If Six were Nine’ was simply stunning. Warmly familiar to those of us who remembered the rock original. Taking the bones of a 1960’s tune and infusing it with edgy lines and modern harmonic conceptions. I have long-held the view that the new standards will come from material exactly like this. None of the band were alive when this acid blues classic was cut in 1969, but their joy at performing it was evident. Jimi would have loved it. Benny AJF pic (2)The bass player on this trip was Bruno Schorpe. When offered an upright bass he declined – choosing to remain on electric bass throughout. I’m glad that he did because the instrument had the bite to act as counterweight.  Balancing out well the electronics and various effects of Lackner’s keyboards. Then there was drummer Matthieu Chazarenc. He has accompanied Lackner on previous trips and to my ears he is directly out of a great tradition. French Jazz drummers have a sound that is distinct. Like many of his compatriots Chazarenc’s sound is crisp, even dry; utilising dynamics in ways that younger drummers are often incapable of.  A label like ACT must surely pick the trio up sometime soon.  They would be a perfect fit – much as they would for ECM.

Thursday brought us ‘The JAC‘ from Wellington. A delightful octet shortlisted in the 2015 New Zealand Jazz awards for their ‘Nerve’ album. This project is clearly one that will remain with us for some time and if any band deserves to become an institution it is this one. A brassy octet with an orchestral yet airy sound and one which I am particularly enthusiastic about. This was the release gig for their newest album.

AJO pic (2)‘The Green Room(out on Rattle.) Rattle has an uncanny Knack of locating the best of new Zealand music and presenting it in ways that even the big labels seldom manage. The album is beautifully recorded and live the JAC simply sparkle as they weave texture and into their shape shifting grooves. In many ways it is a band of equals as almost everyone stands out at some point. While there is an incredible tightness to their performance, they manage to loosen up enough to create rub and textural complexity. Jac pic (3)It is almost overkill to single out soloists with a cohesive group like this as every one is notable in some way or another. Altoist Jake Baxendale is their nominal leader and three of the compositions on the album are attributed to him (including the title track). If any number captures the essence of the group it is this. The solo on his tune Andalucia also captures a strong sense of place. I know Andalucia well and this is a convincing testimony.

Jac pic (2)It is hard to know where to start with Callum Allardice; he grows as a musician every time I hear him. His compositions are stunning and his guitar work so fluid and exciting that it defies belief. These are performances that stop you in your tracks and few New Zealand guitarists capture that particular sound. Lex French is another spectacular performer and we would hardly expect otherwise. He is now the leading local voice on that horn. Perhaps the most experienced player is Nick tipping who never puts a foot wrong. On the new album we hear him at his best.  Jac pic (4)Convincing contributions by the likes of Chris Buckland, Matthew Alison and Shaun Anderson reinforce the view that this is an all-star band. Lastly there is pianist Daniel Milward. He has recently moved to Melbourne and his voice is particularly strong on the recording; more so than on the first album. Not a showy pianist but an extremely tasteful one who gets it just right. I have put up a sound clip of the Allardice Composition ‘The Heist’, as I have loved it since first hearing it (probably at the Tauranga Jazz Festival).AJO pic (3)

On the 24th I attended another Rattle Jazz album release. This time at the Auckland University Jazz School in the Kenneth Meyers Centre. The Chris Mason Battley Group were performing the album DIALOGOS; this arising from the music of celebrated New Zealand composer John Psathas. The project is exciting and while very much in the moment, a careful crafting is evident. If that sounds like a contradiction it is not. Improvised music is forever reaching beyond imposed structural limitations; the boundaries of convention. Without that restless outreach the music would wither on the vine. This is an example of the new music that you might find on ECM (or Rattle), it is minimalist and references the ethos of John Cage or perhaps even Zorn; it reaches the outer limits of the known.  AJF CMB pic (2) In Psathas words, “it is not arranging or adapting…(rather) a continuing of the composing process”. There are works or arrangements which re-imagine and examine a work from an outside perspective. That is not the case here. This is part of a developing story and the Psathas vision remains at its heart. I recently read a trilogy by a famous and highly respected author. He had intended to write a fourth volume but died before he could proceed. A year later another author picked up where the original author left off and achieved something extremely rare. He added to the body of work seamlessly; continuing the narrative in ways that were his own and entirely consistent with the original. Although a more serious work, DIAGOLOS was an unmitigated triumph. AJF CMB pic (1)Mason-Battley is a thoughtful gifted musician, but we don’t see him perform about town very often. Any new project gets his undivided attention and that was the case here. Counter intuitively, it is his careful preparation which affords him the extraordinary freedom he demonstrates on the bandstand. During this performance he took us right to the edge; you gained the sense listening that he was pushing himself a little further with each phrase. It is at times like this that great music emerges. While adventurous with electronics, he evokes a classic Coltrane sound on his Soprano. There are a number of local musicians who double on soprano but few (if any) sound like Battley. AJF CMB picThe Chris Mason-Battley Group has been around for some time and the original group set New Zealand records for the number of downloads and albums purchased. For this project core members David Lines, Sam Giles and Mason-Battley remain with the addition of drummer Stephen Thomas. Unlike earlier configurations, there is no guitar. Bringing Thomas into the mix has worked extremely well. The drummer of choice for many gigs and a gifted percussionist in the fullest sense. Psathas music calls for sensitive drum work and Thomas has exactly the right approach. His understanding of subtle dynamics, time awareness and overall sensitivity to the project were very much on display. I also appreciated David Lines piano. Lines early classical training was evident in places and again this made him a very good choice for the project. The work required a pianist with a particular chordal approach. At times he was minimalist and with a particular approach to voice leading. Lines like the other four were indispensable to the project. Lastly there was Sam Giles – an electric bass player I wish I heard more often. Giles often leans towards the avant-garde and innovative projects. That is where he shines. AJF CMB pic (5)The Last Auckland Jazz Festival gig I attended was the Alan Brown/Kingsley Melhuish Alargo project at the Golden Dawn. The Golden Dawn is the perfect place to wind down and a very good place to hear laid back grooves and experience deliciously exotic ambient adventures. This music creates a world we wished we lived in. A world of exotic grooves and shifting realities. Seeing and hearing is believing with Alargo, their sound as wide as the ocean and as deep (a little songbook reference there). What Brown and Melhuish are crafting is terrific. Sound shaped, altered, looped and all guiding you inexorably toward that fantasy world of improvised/groove Jazz/electronica. As wonderful as it is to watch, it is essentially a place in which to abandon yourself. As you dive in you feel the buffeting of warm grooves all about you, as the tiredness of a busy fortnight evaporates. I thought that I was an early discoverer of improvised ambient music but Brown was way ahead of me. We have often discussed this genre and we see it as a local space worth claiming. Melhuish was always going to end up beside Brown on this project; trumpet, pedals, programming, percussion and shells swimming around the keyboards. An otherworldly magic evoked by Browns deft fingers. I like to think that I gave this music a slight nudge along the way.  AJF CMB pic (4)This has been an interesting Jazz Festival and although it is cliched, there was something for everyone. From manouche through to the avant-garde. I loved that it retained the feeling of local and of intimacy – even when showcasing offshore bands. The CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Rattle Records, 1885 Britomart, Auckland University, Golden Dawn, Portland Public House, Hallertau, Ostro, Lot 23, One2One, Hotel DeBrett, Lewis Eady, The Refreshment Room, the Vic, The Wine Cellar and other venues deserve our heartfelt thanks. Above all its Ben McNicoll who we must acknowledge as he lost sleep and carried the heaviest load. We are also in the debt of Caro and Roger Manins for the part they played. The vision belongs to these innovators and what ever happens along the way, I hope that the Auckland Jazz Festival continues as the fine fringe festival they envisioned.

Auckland Jazz FestivalCJC (Auckland Jazz Club)Rattle Records (go to Rattle to purchase the albums listed – the exception is Darkly Dreaming at the AJO website)

Nock & Manins – But Beautiful

Two Out (1)Having reviewed the ‘Two Out’ album a few weeks ago and thoroughly enjoyed it – it was a certainty that I would enjoy the ‘Two Out’ live gig. Mike Nock and Roger Manins are rightly celebrated as being at the top of their game, but neither trades on reputation. Both approached this gig with humility. As they settled into the music you could feel the absorption; punctuated by occasional smiles when a particular phrase surprised them, often delighting at what fell under their fingers. At times they seemed to defeat the physical limitations of performance; simultaneously observing and creating. This is a Zen thing and it cuts to the heart of improvised music. Others noticed it as well; one musician said to me afterwards, “Man there was no ego on that bandstand and it was a beautiful thing to witness’. He was absolutely right. Two Out (2)Most albums require careful planning, the ideas gestating over time, rehearsal upon rehearsal shaping the direction. Then there is the other type arising from happenstance. ‘Two Out’ arose out of a relaxed jam between friends. Manins was relaxing with Nock one January morning in Sydney when they decided to play a few tunes (as musicians often do when relaxing). What took their fancy were the often forgotten tunes, ‘the ones that our mothers used to sing’. As they worked their way through the tunes Nock suggested that they record; just for fun. Shortly after they ended up recording in the Sydney Conservatorium’s Verbruggen Hall. The hall contained a wonderful Fazioli grand piano much to Nock’s delight. Two OutIt is our good fortune that ‘Two Out’ was performed last week for New Zealand audiences. Nock explained that they had actually recorded 16 songs, but the limitations of CD space required these being reduced to eleven. On Wednesday we heard a significant number of the tunes from the album plus a few that didn’t make the final cut. In particular there was a version of ‘Softly as a Morning Sunrise’ (Romberg/Hammerstein). A wild joyous free-flowing version which brought out the best in both musicians. At times gentle but at other times carrying the echoes of a boisterous 1930’s radio performance. At that moment, listening, I visualised my mother, leaning over an old upright Victrola and humming along happily. The other addition was ‘But Beautiful’ (Jimmy Van Heusen). An overwhelming sense of respect and intimacy was evident in their interpretation of that tune. It brought a smile to everyone’s lips. When friends like this collaborate it is profound …… but beautiful.

Nock Manins

Two Out: Mike Nock (piano), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), The album is available from FWM Records.  The Venue CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland 23rd September 2015

Simon Thacker & Ritmata (Scotland)

RitmataThere was a buzz of excitement surrounding Simon Thacker’s ‘Ritmata’ tour. Not the touring rock-band sort of buzz, but a word of mouth Twitter-post kind. A buzz generated by night people and festival goers. Those who pay close attention to good music. I followed the threads and everything I read about Thacker sat well with me. I looked forward to his Auckland gig and the hype was not over-stated. Ritmata was a delight.

I have travelled extensively through the Mediterranean region and delighted in the diverse streams of music flowing together; Armenian, North African, Sufi, Sephardic, Flamenco, Jazz etc. Thacker takes this concept further. It is a human weakness to catalogue, to reach for definitions. It is the inbuilt train-spotter lurking in our subconscious mind and it doesn’t work well with bands like this. Ritmata may draw upon many sources but it is owned by none of them. While there are many familiar references, the music reaches for clear space. What appears as a multicultural journey, departs for newer unexplored realms. The familiar is fleeting because this music is more than the sum of its parts.Ritmata (6)Simon Thacker is the ideal front man; funny, confident, virtuosic. His authority emanating from a force field of energy. A musical vision that engages; thriving on intimacy. A club setting is therefore perfect, with warmth and exuberance captured, contained; audience and musicians sharing an experience. Thacker’s banter is quirky, self-deprecating and it connects. There were howls of delight at the sheep jokes and they told me something important. Scotts, Kiwis and Australians have a shared humour, a post colonial cultural connection. An inbuilt irreverence that is part of our evolving story.Ritmata (3)The first set opened with traditional Sephardic melodies ‘reimagined’. This is familiar territory as Caroline Manins has trodden this path with her Mother Tongue project. Some of these tunes are more than a thousand years old (‘Des Oge Mais’), and in spite of dealing with loss or longing, they are often fast paced and rhythmically complex. In Ritmata’s hands they are ancient to modern. Evoking the melting pot of Judaic Moorish Spain but never time-locked. Elements of Flamenco, and even the modal chromaticism of Jazz pianists like McCoy Tyner came to mind. Ritmata (1)There were a number of interesting Thacker originals and to my delight three pieces based on Egberto Gismonti compositions (a stunning Brazilian improvising guitarist who used the street music of Choro to create similar, beyond-genre visions – an artist beloved of Jazz audiences). One of Thacker’s tunes ‘Honour the Treaties’ referenced the chants of American Indians and as indicated by the wild applause, it resonated powerfully. Then there was ‘Asuramaya’, influenced by the Indian Ragas. That piece had a delicious dream-sequence feel to it. He rounded off his sets with a traditional Azerbaijani tune, ‘Bana Bana Gel’ and a Jewish tune ‘Ovshori’ from the mountains Dagestan. When the audience clamoured for an encore, vocalist and Sephardic specialist Carolina Manins joined the band singing ‘Madre de Deus’; again reimagined by Thacker.Ritmata (2)While Thacker dominated proceedings with his larger than life presence, the band members were stars in their own right. I have seldom heard a unit so in lock-step. The pianist, bass and drums were as central to the enjoyment as Thacker himself. The spotlight must lastly fall on that lovely guitar; I couldn’t keep my eyes off it. An extraordinary Rouse classical guitar; it sang like the Lyre of Orpheus. Orchestrating time and place; stretching time until we could see the future.Ritmata (4)

Ritmata: Simon Thacker (amplified acoustic guitar, compositions), Paul Harrison (piano), Mario Caribe (bass), Stu Brown (drums/percussion).

