Jonathan Besser & The Zestniks

Besser 099To 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.Besser 106

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.Besser 103I 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.Besser 102The 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.Besser 105The 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.Besser 101

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.

Jonathan Besser and The Zestniks played at the Albion Hotel for the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 15th June 2016.

 

 

 

 

‘Showa 44’ Dewhurst & Barker (+ guest R. Manins)

Carl Dewhurst 093As 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.Carl Dewhurst 087It 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.Carl Dewhurst 089With 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.Carl Dewhurst 091In 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.  Carl Dewhurst 090The 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.

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The Circling Sun – midsummer heat

Circling Sun 096As a group of the worlds leading astrophysicists excitedly ran one last check. At the precise moment that the astonishing mathematical proofs confirmed Einstein’s theory of ‘gravitational waves’, the Circling Sun hit the CJC. This rare cosmic event released fresh gravitational waves which pulsed throughout central Auckland; altering the molecular structure of any ear within radius. It was an appropriate evening for the Sun to manifest this ‘climatic singularity’, preceded as it was by a dog-day as hot as any on record.

There are five musicians in the Sun – four human and one android. On tenor saxophone, doogan & keyboards was Cameron Allen, on drums & electronics was Julien Dyne, on pedal steel guitar & electric guitar was Neil Watson and on electric & acoustic bass was Rui Inaba. When fine musicians like this play out-crazy music, influenced by sources as diverse as Yusef Lateef, Alice Coltrane, Mulato Astatke and Tom Waits, you know you are in for a wild and danceable ride. The doogan is a cunningly contrived android, assembled from antique parts and loosely controlled by Allen. It is an independent minded machine often exceeding the prime directive; a mechanical and musical ‘singularity’.Circling Sun 086The Circling Sun is more a phenomena than a group. They defy musical form and yet exist convincingly in their own orbit; circling an altered reality. As with all wonders there is much to appreciate. The intricacy of their many machines, the indelible sonic footprint and the sheer joy they bring. I took some guests down to the club that night. Flamenco artists Isabel Cuenca and Ian Sinclair (and Ian’s wife Zarina). I wondered how they would react to this wild unconstrained mix of free improvisation and world beat psychedelic Jazz. Isabel the Flamenco dancer was quick to respond. ‘This is amazing, it has deep passion’. Passion is the heart of many musics and like authenticity it is a vital component. Long live the avant-garde – long live passionate music – whatever the genre.Circling Sun 093In his seminal work “This is Your Brain on Music’ neuroscientist Daniel Levitin reveals the following. ‘A liking for dissonance is a development arising from deeper listening and on attaining musical maturity. A very young child prefers consonance over dissonance, the mature listener increasingly values contrast and enjoys having expectations confounded. After spending time listening to deeper or more complex music, lightweight consonant passionless music becomes boring. There is a neural basis for this’.

Instinctively, the Circling Sun understands this and they feed audiences a healthy diet of dissonance. At one point Watson called down thundering chordal dissonance (as the drum beats rained like Thor’s hammer and the keyboards created strangely intricate figures while the bass overlaid danceable grooves) . As Watson repeated the two chords over and over he varied them ever so slightly. It was recidivist mayhem, but there was a logic, a cosmic logic and a deep raw beauty in the onslaught. I loved every moment of it as I reeled from the sonic blows. Adding to the excitement was a strong kinetic effect, Watson dropping lower each time he struck the strings. Dyne dancing all over the kit. This was Ceramic Dog territory and done to great effect. Levitin talks of this also. ‘Experienced listeners often get more out of live music than recorded, because they read the musicians body language in micro detail. The body language of the musicians sharpens the listeners expectations’.Circling Sun 090The Montreal born Dyne was just the drummer for a band like this. His musical credentials are impeccable. His expertise extends well beyond the kit to that of producer and forward-looking experimentalist; electronic future beats, hip hop, house, afro beats, boogie funk and instrumental jazz. His work with Ladi6 has brought him to wider attention, but his own Lord Julien recordings and his deeply funky ‘Down in the Basement’ (Vol 2) cuts are well worth checking out. This band has few constraints and it gives him ample room to stretch.

Allen plays saxophone and a variety of other instruments. He has long been known for his hybrid mechanical/electronic creations. His tenor is a Buescher (a brassy beast of ancient lineage) and its earthy tone is always pleasing in Allen’s hands. In recent years he has given equal time to his android doogan and an assortment of strange keyboards. He flies in the face of the prevailing fad for tracking down quality analogue instruments. Instead he plunders the throw away machines from the early digital age. This is an interesting development, as the reason these instruments were often abandoned, was because they didn’t sound like the acoustic instruments they sought to emulate. They sounded like new instruments and fed through a variety of pedals they are reborn. This is a recurring theme of the new millennium, reoccupying old spaces in new ways. Recycling, conservation and ultra modernism in one package.Circling Sun 088I have long been a Watson fan. The man is fearless and his musical ideas cross territory few others dare to traverse. His increasing mastery of the pedal steel already sets him apart, but his ventures into the experimental avant-garde with the instrument are unique in the New Zealand context. While an accomplished studio musician his preferred gigs are those without boundaries. With Watson you get Americana, blues, Jazz psychedelia or wild forays referencing Marc Ribot & Sonny Sharrock. The Sun suits his wild eclecticism.Circling Sun 092

The remaining band member is Rui Inaba on bass. I have seen him play a number of times and most often with Watson. This is the first time I have seen him on electric bass and the instrument counterbalanced the free ranging explorations of the other three nicely. There was also a guest artist performing on Wednesday – the ever popular J Y Lee on Baritone saxophone. During one number Lee, Watson, Inaba, Dyne and Allen took the tune ‘outside’. It was mayhem and madness of the best kind. This is a very loud band and the enjoyment rang in my ears like summer locusts for days after the event.

Footnote: The doogan improves with age, but its strangest feature is an ability to time travel. As each improvement appears a proportionate regression in time occurs. When it first appeared it had wheels, an alarm clock and many more modern parts. The recent assemblage is altogether older – a regression to the beginning of the digital era. A small yellowed-plastic Cassio keyboard routed through various pedals and midi boxes, sitting opposite a mysterious plywood box. The box bristling with nobs, toggles and sporting an impressive amount of gaffer tape. Beside the pedals a Moog like instrument with an early AM transistor radio plugged into it. Below that an ancient weather-beaten Korg. The small wooden box is most intriguing and although it resembles the two-valve home made radios of my youth, I suspect that it is something like Orac (Google ‘Blake’s Seven’ for more information on Orac).

The Cycling Sun played at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 10th February 2016, They are Julien Dyne (drums, electronics), Cameron Allen (saxophone, doogan), Neil Watson (pedal and electric guitar), Rui Inaba (electric and acoustic bass)

Susan Alcorn talks Pedal Steel

Alcorn (2)Lately I have attended a number of music workshops. Although not a musician I gain a lot. They offer fascinating insights into the artists creative process and if your lucky, insights into a particular instrument. With music, the more you listen, learn, observe and delve, the more you gain. My reason for attending Susan Alcorn’s workshop was probably different from most attendees. The majority were guitarists anxious to glean practical information or wanting to be convinced that this complex instrument was for them. A handful of others sought knowledge for knowledges sake – dipping another toe in the water of sonic learning. Alcorn (1)

I like the warmth of the Pedal Steel guitar and I appreciate its hard won place in the landscape of modern improvised music. Learning something of its history and its quirks from an acknowledged master took me a step closer to the mystique of that quivering sound. Alcorn is very much at home in the world of experimental improvised music, but that was not always the case. After 30 years of playing country in places like Nashville and performing in the more orthodox styles she jumped ship.

She mentioned the influence of later Coltrane as one of the forces pulling her towards unfettered experimentation. She also spoke of a desire to explore composers like Messiaen and this required specialist tunings. She played us some Monk (as well as original compositions). Her take on Monk compositions was that they were architectural. “He starts with a well constructed base and as he builds up from the ground he plays with the form. He moves sideways creating an overhanging room but it is always balanced elsewhere”.

When younger she committed her self to a related instrument, (the Dobro) and eventually to the Pedal Steel – mastering the Pedal Steel did not come easily. There are many pedals and four knee levels to control. then there are the multiple tunings, a variable number of strings and a plethora of picking styles (also complex slide techniques to master). Few beginners get an easy ride and many don’t stay the course. Some tunings (e.g.Hawaiian) do not work for the blues and so double necked instruments are common – thus allowing for style changes from alternate tunings. Adding extra strings (or pedals) while increasing the options, also increases the complexities. It can take two to four years of practice before new tunings become ‘muscle memory’. Once down you have a world of sounds and possibilities at your fingertips.

In the 30’s and 40’s the instrument was universally popular and pedal steel orchestras proliferated across America. At that time Hawaiian music was particularly popular. Soon after the instrument found its was into Western Swing bands and Rockabilly bands (this is when pedals and stands were added – ‘console steels’). It found its way to mainstream Country music a little later, but it is less popular in that genre these days.

