There is something satisfying about evaluating an anticipated album before the listening public gets to experience it, and whether it arrives digitally, or through the post, it can bring with it a heightened sense of expectation. It is a series of brush strokes unveiled before the paint is dry, and best of all it is unsullied by the crude measure of market vagaries. You listen with care, hoping that the music will speak to you and when it does you feel lucky.
The best improvisers never settle, they reach waypoints then quietly move on. Andrea Keller is just such a musician. She is a creative force in perpetual motion and her steady output attests to that. And while each album or performance reveals something unforeseen, the connection to what came before is evident in the compositional DNA. To maintain such an arc without faltering is rare, but then Keller is a unique musician.
I have followed her work for some time and found the journey rewarding. There is a strong sense of the experimental in what she does but it never feels random. She can play with extremes while navigating a delicate path in between. When amidst these contrasting realities she is at her best and Systems Over-Ride is a prime example.
It is entirely consistent with her musical openness, that she expresses a fascination with both free jazz and doom metal; this is referenced in the liner notes and it makes sense that she should navigate a course between these turbulent waters. She is in her element here. This quintet of Wave Riders, Keller aside, features a fresh crew. It compliments her 2013 Wave Rider album (and all of her albums) by moving on.
As the pieces unfold, Keller’s pianism is always at its heart, with her unhurried serialism and melodic interjections drawing you ever deeper; notes and the spaces deployed to maximum effect. Much is implied beyond the notes too, as the tunes navigate a course between the turbulent waters ruffling the music’s edge. The quintet members respond in kind, and there are solos of course, but the album breathes as one.
As we approach the first quarter of the 21st century there is a rightness to these explorations. This is contemporary jazz as it should be. A leading US Jazz biographer and Journalist recently posted this meme, ‘People whose interest in Jazz stops with mid 20th Century recordings are missing the whole point of that music’. There is no endpoint to an improvisers journey. This is the direction of travel, ready or not.
The lineup here features Scott McConnachie (saxophones), Jack Richardson (guitar), Mick Meagher (bass), Rama Parawata (drums) plus specially commissioned remixes using fragments from the studio session – remixes by Nicole Lizēe, Bree van Reyk, Joe Talia, Philip Rex & Theo Carbo.
It is available from Bandcamp in double vinyl, limited edition Compact Disk or Digitally at www.andreakeller.bandcamp.com (Spotify should be avoided or used as a last resort, I support Neil Young and the artists who have pulled their content from that platform)
JazzLocal32.com is rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association, poet & writer.Some of these posts appear on related sites.
In the early 1970s, I recall picking up Rolling Stone magazine and seeing the end of year headline, ‘What A Long Weird Trip It’s Been. I thought of that headline yesterday because it felt relevant. It referred to many things, to the psychedelic music which had fuelled a movement, Miles’ fusion band or The Jefferson Airplane, to the out-prose of Hunter S Thompson and Alan Ginsberg, but mostly it referred to the seismic upheavals of a troubled interregnum when the old order cracked open. A time when the planet was searching for a different axis.
It was a time of collision between an old-world order and a hyper-energised counter-culture movement. The combatants on both sides had grown weary as the pitch battles grew uglier. Bullets flew at Kent State U and the Vietnam War stumbled on pointlessly as the death count rose; and back on the west coast of the USA, Manson drove a dagger through the summers of love and hope. In turbulent times tidy resolutions are evasive, and so it’s been these past few years.
Then, as now, the arts flourished and improvised-music especially so; interpreting the sounds and moods of the times instinctively. Improvisers will always find fresh ways to examine the world about them because change is what drives them; to succeed they must be open to the endless possibilities of the moment. They will guide us to havens, to secret Islands on the margins if we listen with care.
I spent much of the recent lockdown listening to music from the wider Jazz diaspora. Initially, the musicians fell silent, then, as they came to terms with their new reality most reached out, connecting digitally with the like-minded, or with those they didn’t know at all.
Language barriers and visa issues quickly faded into irrelevance as cultural connections were navigated between living rooms. The independent recording labels also stepped up and digital review copies of lockdown albums hit my inbox daily; arriving from Iceland, Poland, Ethiopia, Russia, Belarus, Czechoslovakia and many other countries. Most of them were from well outside of my usual orbit. Cultures were colliding and assimilating new ideas at speed.
Around that time I was contacted by a Jazz Studies pupil who asked if New Zealand had a recognisable Jazz voice. That is a hard one to answer. I hear individual players with distinctive voices, but that is not the same thing. It is inarguable that Jazz arose as an American art form over 100 years ago and that it arose out of oppression, slavery, and a collision of cultures. But as it spread adaption was inevitable and in each country, cross-fertilisation occurs. In this age of hyper-connectivity, that process is accelerating at warp speed.
As I listened to the many albums from elsewhere there was a jazz sensibility, but I also fancied that heard elements of indigeneity, of improvisers referencing their folk music, native anthems and landscapes. This gave me pause for thought. What constitutes an original voice in the modern Jazz world? We hear it or think we do but how is it defined? And isn’t musical nationalism a contentious topic? I am inclined to Dave Hollands point of view in this regard, that musical nationalism should be acknowledged but not over analysed. The negative consequences of nationalism are everywhere about us and the extreme forms are seldom healthy. Jazz is a humanistic, hybridised and multi-lateral entity.
Aotearoa is a colonised land filled with a great many cultures. In the past, Polynesian voices were sidelined by dominant European cultures, but the indigenous voices grow stronger every day. I only have my ears to guide me, but if I was asked to highlight an authentic Kiwi Jazz voice, it would most likely come from our ever-growing underground free-jazz movement and it would probably reference indigenous music in some form. Musicians like Jeff Henderson and Jim Langabeer come immediately to mind, but there are others as well.
I have included a few clips which invite people to form their own opinions. Included is a track from Secret Islands, Jim Langabeer’s extraordinary album, a telling of Kiwi stories. Also, a beautiful Ethiopian clip, a French genre-busting improvising band that could hardly have come from anywhere else, an extraordinary offering of Spiritual Jazz from Lahore, and some current Nordic folk-Jazz.
The journey through the pandemic feels interminable right now, but the music will guide us through, and if we listen well enough, the time will not have been wasted. Search Bandcamp or wherever for something unknown, let the music paint pictures as you study new landscapes through your ears. Is this the new travel? We will hopefully emerge better informed, and what a long weird trip it will have been.
You can purchase many of these albums on Bandcamp; the place where interesting music lands.
JazzLocal32.com is rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association, poet & writer.Some of these posts appear on related sites.
‘Seventh House Music’ is a recent imprint of ‘Rattle Records’ and a portal into a specific sub-genre of free improvised music. The parent label, Rattle, occupies a unique place in the cultural life of Aotearoa. It is a natural home for innovative and predominantly Kiwi art music and the new imprint has emerged at an auspicious time. Rattle has just celebrated its thirtieth anniversary. It is a taonga, drawing inspiration from many sources, including that of Aotearoa’s indigenous peoples, and due to the careful curation by Steve Garden, it maps a unique arc of creativity. Or to quote from the website: ‘music born of open-ended boundary-free creativity, new music for open ears.
‘Exiles’ is the first album from Seventh House Music, and presciently, it appeared in the week of Jon Hassell’s passing. It engages the psyche, much like Hassell’s music. Adventurous music like this has been around for some time, but until recently, unaccountably, it has mostly flown under the radar. In fact, this is the second collaboration between Steve Garden and Ivan Zagni. Their first release, ‘Trouble Spots’ came about after a long collaboration and it finally appeared last year. I reviewed it in a post titled ‘Adventurous Spirits’ on this blog site.
This album feels a lot bolder and it is as compelling as it is confronting. I would not categorise this as ambient music as it demands attention from the first. There is no equivocation here as the album hauls you deep inside its soundscapes and without preamble. You attempt to regain your equilibrium as you perceive the unfamiliar in the familiar. This is a world that Alice would have delighted in, a place where nothing is quite what it seems and where change can happen deceptively. You accustom yourself to a direction only to find that the moon and stars are not where you thought they were.
There is a narrative flow throughout, but it is not dependant on the known. It laps gently at your feet in First Wave, then drops you unexpectedly into something utterly different. You strain to hear as a distant and disembodied voice urges,
“you’ve got to stop dreaming at night’ (did I imagine hearing that?).
Twenty-Three Fifty-Nine becomes a minimalist piano piece with crystalline chords dropping out of the ether. And there is subtle humour as well, as fragments of spoken word mess with your head. As in Collapse, which opens with percussion and delightfully so, and out of the rhythmic shapes emerges competing voices.
“I was close to my mother, (pause), in real life I mean”. “The twilight of the gods”
In times of upheaval, there is nothing more cathartic than a truly immersive experience, a place where the complexities of the world can be encountered, upended, then reordered. As always with Rattle productions, the artwork and booklet are pitch-perfect. Whomever UnkleFranc is, he/she should take a bow. Very few labels present such an attractive package and even fewer maintain such unerring consistency over time. If you haven’t checked out expansive psychedelic filmic music, this would be a great place to start. If you are familiar with adventurous music then you won’t need a second invitation. If you have noise-canceling headphones, grab them and push play: you will thank me, I promise.
The album was produced, recorded, and mixed by Garden and Zagni, with some mysterious others credited. It is available on Bandcamp or better yet on CD complete with a comprehensive ArtBook. Seventhhousemusic.bandcamp.com
‘Murmurs’ is the second Alan Brown album to be released in recent months, and like Alargo, it delves into free-improvised sound-sculpted music. While this is a solo album, it features many voices, shaped and curated by a variety of electronic means. One of the devices utilised is an iPad and this willingness to experiment and to push at the boundaries of technology is part of what makes Brown a trailblazer.
Most importantly, Brown is a master of nuance and although he utilises an array of machines he humanises the effects and instruments at his disposal. There is always a keen acoustic awareness and he evokes a sense of the spaces he occupies. There is wizardry, but it is subservient to mood and texture. It is the continuation of an interesting and evolving journey and one we are lucky to share.
The layering and looping effects on Murmur are seamless, as themes shimmer and shift. And because the changes flow so naturally, you are always inside the music. Transmission becomes Murmur and so on throughout. And because of these beguiling and subtle shifts, you lose your awareness of time and become more aware of space. I am unsure what the piece titled Halting Problem refers to, but it had me standing on a mountain top and breathing clear crisp air. In effect, these are engagements, and each invites the listener to become a participant. One will find a mountain top, another something entirely different.
Our world is peppered by ugly social media outbursts, appearing to lurch from crisis to crisis. Because of that, our awareness of human shortcomings increases and we can easily become disoriented, angry or despairing. This album provides respite and applies a balm. It is a call to pause and reflect. It slows our steps and guides us to our better selves, and out of that, refreshed, we are the better for it.
Devils Gate Outfit was recorded live at Wellington’s Meow two months ago. The album is bursting with restless spirits, and I am not surprised that such a powerful genie was let out of the bottle so quickly. There are multitudes of spirits hovering over the recording, fragmentary echoes of Ornette and Miles, but the predominant voices are those which haunt the ragged windy Wellington coastline. All are paid their due, but the album is unconfined by the many streams that feed it. It is above all a succinct commentary on the breadth of improvised music that is thriving in Aotearoa right now.
The album is out on Kiwi Jahzz, a natural home for adventurous and original free music. And it captures a particular night at Meow where the band holds a residency. The playing is great, and so is the overarching vibe. Delivering great performances without defaulting to any ‘look at me’ moments. It is a band uncoupled from tired old formulas and thus able to move as freely as it desires. Sometimes this results in tantalisingly fleeting glimpses of the past, then just as suddenly you are plunged into the forward-looking improvised groove music favoured by younger audiences.
The album is loosely programmatic but does not follow a linear storyline. It establishes a theme, then drops kaleidoscopic images. letting the music paint evocative sound pictures. There is a wealth of musicianship evident here as well. I am familiar with most of the players (apart from Steve Roche and David Donaldson). Although new to me, I am delighted to hear both for the first time. It was also good to hear Cory Champion expanding his percussion role to Vibes.
I am picking that drummer/composer Anthony Donaldson is the nominal leader in this outfit and around him are a truly formidable crew. The interactions between them are impressive as they navigate that fine line between spontaneity and cohesion. The slow-burning bluesy Wood Drift is the closest thing to straight ahead and it is a delightfully spacious piece of music – it could (and should) find cut-through with any Jazz taste. And I can never hear enough of Blair Latham’s playing. On Wood Drift, his woody sonority and captivating lines caress the melody against a gentle background of Daniel Beban’s understated guitar and Callwood’s bass, setting up Champion, Roache and Beban for solos, such a languid and appealing groove tune.
Contrasting nicely, The Portal to Red Rocks is a burner and a showcase for Latham on saxophone and the very capable Roche. Here the bass and drums provide propulsive energy as they navigate the shifting rhythms and washes of electronic effects. If I had to pick a tune that best exemplifies the album it would be the opener Storm of the Century. Anthony Donaldson owns this track and it is his pulse that sets the others free. I will be surprised if this isn’t a contender for Tui Jazz Album of the year.
The Devils Gate Outfit: Anthony Donaldson (drums), Tom Callwood (double bass), Steve Roche (cornet, baritone horn, Cassio), Blair Latham (saxophones, bass clarinet, David Donaldson (bass banjo, percussion), Daniel Beban (guitar, electronics), Cory Champion (vibes, percussion, synthesizer) It was released 19 October 2021, on Kiwi Jahzz and is available digitally on Bandcamp: kiwijahzz.bandcamp.com
School of Hard Nocks ~ by Village of The Idiots
This amazing recording is extracted from a number of live shows organised by the visionary drummer Anthony Donaldson. Among the shows referenced are ‘Seven Samurai’ ‘Oils of Ulan’ Po Face’ and others. The overarching implied theme is the Samurai film genre. This is an album where open conversations occur between two art forms. It belongs to an interesting subgenre of improvised music and in my view an avenue worthy of continued exploration. You encounter it convincing in Zorn’s Filmworks. These were reimagined soundtracks, or more accurately, soundtracks to reimagined movies. Music aligned to the essence and untethered from any strict narrative form. Auckland/Canadian guitarist Keith Price did just this with his reimagined The Good the Bad and the Ugly score. Jazz has always been associated with the cinema, but extending the brief and pushing into clearer air is where the gold lies.
The album is painted on a vast canvas and has a cast that must rival that of a Spaghetti Western (or Carla Bley/Paul Haines Escalator Over the Hill). Thirty-one musicians are credited here and a significant number of them are high profile improvisers. Throughout, they come and go, as larger and smaller ensembles change places, with some artists like Jonathan Crayford appearing on a single track. The mood can shift at lightning speed, as a tune ends abruptly and a fresh exploration emerges. Another aspect that can’t be overlooked is the underlying humour. Music like this is not pitched at the serious-faced, dinner suit/ball gown-clad denizens of dress circles (although I’d love to see that attempted). It is anarchic and plays with imagery. The open-eared will quickly grasp this point and every piece of mind-fuckery will bring them joy.
There are so many good performances and so many great musicians here that it is beyond my scope to enumerate them all. When you see names like Anthony Donaldson, Jeff Henderson, Bridget Kelly, Daniel Beban, John Bell, Patrick Bleakley, Lucien Johnson, Jonathan Crayford, Chris O’Connor, Steve Cournane, Riki Gooch, Richard Nunns and Tom Callwod on a setlist, you check it out immediately. The way the units are configured creates a unique set of textures and there can be no doubt that this is a drummers band. Donaldson’s drumming leaves a powerful impression, but he leaves plenty of space for other percussionists. A glance at the lineup tells that story best, as I counted seventeen drummers and percussionists on the album. As they come and go, they never get in each other’s way and this is a tribute to the arranging. Some of course are doubling on percussion instruments (e.g. Noel Clayton plays guitar, bass banjo and punching bag, while Maree Thom plays electric bass, upright bass, bass drum and accordion). And to complete the illusion of filmic authenticity, Donaldson adds foley to his drum/percussion roles.
For a full listing of the musicians involved check out Donaldson’s site. Better yet buy immediately. The album was digitally released on Bandcamp in early November 2021 and it can be located at anthonydonaldson.bandcamp.com
JazzLocal32.com is rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association, poet & writer.Some of these posts appear on related sites.
Last month, a new Kiwi record label was launched and if the first releases are anything to go by, it will surely become a popular destination for ‘out’ improvised music fans. The Kiwi Jahzz label is a significant addition to the Aotearoa recorded music scene, and like Budweiser, it reaches places that others don’t
The music found in these underground basements has long been a magnet for adventurous listeners, and especially for younger musicians who often cut their avant-garde teeth there. With the arrival of the pandemic, lockdowns followed suit and clubs took a hit. One of those venues was The Wine Cellar under St Kevin’s arcade. A popular home for independent music.
A hundred yards away in a nearby uptown basement, Jeff Henderson devised a plan. Why not move the Audio Foundation gear into the Wine Cellar. This included recording equipment and a ready-made audience. Out of that has come a string of recordings and a desire to make the music available to a wider audience. This is what musical freedom sounds like as the gigs are captured live. These recordings are street raw and bristling with energy, the sounds escaping from dark basements.
Henderson is known for taking his time over a piece and for letting the moment dictate pace and length. A groove or vamp can run for as long as it needs to and with each utterance informing the direction of travel. It is music often liberated from harmonic distractions or from predictable pulses, so as it wends its way, it draws on a lifetime of experience, with each moment revealing yet another nested story.