Marc Ribot & I

RibotI am a Marc Ribot enthusiast so when local musician Neil Watson sent me a message to say that Ribot was coming to New Zealand I whooped for joy. My first thought was, wow, this will be the good shit. My next thought was, oh yeah I want to interview that cat about his musical and social activism. Watson was to open for him which pleased me. Watson was a good fit for this gig. An iconoclast multi genre improviser himself.

I put out a few feelers to people connected to the tour, letting them know that a local Jazz Journalist was keen to interview Ribot. I heard nothing back and assumed that the tour would be whistle-stop; this is often the case when a single New Zealand concert follows an Australian tour. I let it drop with some regret.

Because I keep an eye on the wider improvising scene, I was aware that Ribot toured Ceramic Dog the previous month. I love that band. Ribot with band mates Shahzad Ismaily and drummer Ches Smith are a force ten hurricane. Wild and free-ranging but subtle at the eye of the storm; Jazz infused while taking few prisoners from the past. They are the music of everyman and all time. I learned at the venue that this was not a Ceramic Dog concert but Marc Ribot on solo acoustic guitar. He is known for the diversity of his projects and I would turn up to a Ribot gig if he was just whistling.

My partner and I arrived early as we wanted good seats. Amazingly we found seating in the front row and this proved a blessing and a problem. A blessing because we could see and hear Ribot with crystal clearly. A problem because of what happened next. A rotund bearded man clumsily took the seat next to us. As he seated himself heavily I could smell the booze on his breath. Fucking drunks. This guy had been pre-loading for at least a decade. He struggled to focus and said, ‘I can’t believe that Marc Robot is here; this guy plays with Zorn’. He was right to disbelieve because his drunken buffoonery denied him the entire experience.Ribot (2)My first act on arriving at the venue was to approach the Tuning Fork floor manager and ask about photographs. He told me of a request from Ribot for absolute quiet. It was solo acoustic guitar, not Ceramic Dog and at Ribot’s request the venue turned off the air-conditioning and fridges. Camera clicks were obviously out of the question unless between numbers. I respected that and took photographs unobtrusively during moments of applause. This was a special gig that required a womb of engaged silence. Audience and musician locked into an embrace of sound.

Because of the above, what happened next was all the more appalling. The drunk, who was so excited about hearing Ribot fell into a deep stupor at the first note. It was a stupor with sound effects and alarming floor-wards lurches. At first his awful wheezes were low volume, but as the concert progressed they became multi-phonic.

After carefully arranging himself, foot on his guitar case, hunched over his ancient acoustic guitar, Ribot dropped into the performance zone. Balanced gently on his knee was an incredible 1937 Gibson L-00; a simply wonderful instrument. When he plays solo he prepares by withdrawing from outside influences. Before a concert he examines a plethora of possible tunes, weighing up musical ideas and searching for new and often oblique ways to tell stories. He seldom has a set list in mind and lets the music and the moment take him where it may. This is a frightening high wire act and only a master improviser would attempt it. Putting yourself in such danger is fraught with risk and an unexpected audience distraction could be fatal. Ribot is more than up to such a challenge. He is one of the worlds greatest improvisers and an acknowledged master of his instrument.

The guitarist was deeply absorbed throughout his astonishing performance. creating an orchestral sound and telling stories free from ego and constraints. In Zen like fashion he examined the various tunes, turning them upside down or examining them from an oblique angle. Although lightly miked, the sound was fatter than an 18 piece orchestra. The subtleties all astonishing micro journeys, complete in themselves. Naked improvising at its best. The journey took us into the classical Spanish or Cuban guitar world, it traversed standards, Delta blues, Coltrane; I could even detect the all but forgotten vibe of Eddie Lang and Carl Kress. At times avant-garde and at other times pastoral. This was a night that I will never forget. Everyone there was spellbound…….except for one fool.

I will now relate my communication moment with the great man. I value it even though I wish it had been other than it was. There were two moments when Marc Ribot looked up and engaged directly with me. I know that I didn’t imagine it. My partner Darien had left her seat long before to sit elsewhere. The fumes and lurching were doing her head in. (Reprise) Fucking drunks. During one particularly drunken wheeze Ribot looked directly at me. Although only a few feet away, I tried to make myself invisible. My superpowers deserted me. Shit, shit, shit I thought, he must think it’s me. I quickly inclined my head sideways towards the drunk, hoping that he could see my gesture in the gloom. Then I lunged out and jabbed the man hard in the ribs.

Ribot caught the gesture and gave me the hint of a smile and a brief nod. That last gesture confirming that my desperate telepathic signal was received; an acknowledgment that it was the fool disturbing the force and not me. This was better than an interview; my superpowers were back and we were communicating by telepathy. Emboldened I reached across again and again to jab the fools ribs. I am not an aggressive man, but the great Marc Ribot had given me permission.

And all the while the music flowed unabated, wonderful music. The art music of everyman.Ribot (1)Footnote: Neil Watson acquitted himself well and added to the enjoyment of the evening. He played three types of electric guitar plus his pedal steel guitar; his set list ranging freely across genres. A Nirvana tune, a Hendrix referencing ‘Hear my train a comin’, a nice tune composed by his partner and the Kiwiana classic Blue Smoke as high points from his set.

Marc Ribot: Solo acoustic guitar at the Tuning Fork, Auckland, New Zealand, August 2015 – supporting act Neil Watson (guitars) with Rui Inaba (upright bass).

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Chris Cody @ CJC + Tauranga

Chris Cody 071 (2)When I saw that pianist Chris Cody was coming to New Zealand I immediately recognised the name. For a moment I couldn’t fill in the blank spots of memory but I sensed that the connection was both Australian and international. My CD collection is huge and I knew that the answer lay buried somewhere in the unruly muddle of music lying about the house. Then it came flooding back; Cody recorded a great ‘Chris Cody Coalition’ album in the nineties. The first international Jazz NAXOS recording titled ‘Oasis’ and produced by Mike Nock; an innovative exotic project brimming with warm middle eastern influences. Some quickChris Cody 077 research told me that the Chris Cody Coalition was still an entity and what equally excited me was to see the name Glenn Ferris on several of the albums credits. ‘Oasis’ featured the Australian Trombonist James Greening and on several of the later Coalition albums Cody features trombonist Ferris (an utterly distinctive player). His whispers, growls and smears are at times otherworldly, but also mysteriously human. Cody works especially well with trombone players and his writing reflects this on the latest album.

I trawled the Paris Jazz clubs in the nineties and recall seeing Ferris perform. Later I picked up an album by Henri Texier ‘Indians Week’ and loved it. Ferris has appeared on 179 albums; everyone from Stevie Wonder (‘Songs in the key of life’), to a co-led album with Chico Freeman and an Archie Shepp album (‘Meeting’). The new Chris Cody Coalition album ‘Conscript’ is enjoyable from start to finish. An accessible album that bathes you in warmth and light. There is real intimacy about the recording, a feeling that you areChris Cody 073 (1) in the front row and this is as much about Cody’s writing skills as the strong confident performances. It is also about the recording quality which is superb.  I strongly recommend this album. I first heard the quartet at the Tauranga Jazz Festival. A CJC Jazz stage showcased the finale and the Jazz Tui Awards presentation. I spoke to Cody in a break and quickly learned that he had New Zealand blood running in his veins. Born in Australia of Kiwi parents he studied music before moving to Paris. Based there ever since and gaining a strong reputation on the wider scene. He has very recently move back to Australia but he intends to return to Paris to work periodically.

It is the diversity of life experience that makes for interesting Jazz musicians and Cody has the aura of Paris cool about him. While he Chris Cody 072 (1)often draws on very American sources like Jamal, he is also in the mould of pianists like Jacky Terrasson (also a Parisian). Cody’s compositions are well thought out and replete with interesting asides. We heard many of these at the CJC and the album ‘Conscript’ is all originals. I am a sucker for a Cole Porter tunes and when he opened with ‘I love Paris in the springtime’ I couldn’t have been happier. Happy because I love the song and above all happy because the quartet played it so well. I have posted a video of the CJC performance and the title track from the ‘Conscript’ album with Ferris (the latter an official video release).Chris Cody 071 (1) His pick up band are the familiar and popular Roger Manins (tenor), Oli Holland (bass) and Ron Samsom (drums). In the rush of the Tui awards there was little time to rehearse, but it didn’t show. This is 3/4 of DOG and they are the 2015 Jazz Tui winners after all.

Who: Chris Cody Quartet – Chris Cody (piano), Roger Manins (tenor sax), Oli Holland (bass), Ron Samsom (drums). Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand, 8th April 2015 #jazzapril #jazzappreciationmonth http://www.jazzapril.com

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Emie Roussel Trio @ CJC

 

Emie Roussel trio 048Any mention of Quebec catches my attention as I really like that part of Canada, so when I learned that a highly rated Montreal piano-trio was coming to town I knew that it would be a good experience.  I had not encountered the Emie Roussel Trio before, but a quick glance at the accolades they have garnered and the numerous You Tube clips that have sprung up over the past year, gave me all the information that I needed.  The group had attracted particular attention at the Montreal Jazz Festival and from what I saw online, deservedly so.

Montreal is a Jazz city and I rate it highly.  It is easy on the eye, friendly, laid back and intensely focussed on the arts. During a recent visit I spent my nights in its Jazz clubs and bars.  As many as I could cram into an Autumn week; anywhere featuring improvised music.  It was not the time of year to catch The Montreal Jazz Festival, so I got to see local bands like ‘Park X’ and the ‘Carl Naud Quartet’ at ‘L’OFF Jazz Festival’.  Emie Roussel trio 065As you move about that city, the familiar and the exotic coexist at every street corner.  I came to realise that this almost subliminal familiarity was the manifestation of a spiritual kinship. The sort that exists between certain special cities, a connection that is not about trade, mayoral visits or geography; a connection of musical and artistic synergies.  Emie Roussel trio 053The Emie Roussel Trio are part European and part American in aesthetic. They are wholly Montreal. Their music has a pulse and a vibe which draws on european classical music traditions and the deep earthy Jazz grooves that arose from the American continent. In the hands of improvisers like Roussel these influences communicate a universal language. As the pieces unfold there is a sense that this band works as an organic whole. What we heard was tight and full of vibrancy or as a musician I spoke to during the break put it. “We are hearing the result of rehearsal, dedication to a project, discipline and road time”.  While I love the free-flowing loose feel of New Zealand improvising bands, I must acknowledge that we seldom hear trio’s which sound like this.

The set-list was a selection from the trio’s recent albums with a few tunes from her new album in the mix. All of the compositions and arrangements were by the leader Emie Rioux-Roussel. Her compositions are well thought out and adventurous; taking sudden twists and turns, but never losing sight of the momentum and the inner logic. The segments are pieces of a puzzle placed by very skilful hands.  As significant as her piano chops are, it was her work on keys that reeled me in. She quickly dug in on the Korg, carving out intense and deeply pleasing grooves with her left hand. The tasteful flurries from her right opening up the possibility of a million directions, all worth taking; her voicings felt original and warm as the summer breeze.  This was an altogether funkier feel and as the beats reflected the changed mood the electric bass thumped out lines that danced in your head.  Emie Roussel trio 045The bass player Nicolas Bedard and drummer Dominic Cloutier never faltered.  They wove in and around the tunes with consummate skill and were the perfect interpreters of Roussel’s music. These men are versatile and skilled and whether on brushes, sticks, upright or electric bass, they knew exactly what would serve the music best.  Emie Roussel trio 046The second set brought us an added treat as the Kiwi trumpeter Lex French came to the bandstand. I have long rated French as one of our finest trumpeters. He completed his studies in Montreal and was already well acquainted with several of the band members. His addition changed the pace once again, opening the way for harder blowing.  As the sets progressed the constantly evolving moods worked well for them, giving the gig real breadth.  Emie Roussel trio 050The trio’s recent album ‘Transit’, includes many of the numbers heard on the tour but with one significant difference; The inclusion of a string section, the ‘Quatuor St-Germain’ and a percussionist Julie Quimper.  Roussel’s charts in the hands of this larger ensemble are very different to the trio.  I particularly like her compositions like ‘L’ attente du chat’ and ‘La timbale et la fourmi’.  The mood of the ballad is cat-like in its grace and time feel. The latter, a delightful shape-shifter of a piece full of contrasts and propulsion.  I look forward to the new album which is just the trio but with some Rhodes tracks as well as piano.