She gave us some insights into the origins of the instrument but pointed out that many of the popular theories are verging on the fanciful.

In the 1950’s you could buy the instruments in most US cities. Now only specialists carry them. Many like Alcorn go directly to a luthier for customised versions. Her 12 string tuning is unusual being C D F A C D E G A C E D. Having 7 pedals and knee levers give you more combinations. Unusually her instrument comes from an Australian luthier and is made of indigenous wood. She said that she wanted that deeply resonant bottom string so that she could play Messiaen (improvising musicians often customise their instruments). Here is a cut of her composition ‘Three Rivers’

The Nordic experimental Jazz trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer uses Pedal Steel as a dominant part of his soundscape in’Switch’.

Fact file: In the 50’s a Pedal Steel guitar track hit number one in the Billboard pop charts with ‘Sleep Walk’.

A big thank you to Jeff Henderson and cohorts for their tireless efforts to bring us wonderful experimental music. Sounds we would not otherwise hear. If you want to hear superb and often experimental Pedal Steel guitar you should seek out cuts involving Auckland guitarist Neil Watson. There are some located on this blogAlcorn.jpg

Auckland Jazz Festival 2015 – part two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen Small Group – Mexico City Blues

Poems (2)I made up my mind days before the Mexico City Blues gig that I would not, could not review it. It is some kind of crazy to review a gig where you’re in the band. Logic and custom sensibly warns you to walk swiftly in the opposite direction. The gig passed and I asked others if they would do the review; “You’re wrong man” they said, “You absolutely have to do it, but do it differently – tell a story about what it felt like performing for the first time, and what it felt like as a non musician being part of a high quality improvising band”. I thought about it for a while and gave in. In truth I had a world of stuff churning about in my brain and the subconscious urge to outline the experience was gnawing at me; my thoughts and impressions always seem to spill onto the page somehow (or into a poem) – so hell why not. It’s Gonzo journalism in its purest form; outlining crazy, using ones-self as the hapless protagonist.

Just over a week ago I got an email from Stephen Small. His email cut right to the chase; Would I consider performing Jack Kerouac’s poetry as part of his next gig. The invitation delighted me although I have a writers/photographers reticence about crawling out from behind the pen or the lens. Having read Kerouac from age fourteen I couldn’t resist. Those poems and that crazy-wonderful Beat vibe shaped my life and I needed to acknowledge that. I was certain that he wanted no more than one, or possibly two short verses; still daunting. I emailed Stephen asking how long we had to get this together. We’re up next Wednesday he replied, we will rehearse a few hours before the gig. Moments after agreeing a sense of terror overcame me; troublesome questions and self-doubt tumbled out the ether. Shit how do we do this, what will my voice sound like? Having never performed poems in front of an audience AND to music, I experienced brief bouts of wide-eyed terror over the next day.  Poems (4)I confided my fears to a few knowledgeable friends, Chris Melville and poet Iain Sharp. Both were very sensible and reassuring in their advice; “Just own who you are man, own your voice. You know this stuff backwards and you know the music”, they said. When I explained the hazards of fitting existing verse to music, drummer Ron Samson told me, “Don’t worry man, we will follow you – your safe with us”. I discussed it further with Stephen and he gave me a set list. From that list I chose three poems that roughly matched the rhythms of tunes. For ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ (Mingus) I chose Kerouac’s chorus 66 from ‘Orizaba 210 Blues’, for ‘Blue in Green’ (Evans/Davis) I selected the beautiful mystical 1st chorus of ‘Desolation Blues’. I was sure that two poems would be more than enough, but as a precaution I prepared a third as back up – verse 116 of ‘Mexico City Blues’ to Horace Silvers ‘Peace’.

On the day of the gig crazy set in. It started with a series of small mishaps like an email and printer crash. I immediately recognised the portents. The Sirens of the unknown were calling me into uncharted waters. Luckily I had my three poems ready – printed off in large type (as befitting a person of my age). At the last-minute, as if by divine providence, I threw a paperback of Kerouac’s ‘Book of Blues’ poems into my bag and headed for rehearsal. What happened next was pure Zen.  Poems (6)Jazz gig rehearsals tend to follow a formula, but viewing this process from the outside and being part of it are two very different things. From the inside your inbuilt detached observer gets fired from the cannon of weirdness. You realise just how random Jazz rehearsals are. They begin what becomes a slow descent into the controlled accident. The first hour of any rehearsal is a ‘hang’, insider jokes, war stories and talk of gear and gizmos. Then a sudden flurry of activity follows; disembodied items of musical machinery miraculously forming into new shapes. If the rehearsals are in a Jazz club the activity takes place in semi darkness. Instruments, microphones and amplifiers joined by a spaghetti of wires as the musicians stumble over precarious piles of instrument cases and zip bags. “Oh shit this channel is dead – (from out of the darkness) – don’t worry its the cable – have another in my car – its parked a few streets away. Can we route the cable through the Hadron-Collider? – clip click – sorry false alarm”.

Then the actual rehearsal begins; The rehearsal proper being tiny fragments of music accompanied by impossibly cryptic instructions in a language that sounds like computer machine code.  “Twice through the head – I’ll lay out – transition to this key at 32 – we’ll play Kathy’s Waltz in 4/4 as 3/4 is way to corny”. None of this is reassuring to a first timer, but the band leader (Stephen) managed to communicate profound information subliminally. Above all and surprisingly, I learned that he had absolute confidence in me. This gifted me a deeper understanding of the leaders role. Zen Master. The communications were less about detail than vision, their main purpose to bind the collective and set them on a path to the promised land; a guiding hand in a deeply mystical process. On the band stand the subtlest of gestures hold the collective together. A glance is a cue or a change of plan – a call to ‘Jump now’ – everyone trusted to do the business – me included. I know poetry and especially Kerouac’s poetry – it was my job in the collective to sell that.  Poems (7)Then came the truly random bit. “We can cue you in on each piece, or just dive in where ever you think best – we can follow”. The words ‘each piece’ threw me a curve ball. “I have only three poems printed off” I added lamely (or four if you counted a crumpled excerpt from ‘Desolation Angels’ tucked into the back of the folder). “No matter – just say anything – you’re a poet – it will be fine” said Stephen. Then I remembered the paperback of Kerouac’s ‘Book of Blues’ in my bag. “Great” said Stephen, “just pick the poems randomly – do it at the last-minute while we run through the head of each tune – perfect”. This was a band leader channeling the Zen Master – a role quite appropriate to a 1959 referencing gig – throwing me a Koan, an improbable musical puzzle, no escape route possible. When we got to the tune ‘Peace’ I gained confidence, “Ah I have something for this – yeah – Horace Silver”. At this point Stephen casually informed me that they were actually doing Ornette Coleman’s ‘Peace”, another tune entirely. Ornette, ORNETTE – holy crap – panic.  Next the gig

I was tentative during my first seconds of delivery and that was entirely due to where my awareness was.  I mistakenly looked out to see how it was coming across; people were giving me the thumbs up and the band sounded perfect. After that I just relaxed. Stephen’s final instructions were as brief as they were powerful. He leaned across and said to me; “There is only one thing to remember tonight and that’s to have fun”. Minutes into the gig the advice sank in and I did. As I relaxed the strangest thing happened. It was a quasi-mystical sort of thing and I can only explain it in those terms. All sense of self and separation vanished as I felt a golden thread of sound and colour run through me. I recall glancing about me and feeling totally at one with the band. These are exceptional musicians and I suspect that they were doing all the heavy lifting. They treated the poetry with respect and they treated me as an equal. As a non-musician I will never forget that. Poems (5)I was suddenly experiencing the music as an insider, a privileged viewpoint that few non musicians ever get to experience. I leaned across to Hadyn Godfrey (on trombone) and said, “Holy crap is it always this much fun, I’m totally tripping on this?”. As I read I started playing with the phrasing and found that as I moved, the band moved with me. Even more amazingly we managed to converse musically.  Me clumsy and them eloquent, but it felt so fine, so damn fine. I have never previously experienced such power – the engine of a musical collective. I am a careful listener and I know this music backwards, but from the inside everything looks different. There is nowhere to hide but everything to gain; that’s what makes it so exciting.

The gig was about placing the famous Jazz standards of 1959 into a wider context. We all love these tunes, but few grasp the wider sociopolitical forces at work behind the times. These musicians were part of a vital modernist movement; A reaction against the suburban atrophy of racially segregated urban America. Miles, Colman, Coltrane, Brubeck, Mingus, Kerouac and the Beats were counter-culture warriors, bent on ushering in a better world. A place were fresh ideas, the arts and people mattered. Poems (1) I will not critique my performance, that is for others. What I will do however is comment on the extraordinary Stephen Small Group – the ‘Mexico City Blues’ musicians. Stephen Small is a man of broad musical tastes, real vision and very open ears. He empowered a wonderful band and under his skilful and subtle coaxing they gave it their best. His piano never gets in the way of others, but it adds amazing texture and substance to the performances. It is deeply in the blues tradition and lovely. Instinctively he knew who to hire and what to expect of them.