With the double trios recorded so far, the pieces have been shorter and this is perhaps a concession to the medium. In a darkened club you are more attuned to longer pieces, at home there are distractions. All but one of the initial releases features the Trioglodyte Trio. The core Trioglodyte lineup being Jeff Henderson, Eamon Edmundson-Wells and Chris O’Connor. It is perhaps more accurate to describe these albums as Trioglodyte led double trios because most of the releases to date feature a guest trio as well. A mixture of well-known musicians and enthusiastic up and comers.
While Henderson is not a musician to blow his own trumpet, his baritone saxophone could flatten the walls of Jericho. He is the guiding force behind the growth of the improvised ‘out’ music scene in Aotearoa and his determination has built a sustainable and vibrant presence. A saxophonist, composer, producer and visionary, someone formidable.
With him in the Trioglodyte trio are Eamon Edmundson-Wells on bass and Chris O’Connor on drums (and percussion). O’Connor is a legend across many genres and Edmundson-Wells has built a solid reputation in settings like this. The pair are the perfect foils for Henderson, being adept at reacting instinctively and both capable of carrying considerable weight. Edmundson-Wells is a powerful and unfaltering presence and this frees up Henderson to forge a melodic path. Meanwhile, O’Connor does what he is renowned for, delivers his extraordinary pulses in marvellously unexpected ways.
‘Vol 1’ is modestly titled but don’t let that fool you, because immediately you click on the arrow, the introductory track comes right at you, delivering hammer blows to the senses. Perhaps there should be a warning upfront; beware there will be no ECM styled five seconds of silence beforehand. That track is titled ‘Bra Joe’.
Henderson opens with an extraordinary squalling attack as he strides into the tune like a Titan, casting aside all that he deems superfluous. Underneath his saxophone, you are aware of the pumping and scuffling of Edmundson-Wells and O’Connor, followed by the second trio. Crystal Choi on keyboards, Bonnie Stewart on drums and Paul Taylor on percussion and electronics. This may be a short number, but the impact will linger long afterwards.
The second track ‘Bra Joe from Kilamajaro’ is a reimagining of the Dollar Brand standard. Here the pace is slowed and the volume lowered but the intensity is not. The way it unfolds over a long slow vamp imparts something of an Alice Coltrane vibe, with Choi’s keys rippling joyfully beneath the bass. In fact, every track references a Jazz standard (more or less). Some might wonder why an album of adventurous free music features standards, but the music here is as out and adventurous as you might wish. And as with most improvised music, there is an implication of fun, of not taking ourselves too seriously. My favourite track is definitely ‘Rated X’ (Miles Davis). This is a multi-layered sonic feast and everyone gets to strut their stuff here. Miles smiles I’m sure. On this particular track, it is easy to understand why Henderson is held in such high regard. The ideas just bubble from his horn and everyone responds in kind. And Bonnie Stewart (is this the Irish born Bonnie Stewart, the drummer songwriter, who performs with SIMA in Sydney). I have always been a fan of Choi on keys and this is the proof of the pudding; she was always reaching for this space. And then Taylor, electronics and percussion; his inclusion rounding off the ensemble nicely. This is the way modern avant-garde music has been tracking of late, two, even three drummers, which offers more punch.
‘Vol 2’ has a different mood entirely. It opens with a moody piece of Frisell styled Americana, with one guitarist playing chords over a soft drone while the other answers. When Henderson comes in, new possibilities open up, and a subtle interplay involving all six musicians takes this into freer territory. Track two has a delightful New Orleans barroom kind of vibe. Again, Henderson leads the way with raw gutbucket blues. It shouldn’t surprise anyone to hear him play like a soulful Texas tenor player (complete with shouts) as there is ample evidence of this on earlier Henderson led albums. As you move through the tracks the Americana theme merges with other influences, a two drummer conversation titled Bonnie & Chris, a short piece titled Eamon & Jeff. And following that is the blistering and rollicking ‘Impressions’; this last piece is best described as a Knitting Factory styled blues with the drums and percussion setting up the tune. Unadulterated crazy magic. Apart from Trioglodyte, the album features guitarists Kat Tomacruz and Bret Adams plus drummer Bonnie Stewart.
‘Vol 3’ is not a Trioglodyte album and unlike the other three in the series, it was recorded in Wellington at the Poneke Beer Loft (November 2020). Here Henderson is with bassist Paul Dyne and drummer Rick Cranson. All are heavy hitters and well used to traversing the jagged lines of Monk and responding to the keening cries of an Ornette Coleman tune. As well, the tracklist offers freely improvised pieces and a standard. The liner notes make reference to Henderson’s garrulous saxophone, and while that is accurate, it is also true that we can find a more measured and interrogatory tone from him here. Perhaps because this traverses familiar ground with old friends, the trio decided to take an oblique look at the material. This is particularly evident on the Raye/de Paul war-horse ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’. Together they have recut this diamond and revealed burning shafts of light hitherto unseen, and in doing so, they forged a minimalist route to the lustre. ‘Black ‘n’ White ‘n’ Blues’, dances joyfully over ostinato bass lines and a steady pulse, Colemans ‘Blues Connection’ is delightful and captures the essence of the great man; also, the two Monk tunes ‘Bye Ya’ and ‘Friday the 13th’ refresh and delight.
‘Vol 4’ is another Wine Cellar recording and the lineup here is mouth-watering. There is no Chris O’Conner in the core trio this time, but his replacement Julien Dyne slots in seamlessly. Dyne is a marvellous drummer, comfortable in a multitude of settings. He is also responsible for the great artwork on all four of these releases. And as if there were not already an embarrassment of riches, Jonathan Crayford features on Fender Rhodes. The other musicians are J Y Lee on alto & flute (a player featuring in many innovative bands about town) and as in Vol 1, Paul Tayler on percussion and electronics. This album takes in a broader perspective on improvised music. It is filled with interesting cross-genre references and it invokes many moods. Here Henderson deploys a fuller armoury of alto, C soprano, baritone and C Melody saxophones.
The opener has an Afro Beat feel. Powerful propulsive and utilising repeated phrases to amp up the tension. Track two ‘The Rubble’, by contrast, is a dark filmic piece powered by the percussive utterances of Dyne and Taylor and the mood deepened by the arco bass of Edmundson-Wells. Three is airy and open, wending its way purposefully, led by Crayford as he sets the pace and mood. People unfamiliar with free improvised music often fail to comprehend that this type of music can on occasion be gentle and reflective. It is honest music dictated by the moment. The flute and saxophone are pelagic birds circling above the rolling swells of a vast ocean. A most appealing piece.
Track four, ‘Milestones’ (Davis) is a wonderful Dewey doing Miles fifteen-minute romp and the best reimagining of the tune I’ve heard in ages. This is so good that I had to put it on repeat play. The two saxophones playing unison lines, then Henderson (and Lee) playing the changes before launch off, Crayford dropping space chords underneath and soloing like Sun Ra’s chosen successor, Dyne, Taylor and Edmundson-Wells lifting the intensity beyond the high watermark. This track is everything you could ever wish from a Jahzz group. No wonder Tony Williams kept begging Miles to keep the tune in the repertoire post Bitches. Again 5 stars. There is one more standard ‘The Girl from Ipanema’. They have taken a ‘same beach different girl’ approach here. This is completely free and not a bossa beat in evidence. This is a musical territory that the Norwegian electronic improvisers claim so convincingly. It is explorative and anyone with open ears will enjoy the ride. Mood dominates and form is irrelevant. Having some of our best musicians collaborating on a project like this is a masterstroke. The open-eared must support Kiwi Jahzz and if we do there will certainly be more riches in store. You can find downloads and high quality streaming at Bandcamp on kiwijahzz.bandcamp.com
Footnote: A pointless question is sometimes asked of me, ‘but is this Jazz’. My response is, who cares, followed by, but did you listen with open ears and did the music talk to you? That’s all a listener needs to know about approaching unfamiliar music. Perhaps in future, I will answer by suggesting that they may be confusing Jazz with Jahzz.
Jazz is a catch-all descriptor for a broad swath of improvised music, and like all attempts to define an open art form, it eventually hits a brick wall. Jazz doesn’t require a scholarly explanation because the listener ‘just knows’; or as Pat Metheney put it, ‘you can’t see, touch or smell Jazz (unless you’re Frank Zappa), but a listener can recognise it immediately. Sound is air vibrations passing over the small bones in the inner ear, then it becomes electrical impulses. Jazz is physics fused with alchemy.
JazzLocal32.com is rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association, poet & writer.Some of these posts appear on related sites.
In September 2014, the Scottish guitarist Simon Thacker brought Ritmata to Auckland. I recall that night clearly, as his innovative genre-defying music and entertaining banter enchanted the CJC audience. Since that time, I have followed his endeavors with interest and there has been much to marvel at. As one reviewer put it “(Thacker) is one of the most important musicians of his generation”. He has toured widely, is classical guitar tutor in a number of prestigious universities and has appeared as a soloist with leading orchestras.
Along the way, he has formed various ensembles as he reimagines cultural musical traditions. He is a master of the unexpected and each performance arises from his pan-cultural journeys. At first his music sounds familiar, but upon further listening, you realise that you were mistaken. What you are hearing is something new.
This is a musician with boundless imagination and although his music may be fed by diverse streams and is respectful, it is not confined by the past. The last time we communicated he made that point beautifully. “At no point in history is music more exciting than what we will hear tomorrow”.
His latest project Pashyanti began as a solo project in 2019 and he toured it through the Indian subcontinent, appearing at two of the biggest Indian Jazz festivals along the way. That was to be followed by an appearance at last year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe (cancelled due to covid), but as with all of Thacker’s projects there is constant evolution underway. This year he has invited contemporary dancer Aishwarya Raut (from the Rambert dance school) to collaborate with him. Together, aided by skillful camerawork and gorgeous lighting, they have conjured up a sonic and visual feast.
There are four segments to the show: MunaSata, Omanjana, Ekla Chalo Re and Nirjanavana. I loved them all, but perhaps because I lived through the sixties, I found Nirjanavana the most compelling. The musicianship and dancing and effects were astounding, as was the otherworldly lighting. Throughout, you will experience the vibe of flamenco or the displaced time of latin music, some Jazz harmonies, slick references to a multitude of eastern traditions and above all, high wire artistry.
The concert is on until 29 August. Pashyanti appears as the Made in Scotland Showcase, an Edinburgh Festival Fringe event. And best of all, it is available online to viewers worldwide via the ticketing Fringe Player app (follow the link). I urge anyone with a love of acoustic guitar, dance or astonishing musicianship to grab a ticket immediately.
JazzLocal32.com is rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association, poet & writer.Some of these posts appear on related sites.
If Alargo had appeared in the year 1644, Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General would have instigated an urgent investigation. Such was the supernatural wizardry and shapeshifting that occurred last Wednesday. On that night we were invited into new sonic worlds and transported beyond the mundane. The event occurred just after the passing of Jon Hassell and that made it especially appropriate. Hassell was a standard bearer for this measured, avant-garde music; and there were others. Eddie Henderson and Miles spring immediately to mind
The point of improvised music is to establish a form and then to craft something afresh. To build, shape and react in the moment, and above all to surprise. Sometimes the surprise comes softly, as a shape is crafted from an unexpected whisper. In the modern world the sources of sound are limitless, but the world is a frenetic and noisy place and we tend to overlook the deeper sounds or the slower journeys.
This particular style of free improvised music takes its time to unfold, and in the process, moments of rare beauty are revealed. However, like all music, it has its structure. It is linear and it ebbs and flows according to the specifics of mood and pulse. Harmonies appear fleetingly then shift or fade. They exist to enhance mood.
While it was technically a duo performance it was more than that. There were two musicians but they spoke in numerous instrumental voices. All of the voices were shaped in real time and shaped on machines both ancient and modern. It was acoustic and electric. It was analogue and digital and it worked well because the musicians understood and exploited the possibilities. It is seldom that you hear the subtler dynamic possibilities explored as effectively as this.
There have been two Alargo albums released to date, and the good news is that another is on the way. This time Rattle is involved and the experimental nature and quality of the music renders it a perfect fit for the label. There were three tunes from Alargo’s Central Plateau album, two from the Primacy album and the rest were either new pieces or those to feature on the up-coming album. I have posted Actopia which is from Central Plateau, the longest piece of the night and a good showcase for this band.
Keyboardist Alan Brown is a popular and celebrated Auckland musician. He is known for his versatility and deep grooves. It was nice to learn that his famous Blue Train band was performing again recently. As co-leader of Alargo Brown played (utilised) 2x iPads (as sound sources) with synths and effects-apps controlled through a MIDI keyboard, he also played an analogue synth, a darbuka drum and a Suzuki Andes recorder keyboard.
Kingsley Melhuish is well known around town as a multi-instrumentalist. He is as likely to pick up a conch shell as a trumpet; vocalise or play reeds and other brass instruments. He is also a noted academic, composer and educator. On this gig he played trumpet, tuba, conch shells, percussion, vocal effects, a Boss Loopstation and iPad for effects.
The Alargo albums are available via alanbrown.co.nz or in stores. Keep an eye on the Rattle releases for the up-coming album.
JazzLocal32.com is rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association, poet & writer.Some of these posts appear on related sites.
Last Wednesday’s CJC gig brought us a feast of truly adventurous music and it was beautifully executed. It was ‘free’ and ‘experimental’ and although within the improvised music spectrum, it is probable that many in the audience would not have encountered a prepared piano before. At the heart of the trio was the critically acclaimed pianist Hermione Johnson with drummer Chris O’Connor and reeds player Reuben Derrick. Anyone unfamiliar with a ‘prepared piano’ trio performance could not have wished for a better introduction.
The beauty of experimental music is that you can put away the straight jacket of preconception and bring your imaginings to bear. New and unexpected worlds can be crafted out of the fragmentary detritus of the old. This is surely the ultimate purpose of improvised music. Freeing us from the tyranny of the obvious.
This performance dove into the heart of sonority; creating sounds not generally associated with the instruments that made them. The piano had been prepared before the audience arrived and I wish that I had seen it. I have been lucky enough to witness this ritual on previous occasions, and ritual it is. There is a concentrated delicacy required in instaling the objects which muffle or extend the range of a piano. It is an installation and the precursor of new music. Items like chopsticks are inserted precisely between adjacent strings or perhaps a metal bowl is positioned. Few if any in New Zealand exceed the artistry of Johnson in this regard.
And it was not only the piano that reached for new sounds. No one thinks twice when they hear an instrument’s range extended by electronic means, nor should they when this is achieved acoustically. O’Connor, the drummer’s drummer is the most familiar to CJC audiences. He is one of Aotearoa’s best-loved and most adventurous drummers as he sits astride many genres with deceptive ease. During this performance, he added colour via fingers, mallets, sticks, gongs or rims, and no available surface or drum position was left unexplored. And he underscored the deep pulse emanating from the piano, tapping out some passages with surprising delicacy.
Completing the trio was Christchurch based reeds player Derrick. The last time I saw him perform was in 2013 with his ‘Hound Dogs’. That particular unit performed a Monk heavy set that was well-received as I recall. Since then he has travelled extensively to places like Warsaw, Colombo, Vienna and Ljubljana. He is a noted composer and has collaborated across many cultural traditions. His fluency on the clarinet automatically singles him out, as the instrument is famous for punishing anyone who takes it up half-heartedly. On this gig, he doubled on tenor saxophone and his uncanny ability to locate the acoustic possibilities on both was evident. It’s a pity that he doesn’t live closer, I am up for more of what he has to offer.
This was music but it was also performance art of the highest order. It stretched us as improvised music should. It was wonderful. The only way that I can begin to do it justice is by abandoning written syntax. Filigree, texture, tropical thunder, raindrops, gamelan orchestra, quasar, delicate motifs, deep pulse, sighs, dance, hot tiles, exquisite, exotic. It reminded me of the first time that I heard Bley/Giuffre/Swallow’s Freefall. My ears were realigned after that experience.
Hermione Johnson (prepared grand piano), Chris O’Connor (drums, percussion), Reuben Derrick (clarinet, tenor saxophone). The gig took place at Anthology, for the CJC Jazz Club, 7 July 2021
JazzLocal32.com is rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association, poet & writer.Some of these posts appear on related sites.
The avant-garde trumpeter, composer and innovator Jon Hassell died this week. He was not as well known as he should have been. He blazed his trail largely out of sight of the mainstream and along the way he created marvellous worlds. His early influences were minimalism, serialism, Indian vocal traditions and Miles Davis. He was a softly spoken trumpeter, a world music innovator, a change agent in rock and a Jazz influencer. On one website sub-genre descriptors call his styles; ethnic fusion, experimental jazz, techno-tribal, ambient improvisation. While associated with many genres, he had moved beyond them to forge a new type of music.
His creations have always been deeply respectful of the older musical traditions. You will find beautifully crafted fragments of microtonal Indian classical music or textural Balinese Gamalon music. At no point does this feel like appropriation. And all layered lovingly over a deep pulse of electronic effects, a funk bassline and none of it rushed. If you watch videos of him playing you will notice that he points the trumpet bell downwards. Sampling and shaping the sound, on wondrous machines like the Eventide Harmoniser; ever shapeshifting as he moves tangentially between harmony and melody. His trumpet sound is unusual, developed out of early experiments with electronic effects as he sought to approximate Kiranic vocal techniques.
As a student, he was attracted to serialism and after graduating he studied under Karlheinz Stockhausen in Europe. On returning to the US he met Terry Riley and performed on the first recording of ‘In C’, a work regarded as a seminal moment in modern music. During the early seventies, he discovered Kiranic singing and along with Riley, La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, studied under Pandit Pran Nath (Nath was a pupil of the Sufi vocal master Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan). They were later joined by Jazz Musicians and among them Lee Konitz and Don Cherry. Hassell was a Miles Davis fan and several of his albums highlight that influence. His best-known mainstream collaborations were with Brian Eno, Talking Heads, David Sylvian, Ry Cooder and Tears for Fears.