I hope that they came back one day as this is a band well worth keeping tabs on.

Who: The Emie Roussel Trio – Emie Rioux-Roussel (piano, keys), Nicolas Bedard (contrabasse), Dominic Cloutier (batterie).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Brittomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand, 17th December 2014.

Auckland Jazz Festival 2014

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This is great news Auckland.  The inaugural Auckland Jazz Festival opens on the 17th October, followed by 9 days of gigs across town.  Put together by Ben McNicoll and the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) team, which guarantees the excellence and diversity in programming.  A number of bars have enthusiastically come onboard and Jazz lovers should reward their commitment.  Because there are smaller venues or bars in the mix there will be some gigs with no cover charge, while others will charge a modest entry fee.  For pricing, bookings and programming visit the Auckland Jazz Festival website (below).  The headline gigs will be held at the CJC with the Mike Nock Trio (Australia) appearing on Tuesday 21st October, followed by the Benny Lackner Trio (Germany/USA) 22nd October and Francisco Torres/Roger Fox (USA/New Zealand) on the 23rd.   the-troubles

It would be crazy to miss any of these three gigs, in fact hire a babysitter or cat minder and cancel anything that gets in the way.  I know that I will endeavour to catch as many gigs as I can.  If this is well supported it will likely become a feature of the Auckland City arts calendar.  The gigs vary in style with each unique in some way.  Opening the festival at the ‘Portland Public House’ Kingsland is Wellington’s, fabulously wild anarchic band ‘The Troubles” (who I can’t wait to see again).  There are also offerings from the early swing era, groove funk, experimental improv and more besides.

Benny Lackner Trio

An Auckland Jazz Festival of this sort is long overdue and sensibly it’s run along the lines of a fringe festival.  There are no big sponsors calling the shots, which means that the choice of artists is in the hands of the organisers.  In the absence of any taint of commercialism you can expect edge, cool and excellence.  Think of it as a crowd sourced festival in which you have a vital part to play.  I have attended Jazz festivals run along these lines before and I prefer them, as they offer intimacy and a listening experience which you just can’t find in the larger venues.  The Montreal ‘L’Off’ festival immediately comes to mind.  It is important that we show our support by attending as many gigs as we can and don’t forget to visit the web site and ‘like’ the various gigs on offer (you know the drill, it is an important indicator of support).  The organisers and venue’s have put time and money into this and all we need to do is attend and enjoy ourselves.  Let’s show them that we appreciate it and put to bed the tired old myth that Auckland never gets behind the arts – see you all there.

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What: www.aucklandjazzfestival.co.nz   (Live link)

Where: At a number of prime small venues about Auckland including, CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 1885 Britomart, The Portland Public House, Tom Tom, The Golden Dawn, Hallertau

Tiny Hearts ‘Alluvium’ Review

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Some acts appear to arrive out of no-where.  All of the rehearsing and scuffling hidden from the common gaze.  Others invite you in at ground level, letting you see the raw material as it evolves, letting you see the promise, beckoning from the future.  Letting you see the influences, the base metal.  For a pop act the former makes sense, for improvised music it makes no sense at all.  Improvised music should move at will, explore awkward corners and morph into new shapes as it feeds off the life around it.  Standing still is death.

Last time this band was in town the name ‘Tiny Hearts’ had not yet surfaced.  They were the ‘Dilworths’ then, but the music was just as beguiling.  One of the things that I quickly learned was the strength of the bands influences, powerful tributaries feeding a common cause.  I was momentarily tempted to view the group as a discrete entity, a single project, but now I’m not so sure.  The more that I learn about them, the more I see the individual strengths of the musicians, where they’ve come from and where they’re headed.  Each of them have excelled in former projects but there is more.  Together they exude an organic quality, growing, evolving in unison.  Expressing the moment.  IMG_2404 - Version 2

I was familiar with a few of the tunes, the ones played during the ‘Dilworths’ tour.   I had also kept in touch with the musicians and seen clips as they developed their program along the way.  These are great compositions, but the performances lift them to another level.  All of the pieces have the individual musicians stamp imprinted on them.  This is in keeping with the ‘Tiny Hearts’ ethos.  A Steve Barry tune is unmistakably his, A Dilworth or Jackson tune likewise.  While most of the tunes were written with ‘Tiny Hearts’ in mind, they often referenced earlier projects or perhaps give a nod to future offshoots.   The ink was hardly dry on Tom Botting’s atmospheric Balclutha chart when he visited with the ‘Dilworths’ last time.  ‘Big Sea Reprise’ takes up the baton from Paul Derricott’s amazing Big Sea (Arrow) album.   I loved that album and asked Derricott about it when I caught their act last week.  He told me that he had liked the album as first, but then developed some doubts.  It lay fallow for a few years, then Paul revived it.  He is now pleased with it.   IMG_2370 - Version 2

Dilworth is the fronts person for the group, his friendliness and confidence making him and obvious choice.  Musically, all speak equally.  The composition of the band is part Australian and part Kiwi if you count their countries of origin.  In reality they’re best described as Australians.  Musicians like Barry and Botting could never be confined to our small Islands.  Dilworth, Derricott and Jackson are Sydney musicians with solid reputations.  If you are growing curious then here is my challenge.  Purchase a copy of ‘Alluvium’.  If you already possess it then order copies of: ‘Big Sea’ by Derricott, ‘Steve Barry’ the eponymous titled award-winning album by Barry, ‘Caravana Sun’ by Dilworth,  ‘Cosmontology’ by Jackson.   I have just ordered the latter to complete my set.   I also spoke to the band about future projects and there are plenty in store.  A Paul Derricott, a Steve Barry and a Dave Jackson album are in the wind.    IMG_2373 - Version 2

I missed their CJC gig as I was in Australia, but I caught them at the Auckland Jazz and Blues Club.   Reading the venue perfectly, they devoted much of the night to the Ellington/Strayhorn songbook.  This was not done begrudgingly as they revelled in the chance to play sets dominated by these timeless standards.  As the night progressed we whooped and clapped as numbers like ‘It don’t mean a thing’ brought the joy among us.  Embarking upon a night of unprepared swing era tunes would catch a lessor band on the hop.  For these guys it came naturally.

If you get the feeling that these musicians are in the middle of a massive and self-perpetuating project then you would be right.  For those who haven’t worked it out, the title says it all.  Alluvium comes from the Latin ‘to wash against’.  Loose base metals tumbling together in a stream.  That sounds about right.  I can’t wait to see them again in any of their incarnations.  They really are extraordinary.

 

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Who: Tiny Hearts – ‘Alluvium’  Eamon Dilworth (trumpet), Steve Barry (piano), Dave Jackson (saxophone), Tom Botting (bass), Paul Derricott (drums).

 

http://www.davejacksonmusic.com/     –      stevebarrymusic.bandcamp.com/

www.eamondilworth.com/     –    paulderricott.com/

 

yeahyeahabsolutelynoway @ CJC

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An array of guitar pedals is sometimes deployed to hide a multitude of sins, but in the hands of a skilful improviser the opposite occurs.   Yeahyeahabsolutelynoway! illustrate the best of modern guitar work as they invoke past, present and future.   Their gigs feature their own compositions, with performances drawing upon influences as diverse as rock, country, experimental improvised music and traditional Jazz.  They juggle these competing influences skilfully while still imparting a surprising degree of subtlety.  I have sometimes seen Jazz guitar traditionalists roll their eyes at the sight of pedals, but I would respectfully suggest that they haven’t been paying proper attention to their Jazz history.  IMG_1659 - Version 2

Everyone from Charlie Christian onwards embarked upon a never-ending quest to change, modify, enhance and above all to extend their sound options.   Without those open skies explorers and without enhancements, the use of the guitar in boisterous Jazz lineups would have reached its high-water-mark with Freddie Green.  I love Freddie Green with a passion but the guitar is about more than chords.  Almost every instrument used in Jazz today is modified or extended in some way.   Putting a trumpet through a pedal and working in real-time with loops created by multi phonic effects does not mean that the musician is cheating.  It must be about integrity and the sound.  Beneath the right fingers improvisational integrity and storytelling always come to the fore.   Yeahyeahabsolutelynoway! understand that.

‘Yeahyeahabsolutleynoway’ are the latest addition to the impressive Rattle Records stable.  On the 16th July they did an album release gig at the CJC and for those who braved the winter night it was a treat.  I had listened to the album in advance and so I knew what to expect, but to see them in action held a few surprises for me.  I had wrongly imagined that there would be pre-recorded loops but this was strictly live music.  Every effect we heard was created in realtime, with the constant adjustments from both guitarists giving them an immense palette to work with.  If the sound scape was impressive the tunes were even more so.

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There is something special going on with Australian guitarists at the moment and this band and ‘The Grid’ are occupying a unique space in the antipodean Jazz spectrum.   In the case of ‘yeahyeahabsolutelynoway’ there is no bass guitar, not even a five string.   It is not that unusual to see two six string jazz guitars together in a trio with drums.  What is more unusual is when neither of them takes on the traditional rhythm duties.  These guys were often working the same space, swapping lines or converging on a passage to create a subtle filigree.  While they worked as equals, they never appeared to intrude or crowd in on the other, so attuned they were.  Their focus was always on the subtleties of the music and this made for a good listening experience.  On a beautiful Ibanez solid body guitar was James Brown, who looked more like a member of ‘Z Z Tops’ than his namesake.  On a classy looking blond Fender Tele was Sam Cagney.  Both could be seen crouching at various times throughout the sets, as they coaxed beguiling sounds out of the pedals and all the while playing on through.   The drummer Stephen Neville was vital to the mix and created a seamless flurry of beats or subtle whispers on brushes as required.   It would be hard for me to pin down his drum style other than to say that it was effective and impressive.

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The tunes in the set list and on the recording were varied in approach.  A fun number is the rock influenced ‘Why Sleep?’  When I put the album on at home my partner Darien immediately replayed ‘Why Sleep  over and over.   It is the one to hook you and draw you in.   I liked the Americana feel of ‘Down home’.  It wouldn’t have been at all out-of-place on a Bill Frisell album.  The album was recorded live in Adelaide South Australia where the bands originates from.  Rattle is definitely on a roll this year (yeah, shake rattle & roll) and as the label goes from strength to strength, the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) and the Jazz audiences benefit.   Keep them coming Steve Garden!  IMG_1680 - Version 2

A foot note:  I see that Columbia University is now running a Computer Science course on programming for Jazz Musicians.  As Melhdau and others increasingly follow the footsteps of Herbie Hancock in using programmable devices to extend their range, such courses can only grow in number.   Don’t be too dismayed, this is improvised music folks!  Jazz will strike out in any direction that musicians take.   It is up to us to keep up.  

Who: yeahyeahabsolutelynoway! – James Brown (guitar, effects) Sam Cagney (guitar, effects), Stephen Neville (drums & cymbals)

What: A Rattle Jazz Album: UM.. yeahyeahabsolutelynoway!   http://www.rattlejazz.co.nz

Where: Live album release at CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 1885 Britomart, Auckland, New Zealand      www.creativejazzclub.com

 

The Wellington Jazz Festival (WJF) 2014

 

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New Zealand music fans should enthusiastically support the Wellington Jazz Festival, as it has hit a sweet spot.   It will now be run as an annual event thanks to an enlightened funding decision by the Wellington City Council and the sponsors.  I am enthusiastic about this years festival on a number of levels, not least because it has struck a sensible balance between quality local acts and high-profile international acts.  In doing this the festival producers provide valuable gigs for talented New Zealand artists (or lessor known offshore artists), but they also create a real street vibe.  The Opera House fits the boutique-festival feel extremely well, as it has a warm cosy atmosphere, good sight lines and intimate acoustics.   I certainly don’t decry the use of the Michael Fowler Centre, but shows in these larger and more sterile venues need balancing with lots of club gigs which speak to the street.  This year the balance was perfect.  Jazz Festivals need street vibe as much as headline acts and a carnival atmosphere is a must have.  A reminder that Jazz emerged from the rowdy back streets of America over a hundred years ago.  IMG_1068 - Version 2

I was only able to attend for two days, but Friday night in Wellington city gave me a real Kansas city moment.  As I moved from gig to gig, concert to concert, I could faintly hear the sound of the next gig before I was out of sight of the previous one.  The warm feeling I got as I drifted aimlessly between gigs was worth the cost of the flight.  People were happy just to walk the circuit of bars and gigs, being sucked into each venue by the siren calls of saxophone, drums, trumpet, guitar or keys.  The happy jumble of accessible gigs and the high quality of musicianship couldn’t fail to please.