Olivier Holland brought his electric bass as well as his upright bass. I hadn’t previously heard Oli on electric bass, but he is simply killing. Ron is always marvellous and as a musician said to me, “With those beats pushing at your back and pulsating through your body anything seems possible”. Neil Watson on guitar and pedal steel is another talented musician; his feel for the blues is exceptional. He also has a happy grasp of the absurd and this is an essential prerequisite for any good improvising musician. Lastly there is Hadyn Godfrey, an experienced talented trombonist who effectively added electronics to his horn for this gig. The use of pedals, a small Moog and various forms of extended technique gave the gig an other-worldly dimension. 1959 never sounded so good.

I may never get to do this again but I will not forget this night. Stephen Small did what good leaders do. He made us all believe that the improbable could become magic. He took an idea from the margins and helped us realise it in a fresh way. Jazz at its best is a controlled accident, a high wire act, an intrepid exploration. For one truly wonderful night I was a small part of that.

Stephen Small Group: Mexico City Blues – Stephen Small (leader, piano, keys), Neil Watson (fender guitar, pedal steel guitar, electronics), Hadyn Godfrey (trombone, electronics), Olivier Holland (electric bass, upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums), John Fenton (Kerouac poems)

Special acknowledgement to Chris Melville for the photographs

‘Grg67’ & Manins Crustacean Empathy

Grg67 (9)There are a lot of interesting stories on the Jazz circuit and some of them more improbable than others. None more so than a gig dedicated to the Manukau Harbour mud crab Grg67 (Varunidae:Helice). This ten legged estuarine creature has inspired Roger Manins to name a band after him and to compose a significant number of tunesGrg67 (15) in his honour. I could say that environmental activism fuelled the gig (and in part it was), but the affection and respect Manins exhibits towards these crustaceans is more complex than that. It is the respect of a dedicated Flounder fisherman; coloured by the quirkiness of an improvising musician. To quote: “When we play these compositions there are sharp claws and a soft underbelly; at times we can move unpredictably sideways at great speed”.  Manins demonstrated this to great effect as he swiftly shuffled in alternate directions. You couldn’t make this stuff up. As the gig unfolded he delighted the audience with his antics and with the subsequent ‘crab’ influenced compositions.Grg67 (14) Underneath the crusty carapace were a bunch of good tunes and as Manins inferred, they were tangentially tricky and replete with interesting musical twists. Good improvisers are always on the look out for new challenges, new ways to interpret the world about them. In putting together ‘Grg67’ a fresh vehicle for improvisation is born. By bringing in several less experienced musicians Manins has fulfilled an older imperative. To challenge and encourage those beginning the improvising journey. This is how it should work, but many older musicians forget that and remain in their comfort zones. Everyone stepped up here under Manins watchful eye.Grg67 (7)The crab which is the central focus of these sets is Greg, but as Manins so eloquently explains “Crabs don’t use the letter ‘E’. It something to do with their waste not want not utilitarianism”. Other tunes had titles like ‘Crab Empathy’. These tunes and the stories that surrounded them evoked powerful mental images. As the music washed over us you could sense the ebb and flow of the tides. You could easily imagine a predatory Flounder sending the ever watchful crabs scuttling into their burrows (Flounder are none too bright according to net fisherman).Grg67 (6)Michael Howell and Tristan Deck are the youngest members of the ensemble. Howell is a Jazz student and with each month his guitar work grows more impressive. As his confidence grows he stretches himself and playing with Manins is exactly what he needs. He is ready for the deep end of the crab pool. On this gig he played a borrowed Fender and it sat well with him. That Tristan Deck played so well did not surprise me at all; his career trajectory assured as he increasingly takes his place among the better Jazz drummers of the city. He was good when I saw him two years ago; now he is very good. For the second time this month Mostyn Cole appears at the CJC. This time he held the groove with electric bass. He is reliable and multi faceted. Again Manins showed how seamlessly he slots into very different situations. He presented a complex set of tunes to good effect, navigating break-neck tempos and fusing complexities with an inexhaustible supply of good humour.

Estuarine crabs like Grg67 are highly skilled marine engineers. Purifying and oxygenating their environment in innovative ways. They are unafraid to identify as gender non specific. If you see one amongst the Mangroves, spare a thought for it (or its 80 Kiwi cousins). They are a hard-working cog in the indigenous ecosystem and as deserving of a Jazz quartet as any animal. The crab you see might even be ‘Grg67’ or one of his offspring, so say hi while you’re at it.

The Clip is ‘Bennetts Radio Blues’ (Manins).

Grg67 : Roger Manins (leader, compositions, tenor sax), Michael Howell (Fender guitar), Mostyn Cole (electric bass), Tristan Deck (drums)

CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 1885 Britomart, Auckland 29th July 2015

 

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Siobhan Leilani & Andy Smith gigs

Leilani (9)Last Wednesday the CJC took a step towards Robert Glasper’s ‘Black Radio’ project. At the time of its release the Glasper project shocked a few purists and delighted many others. It all depended on your point of view and your understanding of Jazz history. That particular album brought the ‘now’ of the urban streets into a Jazz recording; rap and urban soul coexisting with jazz keyboard harmonies. It is surprising that it shocked anyone! Surely this is an old story in the retelling. It is not hard to find earlier examples. George Russell’s ‘New York N.Y.’ and Gil Scott Heron’s output spring to mind. Words as poems, wordless vocals and instrumental Jazz are inextricably linked and always will be. Siobhan Leilani brought a Kiwi version of that to the Jazz club and we loved it. It felt in place and the nimble-footed danced. This constant reconnection with the streets is an essential part of our music and we forget it at our peril.John Taylor Kenny Wheeler (3)The first set to play was the Andy Smith Trio. Smith has played at the club as sideman a number of times, but it has been quite a few years since he brought us a project of his own. I have always enjoyed his slick guitar work and especially when he plays with an Alan Brown band. This gig was different as it reached deeper into the modern Jazz guitar bag. Smith has always used pedals convincingly but this time he dialled the effects right back. This was a purer form of modern Jazz guitar and in taking that route the music must stand on its own. It did. I like his approach to harmony and his compositions are compelling vehicles for improvisation.John Taylor Kenny Wheeler (2)The gig undoubtedly benefitted from having the gifted Stephen Thomas on drums.  While a regular in the club it has been a few months since we saw him. Thomas is a drummer’s drummer and he can tackle any project and shine. He constantly pushed the others to greater heights and his solos were tasteful, un-showy and tightly focused. The bass player Russell McNaughton was new to me, but I will be mindful of his presence in future. I particularly liked his arco bass work on ‘The Gypsy’s Dress’. The first number ‘CJC’ (Smith) was a good opener. There were plenty of meaty hooks to reel us in and an ever radiating warmth to dispel the chill rain outside. When they played a tune named ‘Awakening’ I recognised it instantly, but couldn’t recall where I’d heard it (or which group played it). It is actually an older tune of Smith’s and I had remembered it from three or more years ago. Again a solid composition and the fact that it had stuck with me after one hearing underlines that. A very nice trio.Leilani (13)Siobhan Leilani (Siobhan Grace) is an interesting musician and one I hope we see a lot more of. Her association with the UoA Jazz school has yielded dividends. She utilised the services of former and current students for this gig; her guest Chelsea Prastiti most notably. There is an inherent risk in putting a soulful Jazz rapper together with an experimental improvising vocalist. The risk was well worth taking. These two feed off each others energy on up numbers and a force field of ‘happy’ seemed to emanate from them. The opening numbers were more in the soul/Jazz idiom and these were compelling in very different way. The lyrics spoke of angst and identity and this worked well for Leilani. What impressed me most was the authenticity. The language and sentiments were honest; heart-felt and purely ‘street’. I am only sorry that she was not a little louder in the mix (when it comes to vocals my hearing is not as sharp as it once was). This was poetry and good poetry. Word play, syllables stressed for emphasis, cadence; telling a story in an original way.LeilaniOn piano was UoA student Sean Martin-Buss. He caught me completely by surprise with his confident piano accompaniment. I had only seen him perform once previously and that was on bass clarinet. He mostly took a two-handed approach, soloed well on two occasions and engaged in a brief but effective call and response routine with Prastiti. The drummer and electric bass player were unknown to me but again they gave good a good account of themselves. The pumping drum and bass groove was right for the music. On electric bass was Joshua Worthington-Church, on drums Olie O’Loughlin.Leilani (6)This was another testament to the gig programming at the CJC. With rare exceptions every Wednesday night brings an original project. The decision to encourage innovation and originality pays off time and again. The audience now expects it and they wouldn’t turn up week after week for a diet of well-worn standards. With gigs like this a bitter Winter is flying by.Leilani (5)Footnote:’lyrics and poetry are two sides of the same thing‘ (Levitin). Poetry purists often express disdain for song lyrics and especially rap lyrics. The same can occur in reverse when a rapper dismisses poetry as high brow. There is only good poetry and bad poetry. The earliest surviving piece of literature ‘The Gilgamesh’ was written in poetic form. The greatest epics in any language are Homers Iliad and the Odyssey; also written in verse and probably sung. If you want ancient earthy lyrics sung or chanted by a woman then try Sappho: Stuffy (male) scholars have tried for two and a half millennia to purify her verse. “Batter your breasts with your fists girls/tatter your dresses/its no use mother dear/I can’t finish my weaving/you may blame Aphrodite soft as she is/she has almost killed me for love of that boy” – Sappho born 612 BC