Less well known was his enormous influence on the Norwegian jazz scene. During the last few decades, he would perform with or influence various Norwegian Jazz musicians. Members of the underground techno-Jazz fraternity. Eivind Aaset, Jan Bang, Erik Honore, Bugge Wesseltoft, Nils Petter Molvaer, Arve Hendrikson, Sidsel Endreson and others. A sub-genre that is increasingly accepted by Nordic jazz audiences. (The top video features guitarist Eivind Aaset and electronics mastermind Jan Bang).
Hassell’s innovations and collaborations have produced some extraordinary recordings. My personnel favourite is his ECM recording ‘Last night the moon came, dropping its clothes on the street’ (the title is from a Rumi poem). On this album from 2009, he plays alongside like-minded Norwegian improvising musicians. He always used evocative album titles and his album covers and videos magnify the effect. Album titles like ‘Vernal Equinox’, ‘Dream Theory Malaysia’, ‘The Surgeon of the Night Sky Restores Dead Things by the Power of Sound’, ‘Mareefa Street, Magic Realism’,’ Listening to Pictures’, ‘Seeing through Sound – Pentimento’ (pentimento: where a painting reveals fragments of an older painting hidden underneath). He painted in the softest of pastels, dabbing sound onto a universal canvas, elevating mood to the position of supremacy and infusing everything with a rare beauty.
JazzLocal32.com is rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association, poet & writer.Some of these posts appear on related sites.
Drummer led albums often tell stories in different ways and the releases reviewed here exemplify that. On the surface, they are dissimilar, but both convey raw energy and immediacy. These improvisers transcend the ordinary in their search for an ancient to modern language.
CRISIS & OPPORTUNITY
The first is a newly released album by Myele Manzanza titled Crisis and Opportunity. It is the artist’s eighth release. And this time, his compositions were crafted while the artist was locked down in London during the worst months of the UK COVID crisis. As with his previous albums, there is something big-hearted about this work. As you listen, you gain the sense that he is telling a story that transcends time and place. This is realised through some very fine writing and crafted over his warm mesmerising beats.
Manzanza draws on strong roots and influences. He is a Kiwi, a citizen of the world and of African heritage. His father is a Master Congolese drummer and his formative years playing hand drums will have informed his approach to the kit. Among the other influences evident are broken-beat and Jazz electronica. Out of these influences and his own life experiences, alchemy is forged. He is forward-looking and overtly political. He is someone to watch with interest.
Joining him on the album are some London musicians plus Mark-de Clive-Lowe (a Kiwi Keyboard maestro based in LA). I am familiar with trumpet player James Copus, as his impressive Dusk album came to my attention quite recently. The other horn player is George Crowley on tenor saxophone. When the horns are playing in unison it is hard to believe that the horn line is not much bigger. On piano is Ashley Henry and on bass Benjamin Muralt. Both chasing those hypnotic dancing beats to good effect. And with de Clive-Lowe adding his deft brush strokes, a magnificent Album is realised. If you go to his Bandcamp label you can purchase a digital copy or order vinyl. www.myelemanzanza.bandcamp.com
The other drummer led album that caught my attention is a free-jazz album released by Alex Louloudis. It arrived as a digital review copy with very little attached information, so I embarked on some research. In reality, the music speaks for itself and the biographical details are of less importance. The first track of ‘Words’ is ‘Surviving’ and it pulls you into a frenetic life-dance full of raw beauty and endless recalibration. It is propulsive and joyous and I fell for it immediately. It is the sort of track that brings me back to listen over and again and because of the immediacy, you know it’s real.
This is free music that can move inside or outside with extraordinary ease. Nothing is quite what it seems and the river of sound flows over a cushion of compelling beats. There is often an ostinato bass line as in The Magic of 3. The melodic lines avoid the obvious and there is almost no repetition of phrases. In the right musical hands, following such principles opens up huge possibilities. This is a killing band and it is unmistakably a drummers band.
I learned that Alex Louloudis was born in Drama, Greece, moved to America to study at the age of 19 and that he records on the Belgian based label ‘Off’. Since completing his studies in New York, Louloudis has moved among like-minded improvisers and attracted favourable attention. Although the artist was previously unknown to me (my bad), he has certainly come to the notice of important musicians and commentators (Gary Bartz, Billy Harper, Reggie Workman, Oliver Lake, Jeff Ballard, to mention just a few). The title track ‘Words’ is the final track and it rounds off the album perfectly. Opening to soft brush beats, it morphs into a dreamy slow-moving rendition of Over the Rainbow, which in turn introduces the reflectively cutting poem, recited by Rosdeli Marte.
The musicians: Alex Louloudis (drums), Raphael Statin (tenor saxophone), Dean Torrey (bass), Rosdeli Marte (vocals #1,6), Kaelen Ghandhi (tenor saxophone (# 1,6), Aaron Rubinstein (guitar #1,6), is available from Bandcamp at https://stilll-off.bandcamp.com/album/words
In this post, I have deviated from my usual practice of reviewing only albums from Aotearoa, New Zealand (or those offshore who maintain connections to our rohe). During the Covid lockdowns, I worked with the world Jazz community on platforms like the Jazz Journalists Assn site to ensure that the musician’s stories still were being told. Many writers were unable to engage, and in my country, we had freedoms others did not. No rule is worth having if it cannot be broken for a good cause. ‘Words’ is the exception that proves the rule and I couldn’t resist.
JazzLocal32.com was rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association, poet & writer.Some of these posts appear on related sites.
It has long been acknowledged that Bach’s DNA is deeply embedded in Jazz practice. While Bill Evans surprised some fans when he named Bach as a primary influence, the Baroque composers influence is actually widespread in all of western improvised music. Over the years there have been numerous Bach crossover albums and while the best were marvellous, others sounded slightly awkward. The more recent Bach referencing albums have moved beyond the swing approach and in doing so they have reached deep inside the essence of the music. Like a good Jazz head-arrangement, Bach’s music provides an exquisite architecture for improvisers to explore. I am enthusiastic about a number of these modern explorations.
A few days ago a review copy of ‘On Goldberg Variations’ (Backlash Music) arrived. I was immediately intrigued, as the album was recorded in Reykjavik. The musicians are classical improvising pianist, Mathias Halvorsen and Jazz percussionist, Jan Martin Gismervik. Both are Norwegian although Halvorsen is at present living in Iceland. I am an enthusiast for Nordic and Icelandic artistry and I wondered if those spacious northern landscapes would influence their approach. After listening, my answer is yes. Halvorsen pointed out that the two are more closely aligned with the Norwegian scene, but it is no stretch to imagine how recording in Iceland can add a layer of influence.
While the album is directly informed by the notation of the Goldberg Variations, it is also referred to as new music. Here, the musical ideas have been examined with care, extracted and then reduced to their essence. In the track titled ‘other voices’ a sub-minimalist approach is evident; with the musicians utilising fragments; and the results are both familiar and unfamiliar. To quote Halvorsen:
‘(It) can best be compared to looking at a familiar world through a continuously changing kaleidoscope’.
Stripped of ornament, and elided, the silence between the notes becomes essential in the decoding. We sense what lies between and it is visceral. We follow and are surprised as the motifs and rhythms fall into place. Those familiar with the Goldberg Variations will find themselves attempting mental reconstructions as fragments of rhythm or melody, appear and then vanish. Humans are hard-wired to look for patterns, and in searching for them here, we are drawn inside a spacious pristine world. We compare what we know, or what we think we know and out of that comes the new.
The pieces reveal a filmic soundscape of stark beauty. ‘Numbers’ beguiles us with long ostinato passages and again the minimalist approach allows us to explore the sonic subtleties. ‘Running’ takes us closer to a known form but then injects long bars of silence between the phrases. ‘Together’ comes closer to Jazz sensibilities with its resonant voicings, which dance. Everything merits a deeper listening here as the journey is in part, subliminal; it will stretch some listeners toleration as avant-garde music frequently does. It worked for me and took me back to the extraordinary Bley/Giuffre/Swallow albums such as ‘Freefall’ (ECM).
For those keen to hear some other contemporary approaches to improvised Bach, I recommend Brad Mehldau’s ‘After Bach’ (Nonesuch). This album achieved tremendous cut through and juxtaposes Mehldau’s own compositions with Bach’s. That album references ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’. It is closer to the original Bach charts. A sumptuous delight from start to finish.
For another unusual look at the ‘Goldberg Variations’, people could check out Uri Caine’s ‘Goldberg Variations’ album. This was released by ‘Winter & Winter’ and is gorgeously packaged. Like Mehldau, Caine plays some of the variations as written, but the rest appear as blues, electronica, gamba quartet and in many unusual ensemble configurations. There is also humour and joy.
If you’re afraid of iconoclasm, these will not be for you; but if you are up for sonic adventures, dive in and go with it.
JazzLocal32.com was rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association.Many of these posts also appear on Radio13.co.nz
The Following albums are all adventurous in their own way. All reach beyond the strict confines of genre and while each approaches from a unique vantage point, they offer a cross-section of trans-Tasman pandemic era music. The music may or may not have been influenced by the lockdown itself, but the association resonates. We are on a long journey. Moving from isolation towards an unfamiliar landscape. We will inevitably cling to yesterday, but we will hopefully also take the braver step of jettisoning what has become superfluous. We do not need bankers and snake oil merchants to guide us, but we do need adventurous musicians.
Dark Energy: Paul Williamson Quartet
A few years ago a visit to Melbourne coincided with the launch of Paul Williamson’s ‘Finding The Balance’ album at JazzLab. There was a lot to like about the album and I wrote a review after I had returned to New Zealand. Now in the midst of the pandemic, Williamson has released a new album titled ‘Dark Energy’. This time he invokes different spirits and in doing so he taps into new and exciting realities.
This is an edgy and forward-looking album and although it offers glimpses of the familiar, it quickly strikes out for freer air. Popular music seldom strays beyond the angst of loves lost, but Australasian improvisers increasingly move beyond the confines of gravity. In fact, astrophysics is often an inspirational touchstone for our down-under improvisers. In the early seventies, these themes were convincingly referenced by the likes of Bennie Maupin and Eddie Henderson. Dark Energy picks up the batten, combining galactic revelations with the discovery of wondrous interior worlds.
On certain tracks, Williamson’s trumpet playing contains hints of Tomasz Stanko or perhaps the quieter moments of Kenny Wheeler. A wistful moody quality is evident and especially on tracks like Al-egance; his tone is especially gorgeous in these settings. On the more ethereal tracks, he utilises extended technique and skilfully embeds the instrument into the spectrum of the bands sound. In all of these explorations, his band is in lock-step. Letting the compositions speak with clarity, and understanding, that close confinement is unnecessary in space.
On guitar, Theo Carbo displays a deft touch, clean and appropriate to the task in hand. Again there is a gentle moodiness and one which owes much to improvised Americana. The bass and drums also strike the right balance, never overreaching, and yet every voice and flurry is heard perfectly.
Paul Williamson (trumpet, compositions), Theo Carbo (guitar), Hiroki Hoshino (double bass), Miles Henry (drums)
‘Wind and Wire’ is a third of a set of solo albums that Alan Brown has released. His first two albums teased out the subtitles of an acoustic piano, and they did so in a setting which allowed the acoustics of the room to inform the improvisations. This album compliments the earlier albums while expanding the sonic possibilities. With keyboards and digital enhancements come fresh choices, and this is a logical progression for which Brown is well-fitted. He is an acknowledged master of the digital and analogue keyboard, and he understands how to judiciously apply enhancements.
The album is a set of 10 improvised pieces and the titles set up the mood for each. ‘Mood’ is an important ingredient in any ambient composition for it is the mood and not melody or rhythm which invites us inside a piece. Brown is always careful to establish this. His improvisational development follows a logic evolved from the preceding phrases. It is more than sound shaping as it flows like a river from start to finish, and this in spite of being unconfined by written charts or cycles of scales.
In Wind and Wire, there are varying moods and not all are quiet or reflective. Where you start is not always where you expect to finish. There are surprises embedded within. While these are essentially interior landscapes they are no less real for that. They invoke vistas and engage with our ever-changing realities. Something we have hopefully learned to value in these days of inner reflection.
A few days ago ‘Trouble Spots’ appeared in the Rattle Records Bandcamp catalogue. I listened and was captivated. Because humans are hard-wired to categorise I looked for descriptors. Among the tags were: acoustic instrumental, experimental, atmospheric, improvised. I listened to the rest of the album and then once through again. Wow, I thought, this is engaging but it studiously evades categorisation. How can something so enjoyable and so strangely familiar remain so elusive?
The cover art was also mesmerising. So much so, that for a while I failed to register, that the album was the result of a long collaboration between Steve Garden and Ivan Zagni. Garden, the local Manfred Eicher, the presiding spirit of Rattle Records (and what is often overlooked, a fine drummer and percussionist). Zagni is the co-leader and a significant figure in the music world, long acknowledged as a gifted multi-genre experimentalist. Born in London and moving to New Zealand many years ago where he soon became a significant presence on the local scene. The Rattle label grew out of Garden’s early work with Zagni and Don McGlashan.
Keen to get the low-down I contacted Garden and during our conversation, he suggested some additional tags for the album: absurdist, filmic, musical jokes, sonic circus, accidental improvisation, sonic collages and experimental music. Most musical disciplines have a vocabulary and the listener is therefore accustomed to locating fixed reference points; seeking out the elements that indicate genre. If a style is too rigid however, then that implies stasis and the improvising arts are the antitheses of stylistic inertia.
So this is an album that tells wonderful stories and the stories are best constructed (or deconstructed) in our heads. The music here facilitates that with its evocative but elusive cover image, it’s glimpses of Beirut or Nicaragua, of Punch & Judy, Cat & Mouse. Think of it as musical Dada or a Zen Koan. There is serious intent and good musicianship here, but that should not prevent us from laughing in pure delight.
Some missing music for those missing music. Hear it Here
Mark de Clive-Lowe (keys) in Auckland’s CJC a few weeks ago with Brandon Combs (drums) and Marika Hodgson (bass)
‘Don’t Dream it’s Over (N Finn), Chelsea Prastiti (vocals), Kevin Field (piano), Mostyn Cole (bass), Stephen Thomas (drums), Mike Booth (trumpet). CJC Auckland at Alchemy Live
Bird Song (Smirnova) Simona Smirnova (vocals), Alan Brown (piano), Cameron McArthur (bass), Jono Sawyer (drums) at Auckland’s CJC, March 2020.
The lockdowns won’t stop jazz! To assist musicians who’ve had performances canceled, get their music heard around the globe. The Jazz Journalists Association created a Jazz on Lockdown: Hear It Here community blog. For more click through to https://news.jazzjournalists.org/category/jazz-on-lockdown/
The history of music is the history of instrument development and from the earliest of times, musicians have expanded the reach of their instruments. The mother of instruments, Al’ Oud was first documented 3500 years ago, but documenting the development of the drum is a nebulous task. It almost certainly arose in Africa and along the way it has undergone a multitude of modifications. On Wednesday there was another waypoint along the continuum under the forward-looking beats of Stephen Thomas. Thomas is a gifted drummer and percussionist and in his hands, the instrument takes on a new life by transcending the mundane. The gig arose out of his last years Masters recital and the focus was on extended technique; combining physical drum rhythms, electronics via a drum pad, prepared drum heads and samples.
Improvisers are the masters of extended technique, but even so, it is comparatively rare to hear these effects applied to drums, winds or reeds in Jazz. The most obvious examples occurred during the 70’s fusion era, but post 70s Shorter and Harris, who carved a credible path, only a brave few have followed. In my view, it requires experienced musicians to do this well and Stephen Thomas is well qualified to realise this project. Done badly it can look like a botched attempt to blur technique deficiencies. Done well it is an opening into a brave new world and another set of tools to build on what has gone before.
True to label, The Stephen Thomas Electric Band was wired and utilised effects, including the horn section. There were various configurations from sextet to duo and each configuration teased out a particular facet of the interesting compositions. The full line up was: drums (+ electronics), two saxophonists (+ electronics, one playing alto and the other playing tenor, soprano or Ewi). There was a keyboard player, an electric bass player and two electric guitarists (+ one guitarist playing prepared guitar). The horns often played in unison as did the bass and keyboard. With the octave or chorusing effect deployed, this made for a rich and full-throated palette of tonal colours.
I have posted two very different tunes from the gig, One is MG40 with the sextet and the other a duo between Thomas and Joel Vinsen (the latter on prepared guitar). If you listen closely to MG40, you will detect the echoes of a distant past. An echo from the 1950s in fact when the conductor Leonard Bernstein attempted to explain Jazz to a very young audience. That footage is hopelessly time-locked as the plummy voice of a high-brow white man ‘explaining black music’ overshadows the message. Notwithstanding, I have no doubt that many of the Bernstein Philharmonic attendees would go on to explore improvised music after hearing Benny Golson and the sextet perform. What Thomas does with this piece is both playful and respectful. Bernstein would get it and laugh out loud. MG40 refers to Mark Giuliani – a drummer on the same trailblazing path.
The other piece I have posted involves the sextet. With Alan Brown on keyboards and Andy Smith on guitar, the piece soars as it morphs into a multi-layered groove piece, one reminiscent of the Fusion era. The overall sound has lots of bottom, with the bass effects and saxophone effects creating a surreal lower register cushion; over which Smith and Brown build towards the heart-stopping crescendo. This was a group of heavyweight performers with Chris Mason-Battley and Markus Fritsch the horn line. And none of it possible without the invention, vision and superior chops of Thomas.