My first festival gig was the Barney McAll free concert in St Peters church.  He has long-lived in Brooklyn but hails from Australia.  I had caught McAll doing a trio gig at Auckland’s Creative Jazz Club the night before, where he impressed the audience so much, that a few of us made sure that we caught him again in Wellington.  McAll is a deep-level improviser bringing the history of this music to each performance.  When he is playing solo piano there is an orchestral completeness to his work.  His left hand often utilising powerful stride bass lines while he moves and stomps in Monk like fashion.  On reflection McAll was very much the festival highlight for me.

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The first headline International gig I attended was the Joshua Redman quartet at the Opera House.  The band opened with a few tunes clearly pitched to a diverse festival crowd, but that changed as they progressed through the set list.  A highlight was ‘Walking Shadows’ (J S Bach ‘Adagio’) which is the title of his new album with Brad Melhdau.  This piece honoured Bach beautifully while giving ample space for fluid Jazz informed conversations.  It was then that we begun to hear more of what the quartet was capable of.  For me however it was the encore that was the standout of the night.  Pulling out a marvellous interpretation of Wayne Shorter’s ‘Infant Eyes’, they showed us the real meat on the bone.  The Redman quartet are a highly polished unit; noticeably propelled by powerhouse drummer Greg Hutchinson (with his heart stopping beats) and anchored solidly by Reuben Rogers.  In contrast Aaron Goldberg takes a minimalist and often oblique approach on piano while Redman’s sound although authoritative is thinner than many of his peers.  The band can certainly pack a punch and Redman’s arrangements did him credit.

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After the Redman concert I headed for the Rogue & Vagabond.   This was the first local band I saw and I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.  There was a themed approach to most of the gigs, with many local bands interpreting famous albums; in this case ‘Thelonious Monk at the Town Hall’.   That was a great choice of album and completely authentic in its interpretation.  The quirky crazy warmth of Monk came through strongly and the excitement drew a melee of happy revellers to the bar.  Congratulations to Jake Baxendale (alto), Mike Isaacs (Tenor), Chris Buckland (baritone), Matt Allison (trombone), Lex French (trumpet), Kelvin Payne (tuba), Rowan Clark (bass), Shaun Anderson (drums) and Ben Wilcock (piano).  I love nonets and this one was perfect.  The gorgeous brass heavy voicings and heavy Monkish accents from the piano, hung in the air like decoded messages from the man himself.   Thursday was only the first night of the festival and in spite of limping around on a sore foot all night, I couldn’t stop smiling as I headed back to the hotel.

After the official opening on Friday night we filed into the Opera House to hear Pablo Ziegler.  A pianist composer who hails from Buenos Aires, he is the leading exponent of Nuevo Tango and an interpreter of the works of the Tango maestro Astor Piazzolla .  This highly rhythmic and often melancholic music was an infusion of European classical, African informed rhythms, hints of Jazz and the beautiful folk ballads of Argentina.  It is a danceable music created by creole musicians and early on embraced by working class Argentinians.  The Ziegler orchestra was essentially the Wellington Orchestra and they acquitted themselves extremely well.  The string section was twenty strong  (including two double basses),  there were two French horns, an oboe, a bassoon, a flute and a drummer who doubled on vibraphone and percussion.   Lastly there was composer, arranger Pablo Ziegler on piano.   I loved this concert in its entirety and especially when an expat Argentinian Fisarmonica Tango-player came on stage to play a ballad.  People often turn up their noses at the accordion and its close relative the bandoneon, but I defy anyone not to feel the emotional power of this instrument in a classic Tango setting.

My next stop was the Corea/Burton concert which started late due to repeated encore’s at Ziegler’s Opera House event.  When he came on, Chick Corea appeared discomforted by the air-conditioning, which would have felt positively arctic after his recent trip to Portugal.  Gary Burton was wearing a sweater and so it worried him less.  The Michael Fowler centre is a huge cavernous venue and controlling the air flow is undoubtedly a monumental task.  Once underway the famous duo delivered a well thought-out program, which included new and older familiar tunes.  The interplay between these two is uncanny and it goes way beyond just finishing each others musical sentences. They are able to challenge and anticipate what the other will do and this allows for high level interaction.  The duo have been playing together for so long now that their musical minds are as one.

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The last gig I was able to attend was back at the Rogue & Vagabond and this time it was a Herbie Hancock ‘Headhunters/Heavy Weather’ tribute.   I am always up for this music as it is surprisingly seldom played in New Zealand.   The band was outrageously good and as I approached, a flurry of urgent beats and a surge of raw energy seemed to fill the streets around the venue.   I am always enthusiastic about Dan Hayles keyboard skills and on this night he played a bank of keyboards to great effect.  On drums was the talented Myele Manzanza (who I suspect was the leader), on percussion Lauren Ellis, on tenor saxophone Blair Latham and on electric bass Rom Smith.   Blair Latham had been unknown to me prior to this, but I will pay more attention in future.  He was simply killing.  IMG_1099 - Version 2

Every large festival leaves you with regrets and mine were primarily about the gigs I’d missed.

There were at least eighty solid reasons for attending this Wellington Jazz Festival.  That was the number of listed events and there were many more unlisted events besides.    The Festival has had its ups and downs, but thanks to the persistence of the festival committee and the Wellington City Council it can now focus on what it does best.  Bringing quality Jazz to a wider audience.  If you are a Wellington local attending is a no brainer.  If you are from out-of-town then plan early and grab a cheap airfare.  You won’t be disappointed.  I wasn’t.

http://www.jazzfestival.co.nz/

Barney McAll trio @ CJC

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Last week was my two hundredth post and I was casting about for something extra special to put up.  Something to celebrate a rite of passage for JazzLocal32.com.  Happily I found that special something right at my doorstep.  Brooklyn based pianist Barney McAll was in town.  There are a lot of exceptional pianists on the global scene and in spite of diligent explorations on my part, there are many that I haven’t yet heard.  Barney McAll was one of those but the omission is now rectified.  He is firmly on my radar and I will track his every move.  IMG_1040

Barney McAll is an expat Australian, moving to New York in the mid nineties.   There are 104 albums and films which credit him as either leader, sideman, arranger or collaborator and the people he has worked with defy belief.   If I added all of their names here it would be a very long post, but to give you an idea of the diversity of his projects I will list a handful of his collaborators.  Dewey Redman, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Kenny Garret, Marceo Parker, Jimmy Cobb, Eddie Henderson, Vernel Fournier, Billy Harper, Josh Roseman, Gary Bartz and Andy Bey.  This guy is an established heavyweight but as if to round out an already fat resumé, his most recent activity focuses on solo piano.  He has a long-standing weekly spot at a Brooklyn church and his Sunday gig is shaping his work in interesting ways.  He is a deep improviser and his output of late has a spiritual dimension; embodying a personal journey.  Spiritual in the way that eighties Jarrett or sixties Coltrane were.

When he plays solo piano or leads an intimate trio, Barney McAll appears protean.  Changing form before your very eyes as he rolls to the music and enters into a state of absorption.  Sometimes merging with the shadows, as fleeting shards of light fall across his face and fingers.  I once read an account of a Tibetan Shaman who appeared to change shape as the wailing ceremonial trumpets and resonant sub-bass chanting engulfed him; reflecting the ebb and flow of the music.  This is how I perceived McAll.

He mostly played his own compositions, but at times he augmented these with lessor known tunes from the margins of the Jazz repertoire.  A good example of the latter was his joyful take on “Mendez takes a Holiday’ by Donny Hathaway.  Whatever he played took you to the beating heart of the tune.  McAll is like the perfect tour guide.  Pointing out the things that you should know, while leaving you at the brink of deeper secrets.  His own compositions were particularly fine, brimming with interesting musical ideas, original viewpoints, but always engaging.  There is never the slightest suggestion of noodling about his playing.  He shares his experiences and the audiences sit enthralled at every turn.  IMG_1024 - Version 2

It is always instructive to watch musicians during such gigs as they hear things differently from the rest of us.   The last time I saw so many open mouths was during feeding time at a seal colony.  Occasionally someone would whisper “oh what a total mofo”.   A recent Jazz studies graduate Chelsea Prastiti said to me later, “The flow of ideas had enormous coherence.  They all made perfect sense while sounding quite original.  I wish I had thought of them”.   In the break he spoke enthusiastically to me about his new band mates Cam McArthur and Ron Samsom.   “These guys are great and they really prepare well ” he said.   He was right to praise them as they did not put a foot wrong.   He later told the audience, “Sometimes I hear the first contact with the crash symbol and I think, oh dear, this will be a long night.  This is definitely not the case with Ron Samsom”.   He also complimented Cameron McArthur, “You saved my ass twice man, and its my tune”.  IMG_1041 - Version 2

His tune ‘FlashBacks’ imparts a wistful sadness, of the sort so wonderfully portrayed in ancient Japanese haiku.  Darkly beautiful, redolent of the shadows and the play of light, chiaroscuro.  There is something about those voicings and their relationship to each other that evokes a haunting elegiac portrayal of how life is, but hinting also at how it should be.  It is humanism in its purest form.  The other composition that grabbed my attention was ‘Non Compliance’ an invective against the NRA (National Riffle Association).   In his inimitable way McAll conjures ‘Sandy Hook’ and the ghastly ever mounting toll of lost children.   This is a call for sanity in a gun-toting culture gone mad.  An expose of a strange irrational twilight world where frightened people think more guns will solve the problem.  All of that imparted so succinctly, and done over a simple pedal point.

Telling stories is what good Jazz musicians do and McAll is a very good jazz musician.  So good that a few (including me) followed him to Wellington for more.

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Who: Barney McAll trio – Barney McAll (piano), Cameron McArthur (bass),  Ron Samsom (drums).  www.barneymcalljazz.bandcamp.com/

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand.  www.creativejazzclub.co.nz/

 

 

Neutrinos Jazz Funk + Rob Thompson

 

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If you have seen the Neutrinos perform at the Albion you will know how intensely funky they are.   Because they are a pub band, the music is beat focussed, danceable and outrageously cheerful; making people whoop with joy at the sheer exuberance of the music.  Ron Samsom is the Neutrino’s leader and he has contributed most of the tunes. I have only recently begun to grasp the breadth and depth of his compositions.  He is as a gifted writer.  Roger Manins has also contributed some great tunes from his popular earthy funk projects.   In his inimitable way he is also shares comparing duties.  The Albion band is Ron Samsom (drums), Roger Manins (tenor), Grant Winterburn (organ) and Cameron McArthur (bass).   As a unit they are the ultimate live experience.  Grant Winterburn’s solos scuffle and sing their way into your soul, taking your breath away with their brilliance.   Roger Manins brings down the happy ghosts of the funk tenor greats, Cameron McArthur makes the music dance and Ron Samsom’s drives endless flurries of killing beats out from his kit.  Being bombarded with something faster than light and more mysterious; neutrinos.  leaving in their wake pulsing rays of warmth.  More later on that gig as I will be writing a post on the Albion Funk Jazz Neutrinos shortly.

The CJC Neutrinos while composed of the same parts approached the music from a different angle.

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The Neutrinos lineup at the CJC was promoted as Jazz Funk (not Funk Jazz) and this offered a clue to the change of focus.  Visiting Canadian keyboard player Rob Thompson also replaced resident organist Grant Winterburn for this one gig.  Instead of the tone wheel simulating Nord C2D which Winterburn uses, there was a Nord Stage 88ex.   The sounds are very different.  Because the CJC is a listening space this opened up other possibilities; beat driven funk can follow ballads or introspective pieces.  We heard many of the tunes from the Albion repertoire, but the real surprise of the evening came when Rob Thompson moved from keyboards to piano.  He made a brief announcement and then proceeded to play two numbers strongly associated with Bill Evans.   Appropriately the quartet shrunk to a trio at this point.  Leaving just Thompson, McArthur and Samsom.