Andy Smith Trio: Andy Smith (guitar, composition), Russell McNaughton (bass), Stephen Thomas (drums) @ CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 22nd July 2015

Siobhan Leilani: Siobhan Leilani (vocals, composition), Sean Martin-Buss (piano), Joshua Worthington-Church (electric bass), Olie O’Loughlin (drums) – guest Chelsea Prastiti (vocals) @ CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 22nd July 2015

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Harry Himself visits the CJC

Harry Himself 11-3-2014 074I often detect a unique quality in New Zealand improvised music, but when it comes to defining it, the illusive essence dissolves before I can grab hold. ‘Harry Himself’ has brought me one step closer, connecting me with a tangible manifestation. This band is the perfect example of improvised ‘Kiwiana’. At first hearing you detect a melange of the familiar; elements of World, Fusion, Straight ahead, Post bop, Post millennial Jazz and all served up with a generous dollop of classic country. Listen more closely and you will get strong South Sea references, flashes of musical memory permeating every bar. Everything from Bill Sevesi to the ancient sounds of New Zealand indigenous music. Even song titles revolve around Kiwiana themes .  Many of the tunes belong to a place, to the Islands we live on and to the immense swath of sea that surrounds it. Like the harbours and oceans that surround us, this is a mosaic of glittering fragments. A familiar yet unknown music to gladden the heart.  Harry Himself 11-3-2014 058 (2)Above all this is a good-natured band, oozing charm and character. The array of instruments and the judicious use of loops and pedals more than doubles their range.  The only constant in the sounds are the six string bass and drums. The leader Kingsley Melhuish is sometimes seen in the company of adventurous avant-gardists. He can also be found among the free ranging Ponsonby Road improvising bands. His use of pedals and loops is tasteful and it serves the music not a whim. His pedal effects and electronics are not added randomly, nor for the sake of it. He is an accomplished horn Harry Himself 11-3-2014 070player, switching seamlessly between trumpet, flugelhorn, tuba, trombone and lately, a vast array of conch shells. Melhuish often sets up loops and then he plays over them with different horns.  This layering of sound is achieved well and the real-time harmonic overlay enables him to add considerable texture and breadth. Neil Watson does likewise, as he frequently moves between Fender guitar and pedal steel guitar. The day after the gig I called into the MAINZ recording studio to grab a few shots of the group laying down an album. I overheard the recording technician asking the band after a take, “How do you feel that went; do you want to listen before moving on”?  Immediately a voice came from the studio speaker, “No, I think we’ll do that one again. The Fender and the conch will work better together than the pedal steel on this track”.  A huge smile crossed the technicians face, “I’ve never heard that said in a studio before” he said.  They were Harry Himself 11-3-2014 068right and it reinforced a long-held view of mine; that no instrument is beyond the reach of Jazz and that no sound should remain un-pillaged. I always appreciate Sam Giles electric bass playing and I am always left with the feeling that he is scandalously under-utilised. Solid and groove based was what the band needed and solid and groove based was what they got. On drums was premier drummer Ron Samsom. He worked these beats like he always does, purposefully, skilfully and making it look second nature. I’m glad the band is recording this material and I have a feeling that the album could grow legs with the right exposure. I hope so, they are fun. Harry Himself 11-3-2014 059I have added two video clips of the band, which demonstrate the diversity of their material. While diverse, it never-the-less hangs together nicely. The fist clip is ‘Cy’s Eyes’ a tune composed for one of Melhuish’s children. The second tune is the wilder freer ‘Zornithology’. A tribute to John Zorn (with an obvious play on the title of a Bird tune). There was one tune I wish I’d captured on video and that was ‘Rose Selavy’ by Enrico Rava.  Man, what a hard-edged powerhouse romp that was.

Who: ‘Harry Himself‘ is Kingsley Melhuish (trumpet, flugel, tuba, trombone, conch’s), Neil Watson (Fender guitar, Pedal Steel guitar), Sam Giles (six string e-bass), Ron Samsom (drums).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand 18th March 2015

The Circling Sun

Circling Sun 11-3-2014 063Any astronomer worth their salt will tell you that it is paradoxical for a sun to embark on a circular orbit. The last time this happened was during the Spanish Inquisition. On Wednesday the paradox increased when the Circling Sun departed their orbit to play at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club). This gig had been a long time coming and we welcomed it. Hearing them away from the babble of the hard-drinking Ponsonby Road crowd was a treat for us. The Circling Sun always give of their best, but this time we could hear the quirks and subtleties unfiltered. This is a band with a vast soundscape and the Jazz club echoed to the sounds of doogan, Tuba, analogue keyboards, digital keyboards, piano, trumpet, flugel horn, flute, tenor Circling Sun 11-3-2014 066saxophone, upright bass, drums and electronics. This is the type of music that sits well with me.

In spite of the name, the Circling Sun is not solipsistic. Not locked into an inwards gazing spiral. A dictionary definition tells us that Solipsism is a spiralling madness that no-one else can enter. Theirs is an inclusive madness of serendipitous happenstance. A band where personnel changes are as seamless as flowing water and where the only truly unchanging thing is the name. A band that can appropriate sounds and recreate them into new musical forms and all achieved without fear or favour. Another-world to experience.

The group cited influences as far-flung as Alice Coltrane, Yusef Lateef, Randy Western and Tom Waits. Although the link is possibly fanciful on my part, perhaps the influence Cosmic Jazz/Funk is present, an obscure genre close to my heart. They are chaotic, loose and free atCircling Sun 11-3-2014 074 times; then out of nowhere come tasty arranged melodic heads. Deftly extracted from the frequent mesmerising groove laden vamps.

Cameron Allen should be heard more often in settings like this. He is a gifted saxophonist and winds player with great musical ideas, often imparting a raw energy. He is also drawn to home-assembled electronic wizardry as many in this band are.  Finn Scholes on horns is another who doubles atypically (including tuba, keys and piano). He has recently been overseas and since returning I have seen him perform on a number of occasions.  His articulation is always interesting and he has a rich sound. Tinged with the vibrato of the mariachi trumpet. A sound which he owns and one that fits the bands vibe perfectly.  Circling Sun 11-3-2014 070

Neil Watson like Cameron Allen is a mainstay of this band. His classic fender, augmented lately by pedal steel guitar. The latter adding colour and texture and above all adding that warm embracing feel of country. Anyone who has followed Frisell’s journeys, fusing Jazz with country americana will get this. Rui Inaba on bass is often encountered with Watson and frequently in this lineup. Here he sits solidly at the heart of the storm, maintaining the rhythmic groove unfazed.  Circling Sun 11-3-2014 062The most powerful presence is drummer Julien Dyne. A versatile gifted artist who has travelled and recorded widely. His beats while often referencing his multi genre background, urge the band to greater heights. It is a privilege to see drummers of this calibre and I hope that he continues with open-ended Jazz projects like this. I have heard him on numerous occasions and I like what I hear.  As a unit, this combination takes no prisoners and the audience were glad of it. The first guest to join them was J Y Lee who quickly settled in on baritone saxophone. He often plays with the Circling Sun and is a popular addition.Circling Sun 11-3-2014 075During the second set a great gig got even better. Jonathan Crayford arrived and without too much persuading, sat in on piano. This was met with obvious delight by the audience, as Crayford is extremely popular. He knew none of the tunes as they were mostly originals and there was virtually no sheet music to guide him. It didn’t matter. Someone would announce the key and then a few chords in he would locate the heart of the tune. A musician of his experience and gifts is no stranger to situations like this. The audience, clearly wild about the gig, were by now whooping with enthusiasm between numbers. When Crayford sat in they felt like they’d won the lottery. He doesn’t get home often, but improvised music fans are eager to soak up what ever they can get of him.