The Stephen Thomas Electric Band:Stephen Thomas (drum kit, drum pad + effects, triggered samples, percussion, prepared drums), Alan Brown (digital keyboard), Andy Smith (guitar + effects), Chris Mason Battley (saxophones, Ewi + effects), Markus Fritsch (alto saxophone), Mostyn Cole (electric bass + effects), Joel Vinsen (prepared guitar + effects). The gig took place at Anthology, CJC Creative Jazz Club, 18 September 2019
Eve de Castro-Robinson is Associate Professor of Composition at the University of Auckland. She is well known as a New Zealand classical composer and although widely acknowledged in that field, she is strongly associated with the improvising and experimental music community.Those who attended the CJC Creative Jazz Club last Wednesday witnessed the scope of her compositional output, with compositions interpreted by a plethora of gifted improvisers. The night was a rare treat.Last year de Castro-Robinson released an album titled ‘Gristle of Knuckles’ and on Wednesday we experienced a live performance. When introducing it she explained, ‘although I am described as a contemporary classical composer, I am best placed at the ‘arts’ end of that spectrum’. In this space genres, overlap and artificial barriers are torn down. Out of these collisions comes original and vibrant music.
While de Castro Robinson is primarily seen as a composer, she is also an enabler and a canny collaborator; expanding her vision through skilled pedagogy. The above project has her engaging with colleagues from the UoA Jazz school plus a handful of gifted musicians from the diaspora of the avant-garde. The project comes close to being conduction; guiding the improvisers with a feather-light touch, letting them find their truth as her works are re-imagined.The pieces were composed over a period of years, taking us on a journey from the primal to the avant-garde.
The first set opened with Roger Manins and Ron Samsom playing ‘Doggerel’. A multi-phonic utterance which set the mood. That was followed by a moving ensemble piece featuring Don McGlashan, Kingsley Melhuish, Keith Price, Kevin Field and Ron Samsom titled ‘The Long Dream of Waking’ (a Len Lye poem). That juxtaposition, duo to quintet, worked well, in fact, most of the compositions were quite unlike those preceding them. These contrasts were an integral part of the ebb and flow and the contrasts worked to the advantage of the whole. There was also another factor in play and it was significant. Between numbers, de Castro-Robinson introduced the pieces, not in the usual way but by telling stories. She has a terrific stage presence and while I shouldn’t be surprised by that, I was. Her talk is peppered with wry humour, that understated self-deprecating Kiwi humour. She quickly had us eating out of her hand and although not playing an instrument, was very much a performer herself.
Everything was interesting, everything engaged. ‘Twitch’ featuring Kristian Larsen, a piece for piano (but kinetic and expansively sonic),‘Passion Flower’ played by Kevin Field, a work inspired by a painting and by ‘The March of Women’ composed by the suffragist Ethyl Smyth. The original is a feminist classic but under Fields fingers de Castro-Robinson’s tune it took on a moody reverential feel. Consciously or unconsciously and deep inside the voicings, it captured the mood of another ‘Passionflower’ the Billy Strayhorn masterpiece; a perfect alignment in my view. ConunDRUMS featured Samsom, Melhuish and Larsen, a delightful percussive exploration, a sculpture. ‘Stumbling Trains’ a fiery piece on cello played by Ashley Brown of NZTrio (and co-composed by him). Check out the embed and above all go to the Rattle site and check out Field’s interpretation of ‘Passion Flower’.
The second set opened with ‘Countercurrents’ a solo piece played by alto saxophonist Callum Passells. It began in a stairwell and moved among us, resonating beautifully as the figures and melodies filled the room progressively. ‘Small Blue’ had Field, Melhuish, Price and Samsom paired (a Tuba taking up a bass line), ‘Hau’ featured Mere Boynton on voice and crystal and Melhuish on Taonga Puora. This particular piece was a standout. An ancient-to-modern story of the passing of the spirit and told in a way that evokes New Zealand’s pre-colonial past. I defy anyone to listen to this and not experience a shiver run down the spine.‘Trouble Trouble Mind’ brought McGlashan back to the stage with Boynton, Price and Samsom. With two guitars a backing vocal and a raw bluesy feel, this was prime McGlashan territory. The vibe here hinted at a Dunedin punk sound. Rattle records Steve Garden also took to the stage with an array of vocal sounds on ‘The Gild’ (we often spot him launching a Rattle album but we forget that he is a drummer. His percussive vocalisations added quirky additions to the interactions between Samsom and Larsen).
On the face of it, the gig was a collection of interesting compositions, but it also felt a lot like theatre. However you describe it, it was great performance art and the audience loved it. The album can be purchased from Rattle at Bandcamp (as hard copies or high-quality downloads). The musicians were; Eve de Castro-Robinson (compositions and narration), Don McGlashan (guitar and voice), Kevin Field (piano), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Ron Samsom (drums and percussion),Kingsley Melhuish (conches, tuba, Tango Puora, tenor horn), Kristian Larsen (piano, live sound, gilded cello), Kieth Price (guitar), Mere Boynton (voice, crystal glass), Steve Garden (sounds), Callum Passells (alto saxophone), Ashley Brown (cello).The gig took place at Anthology, K’Road, CJC Creative Jazz Club, 28 August 2019.
Anything that Jeff Henderson is associated with is likely to be intense, mind-altering and extraordinary. No matter how prepared you think that you are, you should understand that your head will be fucked with. When you factor in Tom Callwood, Anthony Donaldson and Daniel Beban the Henderson effect is magnified exponentially. This music is powerful stuff as it sweeps aside genres as irrelevant distractions. When confronted with a gig like this you abandon preconceptions, as the sonic smorgasbord jolts you out of complacency. It is also a visual experience and Fellini would have signed these guys up in a heart-beat.
There was no music on the stands, one break and there were no announcements. The music followed its own momentum and created its own time. In some sections you were confronted with reedy screams, while in others you heard languid whispers; hinting at some lost illusory past; one located just outside the edge of memory. There was of course structure, but that was determined by the music’s inner logic. It reminded me of a recent Wayne Shorter performance where he purged any semblance of song form; removing structures that impeded the flow, leaving the audience with just music; a vessel inside which the musicians could move freely. Intuitive interaction is the foundation of all improvised music. In this case, the music was a river in flood, an elastic entity, following an old course or cutting a fresh channel at will.
There were two tunes in the first set (one a Parker number delivered with the essence of Ornette presiding). The overall impression was of one piece of music with a number of moving parts. As the parts formed, some felt familiar, but where you ended up was generally somewhere unexpected. This was a chimeric journey and like children watching a cartoon for the first time, we lived entirely in each moment.Modern music audiences are dumbed down with endless nonsense; the old trope that music can only be swallowed in discrete recognisable chunks. This music made no concessions to that or any other populist view and nor should it. Many who attended last week were unfamiliar with the avant-garde, but they didn’t need to be told what it was about. They didn’t need an explanation, to know that it belonged to this or that genre. The proof was in the reception. People sat there totally absorbed and because the experience was all-encompassing, 2 1/2 hours flew by.
Jeff Henderson plays the role of a dark shepherd on New Zealand’s ‘out-music’ scene. He composes astonishing music and plays many instruments; among them the seldom heard ‘C’ Melody saxophone. He has frequently collaborated with greats like Marilyn Crispell. Next is Tom Callwood who is often a collaborator of Henderson’s. If you needed a peg to hang his bass playing on, then you might say that he has a Charlie Haden sound (early Haden). He is one of the finer bass players I’ve heard and it’s our loss that he doesn’t live in Auckland. Anthony Donaldson is another hero from the alternative and avant-garde music scene. He’s known for his interactive, sensitive and melorhythmic approach (OK, I made that word up). He is acknowledged as one of New Zealand’s finest drummers and his influence is widespread. Joining the above-mentioned artists for the second set was guitarist and experimental musician Daniel Beban. He is the current Douglas Lilburn Research Fellow and is also at the forefront of the Wellington experimental music scene. His ‘Orchestra of the Spheres’ takes SunRa’s approach to a new level.
Melancholy/Stinging Babes: Jeff Henderson (baritone, alto, C melody, tenor saxes, clarinet). Tom Callwood (upright bass), Anthony Donaldson (drums), Daniel Beban (guitar). The gig was held at Anthology, K’Road Auckland, CJC Creative Jazz Club, 17 July 2019.
This was New York artist, Simona Minns second visit to the CJC, her appearances occurring one year apart to the day. Her 2018 show ‘The Hunger Games’ referenced a Kafka short story. This tour was billed ‘My Urban Spells’, expanding her ever-evolving themes of universality and free-spirited improvisation.Minns musical education and life, have gifted her with many powerful themes to draw upon and out of these, she has crafted a powerful synthesis. Her initial training as a classical Lithuanian Zither player is never far from what she does, but neither are the Jazz and Rock worlds she discovered when she emigrated to America.
Minns is a compelling performer and this underpins her shows. There is always an engaging theatrical element to her stage presence; something akin to an off-Broadway show. When you factor in her vocal chops, fine compositions, and originality you get an enjoyable whole. It is more than a mere cobbled eclecticism, it is well-judged performance art.
Like last time, she was accompanied by Alan Brown on Keyboards, Cameron McArthur bass and Stephen Thomas on drums. Because this was the bands second time around (and because they can), they stretched out more and Minns let them, confident in their abilities.Brown in particular is accustomed to reaching into new musical spaces. His beyond Jazz explorations into ambient and ethnic music equipping him perfectly.Some of the tunes were standards reinterpreted, others were Jazz/Rock mash-ups with electric guitar (Minns). It was though, when she sang her own compositions in her own mother tongue that she shone brightest.Her ethnically fused Jazz, enormously appealing.
Simona Minns (vocals, compositions, guitar, zither), Alan Brown (keyboards), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Stephen Thomas (drums) – Backbeat, CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 20 February 2019.
The interesting diversity in the CJC programming was again on display last week with two international acts as different musically as acts could be. Wednesday featured a multinational mostly free-improvised music ensemble Kira Kira and Thursday the Harlem born Jazz/Soul Singer Vivian Sessoms. Both attracted good audiences, once again proving the value of adventurous programming.
Kira Kira features two renowned Japanese avant-garde musicians, Satoko Fujii, composer/pianist, and partner Natsuki Tamura on trumpet. This particular project is a collaboration with the Australian pianist Alister Spence. It is usual for Fujii to challenge herself by performing alongside musicians new to her acquaintance and for the Auckland show, the basic trio added drummer/percussionist Chris O’Connor. This was exactly the right choice.
These are seasoned musicians at the peak of their powers and it showed as they navigated a less travelled musical terrain. Fujii is the best known of the ensemble, having attracted accolades from around the world. She has been called the Ellington of free music. Her early teachers and mentors included Paul Bley, Cecil McBee, and George Russell (all appeared on her debut album). She has released 80 albums so far and this year, her 60th, she will release an album a month. She is an extraordinary musician who plays as free as a bird; but who never-the-less weaves in a mirage-like momentum. There is a sense of purpose, a pathway leading to deep beauty, but all of the above is elusive. Like all free music, the essence can dissolve if you try too hard to grasp at the form.
Spense came to New Zealand recently, touring with trumpet player Eamon Dilworth. He impressed me deeply then as his tasteful minimalism told bigger stories than a busier player. In Kira Kira, he plays Rhodes, electric piano, preparations, and controls effects. Few people have seen a Rhodes performing topless but it was certainly captivating. As he stroked and tapped under the hood he extracted an array of wonderful sounds and colours. He interacted with the other three musicians in ways that only a deep improviser could; responding to and working with the ever-shifting duo segments.
When Natsuki Tamura played, his trumpet cut through the air like a swooping hawk. Sometimes Percussive and confronting, at other moments gentle, cajoling. At times he reminded me of Wadado Leo Smith. His lines could be supportive or squalling and contradictory and he was the perfect foil to the chordal expansiveness of the piano.
Lastly the newcomer to the group, New Zealand drummer Chris O’Connor. If anyone could add value to an already fulsome sound it was him. He reacted and contributed with such sensitivity that it became impossible to imagine the group without him. I have uploaded part two of the Kira Kira suite to YouTube and posted it (part one was marred by fridge noise and the other two movements were too long). I invite you to listen and then listen again. This is music that rewards deep listening. This was freedom.
Kira Kira was performed by Satoko Fujii, Natsuki Tamora, Alister Spence and Chris O’Connor at the Backbeat Bar, for the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) November 21, 2018
Chelsea Prastiti was not long back from Cyprus when her band Leda’s Dream appeared at the Backbeat Bar. Prastiti is well known in the Auckland improvised music scene and especially so at the avant-garde end of town. She’s a compelling vocalist and composer who approaches her craft as a free spirit, unfettered by others expectations. When she sings she dives deep and puts herself out there fearlessly but her risk-taking is not a mere academic exercise; it cuts to the very heart of what it means to be a thinking, feeling human. Her compositions are therefore always interesting and out of that a raw beauty and an honesty arise. Although the ensemble played material that we have heard before, they sounded incredibly fresh – even different. Crystal Choi confined herself to accompanying vocals (no keys), Michael Howell stepped further into a measured chordal role and Callum Passells on alto and voice effects was the archetypal minimalist (saying a lot more with less). This felt very right and the re-configuration gave the ensemble a lot more freedom. They stretched out as the spirit took them and the first two tunes filled the entire first set. The voices, in particular, were liberated by the change and this gave wings to the melodic lines and mood. The harmonies were there in spades but that was not what drew you in. It was ‘mood’ and the pictures that those moods created. Prastiti’s is a brave path and I would expect no less from her. This is a musical space that is sparsely populated and more’s the pity. Think Sera Serpa (duos or trios), Think Norma Winstone (Azimuth 85) or perhaps the brilliant Nordic vocalist Sidsel Endresen (Endresen live with Jan Bang). In this ensemble, she has the musicians to give her the freedom she deserves. Passells, who is unafraid of soft trailing notes or of minimalism, Howell who can follow a vamp to eternity and make it sing, Choi who instinctively makes the right moves, and Eamon Edmundson-Wells and Tristen Deck who know when to lay out and when to add colour or texture. The music drew from free improvisation, standard Jazz and deep Folkloric wells. It did so without undue introspection. The band brought the audience along with them and the bouts of enthusiastic applause proved it. For some reason, and it was partly their attire, the gig felt like a postmodern version of a Pre-Raphaelite tableau. Oh yes indeed, that always works for me.
Leda’s Dream: Chelsea Prastiti (vocals, compositions), Crystal Choi (vocals), Michael Howell (guitar), Callum Passells (alto sax, sound effects), Eamon Edmundson-Wells (upright bass), Tristan Deck (drums), Backbeat Bar, 8 August 2018
Good Music always says something interesting; it’s a form of communication where a musical statement begins a process and a listener responds. With any innovative musical form, we need to bring something of ourselves to the equation. The more open our ears the better the experience. Gifted improvisers of all cultures understand these fundamentals and because of this they mostly tell old stories in new ways. Rarely and bravely, musicians hit us with stories not yet fixed in the popular imagination. Steve Barry and his collaborators have a foot in both camps. While this is adventurous material, it is also approachable to anyone with open ears. What we heard at the CJC was innovative but the archetypes of all music were located deep in the compositional structure. A careful listening revealed trace elements from composers like Stravinsky or Bley and perhaps even of indigenous music.
The first piece they opened with was titled ‘Grind’ – a composition inspired by Sydney traffic (much as Tristano utilised every street sound that floated through his NY window). The piece began as journeys do with determined momentum – a degree of clarity followed by a more frenetic stop-start feel as the piece progressed – then reflection. It appealed to me greatly and twelve minutes in, I knew that I was hearing something similar to the approach used by Bley/Guiffre/Swallow in ‘Freefall’. There are moments in musical history when profound change is signalled and that album was one of them. The critics of the time hated it of course but modern Jazz audiences have caught up. The new Barry album ‘Blueprints and Vignettes’ will not be regarded as controversial but as vital and forward-looking. Back then clubs took fright and closed their doors but no club owner worth their salt would miss booking this group.
Barry is an interesting pianist and composer and this project may be his best to date. At the CJC he was confronted with a basic upright piano, but he somehow transformed it into a new instrument entirely. Many in the audience were fascinated and approached him afterwards to enquire how he achieved this slight of hand. Clever miking and a constant repetitive damping of the soft pedal was evident, but I suspect that his rapid-fire staccatissimo touch contributed as much to the effect. I know that Barry has also explored Bartok and the classical modernists and this may hold some clues as well. Whether by happenstance or contrivance, the overall effect was enormously pleasing. There were set patterns and themes, but these altered, developed, as fresh ideas arose from them.
I was delighted to finally catch up with Dave Goodman (PhD), having heard him last at the 505 in Sydney (along with Mike Nock, Rog Manins, James Muller and Cameron Undy). Goodman is an enormously versatile drummer and a popular educator. His role here is varied, but often that of ‘colourist’. Rolling his sticks over the drum heads, or providing contrast with irregular taps on the snare or a muted ride cymbal – and entering these interesting conversations as an equal. The other trio member was Jeremy Rose on reeds (his horns, the alto saxophone and bass clarinet). He was just superb and every bold sound or whispered breath added new dimensions. It is seldom that we hear a bass clarinet and to hear one in a trio setting of this kind is even rarer. The clarinets woodiness and rich harmonics added texture, the alto, a hawk awaiting its moment then swooping purposefully. In spite of the varying tempos and moods, the album imparts a delicacy from start to finish. Live, they got the best out of the acoustics and venue piano. What a perfect sound palette Barry has chosen for this project and whether live or recorded, how satisfying the realisation.