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It is unusual to see anyone interpret Bill Evans these days as modern pianists tend to shy away from this material.   There are a number of reasons for this and I suspect the sheer recognisability of his style, and of his particular approach to harmony invites unwelcome comparison.   A recent exception would be the album by Eliane Elias with husband Marc Johnson (an Evans alumni).   That particular album is Evans and Elias in equal proportions.  Rob Thompson has been studying Evans for a year or so and in situations like this there is a fine point between sounding like a particular artist and strongly referencing that artist.  How to approach the tunes is the perpetual conundrum.  The first tune of two was ‘Morning Glory’ (Bobby Gentry).  It was typical of Evans to appropriate an unlikely pop tune, film theme or country & western tune and then make it his own.  In this case ‘Morning Glory’s’ country and western origins dissolved into crystalline beauty.  Quite uncoupled from the Tallahatchie Bridge and Billy Joe McAlester.

From the intro to the end it spoke of Evans without being a slavish imitation.   The voicings and the approach were close enough to Evans to evoke him, but different enough to feel that you had gained a fresh perspective.  His second Evans number was ‘Re: Person I Knew” (Evans), a tune he wrote as a tribute to his friend Orrin Keepnews of Riverside Records.  The title is a clever anagram of Keepnews name, an intellectual challenge that Evans could seldom resist.  This introspective, wistful tune is among those most associated with Evans.  It is not only Keepnews who’s referenced here, as the song contains a haunting echo of the Scott Lafaro sessions at the Village Vanguard.  I have put up a clip of this.  Later I asked Cameron McArthur if he had ever played this material before and he had not.  With Evans bass playing changed.  Chuck Israels was the bass player when Evans wrote this tune and he said, “My voice is left open because Bill doesn’t play the bass in his left hand”.  Both McArthur and Samsom responded appropriately to Thompson’s explorations and both displayed a high degree of sensitivity.  Then it was back to the quartet format and higher octane tunes: with Roger Manins playing boisterously and to his usual high standard.

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It is always worthwhile to see familiar material examined afresh and played from a new perspective.  It was not just the Evans but the Neutrino song book reinterpreted on this night.

Who: Ron Samsom’s Neutrinos – Ron Samsom (drums), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Cameron McArthur (bass) with guest artist Rob Thompson (piano, keys)

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand 13th May 2014.    www.creativejazzclub.co.nz

Jonathan Crayford – ‘Dark Light’ Trio @ CJC #jazzapril

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I attended three Jonathan Crayford gigs while he visited New Zealand.   All of the bands were different and all were exceptional in their way.  This tells me something important about the artist; a leader able to communicate a vision with the utmost clarity and bring out the best in other musicians.  Just over a month ago I interviewed Crayford and my first question was, “What projects do you have in the pipeline?”.  He told me about an album that he is going to record in New York in a few months.  We then talked about ‘Dark Light’, his new ‘Rattle’ album.  As the title implies this is about that mysterious place behind the light.  This recurring theme is regularly mined by improvising musicians.  Monk, Jarrett, Maupin, Towner, Pieranunzi and others have peered into this chiaroscuro world, where the shadows between light and dark reveal subtle wonders.  This piano trio album recorded in New York in late 2013, has the stellar sidemen Ben Street on bass and Dan Weiss on drums.  The album was pre-released to New Zealand audiences during Crayford’s gig on Wednesday which was the fourth of the Creative Jazz Club’s 2014 #jazzapril series.  IMG_0373 - Version 2

I hear a lot of music these days and much of it I like, but occasionally an album comes your way that really stops you in your tracks.  This is just such an album.  It has a profundity and a depth to it that works on so many levels.  It is an album that deserves hearing over and again and since obtaining a copy I have done just that.  At first impression I thought of game changing pianists like Esbjorn Svensson or some of the modern Scandinavians, but this has a strongly original feel.  As in all Crayford’s compositions, we hear a skilfully written head, that gradually evolves into an ever-widening groove, begging deeper exploration.  While it is music played at the highest level it is neither self-indulgent nor introspective.  The album has real depth but it is also incredibly accessible.  This is music that everyone will recognise at some level: partly because it is so articulate, but also because the blues and a myriad of other familiar song forms are neatly distilled into it.

It was obviously not practical to fly Street and Weiss (who are New York based) down for the CJC launch and so Crayford engaged two New Zealand musicians.  While not hearing the full recorded trio was a shame, we were not disappointed by their substitutes.  He could hardly have chosen better.  On bass he had Wellington musician Patrick Bleakley and on drums was Auckland musician Chris O’Connore.   I am less familiar with Bleakley but I certainly know him by reputation.   The last time I saw him was with ‘The Troubles’, a delightfully anarchic Wellington band.  He is an experienced and melodic bass player with an instinctive feel for time.  On the album with Street and with the New Zealand trio, the bass player anchored the pieces; leaving piano and drums to react to each other.  O’Connore is one of the finest drummers on the New Zealand scene and he routinely plays in diverse situations.  This open skies approach gives him a real edge.   He is a drummer and percussionist with a highly developed sense of space and dynamics and in this case his colourist tendencies were strongly in evidence.  IMG_0422 - Version 2

The tracks have an organic logic in the way they’re ordered and a natural ebb and flow is discernible.   The set list at the gig followed that order, creating the sense that we were on a journey.  The titles of the pieces reference the ‘Dark Light’ theme and none more so than ‘Galois Candle’.  Galois was a genius French mathematician (1811 – 1832) who used abstract algebra to prove the links between field theory and group theory.  He suffered unbelievable bad luck in his short life and was not appreciated or understood until the 20th century.  Many of his proofs were accidentally or careless destroyed by others, hence the title.  As I play this sad evocative piece, the story of Galois unfolds before me.  This is what Jazz can do well; steal a moment out of time and create a compelling narrative.

There is a luminous quality to Crayford’s playing; a quality which sounds newly minted and yet familiar.  Crayfords contribution to Jazz deserves wider recognition and with this album it could happen.  I would therefore give the album four and a half stars out of five, not out of some Kiwi patriotism but purely on merit.  No Jazz lover will regret the purchase

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Who: Jonathan Crayford (piano) Ben Street (bass *album), Dan Weiss (drums *album) – Patrick Bleakey (bass *CJC), Chris O’Connore (drums, percussion *CJC)

What: ‘Dark Light’ released by Rattle Records http://www.rattlerecords.net 

Where: Pre release CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland 23rd April #jazzapril

Michele Benebig @ CJC #jazzapril

 

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When a Hammond B3 artist hits town, organ combo fans cheer and roadies duck for cover.  The B3 is not the sort of instrument that musicians bring with them on a plane (unless they have chartered a Lear Jet or a Hercules).   These mysterious musical behemoths are now harder to find, as the Hammond company folded in 1986 and the original tone-wheel B3/C3 has not been made since 1974.  The instrument barely fits into a utility van and weighs more than 435 lb; with the accompanying Lesley Unit you can add 150 lb.  The first problem for a travelling B3 artist is therefore to source a well restored working machine in the town where the gig will be held.  Auckland is lucky in this respect as there are a few of the instruments around.  To locate one in full working order is often difficult but the first port of call in Auckland is always keyboardist/organist Alan Brown.  Alan has just restored his beloved C3 (an even heavier version of the B3).

Young unsuspecting musicians and a few experienced ones who should have known better, cajoled by Roger manins, moved this fabulous machine halfway across town, down two flights of stairs and into the basement of the 1885 building.  They suffered for our enjoyment.

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Its been over a year since Michele Benebig and Shem were in town and we love them here.  Their blend of hard swinging old school B3 Jazz groove and evocative South Sea Island referencing vocals is a perfect fit for New Zealand audiences.  The Author Lawrence Durrell* once described a rare disease called ‘Islomania’.  This affliction of the spirit causes a form of intoxication; an overwhelming desire to live on lush green Islands surrounded by limitless expanses of sea.  For the afflicted this is a source of inner happiness.  While Michel and Shem are often seen on the West Coast of America; in Australia, New Zealand or France, it is their Island home base of New Caledonia that defines them.  Shem in particular fills her compositions with descriptions of exotic papillon (French for butterfly), colourful birds who warn the locals of impending storms and of the Pacific.   She and Michel are clearly afflicted by Islomania and as a fellow sufferer I empathise.   When this affliction meets the Jazz B3 obsession a potent hybrid arises and from the grip of this there is no escape.

After seemingly endless months of blue skies it poured down on the night of the gig.  This was bound to affect attendance, but those who braved the storm heard something exceptional.  If there is one compelling reason to brave wind and rain it is to hear a B3 Combo.  There is a primal warmth radiating from a B3 that seeps into your body.  From the first few chords you feel at one with the world and during the intense slow burning grooves you are lost to your cares altogether.

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Several numbers into the first set we heard ‘State Highway Blues’, composed and arranged by Fabienne Shem Benebig (the previous day) while driving up the North Island.  This blues in Ab was absolutely captivating and the way the musicians gently pulled back on the beat gave it a deep swing (a number that reprised in my dreams for days to come).   This number had enough tension and release to power Big ben.  There were many new compositions from both Michel and Shem plus the odd tune from Michel’s earlier albums ‘Black Cap’ and ‘Yellow Purple’.  One notable exception was the inclusion of a number by the French organist Eddie Louiss.  Several years ago Michel wrote ‘Blues for Rog..’ (for Roger Manins) and in this number much of his formidable technique is evident.  IMG_0306 - Version 2

Fabienne Shem Benebig always accompanies Michel on the road and she is also a gifted musician.  Her well thought out compositions and strong vocal presence are integral to the combo.  ‘Shem’ mainly sings in her native French tongue and hearing the blues in that language is pleasant to the ear.  That said she is not there for mere novelty value as her voice is authoritative.  Whether whispering a ballad or belting out a Basie number she is equally compelling.  Like Michel she has a captivating stage presence and her playful humour is the perfect foil to his studied cool.

Michel Benebig is gaining wider attention and his recent trips to California have resulted in two stellar albums.   His command of the B3 is astonishing and if you want a masterclass in technique and cool watch him in action.  He has an intuitive feel for this genre and every move, every pregnant pause and every gesture becomes part a his unfolding story.  As the last of the old B3 masters leave us, Michel Benebig and others like him will be swiftly identified as the new cadre, ready to move up and occupy that hallowed space.

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No organ combo is going to work properly without the right sort of guitarist and for this gig Michel used Auckland’s Dixon Nacey.   Dixon Nacey and drummer Ron Samson had not long been back from New Caledonia where they joined Michel and Shem for the official opening of the new Astro Jazz Club (run by Michel and dedicated to organ Jazz and in particular Brother Jack McDuff).   Dixon always looks happy when playing, but never more so when playing blues or groove.   He really pulled out some great performances on this gig and the chemistry between he and Michel was evident.  The multi faceted (and by default polyrhythmic drummer) Ron Samsom was cast in the unusual role of groove drummer here.  He exercised restraint and kept the tight focus needed, stepping free at appropriate moments.   The most important role for a groove drummer is to lock into the organs groove and he achieved that.  Roger Manins and Ben McNicoll made up the horn section and while Roger played the heads and an occasional solo, Ben mostly played counterpoint.  The tenor sax and baritone sounded wonderful together.  Everything about this gig felt right and the genre was well served.

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We are now halfway through the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) #jazzapril series and the program offers depth and variety.  As we approach International Jazz Day we should reflect on the gift that we have at our disposal.  While it is tempting to say that we’re lucky (and we are) I also mindful that the music we call Jazz is the result of hard work and dedication.  This American art form has long had global outreach and down at the bottom of the Pacific we legitimately own a piece of that, thanks to a plethora of gifted musicians and enablers like Roger, Ben and Caro.

*Reflections on a Marine Venus – L Durrell

Who: Michel Benebig (Hammond C3), Fabienne Shem Benebig (vocals), Dixon Nacey (guitar), Ron Samsom (drums), Roger Manins (tenor sax), with Ben McNicoll (baritone sax).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 1885 Britomart, Auckland New Zealand. 16th April 2014

Jamie Oehlers @ CJC #JazzApril 2014

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#JazzApril is International Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM) and the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) in Auckland New Zealand has lined up an impressive roster of artists.  The opening gig for Jazz April was the acclaimed saxophonist Jamie Oehlers from Perth Australia and the club could hardly have done better than engage this titan of the tenor.  Anyone who had heard Jamie Oehlers on previous visits needed no second invitation; the club filled to capacity.  Jamie is tall, so tall in fact that I managed to chop off his head while filming the first video clip (having foolishly set up the camera during the sound check when he was not present).  In fact everything about Jamie Oehlers is larger than life. His presence fills a room in ways that it is hard to adequately convey.  The sound of his tenor has a warm luminous quality about it and it seems to penetrate every nook and cranny of a room; whether playing softly or loudly it reaches deep into your soul.