Who: Circling Sun – Cameron Allen (tenor sax, flute, keys, doogan), Finn Scholes (Trumpet, Flugel, tuba, Piano, Keys), Neil Watson (Fender guitar, pedal steel guitar), Rui Inaba (upright bass), Julien Dyne (drums, electronics) – guests: Jonathan Crayford (piano, keys), J Y Lee (alto sax, baritone sax).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland 11th March 2015

Sandhya Sanjana @ the CJC

 

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If you patrol the margins of the music world you will find inestimable treasures.  Beyond the notice of mainstream media and mainstream audiences there is a joyous revolution underway.   Not an austere revolution but one peopled by astonishing musicians, colourful characters and sonic explorers.  Like a good street protest, it is often bubbling with noise, insistent beats and a multiplicity of messages.  Last Wednesdays gig epitomised that.  The alternative music scene is often denigrated for its imagined ‘high brow’ complacency or its snobbish rigidity.  In this regard the Jazz police and lazy uninformed commentators have done improvised music a grave disservice.  Improvised music has been with us since the beginnings of art and the whole point of it is to shift the focus away from the mundane or the obvious.  The appropriation and assimilation of traditional forms is only a staring point.  Sandhya Sanjana and her gifted ensemble took the shamans path here; conjuring shapes and colours from the ether, re-harmonising, daring us to look at the familiar and the exotic from an entirely different vantage point.  This night cut right to the heart of improvised music.  Different worlds merged and they did so without compromising the integrity of the traditions they came from.  IMG_3487 - Version 2

This was World/Jazz singer Sandhya Sanjana’s night but we have Auckland’s Ben Fernandez to thank for organising the gig.  I had not heard Fernandez play before this, but had long been aware of his reputation as a gifted, successful and multifaceted pianist.  Some months ago he invited me to his ‘Raag time’ fusion gig, but sadly I was unable to attend as I was heading out-of-town.  Later he messaged me to say that he would teaming up with Ms Sanjana in November.  Gigs like this are irresistible to me as I am enthusiastic about all of the great improvised music traditions.  The merging of these traditions has risks, but done well it’s marvellous.  The successful assimilation of middle eastern rhythms and the idioms into Jazz has long been achieved in Europe.  Fusions of traditional Indian music and Jazz are now emerging across the globe and those with an open mind and the right ears are the happy beneficiaries.

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The band members were; Sandhya Sanjana (vocals, leader), Ben Fernandez (piano), Jim Langabeer (flute, reeds), Manjit Singh (tabla & vocals), Jo Shum (bass), Jason Orme (traps drums).  Anyone familiar with the Auckland Jazz scene and the Indian music scenes will know what a great lineup this is.

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Sandhya Sanjana is from Bombay, but based in Holland these days (Ben Fernandez is a Kiwi but he also hails from Bombay).  She has performed with the greats in the World/Jazz field like Alice Coltrane and Trilok Gurtu.   She has an easy confidence about her that informs her performance and under her guidance a seamless fusion of styles occurs.  With Fernandez you get another strong influence as he imparts a distinctly Latin feel.  This classical and Jazz trained musician has chops to burn.  Out of this melange of rich influences a vibrant new music emerges.  It is compelling and exciting to hear.  There is a constant visual and sonic interplay between singer, tabla, traps drums, piano, bass and reeds (winds).  The shifting rhythms creating intricate cycles that pulse and swing.

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Manjit Singh, originally from the Punjab is another Auckland resident and he is an acknowledged master of the Tabla and of Indian music.  I am often reminded of what a rich and diverse drum landscape we have in Auckland.  A world that I am still coming to grips with.  This man is a major talent and it is our good fortune that he is making forays into the Jazz/fusion music scene.  On traps was the veteran drummer Jason Orme and he was well-chosen.  The gig required a drummer who could play quietly but strongly and one who had the subtlety to interact with Singh.  On bass was Jo Shum who has not played at the CJC for some time.  She is an aware bass player and acquitted herself well.   Lastly was the reeds and winds player Jim Langabeer.  Langabeer is well-respected on the New Zealand scene and is one of a select group of doubling reeds musicians who are equally strong on flute (and he swings like a well oiled gate).   This gig had an embarrassment of riches and once again Roger Manins gets a big tick for his innovative programming.

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In the You Tube clip that I have put up, the breadth of Sanjana’s influences are immediately evident.  After a few bars of latin feel on piano we hear a Tala.  I know very little about the technical aspects of traditional Indian music but the rhythmic patterns (or Tala) are generally established early on.  This can also include a vocalised manifestation of the Tala rhythms.   Manjit Singh the Tabla player counted in the Tala and Sanjana responded with Mudras, claps and vocals .  The traps drummer and others responded to the patterns and so the piece built upon itself.  If done well, cross fertilised music is like water; it will soon find its own level.  This did.

Who:  Sandhya Sanjana (vocals, compositions, leader), Ben Fernandez (piano, arrangements), Jim Langabeer (winds & reeds), Jo Shum (bass), Manjit Singh (Tabla & vocals), Jason Orme (traps drums).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand.  5th November 2014

Dreamville @ CJC

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The Dreamville gig was aptly named for a number of reasons but not least because there were no defined sets, no breaks between numbers.  Like a dream, the gig moved forward under its own internal momentum.  Surreal themes constantly dissolving until exhausted, forms shifting without seeming to.  What made this journey so evanescent, but so compelling, was that certain motifs remained deep in our consciousness throughout; totems of sound embedding themselves.  Like the images in a dreamscape, the music stroked the chords of memory; familiar yet ungraspable.  As each new realty claimed the preceding one, you realised that musical osmosis was at work.  A band filtering its own ideas until only the essence remained.  This was especially evident with the recurring melodic themes.  It was best to let these themes be, to let them wash over you without over-analysing.

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For nearly 2 hours we sat transfixed, subsumed by a musical force quite unlike any other.   At times the sounds were primal, even brutal, then as sweet as a summer breeze.  I have put up a clip which encompasses two segments from the gig.  In the clip a theme developed by Henderson on C Melody Saxophone (the instrument and the melodic theme takes us straight back to Ellington, perhaps even further back to Trumbauer who played with Bix Biederbeck).   The C melody Saxophone, a non-transposing instrument, is a rare beast and in the right hands, it quickly reveals its earthy warm tones.  The vibraphone and guitar lay down simple repeating patterns, while the saxophone weaves its melodic way through the soundscape, expressing a deep soulful longing.  Even here all is not what it seems.  A surreal quality still pervades this section, the sixth sense as you edge towards the chaos that is to follow.  There is a Mingus ensemble like quality at first, then the bass solo unravels the theme, drawing you into a less certain world; you are suddenly in Zorn territory.  IMG_2972 - Version 2e

At this point Henderson moved into the light, his C Melody horn put aside, a throaty baritone in its place.   Tah-tah ta ta, tah-tah ta ta, tah-tah ta ta–taa taa states the baritone and the volume and the intensity were swiftly increased.  The music had turned on a dime and everyone reeled back, momentarily overpowered by the mood shift.  Henderson sensing this, advanced toward the audience honking and squealing, carving up the room, not letting the moment pass.   This was musical theatre at its best and it served the purpose well.  One thing I have learned over the years; avant-garde music is always best experienced live.

IMG_4740 - Version 2There is a rawness and a primal quality to it, a strong sense of performance.  Who would prefer a recording of an Arkestra or an Art Ensemble of Chicago performance over a live show?  This was all jazz and all music decoded, not for the cocktail party.  The next day I was watching the 1956 Jean Bach film ‘Great Day in Harlem’ and there was Roy ‘Little Jazz’ Eldridge squealing out high note after high note on his trumpet.   Again and again, he pushed out a flurry of wild free multi-phonic sounds.  Even in the swing era, this had a great effect.

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I am always impressed by John Bell and he was superb in this quintet.  His approach to vibes is percussive and he avoids clichés.  He leaves plenty of space between his lightning runs and the accents and his improvisations have their own compelling logic.  The guitarist was quite a revelation.  I had not heard Phil Dryson before and he impressed me deeply.  Never once did he overplay (a failing of some guitarists), letting his unmistakable chops serve the collective purpose.   Once again the solid-body guitar earned its stripes in an improvised music setting.  It felt like he incorporated a fusion era approach with Marc Ribot’s.  Zorn favours edgy, open-eared guitarists like this; he would love this guy.  IMG_2989 - Version 2

On drums was Chris O’Conner (a favourite drummer of mine).  His kit was highly unusual but perfectly suited to the gig.  At times we heard him as a percussionist, extending the possibilities, clicks, bell-like sounds and a multitude of edgy beats from the various toms.  Ethnic polyrhythmic effects arose, especially when Henderson beat an oversized bass drum.   The bass player Eamon Edmundson Wells was great.  He fitted into this setting perfectly and it is surprising how quickly he has assimilated the vocabulary of diverse musical styles.  In Cameron McArthur’s absence, he has stepped up without equivocation.  Hard work and the Auckland University Jazz program have obviously set him up well.  IMG_2955 - Version 2 (1)

This was a sound super-nova created by dangerous visionaries.  There were no leaders identified in the blurb and the band acted as one entity.  All played to the peak of their ability and with unity of purpose  That said the powerhouse presence of Jeff Henderson and John Bell was quite unmistakable.  I could especially feel Henderson’s guiding hand throughout.  This is the space he occupies musically and he is the titan of this realm.  Although my ears rang for days afterwards I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

What: ‘Dreamville’ – Jeff Henderson (Baritone, C Melody, Alto saxophones), John Bell (Metalophone), Phil Dryson (solidbody guitar), Eamon Edmundson Wells (upright bass), Chris O’Connor (traps drums, percussion).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand, 24th September 2014.