The album ‘Blueprints and Vignettes’ is available from stevebarrymusic.bandcamp.com or from retail and online sources (I recommend Bandcamp). The album features Max Alduca on bass. The live gig took place at the Thirsty Dog for the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) – February 21, 2018.
It was a good way to begin a year of music, a good way to breathe life into two enervating steamy nights. Hayden Chisholm was back in the country and around him formed various duos, trios, and quartets. He performed two gigs in Auckland and the first was at the Audio Foundation in Poynton Lane. The venue has long been an important source of innovative music and each time I descend the stairs to the sub-basement I find interesting changes to the clubs configuration. It really is an excellent venue and perfect for what it offers. At first glance, the two nights appeared quite different. One free improvised and the other a set of reflective ballads. In reality, both gigs were reflective, melodic and approachable. The open-hearted humanity and communication skills of the participants made it so.
When Norman Meehan, Paul Dyne, and Hayden Chisholm appeared last year in the UoA Jazz School auditorium, the audience was taken aback by the sheer beauty of the performance. The alto saxophone is heard less often than its fatter sounding big brother the tenor and it is seldom heard like this. There was something about that particular performance that stopped people in their tracks. The beauty of the tone and the way the sound informed the improvisational approach. It’s not as if we had never heard an alto and piano before, but the unusual clarity and the perfect juxtaposition between horn and Meehan’s tasteful minimalism made it special. Unsurprisingly there were good audiences at both of the 2018 Auckland gigs.
At the Audio Foundation, there were no charts and only the briefest of interactions between musicians prior to the performance. The sets were mostly duos – one with John Bell on vibraphone, followed by another with experimental vocalist Chelsea Prastiti and lastly Jonathan Crayford on piano. Chisholm also recited prose and played over a drone on his Sruti Box. The final number of the evening was a quartet made up of all four musicians.
I have never witnessed a free gig quite like that as the communication was so exquisitely personal. More than musicians finishing each other’s sentences. More than the flow of fresh ideas; there was a sense of musicians revealing something intangible. From out of the fading harmonics and the quiet spaces came that extra something. The quiet revealing something on the edge of consciousness, something we often miss. Arising from – evocative like a Rilke poem – or a haiku. Bell stroked his mallets across the bars or responded with staccato – or soft taps and clicks, Prastiti offered cries and bell-like utterances, framed as wordless questions, Crayford explored resonant possibilities by using extended technique or by mesmerizing with darkly descending chords – opening up a dialogue which was met in kind – sometimes gentle, at other times like a flow of coloured sparks.
The Thirsty dog gig on the following night featured the trio of Chisholm, Meehan, and Dyne (adding drummer Julien Dyne in the second half). Late last year the core trio released their album titled ‘Unwind’. Many of the tunes we heard last Wednesday and last year are on the album – plus a few new compositions. The album is released on Rattle Records and is highly recommended. If you like thoughtful, beautiful music with integrity, this is for you. The compositions are all by Meehan and Chisholm (with the exception of an arrangement of Schumann’s ‘Sei Gegrusst Viel Tausendmal’ (arranged by Chisholm). On Wednesday we also heard a delightful composition by Paul Dyne the Bass player. Adding the younger Dyne in the second half changed the mood and again the contrast between the duo, trio and quartet added to the whole. Julien Dyne is a fine drummer and I wish he appeared more often.
I must also comment on Chisholm’s playing over the Srusi Box drones. I love to hear good musicians playing over a drone and the quieter and multi-harmonic effects of the Srusi Box provided subtle wonders. Several times while the drone was sounding, Chisholm took the saxophone away from his lips and appeared to blow across the reed from a distance. As he did, a disembodied whistling sound emerged from nowhere – adding to the fading harmonics of the drone. I have no idea how he did this but it was spellbinding. To a microtonal pioneer, this is probably bread and butter – to an entranced audience it was no less than magic. I hope to put up a clip from one or both gigs later – check back in a few weeks.
As Alan Brown moves in new directions, he is leaving some extraordinary musical documents in his wake. Hot on the heels of his recent Alargo collaborations he releases a second solo album, ‘Composure’. Again, this is an ambient album and like Alargo it is meticulously crafted. It is a solo piano album but much more. Here, the minutiae of the sonic world are revealed and important ambient sounds which are often overlooked. In our busy modern lives, we drown in sonic overload. Here in Composure, the very essence of sound is explored, nurtured, curated, given wings. There is an incredible floating quality to these tracks and the effects are otherworldly, but this is a world beginning at Brown’s fingertips. A world that exists inside a Steinway D piano, an empty concert chamber; in places overlooked. There are faint sounds of the street present and other ‘found’ environmental sounds. These are present as breakthrough sound, loops or drones, adding texture and depth.
It is tempting to think that the pieces arose from written charts or pre-existing motifs, but they didn’t. This is spontaneous composition and formed in reaction to the sounds and the atmospheres of the moment. With the exception of the Scape drone effect on ‘Form of a Dream’, all other effects have been added after the exploration. The material in this album was recorded at the same time as ‘Silent Observer’ and this is a worthy successor. This music has no preconditions attached and the listener should engage in whatever way they wish. There are incalculable benefits from slowing our lives down and when we do we become deeper listeners, more nuanced in our approach to the frenetic world about us.
I have added the first track ‘Form of a Dream’ as a Bandcamp sound clip. I urge everyone to set up a free Bandcamp account – I do much of my listening there. You can buy physical albums, get high (or low) fidelity downloads, or stream. The artists also get a greater share than with other platforms. The Composure album is available from alanbrown.co.nz or from alanbrown.bandcamp.com
It was a foolish oversight on my part – I hadn’t visited Melbourne in fifteen years. I had seen quite a few Melbourne improvisers perform in Sydney or Auckland but failed to track them back to their native habitat. The last time I was there, Bennett’s Lane was still a thing, but closed for two weeks. That was the week between Christmas and New Year; that arid Jazzless desert in the live music calendar. With family now residing in Melbourne, I decided to atone for my sins and I headed off while the Jazz calendar was over-flowing with tasty offerings.
My first stop en route was Sydney where I met up with Mike Nock. That evening we caught a gig at the Foundry 616 where Nadje Nordhuis and James Shipp were playing. When Nock enters a venue the room rearranges itself. You immediately become aware of people in the dark interior, gathering quietly to pay their respects. It was great to see him looking so well and to hear about his new projects. We miss him in Auckland as he has not played here for over a year. I had previously seen Noordhuis perform when the Darcy James Argue band came through Auckland. She is a member of both the Darcy Argue and the Maria Schnieder ensembles – Shipp is a vibraphonist percussionist and ‘synthesisist’ and well-known in New York. The gig opened the Sydney Women’s Jazz Festival and it was well received. I was also delighted to catch up with Thomas Botting who played bass for that particular gig. A robustly healthy and startlingly fit Botting. After a few days with my daughter and grandchildren, I headed to the domestic airport and Melbourne.
To my delight, I was greeted at Melbourne Airport by large signs reading – ‘Welcome Home from Jail Granddad’. Aussie humour is unique and often intentionally embarrassing. Hiding behind false sensibilities is not an option. If you don’t like good-natured piss-take humour – go elsewhere (Kiwis get this). It is no accident that our lost, lamented and beloved Kiwi comedian John Clarke and the actor/comedian Bruno Lawrence settled there. A larrikin world-view runs through the music as well. There is a unique openness about much of Australian improvised music. It is of course informed by the Jazz roots of America, but strangely unbeholden to it. The musicians are liberal-minded and many are unashamedly strident in their political views – this can feed the music as well. New iterations of the Liberation Music Orchestra are forming in Melbourne and that makes perfect sense.
There were quite a few Melbourne musicians on my list and at the top was Barney McAll. It is no secret that I am fascinated by the depth and scope of McAll’s music and interviewing him is always an interesting experience. Some musicians go to great lengths to hide from personal scrutiny, believing that their music is all you need to know about them. That is an entirely valid viewpoint, but a curse if you’re a biographer or reviewer looking for context. When I review, I try to avoid armchair appraisals; attending live music whenever possible; eager to know something of the musician, the thought processes, philosophical leanings; hoping to look behind the mask. Possessing a stubborn belief that an artist and the music are two sides of an alchemic essence.
McAll texted me his address and I ventured out into the heat, trying to make sense of the train system. I got off somewhere in the outer suburbs; prophetically, somewhere near Mooroolbark. There was a bing and I looked at my phone. The text read, ‘Round the back your grace – ignore the dog’. McAll greeted me warmly and we went inside for a Vegemite crumpet. As he was wearing military-style camouflage, I didn’t dare tell him that Kiwis only eat Marmite (look up the great Marmageddon debate which erupted after the Christchurch earthquake). It is always a pleasure talking to McAll, but unforeseen things occur when your guard is down. He played me some new compositions, showed me a video he was working on and we discussed the coming year’s projects. Then unexpectedly, I found myself the subject. Being interviewed about my poetry and the duty of creative artists to get their work out there. As we talked, and as if it were the most natural thing in the world, he handed me a grinning ventriloquist’s dummy and sat another in the next chair. The discussion continued, was filmed in real time; two child-sized puppets and me; and the McAll directing it Fellini fashion. For more about McAll’s recent ‘Hearing The Blood’ album or his catalogue, go to iTunes, Spotify or www.extracelestialarts.bandcamp.com – read my recent blog post, December 4, 2017.
While I was there, McAll phoned Julien Wilson to find out his gig schedule for me. There was a gig of his on in Northcote and so I dashed back to the Jazz Corner hotel before heading out into the warm Melbourne night. It was an auspicious night to be out and about in Melbourne as the divisive and ill-considered same-sex marriage plebiscite had delivered a resounding yes vote. Whole inner suburbs were closed as revellers partied. Adding to the celebratory mood, a significant World Cup qualifying match was underway (which the Aussies subsequently won to the chagrin of Kiwis who lost their qualifying match). All of the above spells happy chaos in an art and sports-mad city. And I had music happening – lots of it. A scarfed man sitting opposite me on the tram was laughing and crying in turns. He was so drunk that his eyes revolved in opposite directions. Someone asked him if he was anticipating a win and he nodded chuckling, then just as quickly he cried inconsolably – ‘Cats are bastards’ he mumbled – ‘I just fell over one and hurt my arm’.
Jules Wilson is a tall friendly man and he plays like he lives with his heart on his sleeve. I have followed his Facebook posts and listened to his music for years; no-one is ever left wondering what his worldview is. Like many musicians, he loathes injustice or inequality and you can hear this manifest in his sound. Not in an angry way but in an earnest cajoling way, demanding that humanity ups it’s game. Creating original improvised music taps into a deep well of experience and with mature players, their character oozes through the notes. A lot of modern saxophonists have a raspiness to their tone and often produce a vibrato-less sound. Wilson has a rich full-bodied sound and it touches on an era when the tenor giants ruled the world. Appropriately there is often some breathy vibrato at the end of a phrase. This is not to say that he is an old-fashioned player because he isn’t. It is rather that the history is in that tone – ancient to modern.
There is another factor which could influence his tenor sound – he doubles on clarinet. The clarinet is the first horn he mastered. While many saxophonists treat that horn like a difficult inlaw, Wilson perseveres, regarding it with a begrudging affection. I was stunned by the beauty of his clarinet playing and how modern the instrument sounded in his hands (he played a fast-paced bop classic, not a ballad). I asked him in the break how he felt about the horn – “it’s a punishing unforgiving instrument, but I can’t bring myself to abandon it” he told me.
Wilson came sharply onto my radar with McAll’s extraordinary Mooroolbark album but he has long been one of Australia’s most successful Jazz Musicians. Winning the National Jazz Award in 1994, The Music Council of Australia Freedman Fellowship in 2006, The 2008 Bell Award – Artist of the Year, a Bell Award trifecta in 2014 and the APRA Art Music Award for Excellence in 2016. I have recently been listening to his back catalogue which is available on Band Camp (some CD albums are also still available). His output is diverse and all of it interesting – an edgy album with Jim Black, Mark Hellas and Steve Magnussen – several recordings with his popular trio (Stephen Grant on accordion and Stephen Magnusson on guitar) – an extraordinary couple of albums featuring Barney McAll on piano, Jonathan Zwartz bass and Allan Browne on drums. There are around twenty albums in all. All are worth a listen but his ‘This is Always’ album is an absolute gem (the live ‘This Narrow Isthmus’ which followed, likewise). The former harks back to a specific era in the best possible way – not as a tribute album, but as a rekindling of a bright flame.
The story behind the album is instructive as it takes us to the heart of an in-the-moment creative process. The musicians wanted to capture the vibe and style of the famous Prestige Meeting Sessions. McAll and Wilson swapped a few charts but had no detailed discussions – no rehearsals were scheduled. On the day of recording, the four turned up at the studio with a ‘first-take’ approach. No baffles and no headphones were used. This allowed for a sense of immediacy and real-time heightened interaction. McAll reimagining the piano styles of the era in passing – some Evans like intros and even using the locked hand’s style briefly. Wilson sending forth a flurry of swoon-worthy fat warm tones. None of this sounded contrived – it sounded like the present and past fused into a cohesive whole. The album is an important milestone in Australian music and no antipodean Jazz lover should be without a copy. It should not be regarded as a trip down memory lane, but as a testament to the eternal now. The unsuspecting will believe it to be a loved classic album of the Prestige-era and scratch their heads to place it.
When Bennetts Lane passed into history, the Melbourne club scene rose to the challenge. The Bennetts management (or some of them but minus the name – it’s a complicated story) opened a new club in the industrial heartland of Brunswick. The JazzLab is a stunning venue. Situated in a basement, it has all that old-school Jazz Club vibe but not at the expense of good taste. It is comfortable but not over-decorated (I have seen some shockers in other countries, trying so hard to be cool that they end up as museums to kitsch). More importantly, the sight lines are good and the acoustics great. I attended the JazzLab with expat Auckland musician Matt Steele and my son Jeremy and the gig was a treat. It was the album release of ‘Finding The Balance’ by the Paul Williamson Quintet. This was a solid unit with an inexhaustible array of talented firepower and good tunes. All were new to me except Jamie Oehlers, who I see perform regularly.
The unit had swags of punch and plenty of textural contrasts. It was big enough to sound like a larger ensemble at times, but the writing allowed individuals to shine. Oehlers was on fire, hitting sweet spot after sweet spot during solos – carving his path through the air like a titan. Closer to earth, but equally attention-grabbing was the leader Williamson – his sound control impressive – his trumpet speaking a very human dialect. I had not encountered Andrea Keller before, but her tasteful minimalist approach also caught my attention – it contrasted nicely with the fulsome horns. The remaining musicians a six-string electric bass player Christopher Hale and a very tasty drummer James Mclean. It was a great launch in an interesting venue – what could be better.
Keller, in particular, intrigued me, so I looked through the gig guide to see if she was playing elsewhere. My luck was in as she was leading an interesting trio at the Uptown Jazz Cafe in Fitzroy. The next night, was a warm one, and I walked to Fitzroy, pausing to eat street food on the way. Finally, I stumbled up the stairs to a very warm Uptown Jazz Cafe. The venue was not air-conditioned and ill-lit, but the gloom and the heat added to the ambiance. As the band set up, a shaft of dim orange light beamed on them, illuminating the trio as ghostly orange specters – enlarging and distorting their forms as it projected them onto a screen. The music bordered on avant-garde and the setting was therefore perfect.
The trio of piano, violin, and electric bass didn’t disappoint. Keller’s serialist credentials were very much on-show as she spun out a filigree of wonderfully intricate patterns. At first, appearing to be repeating motifs, but a more careful listening revealing otherwise. Finely detailed changes to the underlying structure guided the ear into a finely wrought lace work of notes. In this, I detected the influence of Riley or other adventurous souls. The violin and bass meeting the challenge, adding colour, texture, and melodic contrast (I didn’t catch their names). I had recently been listening to Terry Riley’s ‘Lazy Afternoon Among the Crocodiles’, so this gig was very pleasing to my ear.
I saw other gigs during the week, but the standouts were those mentioned. Melbourne is a city of the arts and a very European styled city. It is therefore not surprising that Jazz flourishes there. I have traveled through many of the worlds great cities in the past year, but this city is as Jazz rich as the best.
Alargo has been around for several years now and Primacy is their second album. The first Alargo album, Central Plateau, was great, but Primacy has that real wow factor. It is a testament to the extraordinary imagination and musicianship of Alan Brown and Kingsley Melhuish. They have created a world just beyond our grasp, but palpable for all that. The idea that two musicians can create such a cornucopia of sound is astonishing. It is divine trickery; it is music that lives everywhere but nowhere; it is quite wonderful.
This fulfils every requirement of a good ambient album: it references many genres and many moods but never overemphasis one aspect over another. It floats and shifts like moments in a dream and above all, it invokes an etherial sensory imagery. The kaleidoscope of patterns may elude the conscious mind but the subconscious mind will form its own associations. This is the philosophy behind ambient music. Perhaps its most valuable attribute is its evanescence, that elusive quality where images fade shortly after they are fixed upon. This is the stuff of quantum physics and of good improvising musicians. This is the essence of Primacy.
The first track opens with a drone which pulses gently. As the modulation shifts the rhythms shift with it – subtly at first, and then as more voices are added you find yourself lost in the journey. This is an Alice like a dreamscape, but there are no bad-tempered queens down this rabbit hole. The sensation of floating is constantly enhanced, as snippets of music come and go; disembodied voices hinting at places as far-flung as the Himalayas, an old European cathedral or the South Pacific; mesmerised we follow. This piece and those after taking you into deep space (or an interior somewhere very much like it). Anyone who enjoyed Kubrick’s ‘2001 A Space Odyssey’ will love this. The sound clip I have posted is the first track titled ‘Vocale’.
If you are a fan of ambient improvised music you should rush to grab a copy of Primacy. If you are unsure, then listen to the sample clip, close your eyes and let your imagination guide you. This album is as good as the best of the Nordic Ambient Albums and I’m sure that Manfred Eicher could not have improved on the mixing and mastering. Two Nordic Jazz Musicians visited New Zealand recently and we spoke about artists like Eivind Aarset and Jan Bang. This form of live improvised music is very popular in Scandinavian countries and Jazz audiences are on board with it. I hope that Primacy reaches the European continent. I am certain that it would do very well there.
Kingsley Melhuish features on: vocals, trumpet, Ocarina, Koauau, Tuba, Conch Shells, Percussion, Loops, iOS effects. Alan Brown is on: Keyboards, Synthesizers, Loops, iOS synths/effects. The album is available from Primacy-Alargo-Bandcamp.
The Roberto Magris albums came to my attention some years ago as I have an interest in Italian and Mediterranean Jazz forms. While his albums fall into the straight-ahead Jazz category, a careful listening reveals his strong Mediterranean and Latin influences. His latest album ‘The Roberto Magris Sextet live in Miami’ is his most recent release and it has a distinctly international feel. This is partly down to the classy lineup but more to its edgy Latin-tinged hardbop vibe. Magris is a pianist in the classic mould – wearing his influences on his sleeve and unashamedly so. In interviews and in previous albums he has cited pianists like Horace Silver, Elmo Hope, Duke Jordan and Sonny Clark. He has an abiding fondness for the bop and hardbop swingers but stylistically he incorporates much of his own journey as an Italian pianist. He is extremely well recorded and has been a sideman for luminaries like Kai Winding, Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis and Sal Nistico. Of interest to me is his association with the west coast alto saxophonist Herb Geller. Magris is flawless in his articulation of ideas and his albums and his compositions don’t disappoint.
Given the above, it is unsurprising that Magris chose Brian Lynch in a leading role. The American born but outward looking Lynch is a significant presence in the Jazz world and particularly so on Latin projects. He has recorded extensively, has travelled everywhere and is a Grammy-winning artist. His solo’s here are impeccable, and like Magris, he favours a hardbop approach. This gives him an air of real authority.
On tenor saxophone is Jonathan Gomez, on bass (the renowned) Chuck Bergeron, on drums John Yarling and on percussion is Murph Aucamp. Magris is the musical director of a Kansas City based label ‘JMood Records‘ and this album and others can be sourced from there. I have put up a short clip ‘Blues for my sleeping Baby’, which reminds of the earlier East European pianist, Krzysztof Komeda. Magris is from Trieste, a once important free port on the Adriatic; a haven for great poets like Rilke and Joyce and now nestled quietly on the edge of faded empires. I visited there once and loved the place – I will certainly go again and when I do I will endeavour to track down a Magris gig.
This post and all on this site are by John Fenton, a photographer, videographer and professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association.
There are a finite number of notes in a scale or colours in the visual spectrum, but an infinite number of possibilities arise. Embracing the latter, multi-instrumentalist, multimedia sculptor and composer Finn Scholes constantly scans the landscape for new material. When he locates something shiny, he appropriates it as a magpie might, storing it in memory until he can bend it to a new purpose. A musician with few boundaries; a disruptor of complacency, his open ears and pioneering disposition equipping him well for his musical explorations. The genius of this music is that the listener will find any number of references, and each according to that persons taste. Any attempt to narrow the music down to a specific range of source materials, or to the prime influences, will, therefore, fall short; there is no correct answer.
There is an innate human urge to catalogue, look for pattern recognition and to compare and as I am a compulsive assembler of odd lists, I will offer up mine. This was: Bowie, Spaghetti Western movies, Surf guitar, Pink Floyd, a Mexican Soap opera, William Burrows, Lounge music, 70’s Jazz Space Funk, Bill Frisell and above all John Zorn (‘The Big Gundown’, ‘The Dreamers’). It was also Hokusai, psychedelic poster art and Crum The Bum comics. In my ears, it had Jazz sensibilities and in my eyes, it was the psychedelic Kings Cross of my youth.
The Wine Cellar is the perfect venue for such a launch. Down Karangahape Road you go, past the revellers and the sirens, past Shanghai Lils with its delightfully dissipated vibe, along to St Kevin’s Arcade, down the wide staircase and through the narrow door (surprisingly not the entrance to a broom closet). Into the bar, through the bar and under the arcade itself. A true home of the Avant-garde and of underground music. It is a vibing place where the sound of music-past leaks out of the air conditioning unit months later. It is so alternative, that the word ‘genre’ gets you chucked out by a hipster bearded bouncer. On this night it was jam-packed with sweating bodies and raised swaying arms; the temperature, so hot that you could fire porcelain. There was no room to swing a cat, but if you did, you would fell several hipsters. It was dark as a nun’s habit at the back while the front pulsed in dancing light. Multicoloured cartoons appeared and vanished just as quickly, playing on the instruments and the faces of the band. And meanwhile, the excitement grew – it had no means of escape.
Up front, washed over with film and comic strip characters, the Carnivorous Plant Society; an organic entity with technicolour tendrils; the core band plus a steady procession of guest artists waiting for their cues. Finn Scholes the leader, on a bank of analogue keyboards, an ancient vibraphone, a trumpet and a tuba. At the rear, his brother Tam on guitar, Tam’s partner Siobhanne Thompson on fiddle and vocals. To complete the family involvement, Jeff Scholes, the father of Finn and Tam, read improbable parables, parables which may or may not have had a deeper meaning. The rest of the core line up were Cass Basil (bass and vocals) and Alister Deverick on drums. On vocals during the live performance were Hayden Eastmond, Ed Casterlow and Hollie Fullbrook. Additional instrumentalists were Tim Stewart (trumpet), Nick Atkinson (saxophone) and Lisa Crawley (recorder). .
The Carnivorous Plant Society has been around for a while. I first reviewed them at a CJC gig in 2015 and liked the way they appropriated media; above all, I liked their vision. Now, two years later, after festival appearances and many gigs, they stand as a fully formed and highly compelling unit; living at the heart of Auckland’s alternative music scene, where the cross-over between bands and styles enriches everyone. Scholes plays with bands like Hopetown Brown, Audrey’s Dance, Swamp Thing, Avalanche City and the Zestnicks. He is also an occasional presence in Jazz studies student performance ensembles and in experimental or avant-garde music lineups. Scholes lives where music is evolving and where genres bleed into each other. A Jazz musician as the ghost in a bigger machine. His Jazz background will remain our secret.
The album will officially be released around March 2018. Additionally performing on the album are Lawrence Arabia, Don McGlashan, Hollie Fullbrook, Hayden Eastmond, Tiny Ruins. The band’s website is www.carnivorousplantsociety.com
My son and his girlfriend were home for Christmas, so I took them to the gig. Both live in central San Francisco and they are therefore familiar with the alternative music and experimental media scene in the Bay Area. The gig resonated strongly with them and they felt right at home. Buy the album, support alternative music and get along to the release gig if you can.
The Carnivorous Plant Society performed at The Wine Cellar, 183 Karangahape Road, St Kevin’s Arcade, Central Auckland on 22 December 2017.
At some point in human evolution, the majority of humans decided to stay put. In consequence, the hunter-gatherers and the pastoral nomads became outliers. As civilizations grew, agriculture grew and large enclosures and granaries grew along with them. Beyond the walls and the jumble of enclosures; largely unnoticed, often unseen, foraging continued unabated. The homeless on the streets forage, philosophers forage, writers forage, wild and domestic animals forage and above all improvisers forage.
Martin Kay’s gig was a tribute to foraging; highlighting the activities of foraging animals, creatures large and small and to the improbable life lessons, they impart. It was about cultivating absurdity and profundity in equal parts, it was about following the ancient herds using postmodern skills. It nibbled at reality until you saw it afresh, building on overlooked narratives, finding the things we often miss; a Zen Koan wrapped in sound.I first saw Kay in 2013 with ‘Song FWAA’. The post from then and the accompanying sound clip is still available on this site (use site search, type in Song FWAA). On Wednesday, his charts were for a larger ensemble. This time offering fresh insights; taking us further down the Rabbit hole. The pieces were of variable lengths and sometimes in parts. At some point during the second set, he played a piece titled ‘Ligeti’s Goat (I first heard that back in 2013). While the piece has melodic hooks and a basic structure, it is more, a surrealistic journey. A place where imagining, spoken narrative and musical narrative meet. Ligeti’s goat is vividly embedded in my memory; it is not a piece easily forgotten, a goat wandering through pastures, locating carrots (perhaps forbidden carrots), digesting the vegetables in that mysterious way of all ruminants.
There was a piece titled puffer fish, another called ‘Thrice mice’ (that chart in a minuscule script like mice prints) and a vampire piece titled ‘Once bitten once shy’. There was also an appealing piece about a tracker dog, selling his skills to those who might have need of them. None of this was an invitation to anthropomorphize – Kay’s animals spoke for themselves. He spends much of his time in New Zealand these days as his wife works here. For this project, he selected a group of local improvisers to form the ensemble; younger players with an open approach to improvisation. In this respect, the location favoured him, bringing the gifted Callum Passels into the group. Also featuring Crystal Choi, Michael Howell, Eamon Edmuson-Wells and Tristan Deck; each one of these having a stake in explorative improvised music. The only non-original piece was ‘Turkish Bath’ by the innovative trumpeter Don Ellis. For material similar to Kays, you need not look any further than Ellis or perhaps Henry Threadgill. It is good to have Kay in our midst, as he’s an interesting, often challenging and worthwhile composer. I have put up two clips – Turkish Bath and narrative about the Tracker Dog.
Let’s go – much as that dog goes / intently haphazard….not direction, ‘but each step an arrival’ (poet Denise Levertov 1923- 1997)
Forage: Martin Kay (tenor saxophone, compositions), Callum Passels (alto saxophone), Crystal Choi (keys), Eamon Edmunson-Wells (bass), Tristan Deck (drums). CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, K’Rd, Auckland, 20 September 2017
Hearing people talk about the Chris Mason-Battley Group reminds me of the Hindu parable – the blind man and the Elephant. “Oh yeah, that guy has a smooth sweet sound’ one said as if that settled the matter. Well yes, he has got a smooth sound when playing a ballad, but anyone who thinks that defines his music has simply not been paying attention. This band has enormous depth; playing anything from a melodic ballad to music that is way off the grid. What we experienced on Wednesday was music with integrity; at times raw and inventive, drawing us into its heart, emotionally engaging and above all satisfying. The first number was ‘Mountain Song’ (by CMB); then they moved to a series of pieces from the CMB John Psathas project ‘Dialogos’ (progressing through excerpts from ‘Song for Simon’ and ‘Demonic Thesis’). As that set progressed we heard a new composition or two and lastly ‘Tahuna Caravan Park’ from his ‘Two Tides’ album. This gave us a broad sweep of his past projects and the Psathas album in particular. Dialogos was widely acclaimed as an exciting and bold step forward for the band – I can highly recommend the album (out on Rattle). Before the band left the stage for a break, Mason-Battley said; “That was the nice half – the second set is nasty half” (quoting from an album titled ‘The Jaberwocky comes to Town’ which had a ‘nice side’ and a ‘nasty side’.) As pleasing as the band were in the first set, they reached much deeper for the second; pulling out an utterly engaging and masterful performance. It began with several of the blacker pieces from ‘Dialogos’, ‘The Calenture Suite’. The drummer Stephen Thomas must be mentioned at this point – His work was integral to the overall performance and it underlined his maturity as a musician. At times subtle, at others incredibly complex – and all made to look easy in his hands. Thomas was extraordinary throughout and although a relative newcomer to this long-established band, his searing flames licked at their underbelly, an indispensible presence. In perfect contrast to the complex drum flurries was Sam Giles on electric bass. Giles is a master of the ostinato – repeated motifs, perfect time feel and the voodoo factor writ large. He is also an influence on the bands direction; favouring Zorn like explorations and paths less trodden. The CMB Group keyboardest is David Lines, an intersting and in my view under-rated musician. On this gig he played a Roland RD-700. What a beautiful piano and Rhodes sound. A machine hardly heard these days, replaced by the Nord Stage or modern Korgs. While the newer keyboards have more bells and whistles, I am unconvinced that their piano sound is an improvement. Perhaps it sounded so good because of Lines touch? He is not a busy pianist and every note counts, in this gig his often voice leading role was perfect for the project (his solos were stunning). I only wish we saw him more often.
As good as the rest were, Mason Battley stood out; especially on soprano and alto. He has a real stage presence and his luminous lines are always well conceived. It is great to hear him reaching ever deeper as time goes by. The number I have posted is a tune of his titled ‘Drum Dance 4 (Psathas)’; a Coltrane-esk exploration that exemplifies a way-point on their interesting journey. On that tune, everything is in perfect balance, Thomas taking a leading role while the others work off that, each bar taking us deeper, highly charged and sparse. The last tune of the evening was free and political. It was titled ‘The Emperor Has No Clothes’; an obvious reference to the greedy authoritarian amoral elites that hold sway in the world; particularly the Trump administration. It was free and it was raw emotion – in the background a loop recited ‘billions and billions’ – then, faintly at first, we heard the strains of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’. The band read the mood of the audience well with that one – people stomped and cheered afterwards as if someone had taken the words right out of their mouths and rendered them into abstract musical form.
CMB Group: Chris Mason-Battley (soprano, alto, tenor saxophones, compositions arrangements, electronics), David Lines (keyboards), Sam Giles (electric bass), Stephen Thomas (drums) @ CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, K’Rd, Auckland, July 26, 2017
This was trippy stuff. A band that gnawed at the bones of form while the music swept us along; taking us ever deeper, forcing us to loosen our grip, as the waterfalls of sound consumed us. This was most definitely filmic music; throwing up subliminal specters like a Burroughs cut-up montage: an indie soundtrack, Voodoo but with four Papa Docs urging us toward trance.Attempts to confine improvised music within historic boundaries is plain foolishness. Never has this been more obvious to me than at last week’s ‘Monsters of The Deep’ gig. Superficially it sounded like, looked like classic fusion; but it was and it wasn’t. The keyboard instruments were classic analog, the lighting otherworldly; various delays, distortions or effects echoed across the room. While the overall vibe nodded in the direction of Jazz/Rock, the musical language was that of deep improvisation. The accessibility hiding worlds of complexity and there’s the wonder of it. Few local musicians could pull this off as well as Crayford and Haines did.The collaboration between Crayford and Haines is certainly not their first; that took place in New York a long time ago. Since then they have both gained international reputations, recording in the UK or in New York. Both have separately won the Best New Zealand Jazz album of the year during the last decade, both attract sizable audiences. These artists are generally offshore but we caught a break this year – they are domiciled in Auckland at the moment. While the project draws on various inspirational sources like Alice Coltrane and Igor Stravinsky it is also brimming with originality. This is ‘spiritual music’ of the highest order and it uses the devices of the Shaman: long intensifying vamps and hypnotic beats which slip deftly into the consciousness. Throughout the night, it was Haines who took the melodic path while Crayford provided magnificent architectural structures. If even one element was removed, the edifice could fail; this was a music built from layers, each balancing delicately on the one beneath; only exposed incrementally, like a nested Russian doll. Marika Hodgson was the perfect choice for running those long ostinato bass lines. Her time feel is impeccable and she creates a gut punch while blending seamlessly into the mix. Not many know it, but Crayford is also a gifted bass player – he knows exactly what is needed and he trusts Hodgson to deliver. The one musician that I had not seen before was Mickey Ututaonga. He has a long history with Haines and again he was a good choice. Because the music was so carefully balanced, the last thing it needed was a busy splashy drummer. Ututaonga synced with the others, his every beat enhancing the overall hypnotic effect. The other stars of the show were the instruments and pedals. For Crayford a Fender Rhodes and an equally vintage Clavinet; for Haines, his beautiful horns fed through a vintage SM7 Shure Microphone, then into a preamp and guitar FX board.
I have put up a clip titled ‘Stravinsky Thing‘ (Crayford). The piece is inspired by Igor Stravinsky; first an intro, then building slowly over a vamp, ratcheting up the tension on keyboards as an ostinato theme builds – the insistent bass line, the hypnotic drums, these freeing up the horns – soprano and tenor saxophones exploring; weaving in threads of vibrant colour. If only Stravinsky had been there – he was never afraid of modernity. These musicians are real monsters and their music is deep. I hope that they hang around in Auckland long enough to do it again.
Monsters of the Deep: Jonathan Crayford/Nathan Haines. Crayford (Clavinet, Rhodes, effects, compositions), Haines (tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, flute, effects, compositions), Marika Hodgson (electric bass), Mickey Ututaonga (drums). CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, K’Road, Auckland, June 21, 2017.
‘Leda’s Dream’ has been around for some time, but this is the ensemble’s first appearance at the CJC. When vocalist Chelsea Prastiti first conceived of the project, she saw it as a vehicle for unfettered collective improvisation. Her writing cleverly expands on that concept, encompassing real places, the past, abstract ideas, and opening the listener to endless possibility. There is a structure to her vision, but to grasp it you must let go of what you think you know. The pieces are mirage-like; if you look too closely they will disappear. As you listen, fragments of the familiar appear, then dissolve. These are seamless journeys; cleverly fusing reality with dreamscapes. Leda’s Dream is to be experienced and enjoyed, not pigeonholed.