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Two hundred years ago ( November 1814) a young Belgium instrument maker Adolphe Sax was born and in the 1840’s he patented the tenor saxophone.  It has gone through relatively few modifications since that time.   Fast forward to the Jazz age and the instrument came into its own.   Nobody brought the instrument to the wider public’s attention more than Coleman Hawkins and few took it to such dizzying heights as John Coltrane.  Listening to Jamie Oehlers perform made me think of the tenor’s history and above all it reconfirmed my deep love for the instrument.  Last time he was in Auckland he played ‘Resolution’ from Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’  (it is the 50th anniversary of ALS this year).   Among other numbers in the set list this year was Coltrane’s ‘Dear Lord’ (recorded by JC in 1963 but only released in the 1970’s on the ‘Dear old Stockholm’ album).  Jamie Oehlers was born to interpret Coltrane and he certainly held our rapt attention last Wednesday.   IMG_0132 - Version 2

He had requested the same local musicians for this visit as last time; Kevin Field (piano), Oli Holland (bass) and Frank Gibson (drums).   Roger Manins joined the band for the last two numbers and the two tenor masters unsurprisingly wowed everybody by the way they cajoled each other to new heights.  There were introspective ballads, freshly interpreted standards and a few fire-breathing fast burners.   I filmed quite a few numbers and have posted a duo performance of Mal Waldrons ‘Soul Eyes’ (Jamie Oehlers and Auckland pianist Kevin Field).   It is during ballads and especially the slower paced duo numbers that a musician is left naked.   No pyrotechnics to hide behind, no lightening strike runs or off the register squawks to dazzle us with.   This clip says everything about Oehlers as a man and as a musician.  Thoughtful, compelling and always authoritative.

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He was right to request Field, Holland and Gibson for this gig.   They showed repeatedly that they were up to the task and gave of their best.  It is gigs like this that make us proud of our down-under musicians and we know when we hear performances like these that we can hold our heads high in the wider Jazz world.  There was no more appropriate gig than this in which to kick off Jazz April.   Listen to the You Tube clip and I’m certain that you will agree.

Who: The Jamie Oehlers Quartet – Jamie Oehlers (tenor sax), Kevin Field (piano), Oli Holland (bass), Frank Gibson (drums).

Where: The CJC (Creative Jazz Cub), Britomart 1885 basement, Auckland New Zealand, 2nd April 2014

James Muller Quartet @ CJC

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Every Jazz guitarist in Australasia seems to admire James Muller.  Here in New Zealand at the mere mention of him, guitarists shake their heads in disbelief and fall into a contemplative trance.  It is as if you had uttered a secret mantra; one ascribed to an unnamable deity.  I have always been drawn to Jazz guitar and while I need no prompting to follow the genre, pointers like this are irresistible.  When musicians are so highly regarded by other musicians it is generally with good reason.

I first encountered the name James Muller on the 1999 Naxos disc titled ‘Sonic Fiction’.  Even in his twenties there was no mistaking that lovely clean sound, the imaginative improvising and the virtuosity.  Since that time James was awarded a number of prestigious music awards including a recent Australian Arts Council Fellowship grant (two years) and the ARIA award.  These achievements have never gone to his head and he comes across as an artist constantly examining his body of work to see where he could improve.  After half a dozen stints in New York, numerous recordings as sideman and at least four albums as leader he ranks among the premier Australasian Jazz artists.

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Because we are getting more highly rated international jazz musicians coming to the CJC, I bailed up Roger Manins and asked him about bringing James back (he was here three years ago).  It was already on his radar and towards the end of last year he told a delighted CJC audience that James Muller would be appearing in early 2014.   I had always been of a mind to seek out one of his gigs and then a chance presented itself.  Roger Manins told me of a gig with Mike Nock, James Muller, Dave Goodman and Cameron Undy at the 505 in Sydney.  It was time for a family visit, so I headed to Australia.  Seeing the Manins, Muller, Nock band was a highlight.  Now a few months later I looked forward to the Auckland gig.

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Roger Manins, Oli Holland and Ron Samsom were to accompany James at the CJC.

I have learned that James generally avoids playing with pianists, but there are certainly exceptions to this.   His longtime friends Sean Wayland and Mike Nock would top that list of exceptions.  In Auckland he expanded his default guitar trio format to include Roger Manins on Tenor sax.  When James and Roger play together the guitarist generally lays-out during solos.   This allows for the intensive probing improvisation that both are known for. What we saw on the 12th of March was Jazz of exceptional quality and a packed club.   They queued early, mostly younger people and among them numerous guitarists who had just been to the masterclass at Auckland University.

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The set list was a mix of James Muller compositions, some standards and a Roger Manins composition.   Most of the heads were often approached obliquely and what followed were long solos and unencumbered explorations.  This was a chance for the musicians to stretch out and they certainly did.  In contrast was the standard ‘Moonlight in Vermont’.  A lovely tune and one played less often these days.  Unlike the other numbers there was no laying out during the saxophone solo.  It felt right to approach this lovely tune with tasteful comping and soloing closer to the melody.  They later played a fast paced version of ‘Rhythm n Ning’ (Monk), a killing ‘More than you Know'(Rose/Eliscu/Youmans) and absolutely best of all a Lennie Tristano number.

I am an acolyte of the Tristano cult and I doubt that anyone could ever deprogram me.  To hear ‘317 East 32nd Street’ performed so well was bliss.  As Roger and James ran those memorable unison lines I felt the joy wash over me.  Here was a tune I truly loved and they had even included the car-horn sounds that had so influenced Tristano when he composed it.  Tristano once told a musician, “this tune was composed in front of an open window, while listening to the New York street sounds outside”.

Both Oli Holland and Ron Samsom gave exceptional performances during the evening.   Oli with his Slam Stewart like sung unison lines during his solos.   Ron with his subtle and interactive drumming on the slower paced numbers and his blistering explosions of white heat on the burners.  I have read that James likes the bass as an anchor and the drums to work more outside.   That is what he got.

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I have spoken to James on several occasions now and he seldom discusses his accomplishments.  This is not false modesty or even shyness, but rather a manifestation of that classic antipodean sense of understatement.  It is the hallmark of Australasian musicians that they are often self-effacing, preferring to use throw-away-lines or obscure insider humour in verbal communication.   I have often observed this in local musicians and it fascinates me.  It is particularly evident in their bandstand banter. When I meet American musicians they seldom come across as self-effacing.  There is an ebullience about them that underpins the conversation and selling their accomplishments comes naturally.  It is seldom the same with Australian or New Zealand musicians who rely on their music to speak up for them. 

We hear many fine guitar players at the CJC but this gig would rate among the high points.

Who : James Muller Quartet – James Muller (guitar), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Oli Holland (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 1885 Britomart, Auckland 12th March 2014

Gai Bryant’s Cubanos w/ AJO

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We get a lot of interesting overseas acts passing through these days but seldom do we see Cuban musicians.  This is not about what they have to offer or even about the tyranny of distance, but more about politics.  When this band was booked it was a bigger lineup, but getting short-term visas to enter Australia and New Zealand proved an insurmountable  barrier for some of their number.  In my view this is an arcane and ludicrous legacy of the cold war.   In spite of an easing of sanctions by the EU and others, those old suspicions remain.   These talented musicians are the very best of ambassadors for their country and their indigenous music.  Its time to get real Australasian immigration.  The few that were allowed into the country gave us a great nights entertainment and not one sought asylum from John Key.

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The tour was organised by Australian band leader Gai Bryant and she arrived here with barely enough time to hold a few brief rehearsals with the AJO (Auckland Jazz Orchestra).  I am a fan of the AJO as they always tackle interesting projects.   They are a Jazz Orchestra with great dynamics and under the direction of Tim Atkinson, Mike booth and others they continue to produce the goods.   The personnel had changed a bit since I last saw them and especially the front horn line.  Even though it was dark and crowded I could make out a number of the long-term AJO regulars such Jo Spiers, Callum Passells, Cameron Sangster, Mike Booth, Jono Tan, Cameron McArthur and Matt Steele.   This band is scandalously under utilised and the city fathers and corporates should be engaging them for important occasions.

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I am picking that this music would have been testing for them, as very few Auckland musicians have had a chance to work in authentic Cuban styles before.  It is one thing to play a Rumba or Bolero in a looser jazz idiom but quite another to follow charts like these.   At the heart of Cuban music is a set of complex mesmerising counter rhythms and the clave.  This is a delicious fusion music and the most influential of all of the ‘world musics’.   It reaches deep into the shameful slave past of Cuba.  West African musicians had retained knowledge of the ancient percussion instruments, chants and melodies which had travelled with them.  Along the way a plethora of other influences enriched and extended their music.  There is a strong Spanish influence and a French influence among others.  These influences were absorbed into the polyrhythmic music of West Africa.  At the very heart is often the clave rhythms and central to that is the five beat pattern so much emulated in popular music and Jazz.  These days the forms are codified and so jumping into this as a novice is a big ask.  I don’t know enough about Cuban music to judge this performance against others, but suffice to say I enjoyed it immensely.

I was deeply impressed by the percussionists but also by Cameron Sangster (drums), who took his cues so well from the Cubans.  Other notable moments were delivered by Callum Passells (alto), Cameron McArthur (bass) and Matt Steele (piano).

With the percussion instruments playing and the orchestra and soloists weaving around the beat it was easy to see how those old stories of voodoo and trance music took hold.  These beats defied all attempts to rationalise the sound.  The rhythms entered every pore, almost like body blows, driving me out of self and into the arms of some universal force.  An ancient joyful celestial dance from which there was mercifully no escape.

Who: Gai Bryant’s Cubanos (the photos on this gig were all taken by Ben McNicoll)

Where: The CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 1885 Britomart, Auckland, Wednesday 30th October 2013

Benny Lackner (Germany) @ CJC

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I missed the Benny Lackner trio when they came last year and I had subsequently been besieged with the inevitable, “man you missed a great gig”.   This time I made sure that was able to attend.  Benny Lackner is from Berlin, Germany and his touring schedule has taken him round the world a number of times.  His brand of jazz is forward-looking and has a distinctly modern-European feel about it.   I am a fan of European styled Jazz although surprisingly it is often overlooked by American Jazz fans.  This is ironic because American Jazz musicians have always relied heavily on European tours and are hugely supported there.

This trip Benny came without his trio and teamed up with Cameron McArthur and Ron Samsom for the Auckland gig.   As the gig approached a problem arose, when the building owners required the downstairs room for a function.   The room with the lovely grand piano in it and the better acoustics.  An urgent call went out for a Fender Rhodes and before long Mark Bains had lent one, along with a nice keyboard.   The upstairs venue has a nice feel to it but the acoustics are more difficult to manage.  Such obstacles are quickly dealt with by experienced musicians who are quite used to playing in a wide variety of settings.

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The sets were mainly centred on Benny’s own compositions, but interestingly he had thrown in some modern pop tunes, mined for their improvisational worth.   There was a Bowie number and a Radiohead number, both of which went down extremely well with the audience.  Gone is that awkwardness that the 50’s Jazz musicians often exhibited when they tackled the popular tunes of the day.   From Miles onwards and through to Brad Muhldau ( a mentor of Benny’s) the game has changed.   American musicians like Bob Frisell and others will routinely interpret modern tunes or rock classics.   In many cases the vocabulary of rock is appropriated.  The Europeans however are the masters of this and artists like Mathius Eik, Esbjorn Svensson and Marcin Wasilewski have blazed a clear trail ahead.  He also tackled Monk’s ‘Bemsha Swing’ which I have posted.  EST played this often and this version takes the tune even further out.

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Benny Lackner approaches his material obliquely and to my ear there is no hint of the Evans legacy in his voicings.  He often plays big percussive chords, but he can also show real sensitivity as he negotiates the well constructed tunes.  The Radiohead number worked particularly well on the dominant sounding Rhodes, with the slightly softer voicings emanating from the smaller keyboard.  You get the feeling watching Benny at the keyboard that he views each performance as an open-ended adventure.  I am only sorry that we never got to hear him on the clubs grand piano.

He told us that he was very pleased with his new band mates and why wouldn’t he be.   Ron Samsom is such a fine drummer that you expect a top-level performance from him.   Ron has a world of experience behind him and so many local and visiting overseas acts benefit from his multi faceted traps work.  I have never seen him falter in any setting and the diverse styles required of him only appear to urge him on to greater heights.

As has been the case so often in recent months, Cameron McArthur filled the bass slot and all of the experience he is gaining is now paying dividends.  This guy is a crowd pleaser, with the chops and ears to provide the goods.   We also heard some very nice solos from him.

This has been a big tour for Benny.  From Berlin his hectic schedule took him through South East Asia, Australia and New Zealand.  Although he was born in Berlin he also lived in the USA for many years.  The many influences absorbed along the way have moulded him into an original and interesting pianist.