Footnote: This is one of the last recordings of Phill Dryson RIP

‘The Grid’ land @ CJC

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There are some musicians who arrive on earth fully formed, having journeyed from distant planets.  Sun Ra was one of those.  There is yet another category of musicians who are not aliens, but who clearly hitch a ride with aliens from time to time.  The Grid is one of the latter, as there is no other explanation for their mix of in your face humour, outrageous musicality and otherworldliness.   They have been to Auckland before when I reviewed them for this blog (read ‘The Grid off the Grid’).  This is their second coming and it has long been anticipated by local musicians, metal jazz fans, mental Jazz fans and those who enjoy amazingly improbable improvised music.  People of all ages attended, as the censorship restrictions had obviously been overlooked.

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Reinforcing the view that ‘The Grid’ had been beamed in from a spaceship, was a light show that eerily played across them as they performed.   The gig was not in the usual basement spot, as we had been booted upstairs for the night by the building owners.  Being upstairs means psychedelic light show and being upstairs means playing to people at barely visible tables rather than to people sprawling on leather couches or sitting cross legged on the floor.  Some musicians are less comfortable in this space, but The Grid appeared to thrive on it.  As ever changing patterns played on the walls above them, or descended to spotlight their instruments, they worked with it.   This gave the gig an oddly surreal atmosphere, as isolated instruments or disembodied heads floated strangely in the air.

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The set list was replete with new tunes, all introduced by Ben Vanderwal as he joked his way from number to number.  This was proper Antipodean humour; highly irreverent, at times dry and always delivered with a pinch of intellect.  At one point a dissertation on Kylie Minogue’s lyrics occurred (she should be so lucky), at another a series of imponderable questions were left hanging in the air.  “What if god were one of us?  What if U2 were from Brazil?   Before we could grasp the enormity of these questions, the band had launched into an astonishingly good version of ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ (U2) based upon that premise.  The ideas may have appeared random, but they actually supported an interesting narrative that runs through all of their gigs.   These guys are very good musicians and it is not hard to fathom why alien beings would want to abet them on their journey.  IMG_1112 - Version 2 (1)

I have included a video clip of a composition by Dane Alderson titled ‘Hitch’.   The tune was written to honour iconoclast Christopher Hitchens at the time of his passing.  Sometime during the second set the guitar amp blew up and after a bit of head scratching it was mysteriously re-routed.  A casual observer might think that it was appropriate that a band delivered to us by mysterious forces should disappear in shower of coloured lights and sparks.   I am confident that someone will find a way to beam them back soon.  We like them here in Aotearoa.  IMG_1113 - Version 2

The Grid is: Ben Vanderwal (drums), Dane Alderson (electric 5 string bass, pedals), Tim Jago (guitars and pedals).  Perth/USA

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

Mad Hatters Guitar Amp Fundraiser @ CJC May 2014

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On Wednesday 21st May the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) replaced their normal program with a fundraiser as the club has long been in need of a good quality guitar amp.   Relying on borrowed guitar amps is a risky practice and moving one down winding staircases follows the Rhodes & B3 as being the quickest way to get a hernia.   A large number of established musicians and many Jazz studies students volunteered to play and so an impressive pool of artists formed.   No musician asked for pay but the audience still paid an entry fee.  To augment the door take, raffle tickets were also on the sale.  The many prizes included a double pass to the Larry Carlton concert and all donated by CJC supporters.

In these situations it is usual for the more experienced musicians to suggest a number they would like to play.  They would then liaise with their preferred band mates from the volunteer pool or perhaps strong-arm a few others who had not yet volunteered.

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Roger Manins the creative director of the CJC was having none of that.  He had a cunning and innovative plan up his sleeve and one worthy of John Zorn.  All the musicians would have their names placed in a hat (a pork pie hat as it turned out) with no set list predetermined.  Just to put an additional burr under the musicians saddles, the ‘feel,’ (time signatures, tempo style etc) were written on a slip of paper drawn from a second hat.  Once a name came out of the hat it was not put in again, with the number of musicians performing dictated by Roger prior to each draw.

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In summary: a pool of musicians assembled, two hats determined what they played, how they play it, and with whom.

If the slip read fast bossa, slow ballad or fast waltz the task was easy.  A quick negotiation determined which tune and if not predetermined by the slip, which key.   If however the second draw indicated that odd time signatures; changing constantly throughout the tune, then the task was formidable.  There was one draw in particular which took my fancy and that was when seven names appeared and the second draw indicated that they must play completely free.  “No discussion, just play”, was the instruction.   This was a recipe for chaos and mayhem but what they pulled together was interesting.  The band (which I will dub the ‘FreeJC’ ensemble) had a mixture experienced musicians and Jazz studies students.  Contrary to popular belief Free Jazz very often has rules or principles guiding the improvisation.  For example John Zorn’s game pieces like Cobra have strict confines and free improvisation occurs cued by the conductor; a set of spontaneous but connected conversations.  Butch Morris was the master of this ‘Conduction’ methodology but in longer form.   He coaxed wonderful creations out of musicians by using hand signals (or in Zorn’s case cued by a rapid succession of flash cards).

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The older hands knew better what to do here, conversing in the time-honoured way of call & response, moving with the ever shifting patterns and shapes.  Some portions of this ten minute long Free exploration worked better than others.   When they reached for a commonality of ideas  interesting shapes formed.   Like all good conversations it is the listening that is as important as the talking.  When this openness is evident a deeper intuitive communication occurs.    I have put up a blended excerpt of this free number.

As well as the many of the many regular performers there were a number of impressive students on the band stand.  It was also great to hear Julie Masson again.  

Among those performing were: Frank Gibson Jr, Phil Broadhurst, Julie Mason, Neil Watson, Ben McNicoll, Carolina Moon, Oli Holland, Kevin Field, Andy Smith, Ron Samsom, Cameron McArthur, Paul Nairn, Chelsea Prastiti, Djordje Nikolic, Michael Howell, Tom Leggett, Tristan Deck, Matt Steele, Rob Thompson, Sam Weeks, Timothy Andrew Shacklock.

What: CJC Mad Hatters Guitar Amp Fundraiser

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand. 21st May 2014   http://www.creativejazzclub.co.nz

‘Encounters’ – Mark Isaacs – Dave Holland – Roy Haynes

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Mark Isaacs’ ground breaking ‘Encounters’ album has just been re-released for the third time and no wonder.  This is an important musical statement by any measure and it sits comfortably beside similar works by Jarrett and Corea.   I don’t say that lightly, as the aforementioned artists explorations into free improvisation set lofty benchmarks.

Mark Isaacs is somewhat of a prodigy as he works across all genres of Jazz, is a gifted composer and has a well established classical career.  His Jazz charts are particularly impressive as he often voices his pieces in modern and compelling ways.  As if that were not enough he has composed a symphony (recently performed by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra – I have heard this impressive work).  Because Mark is such a multi faceted artist it is harder to buttonhole him and perhaps that is the point.  Great musicians shouldn’t be pinned down.   It is the nature of improvised music that it constantly shifts like the coloured grains of sand in a great Mandala; elusive and yet leaving an indelible image behind.  When it’s done well the impressions that remain will outdo the notation.  This album achieves that.

Because the album has not been available since 1995 I hadn’t heard it before.  When I did it truly surprised me.  I was expecting a good album as the triumvirate of Isaacs, Holland and Haynes creates high expectations.  What I was unprepared for was just how deeply it affected me.   To explain this better a back-story is required .  An indication of how this album came to be.

The recording dates from 1988.  This was a time when the mainstream music world had become mired in techno-commercialism and to the credit of the Jazz community it chose to delve deeper into experimental music; pushing harder against musical boundaries.   This was the time of Jarrett’s ‘Changeless’ and ‘Dark Intervals’ albums and discriminating listeners were up for it.  Dave Holland was no stranger to this type of project as he had participated in and initiated many avant-garde projects since the sixties.   Mark Isaacs (an Australian) was in New York at the time having just heard some of his chamber works performed by the Australian Ensemble in Carnegie Hall.   He felt ready to record something challenging so he contacted Dave Holland who immediately agreed to participate.  I am not sure how Roy Haynes came to the project but the choice was fortuitous.  A bop-pioneer drummer who had played with Lester Young and Charlie Parker plus a cutting edge experimentalist bass player were on board.  Both had played in Miles Davis bands (but not at the same time).  Both had an interest in the avant-garde.

No rehearsals were held, no charts used and none of these artists had ever played together before.  What you have here is a tight rope act undertaken by an Australian, an ex-pat Englishman and a New Yorker.  The result could have fallen flat but what happened was truly amazing.  Deep intuitive communication and an interplay which sounded more like a trio that had been together for years, not minutes.  In this recording there is a profound sense of space and limitless vistas seem to unfold before you.  The album is just over thirty minutes long and packed within that thirty minutes is a world of diversity.   At certain points one or other of the musicians is leading the conversation, while at other points they appear to seize upon an idea at the same time.  This is artistry of the highest order and I urge anyone reading this to purchase a copy while stocks last.

It is available on iTunes but as an audiophile I recommend that you purchase the CD.  The recording quality is superb and the sound so immediate that you gain a real sense of the studio it was recorded in.  A lot of recordings could have been recorded anywhere, but this one conveys a sense of location.  Many of the ECM recordings have that feel and the Rainbow Studios in Oslo immediately come to mind.  The album was recorded at the Power Station studios in New York, which incidentally is where Jarrett’s ‘Changless’ was recorded at about the same time.

Twenty five years on, the album still sounds fresh and engaging.

The Album is available from Mark Isaacs Website: http://markisaacs.com/9-latest-news/13-encounters-with-dave-holland-roy-haynes-available-now

The Doughboys @ CJC

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Whenever Neil Watson and Cameron Allen appear one thing is certain.   The boundaries between realty and the surreal will be seriously blurred.  Their attempts to kick down the barriers between musical genres arises from a genuinely subversive urge.  This has nothing to do with academic posturing, as the music comes from raw passion.   People sometimes ask me why I listen to Zorn, Sun Ra, Ribot and others.   It is because those people understand something very important, ‘Art should disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed’.  Neil and Cameron understand this and their collaborators do also.

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The unsettling rumours started circulating a few months ago.   Evidently there was an improvising band around town called the ‘Doughboys’.  Musical blackguards.  Few knew where they played and most dared not enquire further lest the blackest rumours were true.  They fitted no particular niche and worse, they could veer dangerously across genres without signalling a warning.   What might scare some, only served to tantalise me.  Any band that plays foul piratical sea shanties, Hawaiian music, Americana, ancient country ballads, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash in a Jazz voice is going to interest me.

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As with all vagabonds they eventually washed into the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) one blustery night.   Roger Manins, a steadfast soul, well able to withstand the vicissitudes of public opinion booked them.  On the night they stood brazenly arrayed, defiant as piratical adventurers can be.  Ready to sing and to wildly improvise, often using the voicings and tropes of psychedelic jazz.   Either that or they played a song dead straight just to confound.  The instruments were as left-field as the bands dress sense.  Neil Watson had an array of stringed instruments and some pedals mounted on a plank.  He used a Mexican Fender ‘Stratocaster’, a ‘Hobner’ Guitar (this is a top-of-the-range knock off of a Hofner which he purchased in an Indian street stall) and lastly a Chinese made ‘special’ steel guitar.  Cameron Allen played an old melodeon squeeze box, a tenor saxophone and a ‘virtual’ Doogan (it was not visible to the audience).   Alex Freer and Rui Inaba lulled us into a false sense of security by playing relatively ordinary looking instruments, but when you looked closely there were frightening pirate fetishes tied to the them.

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I thought that they were terrific and Neil Watson’s hint of Neil Young (subverted by Bill Frisell voicings) worked for me.   At times they played the tunes dead straight and this only added to the surrealism of the evening.  Once they sung a hearty ditty but I was not fooled.  As I suspected, this softening up was precursor to a king hit.  In this case a punked out rendering of the ancient sea shanty ‘Spanish Ladies‘ which I will post as a video.  This is the sort of music that the downtown avant-garde cuts its teeth on.  Where else would you hear an authentic version of ‘Pearly Shells‘ followed by something Pink Floyd might have done if they’d studied under Marc Ribot.  Bless their black pirate hearts.

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Disclaimer: No cats were harmed in the photoshopping of the above picture – the pirate cat is named Zirky 

What: The Doughboys at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 1885 Britomart, Auckland 20th November 2013

Who: Neil Watson – aka ‘Geetar Scrim’ (guitars), Cameron Allen aka ‘Lee Shawnuff’ (melodion and tenor saxophone), Rui Inaba aka “Pork Baster’ (bass), Alex Freer aka ‘Daddy Gaucho’ (drums).

Natalia Mann update from Marseille

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I interviewed Natalia Mann after the release of her very successful Rattle album ‘Pacif’ist’ and since then we have kept in touch .  Improvising harp players are a rare commodity, but things are slowly changing.  This year the Columbian harpist Edmar Castaneda won a major Jazz poll.  Natalia is simply killing at whatever she undertakes but her new trio brings her squarely into the jazz orbit.   Having gained a considerable reputation playing with various symphony orchestras and after undertaking a number experimental music projects, she is more than ready to enhance her improvisational credentials.   She has recently been playing to critical acclaim at Mediterranean Jazz festivals and this video clip was made for the AKBANK Jazz festival in Istanbul.  Her compositions are beguiling and exotic, while retaining an elusive mysterious quality.   This is music that leaves you wanting more.

Natalia is of Samoan Kiwi extraction but for some years she has lived in Istanbul.  She’s married to the Turkish percussionist Izzet Kizil who appears in the clip below.  She was most recently the recipient of the ‘ARts Pacifica’ award in her hometown of Wellington.  Having recently studied Jazz at Skopje University she is now engaging frequently with the improvising world.   This stunningly beautiful piece swings to its own pulses and rhythms; aided by solid bass work from Dine Donneff (Greece) and the perfectly executed percussion of husband Izzet Kitil (Turkey).

I have promised to take her to the CJC next time she is in Auckland and just maybe if we are lucky, we could talk her into performing?

Natalia is in Marseilles at present and she sent me this clip of her new Jazz trio a few days ago.   Kiwi musicians certainly do well in the world.

NOiCE @ CJC

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The North Island Creative Ensemble is a project dear to Rosie Langabeer’s heart and one of many projects that she has on the go.   Rosie has been out of New Zealand for some time although NOiCE did perform at the CJC over a year ago.  Her musical journey most recently took her to the USA where she worked for three years with leading experimental improvisers and artists.   Her compositions and playing have won various awards and so I made certain that I there as I missed the last NOiSE gig.

This is music that is hard to pin down, as it deliberately defies conventions while somehow flirting with them.   There is a sense of structure which provides a touch stone, but don’t grasp too firmly as the forms will dissolve as quickly as they appeared.  This is music which carries you forward if you let it, holding you in the eternal moment.

NOiCE is an assembly of highly creative musicians; coming from a variety of North Island towns and cities.  The music is experimental in nature and it is definitely adventurous.  Most of these musicians are well-known and leaders in the field of New Zealand experimental music.   Jim Langabeer (Rosie’s father) is a stalwart of the Auckland Jazz scene, but he has also worked with international musicians like Gary Peacock, Sammy Davis Jr and even the Bee Gees.   He is a multi reeds and winds player and because of his proficiency on a variety of instruments he has been in demand over the years.  I recently saw his name come up in the music credits of the New Zealand film ‘Mr Pip’.   His innovative flute work is probably what he best known for.

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Jeff Henderson is also a multi reeds player and he is at the very heart of Auckland’s experimental music scene.   He can often be seen at ‘Vitamin S’, a small club dedicated to experimental music located just off Karangahape Road, Auckland.   Jeff has worked with a large number of cutting edge musicians over the years, William Parker, Steve Lacey, Mike Nock and many others.   He delights in pushing against the boundaries and when he performs he seldom holds back.  While his scalding solos often reach beyond mere form, his ability to integrate seamlessly into an ensemble creates a filigree of contrasts and textures.   A delicious aura of inventive unpredictability hangs over him.  IMG_8613 - Version 2

Chris O’Connor (drums) is a firm favourite with CJC audiences.  A recipient of the Chapman Tripp Award for original music, he has also worked with the soprano saxophonist Steve Lacey, avant-garde pianist Marilyn Cryspel, Don McGlashan and numerous other well-known groups or individuals.   Chris is one of those drummers that other drummers revere and the last time we saw him at the CJC was with vibist John Bell.

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Ben McNicoll (reeds and winds), Joe Callwood (guitar), Gerard Crewdson (brass) and Kingsley Melhuish (brass), Nicky Wuts (vibes) and Patrick Bleakley (bass) round out the ensemble.   They are all experienced musicians and most of them have worked with NOiCE for some time.  Ben McNicolls is the best known to CJC audiences as both the technical director of the club and a frequent performer.  A good reader with a nice sound he, is happy to take on any project, from standards gigs to out-ensembles.   Gerard Crewdson and Kingsley Melhuish are versatile and sought after brass players and both have played the CJC before.   The musicians that I was less familiar with were Patrick Bleakley (bass), Joe Callwood (guitar) and Nikky Wuts (Vibraphone).

I’m relieved to see another mallets player on the scene as New Zealand has very few of them.   John Bells departure earlier in the year left a yawning chasm.

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All contributed something unique as this is a truly democratic ensemble.  One where individual voices rise and then subside; emerging seamlessly into the collective consciousness of the group

 

Neil Watson Four @ CJC

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I love any music that can be termed ‘Space Jazz’ or ‘Space Funk’.  I have no idea if this is a real genre but I follow it anyhow.  Living through the era of Sputnik and being caught up in the excitement that followed I was nudged in that direction by the events of the day.  After that I zeroed in on space themed music.  Some of it was corny (Telstar) and some was grandiose (Gustav Holst’s ‘The Planets’).  Not long after this I stumbled across Jazz and the sonic explorations perfectly fitted my longing for a music that evoked the wonders of space while encompassing the quirks of our humanity.   Music performed by artists who stood in awe at the edge of the universe and then stepped free of its limits.  IMG_8030 - Version 2

The Neil Watson Four is a recently formed Auckland band who have no fear of galactic explorations.  With the aid of a doogon (explained later), tenor saxophone, drum kit, upright bass and four overly fertile imaginations, they bent and pulled at the fabric of the universe.  This is a band that defies the norms and swallows genres whole.  There is no sense of deliberate eclecticism here and no self-conscious navel gazing.  It is original and you get the sense that what happens sometimes surprises the musicians.

The feeling is often that of organised chaos, a loose organic vibe that works well because they have entered into a collective state of being.  While Neil Watson pilots the ship there is no heavy controlling hand but his benign presence presides.  He has gifted his vision and let the possibilities unravel as they may.  IMG_8057 - Version 2

Neil Watson is not only a great guitarist but his sense of humour is original.  A sort of postmodern Zen; dropping casual asides into the banter in ways that confound.   The You Tube clip that I will post is ‘Renamed’.  When Neil announced that tune he casually added, “I hated the original name”.  This sort of humour leaves you momentarily confused and then laughing out loud.  They also played a lot of tunes named after children, girlfriends or spouses.   The tunes were all great and particularly ‘Renamed’ (Watson), ‘Eleanor’ (Dennison), ‘Rosie My Dear’ (Gibson) and ‘Theo’ (Allen).  There were ballads and country fare as well.  their rendition of ‘Danny Boy’ was so poignant that any Scots in the audience would have been fumbling in their sporrans for a tartan hanky.

Neil Watson is an original guitarist and he is at his best when a leader.  He brings a rag-tag of interesting sounds and ideas to the bandstand and then knits them together.  There is also something akin to Zorn in much of this material.  Once the skeletal structure and the overall concept is in place the music is liberated.  The interactions between men and machines are fluid and what the audience sees will never be repeated.   For this to work well he needs the right collaborators and he has certainly struck gold this time.  IMG_8044

Cam Allen usually plays alto but he is also a fine tenor player.   I have also seen him manipulate a Moog to great effect.  On Wednesday night he played a Buescher ‘Big B’ Aristocrat and it gave out an earthy, and slightly raspy sound.  Word has it that it is a tricky beast to play but it sounded just right for this gig.   I risk committing heresy here but a Selmer would have been too clean for this music.  His interesting modal explorations and his flow of ideas mark him out as a gifted player.  This is hardly surprising as he honed his craft on the highly competitive American Jazz scene.  In this band he doubled on ‘doogon’.   This is very much a ‘Kiwi’ thing and it is best described as an array of electronic and acoustic sound enhancements strapped to a hardware-store hand truck.  Resembling a cross between a Dalek and an IED with its glowing blue lights, digital clock console and multiple knobs (many strapped on with duct tape); it can envelop the audience with shrieks that resemble a Banshee at a rocket launch.  IMG_8075 - Version 2

All of the instruments including the drums feed into this machine and the effects are astounding.  On upright bass was the respected Tom Dennison who used his arco technique to very good effect.  This bowing worked well with the Doogon, which under Allen’s guidance resonated in ways that would have astounded the instruments makers.  Dennison has a lovely rich tone and we heard plenty of that.  What can never be overlooked are his compositional skills (See an earlier post on his ‘Zoo’ album).  For this gig he contributed the lovely ‘Eleanor’ which he dedicated to his girlfriend.  He seldom appears at the CJC these days and it was a pleasure to see him there again.

Perhaps the biggest masterstroke was adding Frank Gibson Jr into the mix.  This inclusion of a drummer most known for his Post Bop chops may have raised a few eyebrows at first, but Gibson is no stranger to fusion.  He demonstrated just how perfectly he can execute this material and he showed us all what free and imaginative drumming looks like.  I heard a band member saying later that having Frank behind them, lifted the whole performance.   IMG_8050 - Version 2

I am an unreformed devotee of music like this and whether you call it Space Funk, Space Jazz, Eclectic Fusion or just wild music I will be its cheer leader.   This is an itch that just begged to be scratched and I am glad that Neil gave us a taste of it.  Besides the wilder numbers there were one or two ballads to balance out the program.  Overall it was a very satisfying experience.

It was somehow fitting that the band performed on the day that NASA verified that Voyager One had left our solar system and entered interstellar space.  

Who: The Neil Watson Four.  Neil Watson (guitar), Cam Allen (tenor, doogon), Tom Dennison (bass), Frank Gibson Jr (drums).

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

Photographs by John Fenton & Ben McNicoll

Dream Weaver – Murray McNabb 1947 – 2013

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Murray McNabb left us on the 9th June 2013, just missing his scheduled gig at the Auckland Jazz & Blues Club.  His keyboards may have fallen silent but not so the band who played on out of respect. Mike Walker an old friend, was approached by Murray just days before he died, to stand in if he didn’t make the gig.  The gig may have invoked a plethora of memories and been tinged with sadness, but it was clear that Murray would live on through his musical legacy.  This was a musician who fearlessly patrolled the outer reaches of the sonic universe and I like to think that his ‘Astral Surfers’ album will be poured over by intergalactic cosmonaut’s as they look for clues or perhaps navigation hints from ‘Ancient Flight Texts’.

Frank Gibson Jr

Frank Gibson Jr

I was at Mt Albert Grammar at the same time as Murray and Frank Gibson, but they were more than a year ahead of me and both were prefects.  I was deeply into Jazz as a school boy and I knew that they were as well, but the gap between a fifth and a seventh former is sadly too far to bridge.  Fifth formers just didn’t hang with prefects and I regret that now.   I have followed Murray’s (and Franks’s) career ever since.

Murray McNabb was at the heart of the Auckland Jazz Scene and everyone respected his prodigious musical output.  The key to his music lies with the man, as music made him happy and improvised music even more so.  He was a man perpetually on the edge of a great adventure, navigating only by his innate sense of groove and an inner vision of the boundless vista’s that lay ahead.  Like Mike Nock he never settled for the ordinary, always pushing hard against the boundaries.   As much as I like his straight ahead records such as the lovely ‘Song for the Dream Weaver’, it is to his ‘out’ offerings that I return to again and again.

A largely self-taught keyboardist, he continued to explore the possibilities of Synths (and his beloved Fender Rhodes) during a period when others weren’t so keen.  In many ways improvised music has now come full cycle, as a younger generation continue the explorations, aided by clever machines and astonishing pedals.  Murray can take much credit for enabling a younger generation of local musicians to pick up on that.  His collaborations with Gianmarco Liguori in particular come to mind.  I regard ‘Ancient Flight Text’, a Liguori directed collaboration between him, Murray and Kim Paterson as a masterpiece.   If released by ECM, wide acclaim would follow.

Murray is known to all New Zealanders whether they realise it or not, as his collaborations with Murray Grindly produced film scores (e.g. Once were Warriors, Greenstone) and countless well-known TV adverts.  He never spoke ill of this work as it allowed him to simultaneously pursue his Jazz career.

The gig at the Auckland Jazz & Blues club was part wake (as old friends came up one by one to perform or to read eulogies) and part concert.   In my view it was Murray’s closest collaborators who stole the show and spoke for him best.  Frank Gibson Jr (drums), Kim Paterson (valve trombone), Neil Watson (guitar),  Denny Boreham (bass) and Stephen Morton-Jones (sax).   In Murray’s place was Mike Walker on piano.  During the second set the band played a Jazz fusion number composed by Murray years earlier.   Frank Gibson started the pulse with an insistent clipped beat similar to that used in Pharaohs Dance (Bitches Brew).  One-two, one-two, one-two, one-two.  The others moved in and out of the mix, weaving short phrases around the beat and creating layers of haunting sound.  No complex melody, harmonies that shimmered, as illusive as a mirage.  Out of this tribute I formed the strongest view of Murray’s output.  He seldom relied upon complex changes to achieve his ends.  Many of his compositions had no bridge or recognisable head.  He could say more by improvising against a drone or by working a simple vamp than almost anyone else on the scene.

Kim Paterson - Stephen Morton-Jones

Kim Paterson – Stephen Morton-Jones

Murray was a joyful explorer and he worked best when there was little chance of rescue.   His music was wonderful and he took that last step as bravely as he embarked upon all of his journeys.

For his recordings contact: www.sarangbang.co.nz