This is avant-garde music, perhaps the bravest we have heard at the CJC this year. The traditional Jazz references were there, but the freedom to expand or contract themes characterised the tunes. During ‘Faster down ice’ I heard echoes of Mingus; driving, pulsating rhythms over which freedom was explored. Tristan Deck and Eamon Edmundson-Wells at the heart of this pulse (on drums and bass respectively). With a human voice in the mix, the ideas became multi-dimensional. The human voice is the oldest of instruments and when it moves beyond words, the forms which anchor it – a rawer emotion is exposed. Sometimes it is pretty or melodic, at other times a primal scream. Listening to this music is to experience sound on its own terms.Prastiti’s ‘Time Lapse Photography’ was filmic. Revealing the essence of unfolding plants – magical realism – biology expressed as music. In a similar vein was her piece,’Rain Flood’. As she sang, you experienced the droplets of water – falling slowly at first, then faster until they became a deluge. Communicating in this way is a gift few possess, the images seeming to emerge from nature or from experience, not from the musical form. I immediately thought of my favourite Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray and his mystical Monsoon scene from ‘Pather Panchali’. The effect created by Ray there, also swept us to the heart of a poignant interaction between man & nature (musically assisted in that case by Ravi Shankar and Mingus alumni Charlie Mariano).The Leda’s Dream ensemble are alumni from the UoA Jazz School. A lot of talent emerged during the years they attended and during this particular gig it coalesced. It was a pleasant surprise to see Crystal Choi playing this innovative abstract music. Choi is a musician who is fast evolving and growing in interesting ways. At Jazz school she stayed closer to traditional forms, or those referencing the folk infused ECM albums. Later I saw her giving a concert on solo piano, Jarrett like in its scope and quite wonderful. On Wednesday she embraced freedom. She was innovative, interactive and confident.
Callum Passells was the lead-horn on alto saxophone. Beside him in the front line for part of the gig was Liz Stokes on trumpet. Passells is especially comfortable in this space. Playing sparingly and never playing a note for the sake of it, each note meaning something. Michael Howel came on stage for the second set as the full Leda’s Dream experience emerged. First as a quintet then sextet and finally as a septet.
Leda’s Dream: Chelsea Prsatiti (voice, compositions), Chrystal Choi (piano, voice), Callum Passells (alto saxophone, voice), Liz Stokes (trumpet), Michael Howell (guitar), Eamon Edmudson-Wells (upright bass), Tristan Deck (drums), 16th May 2017, CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, K’Rd Auckland.
Two years have passed since Mukhlisa was last in Auckland and locals jumped at the chance to see them again. They are not your usual improvising group, fusing an exotic blend of middle eastern music, folk, and Jazz in a way that sounds totally authentic. While far from being mere novelty entertainment, the music is still fun, and because of its integrity and musicianship, other musicians flock to hear them play. It is rare to see such complex music communicated so convincingly and that is the key to their longevity and success.
With rhythmically complex music like this, it is easy to misstep. With Mukhlisa there is no evidence of that; years of playing together has allowed them to play as if one entity. While faithful to the old melodies and rhythms, a newer genre resides here. This is hopeful music for the new millennium; in these times of willful ignorance and political tomfoolery, the best way to understand our fellow humans is through the universality of art. When political systems fail us, the arts always come to our rescue.
Tim Sellars is the group’s leader and he has kept Mukhlisa together for many years. That the music at this gig sounded so fresh, is a tribute to him. Sellars is a master of middle eastern percussion instruments, and on Wednesday he had four hand drums with him; a frame drum, Darabuka, Riq, and Cajon. The Riq while the smallest of his percussion instruments, is the most fascinating. In the right hands, it is astonishingly versatile and Sellars takes full advantage of its possibilities. The soundscape created, often polyrhythmic, is impressive enough, but when Sellars plays his hands dance as if choreographed.
On amplified acoustic guitar was Glen Wagstaff, a leader in his own right, his softer acoustic sound enhancing the ensemble. His unison lines and counterpoint, adding just the right touch – balancing out the brighter sound of the flute, augmenting the bass and percussion. Few local bass players could pull this music off as well as Michael Story, his lines requiring the utmost precision. Lastly, there was Tamara Smith on flute. What a joy to see her back in town. A wonderful musician who breathes fire and magic into her instrument and who delivers tight ensemble playing and marvelous solos. I wish we saw her more often.
The set list drew on three Sellars originals (all terrific tunes – especially his ‘Strategic Point’), a number of middle eastern tunes, a Bulgarian and a Korean tune. Mukhlisa has an album out titled ‘The Puzzle’.
I always look forward to emerging artists nights at the CJC. They don’t happen often but when they do, they’re fun, full of surprise and most importantly they are hopeful events. It is usual for emerging artists to salt the mine with seasoned players. Both of the bands did well in that regard. The first band up was Misha Kourkov’s ‘Equitable Grooves’, a six-piece unit playing multi-genre Jazz focused music. The material was well written and at times ambitious. Aiming high on the bandstand is good because that is where real learning occurs. If you wish to extend your reach, then having Alan Brown on the piano is exactly what you need. With that sort of experience and groove behind you, you have a fail-safe mechanism. The set opened a little tentatively, but they quickly found their groove; the last two numbers were especially enjoyable.
Misha Kourkov is a strong tenor player. I like his playing in Oli Hollands ‘Jazz Attack’ and as a leader, he has real potential. Most younger players have discernible influences and with Kourkov it is Roger Manins. As he grows as a musician he is increasingly finding his own voice. The track that particularly took my fancy was ‘Friday night at the Cadillac Club’. Early rock and roll stole licks from Jazz. Now the tide has turned. On that number, the group mined the Happy Days vibe while sneaking in snaking bebop lines. The pairing of tenor and soprano worked well, suiting the material they played; the guitar completing the front line by adding a bluesy feel, nice solos, and textural richness. The soprano player, in particular, is one to watch, nice bass and drums also. A popular practice among emerging players is to create cryptic and often unpronounceable tune titles – if that was their aim, then both groups succeeded. The second set featured the ‘Exploding Rainbow Orchestra‘. This was a very different type of ensemble. Freer ranging, a bigger sound palette and an electric bass with the heavyweight punch of Bona. The bass player Joshua Worthington-Church who led the ensemble is accurately described as a maverick. His set list contained genuinely diverse material; gripping vamp-driven originals plus tunes from ‘Radiohead’ and ‘The Mint Chicks’. Under the leader’s guidance, the band took the material to a place close to my heart; a fusion of Jazz and psychedelia. I am happy to see this done, as the genre is all but forgotten. During the mid-seventies, that style of music was sacrificed on the altar of Jazz purism, a pompous battleground that tried to stifle genre exploration.
I have always loved the Belgium Jazz guitarist Philip Catherine. Today he is regarded as an elder statesman; admired for his work with Chet Baker, Mingus, Carla Bley, Dexter Gordon, Lagrene etc. His work with the psychedelic Jazz Fusion group ‘Focus’, or the amazingly tripped out violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, overlooked completely. This material is worthy of re-evaluation. With the Exploding Rainbows Orchestra, we moved closer to that. The band worked well as a unit but there was no doubt where the greatest strengths lay; Callum Passells and Chelsea Prastiti. A pair combining musical maturity with an inbuilt urge to push boundaries.
Music that lays down a vamp, has a locked-in drum groove, can free up the rest of the band. When there is less rigidity in the harmonic structure, and if the musicians are brave enough, they interact organically: that’s what this ensemble took advantage of. Passells on alto is a wonderful musician and he knows how to use space. When paired with Prastiti on vocals, otherworldly magic happens. In the background, almost hidden from sight, Crystal Choi layered moody fills and passages on a compact keyboard. The guitarist Michael Gianan took few risks, but his comping and his unison lines added another rich textural layer. I hope that this project continues – there are a few sound balance wrinkles to iron out, but hey, it really was a buzz.
Equitable Grooves: Misha Kourkov (leader, tenor saxophone) Alan Brown (piano), Nathan James (Guitar), Edwin Dolbel (bass), Daniel Reshtan (soprano ), Daniel Waterson (drums).
Exploding Rainbow Orchestra: Joshua Worthington-Church (Leader, electric bass), Callum Passells (alto saxophone), Sean Martin-Buss (tenor saxophone), Chelsea Prastiti (vocals), Crystal Choi (keyboards), Michael Gianan (guitar), David Harris (drums),
The event was at the CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, 03 May 2017
The Australian and New Zealand improvising scenes are a homogenous entity and long may it remain so. If the traffic sometimes appears one-sided, that is a natural consequence of our artists moving to the bigger scene; the exchange benefiting both. Many of those who jump the Tasman do well and they always return for gigs, tours, or sometimes to conduct workshops. Without these exchanges with Australia and beyond, our improvised music scene would be the poorer. This traffic brings us a number of talented Australians, musicians who probably would not have the opportunity to come otherwise; those collegial connections count for something. Drummer Simon Barker is one of those.Barker was in Auckland early last year with Carl Dewhurst. Together they are the amazing ‘Showa44’, a duo which I reviewed during their visit. Anyone who follows Barker will know how versatile he is, and above all the musical integrity and originality he brings to whatever situation he is in. Barney McAll’s award-winning ‘Mooroolbark’ and ‘Showa44’ are very different propositions but Barker sits comfortably at the heart of both; of equal importance is his teaching. While in Auckland, he held a workshop at the Auckland University Jazz School and undertook three days of intensive one-on-one teaching with students (and established musicians). Students I spoke to said that they valued the opportunity enormously.The first set featured Barker solo. It is not often that a drummer performs solo and to pull that off requires something beyond mere drum chops. Barker brings something that is uniquely himself to the kit, and he is able to communicate a story, not just a beat. He began with a tribute to an obscure central North Island Polynesian drummer (sadly the name alludes me). He has never met this person but saw a clip of him performing in the traditional Polynesian, polyrhythmic style. He had a traditional wooden drum mounted beside his big tom and working between this and his kit, he created intricate cross rhythms, worthy of a row of skilled drummers.His second and shorter piece he described as a chant and it was. The hypnotic intensity carried the audience to the last beat; just as the first piece had. He is not only a storyteller on his instrument but he is capable of creating an orchestral sound. The audience loved it. The second set was something of an impromptu affair but none the less enjoyable for that. Also on stage for that set was Dixon Nacey, Olivier Holland, and Roger Manins. So busy was Barker’s schedule that the quartet had not found time to rehearse. Even the set list was once settled on the bandstand.They began with ‘All the things you are’ and turned it on its head. The introduction performed by Holland and Barker alone was a blast. Drummer and bass exchanging phrases, challenging each other, leavening the exchanges with humour. When Nacey and Manins came in they exposed the bones of the tune. It was well done and in spite of its raw originality, the echoes of the melody hung in the air as implied offerings. The remainder of the set were original compositions and a rendition of the complex but ever popular Oleo (Rollins). Keep visiting Australians, we value you.
If you valued social justice and critical thinking, 2016 was confronting. Politically, it was the universe turned on its head. Pre-enlightenment thinking unexpectedly overwhelmed rational thought, barely literate misogynist tweets replaced policy announcements and the media discourse collapsed into alphabet rubble. A constant throughout this mayhem was the focus of the creative sector. Writers still turned out exquisite prose, visual artists like Banksy spoke truth to power and improvising musicians played on. The year may have been chaotic, but good stuff happened in spite of it.
Alargo: During the last few months several recordings and books stood out for me and the first of these was the long anticipated Alan Brown-Kingsley Melhuish ‘Alargo’ album titled ‘Central Plateau‘. I first heard them at the Golden Dawn in Ponsonby Road and loved their atmospheric free-ranging explorations. Their palette is seemingly limitless as the two utilise a variety of instruments, loops and effects (eleven in all). These ranged from the oldest of instruments (Conch shells and horns) to live sampling and a variety of Synthesisers and keyboards.
In these hands, multi layered magic is woven into the mix. This is improvised music in the purist sense and it owes as much to the experimental innovators like Jon Hassell or Terry Riley as to anyone else. For Brown, in particular, the trajectory has been constant. It was inevitable that he should create an EP like this. His last album ‘Silent Observer’ took us deep into ambient territory. Now with the able assistance of the gifted multi instrumentalist Melhuish, a wonderful new soundscape is crafted. Jazz musicians have long played over drones or embraced mood over structural convention (locally, Gianmarco Liguori, Murray McNabb and Kim Paterson were early adaptors).
This is a local variant of the exciting explorations being undertaken by the Nordic ambient improvisers. It is however, a very New Zealand sound, as the sense of space, warmth and terrain evoked could only be ours. Last week I journeyed to the central North Island of Zealand where I spent time on the Desert Road and Central Plateau. I took this album with me and it was the perfect road trip soundtrack. The title of ‘Central Plateau‘ may refer to this particular place or perhaps to an imagined landscape. As I listened to the snow-fed mountain streams, and Tui, I marvelled at how perfectly Brown and Melhuish had captured the vibe. The album is available at alargo.bandcamp.com – in CD form or digitally.In the months before Christmas, we were reeling from the twin body blows of Trump and Brexit. During this period of disbelieving paralysis, Norman Meehan, Paul Dyne and Hayden Chisholm came to town. What they played was a balm for our troubled souls, a sublime ballad gig. I reviewed the gig on November 27, 2016 (this site). A week later Norman Meehan and Tony Whincup launched a new book titled ‘New Zealand Jazz life’. This is a great read for anyone interested in New Zealand music history and a must for anyone interested in improvised music. Meehan’s prose is much like his playing, devoid of needless ornamentation but pleasing. he is a natural with words, but he also manages to impart vast amounts of information without the reader ever feeling force-fed. His interviews with significant New Zealand improvising musicians are carefully blended with personal observation. Musicians like Jim Langabeer, Lucian Johnson, Nathan Haines, Kim Paterson, Jeff Henderson, Anthony Donaldson, Frank Gibson jr and Roger Manins are featured. I highly recommend this book as a vital reference work and as a very good read. ‘New Zealand Jazz Life‘ is published by Victoria University Press and available at all good bookstores.
Most Anticipated Albums 2017 –
Manins, Samsom, Holland, Field are rumoured to be recording a new ‘DOG‘ album. If it is anything like DOG one, we can expect a wonderful album. In December the band performed at the Thirsty Dog, and on all indications this will be a contender for another Jazz Tui. The band is simply extraordinary and it is impossible to fault them. ‘DOG’ is renown for showcasing great compositions, superb musicianship and for generating joyous excitement.
Meehan, Chisholm and Dyne have also finished recording and the album will be released sometime this year. Anyone who heard them on tour will certainly want the album. I will keep you posted on that.
I spent the northern Autumn travelling extensively throughout Europe and on the return journey I stopped off in San Francisco. Along the way I collected ‘found’ poetry. My self-imposed task was to record any poem (or fragment of a poem) scrawled on a wall or pavement, or in a street handout. These stumbled-upon poets were often unknown to me and this personalised anthology is the perfect trip reminder. As I moved from city to train, my bags become increasingly heavy with volumes of verse. In Gdansk, North Eastern Poland, I discovered the Nobel Prize winning poet Wislawa Szymborska. Her Maps‘ anthology has seldom been out of my hands since. Szymborska communicates the Polish experience like few others. She evokes a sense of impermanence, an un-belonging that has characterised Polish life for millennia. I am descended from Pomeranian Polish stock and perhaps this adds a particular resonance in my case. This is a window into a floating world surprisingly free of rancour. ‘Maps’ in translation is published by Mariner Books.The City Lights book shop in North Beach San Francisco has always been at the centre of my universe. Whenever I’m in that wonderful city I head there immediately. I had just spotted a verse from a Diane di Prima poem in a street pamphlet and I couldn’t wait to get a volume or two of her poetry. I have long been familiar with di Prima’s work, but the gifted female Beat poets were unfairly eclipsed by their male counterparts. A book published by Conari Press titled ‘Women of the Beat Generation’ is now back in print and it’s a good starting point for examining their body of work. di Prima is still with us and some of her best work is contained in a recent volume titled ‘The Poetry Prize’ published by the City Lights Foundation. Lastly I will post one of my own recent poems, which rounds off the theme of maps. I wrote this in the week before my journey began. As I was about to depart, a well-known New Zealand Jazz musician shared some travel tips with me, offering insights, drawing me an abstract map as guide. I was so pleased with it that I wrote this poem. I took his wonderful map with me and although I was unable to strictly follow it’s path, the spirit of it was an inner compass to guide me. It made me happy to have it near – now a prized possession, a travel memory, a manifest.
Every time an article appeared in the late twentieth century proclaiming the death of Modernism, another appeared shortly after; pointing out, rightly, that profound echoes of the movement will linger and intrigue a while yet. Perhaps because of when I was born, (immediately after the second war), this movement fascinates me and will until my last breath. It was a profound moment in the human journey when the hegemony of historical artistic values were challenged, discarded. Schoenberg, Coltrane, Brubeck, Riley, Colman, Matisse, Picasso, Miro. Pollock, Rothko, Eliot, Pound, Kerouac, and even Freud are defined by this impulse to move free from the received wisdom of history.
Those names and others were significant among the game-changing modernists. The paradox is, that once defined, accepted, the movement they arose from became part of conventional history. The energies arising from the Modernist impulse were profound and so powerful that counter-revolutions are endlessly trying to reset the clock – to recapture late 19th century values, a time when empires and financially powerful men determined our world view (the Trump, Brexit phenomena).Stephen Small is a wonderful pianist but he is much more than that. He conjures up musical projects that catch people unawares; original projects, affording us a viewpoint on life and art that we would not experience otherwise. The concept behind the first outing of the Mexico City Blues band was to look at, examine the Jazz of 1957, fusing it with the Beat poems of Jack Kerouac (Kerouac wrote Mexico City Blues in that year – see earlier post). This was in part a re-imagining, but also a fresh look through post millennial eyes. When Stephen Small takes on a project he brings to it an immense musical knowledge, but more importantly an eye for the unusual, for quirky detail (no artist, musician, writer or poet worth their salt can succeed without this). When artists do their job well they show us the world afresh.
Mexico City Blues 2016, unexpectedly took us into the heart of Eastern Bloc Europe during the immediate post-war era. What a marvellous idea and what extraordinary music we heard. By coincidence, just before this gig, I was travelling through the former Eastern Bloc and I gained a strong sense of the wonderful music existing there – a music largely obscured from the anglo-centric view, created in an era of strong disapproval and inside hermetically sealed borders. A small cadre of Poles, East Germans, Czechs, Romanians and Russians listened to Jazz when they could. Forbidden LP’s circulated, Radio America broadcasts were devoured and later on there were a handful of US State Department Goodwill Tours (aka propaganda). Small pointed out something important.
The Jazz that these musicians created, recorded, while referencing the American or Scandinavian music was also very much their own. They hated being told that Jazz was forbidden by the philistine authorities, but they were also suspicious of swallowing the US State Department line. Jazz is and should be by its very nature suspicious of any party line. There is a little Evans, Ellington and Brubeck in their music but what defines these artists is an uncompromising originality. I am a longtime time fan of Polish Jazz, as it is interestingly melodic and distinctive. The most important thing I learned while in Poland was that the ethnic Poles did not rebel against Russia out of any yearning for American capitalism, nor did they despise socialism. They just wanted the jackboots of Russia and Germany off their neck. Nations and art forms are happiest when finding their own way in their own time. Hearing this music is to glimpse the soul of an artistically suppressed people, finding hidden pathways towards the light.
The gig traversed the compositions of four 1950’s to 60’s era Eastern Bloc musicians and paid tribute to the experimental free improvised music of Russia. There was a distinct flavour to all of the pieces. They were lush without over ornamentation, marvellously inventive, moody and original (perhaps tinged with the dark romanticism of Slavonic literature). After hearing these composers, my interest is piqued enough to want to lift this corner of the Iron Curtin further.
The artist featured most was the amazing Krzysztof Komeda, a wonderful composer and interesting pianist whose dark and moody compositions are forever associated with Roman Polanski movies; a match made in heaven. Anyone who follows the Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko will have heard Komeda often (Stanko was in many of the Komeda bands). If you saw Polanski’s ‘Knife in the water’, ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ or ‘The Fearless Vampire Killers’ you have absorbed his music without realising it. ‘Astigmatic’ Komeda’s greatest album, is highly regarded to this day. It signals the first significant shift away from American Jazz sensibilities, establishing a new and predominantly European Jazz aesthetic. I once saw Polanski interviewed about his early movies and he spoke passionately about Komeda and his music. The Komeda compositions we heard were the achingly beautiful ‘Ballad for Bernt’ and ‘Crazy Girl’ (both from ‘Knife in the Water’).
First up was a solo piece, ‘Suite for Jazz Orchestra’ by the East German composer Pavel Blatny. Then Bassist Jo Shum joined Small for two Komeda numbers – following that the duo played ‘Gral’ by Ludwig Petrovsky (another East German). The last piece in the first set was a ballad by Murad Kazhlaev (an Azerbaijani). I have not seen Shum perform for some time but she was magical – her touch and instinctive feel for this interesting music adding deep resonance. The second set was free improvised music in the tradition of, and honouring the all but forgotten experimental improvisers of 1960’s Russia. For this set Small was joined by Dave Chechelashvili on modular synthesiser. As Small carved out motifs and themes, developing them and exploring the possibilities, Chechelashvili shaped the sound. Small’s Korg keyboard was split and connected with the modular synth; as patch cords were adjusted and knobs tweaked, we heard a music that you don’t expect from Communist Russia. Evidently and surprisingly, this was tolerated because it was perceived as artistic exploration. It was hard not to think of Glass, Reich or Riley and wonder at this parallel development.
Mexico City Blues: Stephen Small (piano, keyboards, concept), Jo Shum (double bass), Dave Chechelashvili (modular synth). November 2nd 2016, CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Albion Hotel, Auckland.
The alternative music scene in Auckland is surprisingly strong and although at times appearing hermetically sealed against the outside world, it flourishes in discrete self-contained units. There are no neon signs proclaiming ‘underground music found here. If you visit Karangahape Road on the right night, deploying a seismometer to the footpath outside St Kevin’s Arcade, or to the walls of the Parisian Tie Factory, the readings will red-line. The digital spikes are an indication of subterranean life. I love these basement venues and reclaiming them in the right way is an art form. The basements I refer to were once utilitarian storehouses from a bygone era, a monotoned boring past wearing walk shorts – now softened by memory. Now, they emit a frisson of mystique and risk – alternative music lives here. A towering presence in this shadowy world is musician Jeff Henderson.
The aptly named ‘Dreamville’ project came to my attention when Henderson appeared at the CJC in 2015 it floored me, the concept grounded in a reality we often overlook and at our peril. The primal bubbling energy underpinning sound itself. The first time I heard ‘Dreamville Jazzmares’ the lineup was different – a quintet; reeds, vibes, guitar, upright bass and drums. Now, the album features an octet and for the Auckland release, Henderson added an extra horn and electric bass. While it is tempting to reference a Sun Ra band or perhaps Zorn’s Electric Masada, this is overwhelmingly a manifestation of Henderson’s originality. A gifted composer, talented musician and tongue in cheek visionary.
While the careful listener may initially find a lot that feels familiar, the familiar is illusionary, snatches of past and future, wearing clothes made of mist. The relationship with other projects is in the end superficial. This is important original work and there is no mistaking that. When listening to the Auckland release an additional realisation struck me. Rhythm is the dominant force in Henderson’s compositions. His deeply woven rhythms extend way beyond the drums and percussion (there are two drummers – at times three). Here every instrument is rhythmically charged under his guidance. During the live performance in Auckland Henderson often picked up a bright red parade bass drum. As he tapped out rhythms on the side or accented beats behind the complex interwoven trap drummers, a marvellous polyrhythmic effect occurred. An effect heard in Polynesian drumming. The beats, strums, wails and chords often fall in step – primal morse – dot-dash-dah in myriad combinations.
Phill Dadson, Jim Langabeer, Liz Stokes
The Dreamsville Wellington recording band is Jeff Henderson (alto, baritone, c-melody saxophones, voice, bass drum), Bridget Kelly (tenor saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet), Gerard Crewdson (trumpet, trombone, tuba, voice), Daniel Beban (guitar), Julian Taylor (guitar), Tom Callwood (acoustic, electric bass), Joe McCallum (drums, Percussion), Anthony Donaldson (drums). This is a suite that lends itself to variation and interpretation like few others. Kelly and Crewdson worked well with Henderson, creating a cohesive multi-horn dialogue, rich in texture and fulsome. Having two drummers, two guitars, and a strong doubling bass player, gave the contrast and gut-punch required.
The Auckland band were; Jeff Henderson (alto, c-melody, baritone saxes, voice, bass drum), Jim Langabeer (alto flute, sopranino, tenor, soprano saxes), Liz Stokes (trumpet, trombone), Tom Rodwell (guitar), Phill Dryson (guitar, voice), Tom Callwood (electric bass), Eamon Edmunson-Wells (upright bass), Anthony Donaldson (drums, percussion), Chris O’Connor (drums, percussion). Although different, this was a rich heady brew – the composition loosened, but always guided by Henderson’s astute hand. His method of guiding the composition riveting to onlookers, his signals unusual but effective, call and response signalling a new direction. An entire language developed – a ‘conduction’ that could lengthen, shorten or guide a musician towards untapped zones.
My favourite signal is his use of voice – eerie otherworldly high pitched vocal phrases – mimicking instruments, some of which have not yet been invented, strangely beautiful, deeply human. Langabeers alto flute was the counterweight, earthy, and sonorous, but his sopranino was freed from gravity (at times he played multiphonics on tenor or played two horns at once). Everyone gave their best – exhausted as they were afterwards.
The album is selling out fast but copies can be obtained or ordered from Henderson in Auckland or in Wellington from Slow Boat Records or Rough Peel. It is also available on Bandcamp at iiiirecords.bandcamp.com. I strongly advise ordering the double CD as it is a thing of beauty, the size of a penguin paperback. The artwork was created by band member Gerard Crewdson, a multi-talented artist, and musician. The images are exquisite with a subtle disquiet lurking behind the peaceful overarching beauty. Here I am minded of the engravings of John Buckland Wright (a New Zealand born illustrator and engraver who attained considerable fame in 1930s London). The live gig took place in the Wine Cellar on the 23rd of June 2016.
To the best of my knowledge, Jonathan Besser has not played at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) before. While he is best known as an important composer for The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, The New Zealand String Quartet and The Royal New Zealand Ballet, he is also a significant leader of small ensembles. Ensembles which venture far into the territory of experimental, electronic and improvised music. It is impossible to separate the man from his music. It is eclectic, original and often plaintive but generally with a sly twist of humour thrown in. In spite of his standing in the music world, Besser is modest. At the CJC he was happy to lead from the piano, which was in partial darkness and at the rear of the ensemble. His instructions were brief and staccato as if part of the unfolding suite. When he did pick up the microphone to speak to the audience he exuded an eccentric charm, bandstand asides peppered with self-effacing humour, garnished with sudden smiles.
I first encountered Besser’s work in 2011 when Rattle released ‘Campursari’. This is an amazing album featuring some of my favourite musicians (Chris O’Connor, John Bell, Nigel Gavin, Jim Langabeer etc). It resonated immediately as it referenced a number of genres that interest me. Ambient improvised music, crossover World/Jazz. The album is intensely filmic, deeply evocative of vast exotic landscapes and since obtaining a copy I have played it often.I met Besser briefly during Natalia Mann’s ‘Pacif.ist’ tour and later at the Auckland Art Gallery during the opening of Billy Apples ‘Sound Works’ exhibition. On that occasion, the Nathan Haines Quartet played Besser’s innovative compositions. I really hope that someone recorded that. It was extraordinary music, based upon prescribed letters of the alphabet. These were then allocated using the 12 tone scale as a formula to locate equivalent notes. The order of Billy Apple’s words dictating the order of notes.
The ‘Zestniks’ is a newer incarnation of the many Besser ensembles. The main focus of the CJC gig was the performance of ‘Gimel Music’, a suite composed by Besser and performed at the ‘Shir Madness Jewish Festival in Sydney in 2012’. Gimel is a Hebrew word associated with the third letter of the Hebrew alphabet (The Kabbalah, in particular, makes much of the mystical numeric and alphabetic association). 3/4 time, three chords, three inversions, three bars conjoined, the melody often running over the 3 bar lines, but never manifesting as waltz time. While not the complete story, embedded in the music were strong elements of Jewish music and to my ears, the distant echoes of Argentinian music.The music was not Klezmer and later I asked Besser about his influences – were there strong Jewish influences? “I am a Jewish man and I used Jewish scales, but apart from that no. I draw upon many, sources”. It interested him that I heard Argentinian references. “I have done Tango projects in the past and that is possible”. It was partly the combination of instruments, the delicious overlay of melancholia and the accents – not so far from the music of master musician Dino Saluzzi.The segments of music making up the suite seldom lasted longer than 4 minutes. The spaces between them brief. The mood seldom deviated from the wistful, evoking a sense of intangible longing – for something remembered – but just out of reach, a nostalgia as ancient as time itself. There were a few cheerful pieces as well, but I preferred the former. The Zestniks update themselves regularly, this time adding Caro Manins vocal lines, her wordless vocals followed the viola or clarinet in gentle unison. No one is better suited to this than Manins – she has worked with the likes of Norma Winstone after all.
The septet personnel at the CJC were, Jonathan Besser (piano, leader), Asher Truppman-Lattie (clarinet), Iselta Allison (viola), Finn Scholes (vibes, trumpet), Eamon Edmundson (double bass), Yair Katz (drums), Caro Manins (voice). The combination of voices worked well, viola and clarinet giving strength to the melodic figures. The vibes cutting deep into our psyche – at times ringing clear, then softening as melody dissolved into subtle counterpoint, woven into the piano lines, the latter adding harmonic depth. The drum kit interested me as it was not the Jazz kit we normally see. Larger drums and fewer of them, ride cymbal and high hat, the beat suited to this ancient to modern music. There was once talk of Besser recording for John Zorn’s Tzardik label and the synergies are obvious. That said, his current home with Rattle Records is an excellent fit.
As I write this it is International Jazz Day, a UNESCO sponsored day honouring the diversity and depth of the world improvising scene. It was, therefore, serendipitous that Carl Dewhurst and Simon Barker brought ‘Showa 44’ to town – especially in the days immediately preceding the big celebration. This gig offered actual proof that the restless exploration of free-spirited improvisers, lives on undiminished. I have sometimes heard die-hard Jazz fans questioning free improvisation, believing that the music reached an unassailable peak in their favourite era. To quote Dexter Gordon. “Jazz is a living music. It is unafraid …. It doesn’t stand still, that’s how it survives“. While a particular coterie prefers their comfort zone, the music moves on without them. Younger ears hear the call and new audiences form. Life is a continuum and great art draws upon the energies about it for momentum. Improvised music is not a display in a history museum.It is through listening to innovative live music that our ears sharpen. When sitting in front of a band like this the mysteries of sound become visceral. This was an extraordinary gig, at times loud and confronting, mesmerising, ambient and always cram-packed with subtlety. Fragments of melodic invention and patterns formed. Then subtly, without our realising it, they were gone, tantalising, promise-filled but illusory. We seldom noticed these micro changes as they were affected so skillfully – form and space changing minute by minute, new and yet strangely familiar – briefly reappearing as quicksilver loops before reinventing themselves.With the constraints of form and melody loosened new possibilities emerge. In inexperienced hands, the difficulties can overwhelm. In the hands of artists like these the freedom gives them superpowers. Time is displaced, tonality split into a prism of sound, patterns turned inside out. The first set was a single duo piece, ‘Improvisation one’ – unfolding over an hour and a quarter; Dewhurst and Barker, barely visible in the low light. This was about sculpting sound and seeing the musicians in shadow added a veneer of mystique. Dewhurst began quietly, his solid body guitar lying face up on his lap. The sound came in waves as he stroked and pushed at the strings, moving a slide – ever so slightly at first, causing microtonal shifts or new harmonics to form, modulating, striking the strings with a mallet or the palm of his hand. The illusion created, was of a single drone repeating. In reality, the sound was orchestral. As you listened, really listened, microtones, semitones and the occasional interval appeared over the drone. Barker providing multiple dimensions and astonishing colour, responding, reacting, crafting new directions.In this context, the drummer took on many roles, a foil to the guitarist, creating silken whispers, insistent flurries of beats and at times building to a heart-stopping crescendo. I found this music riveting and the audience obviously shared my view. In the quiet passages, you could hear a pin drop. If that’s not an indication of the musical maturity of modern Jazz audiences, nothing is. One of the prime functions of art is to confront, to challenge complacency. This music did that while gently leading us deeper inside sound itself. No one at the CJC regretted being on this journey. This is territory loosely mapped by the UK guitarist Derek Bailey, the Norwegian guitarist Aivind Aaset and the American guitarist Mary Halvorson. They may take a similar path, but this felt original, perhaps it is an Australian sound (with a Kiwi twist in Manins). The long multifaceted trance-like drones suggest that. The second set was shorter, ‘Improvisation two’ had Roger Manins aboard. I should be immune to Manins surprises but he frequently catches me off guard. His breadth and depth appear limitless. ‘Improvisation Two’ began with a broader melodic palette. Dewhurst and Barker set the piece up and when Manins came in there was a stunning ECM feel created. Barker tap-tapping the high-hat and ride. Achingly beautiful phases hung in the air – then, surprisingly they eluded us, unravelling as Manins dug deeper – dissecting them note by note. These interactions give us a clue as to how this music works, each musician playing a phrase or pattern and then re-shaping it, passing the baton endlessly.
This requires deep listening and turn on a dime responses; as the overarching but perpetually shifting theme guides them. By the time Manins had played for five minutes, the mood and pace had mysteriously changed. By fourteen minutes we were in free territory – at twenty minutes the Tom fell over. Barker swept it up and changed to brushes in an eye blink. The falling drum was seamlessly blended, a fresh percussive option. I have seldom seen such captivating responsive drumming. Making an accident a virtue.
I have watched the twenty-two-minute segment of ‘Improvisation two’ ten times in a row and it is just as jaw-dropping each time. It is not the purpose of this Blog to rate and compare, but if it were, I would need extra stars to do this gig justice.
Showa 44; Carl Dewhurst (guitar), Simon Barker (drums & percussion), with guest Roger Manins (tenor saxophone) – CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Albion Hotel, Auckland, New Zealand, April 27th, 2016.
Footnote: After posting this I spoke with Carl Dewhurst. I explained that I had an overwhelming sense of the Australian desert – hearing the textures and wide open spaces in the improvisations. In the end, I was overly cautious, not wanting to offend indigenous sensibilities, deleting a reference to the Didgeridoo and Clapsticks. After speaking to Carl I am adding the references back in here. He informs me that this project actually began in the vastness of the northern deserts, playing alongside indigenous Australians. I heard right.