Who: Benny Lackner (leader, keys, compositions), Cameron McArthur (bass), Ron Samsom (drums)

Where: The CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 1885 building, basement, Britomart, Auckland 9th October 2013

Mark Isaacs @ CJC

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Pianist and composer Mark Isaacs has a rapidly growing international reputation and we were lucky to get him here.  Once again it was down to Roger Manins, who has wide connections in the Jazz world and we are eternally grateful for it.  Mark Isaacs has toured the world extensively and not only fronted a number of prestigious Jazz festivals, but also recorded with many world-renowned Jazz musicians.  Artists like Kenny Wheeler, Roy Haines, Adam Nussbaum and Dave Holland have appeared on his albums but as if that were not enough, he has two parallel musical careers.   Mark is also a classical pianist/composer of some stature and the conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy said this of his extraordinarily beautiful ‘Children’s Songs’.  “This wonderful cycle is highly inventive and inspiring, accessible to children and adults alike.  Very enjoyable and touching“.

The first thing to strike you about Mark is his intense passion for music, but his focus and drive have not in any way deterred him from exhibiting a cheerful, often extroverted demeanour.  He engaged easily with the CJC audience and his level of report with the band and especially Roger, made the gig all the more enjoyable.  Even though he had not played with drummer Frank Gibson Jr or Bass player Cameron McArthur before it felt like an established band.  He and Saxophonist Roger Manins go back a long way and perhaps because of this long-standing connection, what was billed as a standards gig, soon became so much more.  IMG_8456 - Version 2 (1)

The set kicked off with ‘Gone With the Wind’ (Allie Wrubel – 1937).  By coincidence this once popular but seldom heard tune was performed here by Mike Nock only months earlier.   Both artists appeared to briefly reference the brilliant but somewhat obscure Brubeck version, but each approached the tune in very different ways.  Mark Isaacs is another musician who has the history Jazz piano under his finger tips and as he worked his way into the tune I could hear brief echoes of the past greats.  I love this tune and especially when interpreted this well.

As the set list unfolded I realised that most of the standards were from the 1930’s.   It is not hard to fathom why, as the Great American Songbook tunes written in this period were second to none.  The gig,  subtitled as ‘Pennies From Heaven’, was later explained as being an inside joke.  Roger and Mark had embarked upon just such a project a decade ago and in their view the title scared off the potential audience.  More fool those who failed to turn up because this number in their hands was fresh, funny and satisfying.  ‘Pennies from Heaven’ (Johnny Burke/Arthur Johnston) is also from the 1930’s.

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The tune that I have posted is the perennial favourite ‘Someday My Prince Will Come’ (Frank Churchill – 1937).  Although non Jazz audiences would only associate this tune with Disney, it has a long and distinguished Jazz history.  Among the 100’s of well-loved versions are those by Oscar Peterson, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly and Grant Green.  Playing a classic standard like this to a savvy Jazz audience can have its pitfalls as comparisons are inevitable.  The audience however lapped it up and from the stating of the melody through to the open-ended interpretation near the end, it was fabulous.  With Roger egging the band on and Mark responding in kind it could hardly be otherwise.

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There was a very nice solo by Cameron McArthur who astonishingly just keeps improving between gigs.  Frank Gibson Jr met Mark years ago but in spite of them trying to organise a gig it never happened until now.  In the event it was a happy confluence of inventiveness, exuberance and great musicianship.  Roger Manins was on form as usual, delivering fiery energised solos in a post Coltrane manner.

Mark Isaacs has the technique and the hunger to continually reach beyond.   Whether gently comping under a melodic bass solo or unwinding the melody to explore what lies beneath he engages us.  His probing left hand often pulls slightly back on what his right hand is playing and the tension created gives added impetus.  While his Classical compositions are informed by Jazz, the opposite is also true.  He will surely continue to do well in both worlds.

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As I left the club I picked up a copy of his Resurgence band’s ‘Duende’ album and put it on during the drive home.  It is an album of his own compositions.  What was immediately apparent was how well crafted the compositions were.  It was the sort of album that ECM might have released and the quality of the recording added to that impression.  As I listened on I heard some beautiful guitar work, not over stated but clean, inventive and crystalline.  Then I heard a human voice, wordlessly singing arranged lines as part the ensemble.  Easing over to the curb I picked up the album cover and flipped it over.

The personnel list would stop anyone in their tracks.  Mark Isaacs (piano), James Muller (guitars), Matt Keegan (reeds and percussion), Brett Hirst (bass), Tim Firth (drums), Briana Cowlishaw (vocal).  Matching this dream line up with those compositions was a masterstroke.   Muller and Isaacs communicate so very well.  It all made sense, the Kenny Wheeler connection, the skilled arranging and the promise of what may follow.   Mark Isaacs has the ears to absorb and the smarts to compose what works best for him.  This album certainly does.

Who: Mark Isaacs (piano, compositions, leader), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Frank Gibson Jr (drums).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart, 1885 Basement, Auckland, New Zealand on 2nd October 2013.

Album and contact details: ‘Duende’ (Gracemusic GROO4)

Glen Wagstaff Project @ CJC

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Just when I think that I am getting a handle on the extent of the New Zealand Jazz scene something new comes along that tells me I don’t.  I humbly admit that I am only just beginning to comprehend it.  As the CJC attracts more offshore Jazz visitors it is also attracting more Wellington and Christchurch bands and those have been great.   If this trend continues I half expect to see the Gore chapter of the ‘Balclutha John Zorn Tribute Band’ on the billing sometime soon.

A particular case in point is the Christchurch Jazz scene which is producing some astonishing Jazz musicians.   A slow but steady stream of these musicians has been drifting northward (Andy Keegan, Dan Kennedy & Richie Pickard to name but a few).  In the last few years we have had the Tamara Smith trio and Reuben Derrick’s quartet (both of which gave an excellent account of themselves) and now the Glen Wagstaff Project.  Roger is never wrong about this stuff and he told us that we were in for a treat.  IMG_8416 - Version 2

Jazz is a broad deep river and the tributaries running into it are now so numerous that it is easy to overlook one.  I have long been urging the better writers among our Auckland musicians to do more ensemble writing (or even better write a some charts for a nonet).  They have patiently explained that this is a big task and one which requires a commitment of time.  I have continued to engage these musicians on the likes of Kenny Wheeler and almost everyone loves what he does.   As much as he’s admired, his compositions or similar work is seldom performed.  Following the progress of such outlier writing is confined to selective offshore artists.

When the Glen Wagstaff project flew in last week all I knew about them was that Glen is great writer and that Roger Manins was enthusiastic.  Three of the band were familiar to me as they have played at the CJC before.  I sat back expecting a quick few bars as they ran through an arranged head and then numerous solos to follow.  What I got was a rich gorgeous feast of ensemble playing.  I couldn’t have been more delighted.  These charts are crafted with consummate skill and like any well-arranged medium to large ensemble charts they imparted a sense of space and breadth.   To get the feel of a bigger unit while retaining the airiness and space of a small one is what such writing is all about.   The effect of well written charts like these is profound.   The choice of instrumentation is also important as it allows for very particular textures and voicings.   These charts were well written and well played.   I was there from the first number and remained captivated throughout.  IMG_8377 - Version 2

Most of the numbers were original but several were re-arranged from the likes ‘The Brian Blade Foundation’ and ‘Kenny Wheeler’.   A version of “Kind Folk’ from the amazing Kenny Wheeler ECM disk ‘Angel Song’ was breath-taking.   The Wheeler disk had a pared back lineup (Kenny Wheeler, Lee Konitz, Dave Holland & Bill Frisell) but in Glens hands this expanded for an octet.  The gig was divided between septet and octet and this allowed the various band members to take short solos’.   On guitar was Glen and he resisted the urge to perform long soaring virtuosic lines as they would have been out of place.   That said his guitar work was just great and the little hints of Abercrombie or even Rosenwinkel stylings gave us a glimpse of his prowess as a player.  Tamara Smith has been to the CJC before and along with Auckland’s Trudy Lile she owns the flute space.  Tamara is a gifted musician who can utilise extended technique or just floor you with her breathy soulful notes.   Having both flute and voice in the mix worked well for me and the fact that they were able to blend while never appearing to crowd the others space, tells me a lot about their abilities and the charts.  IMG_8390 - Version 2

On tenor sax was Gwyn Renolds (who also doubled on soprano) and on alto was George Cook.  Both played superbly and both had solo spots which were enthusiastically received by the audience.  Once again these guys showed how well they could modulate their sound and fit tightly into the mix.  Ensemble playing of this sort requires an unusually disciplined approach and the naturally louder horns resisted the impulse to dominate where that would have been inappropriate.    On piano was Catherine Wells and while she had few solos, she added just the right touch to the ensemble.   A minimalist approach was called for and that was delivered.   This sort of band is about texture and her occasional mid to upper register filigree added value.

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Andy Keegan and Richie Pickard are increasingly seen about town and they are well appreciated by CJC audiences.   They are both skilled readers and able to deliver deeply nuanced performances or knock out punches as the job in hand requires.  They have often featured in louder, frenetic bands but have also shown how tastefully they can play when presented with charts like this.   I have high regard for both as musicians.

Lastly there was Toni Randle who sang wordless lines and approached the charts much as a non chordal instrument would.  Adding the human voice into charts like these is to impart a degree of magic when done well.   It takes writing skills and well honed performance skills to pull this off.  One again this worked incredibly well.   I have long been a fan of Norma Winstone and Toni followed very much in her footsteps.  The human voice is a powerful instrument and to hear it freed from the job of interpreting lyrics is a joy.  The tune ‘Maylie’ that I have put up, is one of Glens and it illustrates that point perfectly.

During the dying years of the big band swing era the Claude Thornhill Orchestra and a few others were doing things differently.  Musicians like Lee Konitz and Gerry Mulligan came up through these bands and then came the seminal ‘Birth of the Cool’ and Gil Evans.   This sort of writing has never gone away but it is certainly on the periphery.   I’m thrilled that Glen Wagstaff is writing in this way and I hope that he continues to do so.   His band and his charts have real integrity and the club crowd reacted to that.  I left the gig deeply satisfied and that’s what this music is all about.

Who: The Glen Wagstaff Project – Glen Wagstaff (leader, guitar, compositions), Tamara Smith (flute), George Cook (alto), Gwyn Renolds (tenor, soprano), Toni Randle (vocals), Catherine Wells (piano), Richie Pickard (bass), Andy Keegan (drums).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), basement 1885 building, Brittomart Auckland

Mike Nock’s Australian Trio @ CJC 2013

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A lot’s been written about Mike Nock and he is well recorded.   In spite of this there is so much more to say and the unfolding story has come to define Australasian Jazz.  It would be accurate to describe him as one of the greatest musicians New Zealand has produced, but Mike Nock deserves evaluation on a much wider stage than Oceania.  As lucky as we feel owning him, he is a citizen of the world, highly ranked among the best that global Jazz has to offer.  IMG_8361 - Version 2

This was summed up by one of the audience; an American who has been following the international Jazz Scene for many years.  He shook his head in amazement and said “That was the best performance I have heard in ages”.  He asked about Mike’s history and I gave him a potted version.   “Oh yeah” he said.  “Well all of those years in America have given him that deep blues feel that only top players realise”.

I caught up with Mike before the gig and he was his usual friendly self.   Over dinner there were jokes and numerous war stories.  Because I have attended too many loud gigs my hearing is not quite as good as it was.  At one point the drummer James Waples said something to me which I missed entirely.  I apologised, explaining that my eyesight and hearing were failing me.   Mike leapt on the comment as quick as lightning, saying, “Man don’t worry.  That’s exactly what we like in a critic”.

There was the briefest of discussions between the band members about the set list, which ended in Mike saying, “We’ll figure it out as we go and you’ll know when you hear me start to play”.  While this is not unusual among Jazz musicians, it was evident that Mike would be digging into some obscure and unrehearsed standards during the evening.

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The spirit of Bernie McGann hung over us as he had passed the previous evening.  Mike spoke movingly of him and then he played one of Bernie’s compositions followed by ‘Bernie’s Tune’ (Bernie Miller) and the lovely old standard ‘No Moon at All’ (David Mann).  ‘No Moon at all’ is hardly ever played these days but it was once very popular.  It was famously recorded by Julie London, Nat Cole, Mel Torme and Anita O’Day.  There are more recent versions by Karrin Alyson and Brad Mehldau.  In Mike Nock’s hands this jaunty mid-tempo classic took on a deep bluesy feel and as it unfolded he achieved something that only the Jazz greats can manage.

The tune turned into something else; it was somehow transformed into ‘every tune’.  From the first few bars everyone smiled and many whispered in the dark, “Oh I must know this but I can’t recall the name”.  Like many probing improvisers Mike hummed and sang as he played.  As the piece unfolded something extraordinary happened.  People started quietly humming along with the trio; a deep connection  was made and it was primal.  I’m certain that many in the audience had never heard the tune before, but they thought that they had.   Keith Jarrett has often invoked this state of grace, finding a hidden place deep within the music.  So has Mike Nock.  Several musicians later commented that he had moved in and out of the song form and that the bluesy overlay had been utterly effective.  Another delightful old tune that the trio played was ‘Sweet Pumpkin’ (Ronnell Bright).

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On Drums was James Waples and he certainly lives up to his reputation.   He has featured on several of Mike’s albums and goes back a long way with Mike.   There is a subtlety to his drumming that is hard to put into words.  He is a powerful presence whether executing the softest brushwork or a driving upbeat tempo.  He has a great ear and knows when to push the others or hold back.  He is perfect for a multi faceted piano trio like this and I would go out of my way to hear him again.

Many Kiwi’s have forgotten (and many Australians will deliberately overlook the fact), but Brett Hirst is an expat New Zealander.   He is highly regarded on the Australian scene and like James he has had a long association with Mike.  When these three are in lockstep it is extraordinary.  Like the others Brett is a deep listener and clearly at ease in this open-ended format.  At one point in the program Mike stopped and said, “What shall we play now, something unexpected?”.   Then he added, “Oh I know, I will try this”.   Brett asked hopefully, “Can we know?”  The number had started before an answer could be given and he was immediately there.  Brett was up to handling any curve balls thrown and clearly relished them.

During the second set the trio were ready to take things further out and we sensed that they were in a zone where the communication is telepathic.  It is during these explorations that we see another side of their music.  Every interplay however subtle conveys layers of meaning and the spaces between the notes communicates a profundity.   This is art-music at its very best but for all that it is never far from its blues roots.   I have listened to Jazz across the globe and you would never, never hear better than this.

Who: Mike Nock (piano), Brett Hirst (bass), James Waples (drums).  www.mikenock.com

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Brittomart basement 1885 building, Auckland, New Zealand.

When: 18th September 2013

Reuben Bradley trio @ CJC + Mantis Album

Reuben Mantis

After the success of ‘Mantis’ and ‘Resonator’, Auckland audiences were keen to see a Reuben Bradley band perform again.   Reuben is one of those musical drummers that Wellington seems to specialise in and he clearly has an eye for an epic project.  For ‘Mantis’ he engaged some real heavyweights.  Roger Manins (tenor), Matt Penman (bass), James Illingworth (piano), John Psathas (arrangements) and the New Zealand String Quartet.  The tunes were all Drew Menzies originals, with arrangements by Reuben Bradley and John Psathas.

Mantis is a celebration of the works of Drew Menzies, a highly respected bass player in both the Jazz and Classical spheres and whose compositions had never been recorded before.  What is well communicated during this project is the connection that the musicians have with the material and what also comes across is Reuben’s obvious affection for his departed friend.  Reuben’s liner notes give us a fascinating account how the pieces came back to life, drawing us into a kaleidoscope of quirky lead sheets and a musicians world.  In some cases the tunes re-evolved from embryonic beginnings, coaxed by Reuben’s pen.   I urge everyone to buy the album.  The tunes are fresh but at the same time strangely familiar and this quality anoints them as being timeless, potential local standards.

While no added incentives are needed to purchase ‘Mantis’, it is worth pointing out that the proceeds of the sale go to the Drew Menzies Memorial Scholarship for young New Zealand bass players.  ‘Mantis’ was featured as a key event at the recent Wellington Jazz festival and this week it was a highlight of the Nelson Jazz Festival.  Credit to Creative New Zealand for funding such an important project and to Rattle Records for the album.  It is hardly surprising that musicians of this quality delivered so royally, but a nod to John Psathas and the New Zealand String Quartet is appropriate here.  No matter how experienced a classical string quartet, there is always a challenge when playing Jazz compositions.   The quartet’s unmistakeable chops and John Psathas airy charts took this exactly where it needed to go.

Having Matt Penman aboard was a huge coup.  This expat Kiwi bass player is now one of the real heavyweights of the North American scene.  His work with the San Francisco Jazz Collective, James Farm, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Kenny Werner, Joe Lovano, Fred Hersch, plus his own ground breaking albums, mark him out as one New Zealand’s greatest Jazz exports.  His Bass playing on this album is simply wonderful and no superlatives can do it justice.   Drew would have been extremely pleased.

Reuben won the Tui Best Jazz Album of the Year with his ‘Resonator’ album in 2010.   Roger Manins was also on that album and these two musicians work together whenever possible.  Both of the above albums are adventurous and in their different ways lay down benchmarks for what’s good and original about New Zealand Jazz.

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When Reuben came to the CJC on the 31st July, the working unit was pared back to drums, tenor sax and bass.   On Sax was Roger Manins who has shown time and again that he can give of his best in any configuration.  This sort of trio is wide open for possibilities and the lack of any chordal underpinning leaves the musicians open to risk, but completely free to explore melody and form.  None of the trio were strangers to this format.

I have often watched Roger stepping free of the boundaries, like an anarchic motorist on some long empty highway who has just realised that the normal road rules will not apply there.  I was also delighted to see Roger using his Radio Model, Cigar Cutter Selmer for the first time.  A sleek silvery goddess of bygone years which oozes charm.  In Rogers hands it purrs dangerously like an ancient vixen, brought back to life to seduce us all.

Brett Hirst is a popular Australian bassist and a list his former band mates would read like the who’s who of Aussie Jazz.  He has a big sound and an instinctive rhythmic feel which lent itself perfectly to this gig.  In their usual fashion Australia has claimed him as their own but he is originally from New Zealand like so many artists doing well across the Tasman.

Reuben, Roger and Brett work extremely well together and so it was fitting that they should tackle the work of Drew Menzies from a fresh angle.   While there was a tune or so from ‘Resonator’ in the set list, the bulk of the material played was from ‘Mantis’.  It is Reuben’s hope that these tunes will become mainstays in the Kiwi Jazz repertoire and I hope that this comes to pass.  I have heard at least one rendition of ‘Ladies Man’ played recently at a gig and so the trend may gather steam.

Who: Reuben Bradley Trio – Reuben Bradley (drums) (arrangements), Roger Manins (tenor sax), Brett Hirst (bass).

What: ‘Mantis’ (and ‘Resonator’) both available from Rattle.

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club) Brittomart 1885 Building downtown Auckland

Mike Nock + Roger Manins, Frank Gibson@ CJC

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It was sometime in early June when I first heard the news.  I was sitting with Roger, talking music and shooting the breeze about who we rated.  Suddenly he half turned and said, “Mikes coming back to do a CJC gig”.  The words hung in the air like a siren song and for me the impatient waiting began from that moment.  If Mike Nock was coming to town there would be magic aplenty.  That’s what it meant.  That is what it has always meant.

The word seeped out, first to the music students and then to the wider world, like ripples in an ever-widening arc.  The club would be full that night.

Closer to the gig Roger asked Mike who he wanted in the band.  They quickly settled on a trio format, not your usual piano trio but one with piano, tenor saxophone and drums.   Roger Manins on tenor, Frank Gibson on drums.  Mike had jettisoned the anchor for this gig and he was quite definite about that, no bass.   This is a challenging lineup for a pianist (and for the other band members) because no-one is there to hold the centre.   If you slip there is greater distance to fall.  In this different space wonderful things can also happen and they did.  This was a night among nights.

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Barely able to contain my impatience I rolled into the club foyer three-quarters of an hour early.   The queue was already snaking back past the basement stairway and well into the upstairs bar.  A seething mass of eager faces.  When the doors finally opened there was Mike sitting sideways on the piano stool and Roger was blowing a few scales nearby.  The music stand sitting to one side abandoned, an unnecessary distraction, in a free ranging gig going where the music took it.

Before the first set I caught up with Mike, talking about his various projects (he was playing with a New Zealand string quartet the next night).  He told me that he was coming back to the CJC with his newest Australian trio in a few months.  Next time bass and drums.  We talked a bit about Jazz musicians from the past, Kiwi’s that he had played with and then the discussion shifted to the older pianists who straddled the swing to bop era.  Like all great pianists Mike lets the entire history of Jazz fall under his fingers and so I asked him about players like Hank Jones and Mary Lou Williams.  When I listen to them I hear such strong left hands, walking chords, syncopation, hinting at a time when ‘harlem stride’ was still an influence.  “The newer and stronger bass players changed that” said Mike.  “As the bass lines become stronger and pickups better the need for such dominant left hand work fell away.  There was too much conflict”.   As a non musician I had never considered that and it all made perfect sense.  I marvelled all the more that Be Bop/Post Bop greats like Hank Jones kept a touch of this earlier style and even when accompanied by strong bass players like Ray Brown, George Mraz and Ron Carter.   I wondered if we would ever see those strong left hand stylists again.   I soon got my answer.

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The set list was not really planned and it changed and evolved as the evening wore on.   The numbers selected were all standards, but they were somehow fresh, as if revealed for the very first time.   The first number was ‘When Your Smiling’ (Shay/Fisher/Goodwin 1889) and the second number was ‘Gone With The Wind’ (Allie Wrubel 1937).  Those two numbers coming together had me wracking my brain as to where I had heard them, heard them played together.  Then it came to me, they were both on one of the earliest of the Brubeck Quartet albums.   ‘Dave Brubeck at Storyville 1954’ was a wild live recording that lacked polish but oozed soul and immediacy.  Afterwards Mike announced  that a Brubeck album had inspired him to play that number – bingo.  These are the connections we love.   If you ingest a large dollop of Jazz history the memories will reward you.  IMG_7901 - Version 2

As they played through the first set I realised that the lack of a bass had not impeded them at all.  There it was, that strong left hand of Hank Jones, working the mid lower register while wonderful modern chords and runs flew from his darting right hand.   This was a master class for the senses to grapple with, giving us an unparalleled taste of Jazz piano mastery from an oblique angle.  No matter what Mike threw his way Roger matched it as they danced in and out of reach like well matched prize fighters .  These two have an uncanny level of communication.  It was even more evident later when they played ‘Softly as a Morning Sunrise” (Romberg/Hammerstein).  They had been considering what to play next when Frank Gibson suggested it.  Heads nodded in agreement and Frank set the number up nicely with a melodic intro on his traps.   “We will just see where this goes” said Mike, “could be anywhere”and he proceeded to pick at the bones of the melody.   Where it went was somewhere wonderful.  This is where the magic truly occurred, a moment to be savoured by all present.

They had begun the number, sparingly at first, soon more purposefully.  The level of interplay increased as they unpicked the tune.  Soon all three were working and pulling at the tune like it was a joyful game.  As Roger soloed I watched the trio inching up the intensity by degrees.  At first Roger had tapped out time with his right foot as he played, now he was pawing at the ground like a bull about to charge.   Mike was rocking madly and then standing and dancing some crazy dance.  Frank too was rolling with the beat.  By now they were way outside – blowing free of all constraints.   It was a moment to savour.  The moment.

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As I watched these three, so attuned, a thought struck me,  Mike Nock is originally from Ngaruawahia, Roger from Waiuku.   These two small country towns are close to each other.  What are the odds that rural New Zealand would produce two musicians of this quality.  Maybe it was something in the upper Waikato water supply?

When Jazz musicians are enjoying themselves there are always moments of hilarity, but on this night the best moment came from an unexpected quarter.   The CJC was full, so full  that dozens of people were turned away at the door due to the fire regulations. Outside it was winter, but inside it was hot as hell.  Mike by now stripped to his T-shirt asked if there was any talcum powder for his hands, which were slippery from the exertion.   Caro Manins duly produced a talcum powder container.  Mike wrestled with the lid for a few minutes and then handed it to someone else to unscrew.   Bigger and younger blokes stepped forward in turn, each saying that they were up to the task, but none could dislodge that damn lid.  “Take it back to the shop” said one, “it’s a faulty product”.  At this point a diminutive young woman took the container from the frustrated men, gently flicked off the child proof lock and opened it.  Men often forget the golden rule in these situations, ask a woman.  IMG_7936 - Version 2

During the second set Kim Paterson and Brian Smith sat in for a number or two.   Kim and Brian go back a long way with Mike and both have recorded with him.

As the enjoyment washed over me I could hear the words of Sean Wayland from a month earlier as he announced his gig.  “New Zealand I would like to thank you for Mike Nock”.   With you on that brother.

Who: Mike Nock with: Roger Manins & Frank Gibson Jr.

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 24th July 2013

And a clip by Jen Sol from the same gig: