Alex Ventling ~ Nurturing the Creative Spirit

Interview January 2022

Alex Ventling is a musician worth keeping an eye on. His learning pathway is intriguing and his music is vibrant. He is an improviser in the true sense, avoiding inertia as he gathers information without and within. His method is to locate a point of equanimity and in doing so, honouring both the collective and the innate. Although Ventling was born in my city I had not encountered his eerily-beautiful music until recently. He was unfamiliar because he left us for Basel straight after high school, studying extensively in Switzerland and Northern Europe. That course of action has yielded dividends for the musician and for the listener. This post is about his journey but also something deeper, unlocking the creative spirit. 

JL32: Hi Alex, I know that you are just out of MIQ, so welcome to my Waitakere home.

AV: Thanks John it’s nice to be here for a few weeks of relaxation and freedom. This sort of freedom is quite rare in the world right now.

JL32: You are regarded as a Swiss pianist although you were born in Tāmaki Makaurau. How do you view yourself? 

AV: I still feel like I’m a Kiwi kid, but one (embedded) in Europe. There I discovered a culturally rich world and I am exploring that. My mother is Swiss Italian and my father is German American, so I have many cultural connections, but those particular connections only come into play when you experience the cultures first hand.  

Trondheim

JL32: I have been thinking about musical nationalism lately and about what Dave Holland said. That musical nationalism should be acknowledged but not overemphasized. He saw Jazz as a universal art form. How do you react to that?

AV: Yeah, I agree. There is so much to be said about how different peoples perceive a musician’s career and it relates to the values they have. So, moving about (between countries) you create music in different cities, and even though Europe is quite small in area, there is such a diversity of musical thinking.   

JL32: So where did your musical journey begin? 

AV: I grew up on the North Shore with a strong connection to Leigh where my mum did her marine biology degree, and I had a good piano teacher early on. She took the time to find out what music I related to. She allowed me to explore more open music, something closer to improvising. And at Pinehurst school, the Jazz pianist Dr Mark Baynes led our Jazz band, so I was very fortunate. He introduced me to people like Bud Powell, Keith Jarrett and Aaron Parks and I would listen to his recommendations on the school bus and ask for more each week.

JL32: And I bet you heard a lot of Brad Mehldau.

AV: Yes, because Mark was starting his thesis on Brad around then. And so at 19, I left for Basel in Switzerland, intending for it to be a gap year, a reconnecting with my roots. I stopped off in New York on the way to attend a New York Film Academy Music course. I’m interested in the visual arts, especially when combined with music. 

At that point, I was still deciding on what I wanted to do with my life; music or design. Then, while passing through Singapore I applied to Berklee Jazz School as they do auditions there. After my audition, I was accepted by Berklee and offered a scholarship. In the end, I decided not to take the offer up. In Basel, I thought the whole thing through carefully and decided to study there instead.

JL32: I am interested in this because it is not a typical study pathway for an aspiring Kiwi Jazz musician.  

AV: In hindsight, I am glad that I rejected that offer because I had nowhere near the capabilities that Berklee required and while they would have developed those skills, or any good Jazz school would have, I believe that I could have emerged into a sea of pianists who sounded much like each other. 

JL32: So you settled on the Basel Jazz Campus. How was that different? 

AV: The teachers certainly challenged us, we had Jorge Rossy, Larry Grenadier, Jeff Ballard, Mark Turner, Bill McHenry, but the focus was interesting (not just about developing chops).

‘by the way, I don’t care what ‘you’ can play and what ‘you’ can do. What I care about is what ‘we’ can do together. 

That changed the way I thought about group playing. I learned how to listen to myself with others and to view everything as a learning opportunity. There was a huge emphasis on listening at the Basel Jazz Campus. That is not to say that virtuosity is not valid, but we were encouraged to go beyond that. So, less focus on individualism and more about connections. Play something that the music is asking for rather than what your ego suggests.

(Brad Mehldau now teaches there also)

JL32: That is a nice segue to a related question. I’m interested in your involvement with Buddhist Vipassana meditation and how that practice factors into your development as a musician. I want to come back to that as it ties in nicely with what you are saying, but to continue with the European teaching methods you’ve encountered. Do you see this as being different from what is offered elsewhere?

AV: Perhaps there is a cultural component to this. In some cultures, you have to play louder, faster or say it quickly to be heard.  So to jump ahead a bit, that is what the Jazz School in Trondheim Norway is so aware of in their teachings. An amazing place. I managed to spend my last semester in Trondheim while completing my European Jazz Masters. They talk a lot about the generative potential of the musician. They are training your ears and the inner musician so that you draw on that, then translate that onto your instrument. If you develop that first, you will learn afterwards what technique you require to express what you have inside. Scandinavian Jazz schools tend to reorder priorities over many traditional Jazz Schools by putting skills development second. The generative potential and your skills can then be complimentary.  

JL32: You are the second European trained musician to express similar views. Rob Luft who was at the Royal Academy in London was told something similar. But back to Basel, tell me something about the bands you formed during and after your studies there?  The YouTube clips of those bands are captivating. Was the trio the unit you formed first?

AV: The trio, which I still have, arose out of my time in Basel. I wanted to start there because as a pianist, that particular classic piano trio form is the holy grail of Jazz. That trio is a multinational affair with the UK born Phelan Burgoyne on drums. Btw, Phelan was in a band with Rob Luft. He is now living in Florence with his Italian wife. And we had fellow student James Kruttli on bass, so yes, the trio is still going and we have more to say. Our last gig was in Berlin but we haven’t had many opportunities to play lately due to COVID. We had a different bassist in Berlin but it was a great reunion for me and Phelan. Before that, and weeks before COVID hit, we toured New Zealand of course. You reviewed that (We laugh about the white piano wish it a peaceful slumber). You play on what you are given, you adjust and play off that. That’s the attitude of pianist improvisers because you can’t bring your piano to a gig.

Jl32: How do you see the trio evolving?

AV: So the trio is still going and I’ve been playing more free music and loving that. Improvisers need to channel these varying experiences (even difficult pianos) and react to new places. Since I’ve been travelling, in Copenhagen, Berlin, Trondheim there are fresh ideas and we all have new tunes to share. So what was initially an acoustic piano trio is now involving a Korg Prologue synthesiser. We have evolved from a tunes trio to something else, last gig we only played two tunes per set and between we played free.

JL32: So do you enjoy playing free?

AV: I love it and that is mainly because I’ve been exposed to Scandinavian music, the free scene in Copenhagen and also in Berlin. 

JL32: Both of those locations have well developed free scenes, Have you found a difference? 

AV: Berlin is more of an animal, a beast of its own I would say. 

JL32: Open exploration and embracing hybridity?

AV: Yes improvisers should include their other influences and experiences, what’s around them and whatever else they are going through, even the non-musical elements. The places they’ve travelled through, the people they’ve met, the cultures they’ve encountered, soak it up and translate that into music. That’s when you get interesting results. This can be seen as the traditional journey for improvisers in a sense, many of the standards were just pop songs of the day reinterpreted.  I have a trio I play with right now in Scandinavia where we mostly improvise, but we also play jazz standards and fragment them. 

JL32: I’ve heard you do a version of Someday My Prince will Come as a reharm. 

AV: Exactly. That was a fully-fledged new arrangement until the melody line was barely perceivable anymore. 

JL32:  I just found an album on Bandcamp which is essentially Pakistani devotional music in conjunction with a Nordic Jazz Guitarist and bass. It remains what it is, devotional music, but through a Jazz lens. Nothing is forced.

AV: What you said then, through a jazz lens, I find it interesting when Jazz musicians or other kinds of artists look at something through their own lens, something different, often not even music. I mentioned before the school in Copenhagen I attended, the Rythmic Music Conservatory, they are all about that. People come there from vastly different styles and genres. We would embark on our different projects and get feedback from each other on our projects, a classical clarinettist, an extended technique only saxophonist, a hip-hop artist etc. When a Rap artist gives feedback on a piece by an improvising pianist like me, I will hear something different to what a Jazz musician will tell me. That musician will talk about aspects that I might not have considered. It’s more of a zoomed-out perspective. It is also nourishing to let go of that thing where you need to prove yourself (to people who know your thing)

JL32: With your Alex And The Wavemakers Quartet, you were exploring, expanding, you added a human voice, a Korean voice. I loved that. Were you influenced in any way by that European thing, like Kenny Wheeler/Norma Winstone, Weber, Endresen etc, interwoven vocal lines, melodic interplay?  

AV: The reference you made to Kenny Wheeler and Norma Winstone, I had certainly heard that, but I came to the use of wordless voice differently, using voice as a rhythmic instrument. So in the group, you are referring to, Alex and the Wavemakers, I was very much influenced by the Swiss musician Nik Bartsch and his Ronin band.

JL32: Yeah I rate that band, percussive serialism, tell me more. 

AV: So that’s the sort of sound I was going for, rhythmic organisms so that every musician had a piece of the rhythmic puzzle and we would all interlock. I would compose the rhythmic cycles so that they all knew where they were, but I didn’t want the voice to stand out by having lyrics. Everyone needed to be an equal part of a collective sound. So it worked out well with the Korean Singer Yumi Ito. She is a phenomenal singer, and also Japanese singer Song Yi Jeon (there is material featuring both available on YouTube). Song, who has a strong voice brought quite a powerful flavour to the band. It started with the Nik Bartsch influence but we ended up doing a lot more improvising (Bartsch concentrates on micro improvisations). We even had solos.

JL32: And has that approach changed?

AV: So that’s a strong part of my listening background, but in Scandinavia and particularly Copenhagen I’ve been concentrating more on improvising; where people are using a lot of textural approaches, thinking more about bringing together sonic textures. So the new group, the one I sent you this morning and which I started in Trondheim, has piano, synth, violin, vibraphone and drums. So changing the lineup and forming a new quartet was driven by COVID and the lack of gigs, but I’m developing a concept out of that. 

JL32: Yeah having a palette like that opens up a world of possibilities. As a composer, it must give you more scope. So do you prefer writing through-composed pieces or something looser? 

AV: Yes that’s a good question and I’ve been thinking about that a lot. Where do I lie between completely free and completely arranged? I find that whole area interesting, arranged, textures, free, and that’s where these cultural differences come into play. My observation is, that the further north you go, the more musicians think about composing beyond or before the notes are written.

JL32: As in they’ve internalised the ideas?

AV: Yes, working out structures in advance, but then the actual notes and rhythms can be completely free, but perhaps the dynamic, interplay, vibe and textures will be strict and fixed. So the complete opposite to how classical music forms are notated. So you don’t start with a melody, rhythm, set of chords.   

JL32: So you’re not necessarily thinking cycle of fifths, how to resolve or traditional forms?

AV: Oh yes, you’re probably right. There’s nothing wrong with that traditional approach at all, but nobody is talking about composition quite like the Scandinavians do. It’s a given that Jazz musicians will be familiar with song forms, scales etc, but does it matter if you have an individual approach?  A process that you develop. In Copenhagen, it wouldn’t necessarily matter if you had little knowledge of traditional song forms. If you have a process of your own, then that’s perfectly valid. 

JL32: I saw a video featuring Dave Holland, where a bass player student asked him how many notes ahead he thought. His reply was none.

‘during a free-flowing enjoyable conversation with friends, how many words ahead do you think or plan’?  

So he was saying, once you know how to speak, how you use speech is an in-the-moment creative process. 

AV: And you’re not thinking about which word you’re going to use. So you have a basic competency in language and you use it. So with this conversation now, we are not thinking about our next word, but we are thinking about what will we do with those words. Ideas are forming and I think that it is the same with music. The smallest details can make big differences and that is part of the minimalist approach. Listening to Nik Bartsch I discovered what delight you can get with these minimal changes, so I’m a big fan of minimalism. The composer-pianist from Norway, Christian Wallumod, exemplifies that. There are minimal and subtle changes that can occur over time when you are in a certain musical zone. This happens when a group is at a certain level and can shine a light on these (subtleties). It is fascinating when musicians are playing free, find their space, stay there for a while, then tell a story with those details.

JL32: The Melbourne pianist Andrea Keller exploits those subtle variations to great effect, but she will also place them against fragments of the unsubtle. 

AV: Nik Bartsch talks about that in his book, (where he refers to) the unobtrusive difference. He quotes Stravinsky or Morton Feldman when he says, it is of the highest art when you can repeat something, change it very slightly, repeat a form many times over but it is the subtle differences. That creates the art. Christian Wallumrød gets variations out of simple major triads for example.

JL32: Again the internal battle with yourself over utilising all the chops you possess or telling a story in subtle ways.

AV: Which is what we were talking about, in developing an inner voice which tells you what you want to express. A different set of skills is required to express simple ideas well.

JL32: What about eliminating the bass, removing the anchor?

AV: Yes in my Trondheim quartet we don’t have a bass which can be liberating. I wondered if it would work at first, but once I’d prepared the left side of the piano with blue-tack mutes, I realised that they would take away a lot of the overtones and sustain, giving me a more percussive bass sound – even sounding at times like a Fender Bass. 

JL32: Nik Bartsch again. The harmonics are gone and you hear the patterns clearly – like Ta-tunk, ta-tunk.

AV: yes exactly, he utilises that. And then you are more of a percussion instrument again. I prepare the bottom two octaves of the piano, but also the top two octaves using wood, wooden cutlery between the strings. On a grand piano, I put the wood between two of the strings, leaving the third-string resonating (there are three strings to a note in the upper register of a grand).

JL32: There is a marvellous pianist in Auckland named Hermione Johnson who deploys a wide range of effects, some soft (stroked chopsticks), some percussive, some more like the gamelan. 

AV: Other harder objects and especially metals can give a strong gamelan sound; activating some of the frequencies in the soundboard and the strings. I think that prepared piano lends itself more to a percussive sound. While you can add to the sustain, it is a lot easier to take away, it is a subtractive exercise, eliminating the sustain but then adding to the attack depending on the materials used. I will be releasing an album soon with a Norwegian guitarist named Hein Westgaard playing a semi hollow-body guitar plugged directly into the amp. Without using pedals. I am playing prepared piano with varying acoustic preparations and it is completely improvised (it will be available on Bandcamp once released).  

JL32: The minimalist approach and use of extended technique have always been with us, even going back to previous centuries.

AV: And those forms will always be underdogs.

JL32: It can be extremely rewarding although deep listening is required. In a world full of easily accessible and disposable things, connecting deeper music to audiences must have challenges. 

AV: Yes, but that’s what improvisers do. I’ve been playing with another guitarist in Trondheim who plays Baritone Guitar and he bows it with a cello bow. He uses lots of pedals and creates these atmospheric worlds of sound and he loops it and feeds it through a granulation process. Much like Stian Westerhus the experimental guitarist, also a Norwegian. 

JL32: Eivind Aaset is someone I listen to a lot (a Norwegian guitarist who frequently works with Jan Bang, Arve Hendrikson and other notable improvisers). An American reviewer felt that this type of Nordic live improvisation and sound sculpting was like an extension of Bitches Brew.

AV: And it is influenced by the film music tradition. We had a class at Trondheim Jazz-Line NTNU called sound drama. It was about improvisation and group improvisation and trying to avoid tonal and rhythmical structures (the discussion turned to deep listening, which led us to Buddhist meditation and the influence it has had on improvisers like Gary Peacock and our own Jim Langabeer, who both attended the Woodstock Zen centre)  

JL32: So on deep listening and mindfulness, how did you get into practising Vipassana Mindfulness Meditation?

AV: I began practising Vipassana about six years ago, starting with a ten-day course in silence, no reading material, no distractions, no music, no talking. I went into it out of curiosity, but it turned out to be life-changing. I meditated feeling that it could be beneficial to music-making but not sure how. It turned out to be more than I expected and it was not about changing a person but making them more themselves. It strips you down and gives you tools. While I was in Basel I wrote a paper on Vipassana meditation and its connection to improvised music. In attempting to break down the elements I found some astounding relationships. There is a word common to Vipassana (and Buddhism in general), equanimity, and when you apply that to group playing it benefits the music. Letting go of your ego, not judging your performance while playing, living in the now. The music will tell you where to go and what it needs. This requires level-headedness.

JL32: Learning to be the observer perhaps?

AV: Yes the observer living in the moment. It’s hard not to think forward or back.

JL32: The restless monkey-mind demanding novelty, craving?

AV: Accept change as it happens as the observer. At first, I thought that I had to be reactive in Jazz, but now I think that being responsive is better, there is a difference. Making an instantaneous decision based upon everything that you’ve learnt and without ego. Being more giving to your fellow musicians. I don’t want to parrot the drummer or any band member in a rhythmical trade. Those ideas were in my Basel Thesis. I am now keen to explore how this could relate to composition. 

JL32: European Jazz is developing multiple strong identities and often at warp speed. 

AV: Especially the former Eastern Bloc countries. I hope that the free explorations continue but the internet could dilute that originality. Original ideas, folk music and new ways of exploring sound are very important in Scandinavia, but my Trondheim tutors worry about the risks posed by internet overload. 

JL32: Speaking authentically is vital for improvisers and I hope Jazz never travels down the ersatz road that commercial music has.  I guess that this is a good place to wrap things up. Thanks for coming over and agreeing to a grilling. By the way, I can’t wait to hear the new band. 

AV: I will send you a copy when it’s out. I return to Copenhagen and Trondheim in two days, so I must head home and grab my surfboard.

JL32: Where will you surf?

AV: Tawheranui.

You can find Alex Ventling’s albums on streaming platforms, Bandcamp or by contacting him via his website AlexVentling.com

JazzLocal32.com is rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association, poet & writer. Some of these posts appear on related sites.

Andrea Keller ~ Systems Over-Ride

There is something satisfying about evaluating an anticipated album before the listening public gets to experience it, and whether it arrives digitally, or through the post, it can bring with it a heightened sense of expectation. It is a series of brush strokes unveiled before the paint is dry, and best of all it is unsullied by the crude measure of market vagaries. You listen with care, hoping that the music will speak to you and when it does you feel lucky. 

The best improvisers never settle, they reach waypoints then quietly move on. Andrea Keller is just such a musician. She is a creative force in perpetual motion and her steady output attests to that. And while each album or performance reveals something unforeseen, the connection to what came before is evident in the compositional DNA. To maintain such an arc without faltering is rare, but then Keller is a unique musician.

I have followed her work for some time and found the journey rewarding. There is a strong sense of the experimental in what she does but it never feels random. She can play with extremes while navigating a delicate path in between. When amidst these contrasting realities she is at her best and Systems Over-Ride is a prime example. 

It is entirely consistent with her musical openness, that she expresses a fascination with both free jazz and doom metal; this is referenced in the liner notes and it makes sense that she should navigate a course between these turbulent waters. She is in her element here. This quintet of Wave Riders, Keller aside, features a fresh crew. It compliments her 2013 Wave Rider album (and all of her albums) by moving on. 

As the pieces unfold, Keller’s pianism is always at its heart, with her unhurried serialism and melodic interjections drawing you ever deeper; notes and the spaces deployed to maximum effect. Much is implied beyond the notes too, as the tunes navigate a course between the turbulent waters ruffling the music’s edge. The quintet members respond in kind, and there are solos of course, but the album breathes as one.

As we approach the first quarter of the 21st century there is a rightness to these explorations. This is contemporary jazz as it should be. A leading US Jazz biographer and Journalist recently posted this meme, ‘People whose interest in Jazz stops with mid 20th Century recordings are missing the whole point of that music’. There is no endpoint to an improvisers journey. This is the direction of travel, ready or not.

The lineup here features Scott McConnachie (saxophones),  Jack Richardson (guitar), Mick Meagher (bass), Rama Parawata (drums) plus specially commissioned remixes using fragments from the studio session – remixes by Nicole Lizēe, Bree van Reyk, Joe Talia, Philip Rex & Theo Carbo.   

 It is available from Bandcamp in double vinyl, limited edition Compact Disk or Digitally at www.andreakeller.bandcamp.com  (Spotify should be avoided or used as a last resort, I support Neil Young and the artists who have pulled their content from that platform)

JazzLocal32.com is rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association, poet & writer. Some of these posts appear on related sites

Pause, Reset, Listen

In the early 1970s, I recall picking up Rolling Stone magazine and seeing the end of year headline, ‘What A Long Weird Trip It’s Been. I thought of that headline yesterday because it felt relevant. It referred to many things, to the psychedelic music which had fuelled a movement, Miles’ fusion band or The Jefferson Airplane, to the out-prose of Hunter S Thompson and Alan Ginsberg, but mostly it referred to the seismic upheavals of a troubled interregnum when the old order cracked open. A time when the planet was searching for a different axis. 

It was a time of collision between an old-world order and a hyper-energised counter-culture movement. The combatants on both sides had grown weary as the pitch battles grew uglier. Bullets flew at Kent State U and the Vietnam War stumbled on pointlessly as the death count rose; and back on the west coast of the USA, Manson drove a dagger through the summers of love and hope. In turbulent times tidy resolutions are evasive, and so it’s been these past few years. 

Jim Langabeer Aotearoa/New Zealand

Then, as now, the arts flourished and improvised-music especially so; interpreting the sounds and moods of the times instinctively. Improvisers will always find fresh ways to examine the world about them because change is what drives them; to succeed they must be open to the endless possibilities of the moment. They will guide us to havens, to secret Islands on the margins if we listen with care.

I spent much of the recent lockdown listening to music from the wider Jazz diaspora. Initially, the musicians fell silent, then, as they came to terms with their new reality most reached out, connecting digitally with the like-minded, or with those they didn’t know at all. 

From Ethiopia

Language barriers and visa issues quickly faded into irrelevance as cultural connections were navigated between living rooms. The independent recording labels also stepped up and digital review copies of lockdown albums hit my inbox daily; arriving from Iceland, Poland, Ethiopia, Russia, Belarus, Czechoslovakia and many other countries. Most of them were from well outside of my usual orbit. Cultures were colliding and assimilating new ideas at speed. 

Around that time I was contacted by a Jazz Studies pupil who asked if New Zealand had a recognisable Jazz voice. That is a hard one to answer. I hear individual players with distinctive voices, but that is not the same thing. It is inarguable that Jazz arose as an American art form over 100 years ago and that it arose out of oppression, slavery, and a collision of cultures. But as it spread adaption was inevitable and in each country, cross-fertilisation occurs. In this age of hyper-connectivity, that process is accelerating at warp speed. 

French improvisers

As I listened to the many albums from elsewhere there was a jazz sensibility, but I also fancied that heard elements of indigeneity, of improvisers referencing their folk music, native anthems and landscapes. This gave me pause for thought. What constitutes an original voice in the modern Jazz world? We hear it or think we do but how is it defined? And isn’t musical nationalism a contentious topic? I am inclined to Dave Hollands point of view in this regard, that musical nationalism should be acknowledged but not over analysed. The negative consequences of nationalism are everywhere about us and the extreme forms are seldom healthy. Jazz is a humanistic, hybridised and multi-lateral entity. 

Improvising on traditional tunes Norway/Finland

Aotearoa is a colonised land filled with a great many cultures. In the past, Polynesian voices were sidelined by dominant European cultures, but the indigenous voices grow stronger every day. I only have my ears to guide me, but if I was asked to highlight an authentic Kiwi Jazz voice, it would most likely come from our ever-growing underground free-jazz movement and it would probably reference indigenous music in some form. Musicians like Jeff Henderson and Jim Langabeer come immediately to mind, but there are others as well. 

I have included a few clips which invite people to form their own opinions. Included is a track from Secret Islands, Jim Langabeer’s extraordinary album, a telling of Kiwi stories. Also, a beautiful Ethiopian clip, a French genre-busting improvising band that could hardly have come from anywhere else, an extraordinary offering of Spiritual Jazz from Lahore, and some current Nordic folk-Jazz.

Improvised music from Lahore

The journey through the pandemic feels interminable right now, but the music will guide us through, and if we listen well enough, the time will not have been wasted. Search Bandcamp or wherever for something unknown, let the music paint pictures as you study new landscapes through your ears. Is this the new travel? We will hopefully emerge better informed, and what a long weird trip it will have been. 

You can purchase many of these albums on Bandcamp; the place where interesting music lands.

JazzLocal32.com is rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association, poet & writer. Some of these posts appear on related sites

Anthony Donaldson

Devils Gate Outfit

Devils Gate Outfit was recorded live at Wellington’s Meow two months ago. The album is bursting with restless spirits, and I am not surprised that such a powerful genie was let out of the bottle so quickly. There are multitudes of spirits hovering over the recording, fragmentary echoes of Ornette and Miles, but the predominant voices are those which haunt the ragged windy Wellington coastline. All are paid their due, but the album is unconfined by the many streams that feed it. It is above all a succinct commentary on the breadth of improvised music that is thriving in Aotearoa right now. 

The album is out on Kiwi Jahzz, a natural home for adventurous and original free music. And it captures a particular night at Meow where the band holds a residency. The playing is great, and so is the overarching vibe. Delivering great performances without defaulting to any ‘look at me’ moments. It is a band uncoupled from tired old formulas and thus able to move as freely as it desires. Sometimes this results in tantalisingly fleeting glimpses of the past, then just as suddenly you are plunged into the forward-looking improvised groove music favoured by younger audiences.  

The album is loosely programmatic but does not follow a linear storyline. It establishes a theme, then drops kaleidoscopic images. letting the music paint evocative sound pictures. There is a wealth of musicianship evident here as well. I am familiar with most of the players (apart from Steve Roche and David Donaldson). Although new to me, I am delighted to hear both for the first time. It was also good to hear Cory Champion expanding his percussion role to Vibes.

I am picking that drummer/composer Anthony Donaldson is the nominal leader in this outfit and around him are a truly formidable crew. The interactions between them are impressive as they navigate that fine line between spontaneity and cohesion. The slow-burning bluesy Wood Drift is the closest thing to straight ahead and it is a delightfully spacious piece of music – it could (and should) find cut-through with any Jazz taste. And I can never hear enough of Blair Latham’s playing. On Wood Drift, his woody sonority and captivating lines caress the melody against a gentle background of Daniel Beban’s understated guitar and Callwood’s bass, setting up Champion, Roache and Beban for solos, such a languid and appealing groove tune. 

Contrasting nicely, The Portal to Red Rocks is a burner and a showcase for Latham on saxophone and the very capable Roche. Here the bass and drums provide propulsive energy as they navigate the shifting rhythms and washes of electronic effects. If I had to pick a tune that best exemplifies the album it would be the opener Storm of the Century. Anthony Donaldson owns this track and it is his pulse that sets the others free. I will be surprised if this isn’t a contender for Tui Jazz Album of the year.

The Devils Gate Outfit: Anthony Donaldson (drums), Tom Callwood (double bass), Steve Roche (cornet, baritone horn, Cassio), Blair Latham (saxophones, bass clarinet, David Donaldson (bass banjo, percussion), Daniel Beban (guitar, electronics), Cory Champion (vibes, percussion, synthesizer) It was released 19 October 2021, on Kiwi Jahzz and is available digitally on Bandcamp: kiwijahzz.bandcamp.com 

School of Hard Nocks ~ by Village of The Idiots

This amazing recording is extracted from a number of live shows organised by the visionary drummer Anthony Donaldson. Among the shows referenced are ‘Seven Samurai’ ‘Oils of Ulan’ Po Face’ and others. The overarching implied theme is the Samurai film genre. This is an album where open conversations occur between two art forms. It belongs to an interesting subgenre of improvised music and in my view an avenue worthy of continued exploration. You encounter it convincing in Zorn’s Filmworks. These were reimagined soundtracks, or more accurately, soundtracks to reimagined movies. Music aligned to the essence and untethered from any strict narrative form. Auckland/Canadian guitarist Keith Price did just this with his reimagined The Good the Bad and the Ugly score. Jazz has always been associated with the cinema, but extending the brief and pushing into clearer air is where the gold lies.   

The album is painted on a vast canvas and has a cast that must rival that of a Spaghetti Western (or Carla Bley/Paul Haines Escalator Over the Hill). Thirty-one musicians are credited here and a significant number of them are high profile improvisers. Throughout, they come and go, as larger and smaller ensembles change places, with some artists like Jonathan Crayford appearing on a single track. The mood can shift at lightning speed, as a tune ends abruptly and a fresh exploration emerges. Another aspect that can’t be overlooked is the underlying humour. Music like this is not pitched at the serious-faced, dinner suit/ball gown-clad denizens of dress circles (although I’d love to see that attempted). It is anarchic and plays with imagery. The open-eared will quickly grasp this point and every piece of mind-fuckery will bring them joy. 

There are so many good performances and so many great musicians here that it is beyond my scope to enumerate them all. When you see names like Anthony Donaldson, Jeff Henderson, Bridget Kelly, Daniel Beban, John Bell, Patrick Bleakley, Lucien Johnson, Jonathan Crayford, Chris O’Connor, Steve Cournane, Riki Gooch, Richard Nunns and Tom Callwod on a setlist, you check it out immediately. The way the units are configured creates a unique set of textures and there can be no doubt that this is a drummers band.  Donaldson’s drumming leaves a powerful impression, but he leaves plenty of space for other percussionists. A  glance at the lineup tells that story best, as I counted seventeen drummers and percussionists on the album. As they come and go, they never get in each other’s way and this is a tribute to the arranging. Some of course are doubling on percussion instruments (e.g. Noel Clayton plays guitar, bass banjo and punching bag, while Maree Thom plays electric bass, upright bass, bass drum and accordion). And to complete the illusion of filmic authenticity, Donaldson adds foley to his drum/percussion roles.   

For a full listing of the musicians involved check out Donaldson’s site. Better yet buy immediately. The album was digitally released on Bandcamp in early November 2021 and it can be located at anthonydonaldson.bandcamp.com   

JazzLocal32.com is rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association, poet & writer. Some of these posts appear on related sites

Rare, Obscure, Overlooked

I’ve always been attracted to the albums which populate the margins. The material that is overlooked, and when discovered, brings with it a sense of having unearthed something rare. These discoveries make us feel like insiders, the inheritors of secret knowledge. And once we possess the navigation tools we join other explorers. Crossing terra incognito on a quest for sonic treasure.  

The albums are often rare private issues or bootlegs. Or they appear, then vanish during the collapse of a niche label, never to be reissued. Sometimes they are recordings taken by clubs from a live feed. Many archival treasures have been unearthed from these sources. This is the realm of mislabeled or rejected treasures, languishing in the vault of a disinterested multinational or forgotten in a private home. But by far the richest source, the recordings made by musicians, and stored away for posterity.  

Before the era of digital micro-recorders, people with scant respect for copyright smuggled recording devices into concert halls or practice rooms (obsessives like Dean Benedetti, Bird’s stalker, dangling his crude mic through a hole in the ceiling and covertly recording Bird practicing). I met people who wired themselves like police snitches and secreted a mic up each sleeve (stereo capture) and held their arms aloft during a concert in order to get the best sound. 

In my collection, I have examples of all of the above which leads me to the focus of this post. When the domination of 33rpm LPs was overrun in 1983 by the CD format, record companies had a field day, reissuing popular albums. For the big labels, it was largely about estimating the number of units that could be sold. For the smaller labels, it was a marginal enterprise and runs could be limited. During this period a determined group of obsessives digitised the bootleg tapes and the missing 78’s, EP’s and LP’s, old favourites which never made the cut. In Tamaki Makaurau there were several local musicians who had worked in broadcasting and they possessed the expertise to clean up and digitise scratched or hissy analogue recordings. This involved mysterious processes like ‘de-clicking’ and transferring micro-segments to fill a dropout. They did this for altruistic reasons and a number of rare recordings survive because of these efforts. 

Hawes Live At The Great American Music Hall #2

One of my lockdown projects has been to sort through these older albums and craft a playlist. Because of the nature of the material, some of it I have not posted as it has not yet become available on streaming services. Here are a few that took my fancy.

Paul Bley ~ Mr Joy (Limelight 1968). This album doesn’t appear in Spotify or in most discographies. It is an interesting and very rare album filled with great material. With Bley (p) are Gary Peacock (b) and Billy Elgart (d). The liner notes are hilarious and random. ‘Voice: Why do they call you Mr Joy? MJ: Because I’m unhappy about a lot of things’ Mr Joy went on to say that he was unhappy about imitators and impersonators, his own performance, but happy about people with open ears like Gary Peacock and Billy Elgart. The ghosts of Annette Peacock and Ornette Coleman inform this album.  

Anita O’Day ~ Angel Eyes (Emily Records/Lobster Records 78-81). These fabulous Anita O’Day small group sessions are a hybrid of two Japanese recording dates – 1979 and 1981. It came at the most troubled period of her life when her addiction problems were made public after a bust. Here, she is with her partner John Poole (trio leader and drummer). Poole has been blamed for her woes of that time, but later evidence suggests that he took the heat to protect her. She kept in touch with him and gave him work long after they parted. This is not the bright sassy O’Day of later years, but a smoky-voiced vocalist channelling her pain. Some may think that material like this should be forgotten, but I disagree. Would we ditch the difficult Billy Holiday years? This is Anita at her most soulful. A later limited compilation from these sessions was released by Kayo. My copy was extracted from two EP/LPs and has bespoke liner notes. John Poole (drums), Don Abney (piano), Dwight Dickerson #2 (piano) Harvey Newmark (bass). My converted copy finally corrupted.

Jimmy Giuffre 3 ~ Flight Bremen 1961 (Hat Hut / Radio Bremen) This Giuffre/Bley/Swallow album was taken from the live feed by Radio Bremen and later released by Hat Hut. It does not appear in many discographies and is particularly interesting as it proceeds the ground-breaking album ‘Free Fall’ and ‘Free Fall Revisited’. This adventurous music shocked many Giuffre fans who purchased it thinking that they were getting more of ‘The Train and The River’ trios. He changed his trio to include Bley and Swallow in 1961 (after 17 folksy albums with his old trio). During this period the discographies can be confusing. An album called ‘Fusion’ came out and ‘Fly Away Little Bird’ on the French OWL label. In 1989 ‘Life of a Trio: Sunday’ came out.   Free music was still very controversial in 1961 – ‘Flight Bremen’ is a bridge between the two styles. My copies are all extracted from LPs. Giuffre on clarinet.

Turkish Women at the Bath ~ Pete La Roca (Fresh Sound May 1967). This recording has an interesting tale to tell. After it was recorded, a well-known member of his band (not the leader) released it under his own name. La Roca was incensed and went to court over the copyright. After a long court battle, he won the case, and all existing copies were recalled. It was later released by Fresh Sound with the correct attribution. La Roca studied and became a copyright attorney and had a successful practice defending artists against violations like those he suffered. It is an exceptional album filled with modal grooves and open compositions. The personnel, Pete La Roca (drums), John Gilmore (tenor sax), Chick Corea (piano), Walter Booker (bass). La Roca is an interesting drummer who could create a loose swing feel over freer music. Gilmore is fabulous. 

Steve Kuhn ~ Oceans in the Sky (Owl 1989). The French label Owl was always worth checking out and this straight-ahead album is a gem. With Kuhn are Miroslav Vitous (bass) and Aldo Romano (drums). It was recorded in Paris, probably to suit the Czech bassist and Italian drummer. Nothing in Jazz quite evokes the feeling of looking down from space like this. Every time I listen to it I am overjoyed afresh. I wore out one copy and purchased a new one upon re-issue. ‘The Island’ by Ivan Lins is glorious. Such a lovely slow swing feel and if they laid any further back on the beat, they’d surely fall.

Playboy styled covers were popular on the West Coast

Curtis Counce ~ You Get More Bounce With Curtis Counce (Contemporary 1956). Curtis Counce was a star that burned out far too soon. He died of a heart attack while his career was on the rise. Counce, a stellar bass player, managed to play with an extraordinarily talented range of musicians before forming his own quintet in the Bay Area. In his lineup were some of the finest musicians on the west coast. Carl Perkins (piano), Harold Land (tenor), Jack Sheldon (trumpet), Frank Butler (drums). It was opportune for Counce, that Land quit the Clifford Brown/Max Roach band because he missed his family. Land has one of the most recognisable sounds on tenor saxophone, Perkins was a rising star, but tragically, he died of a drug overdose just as the band was becoming famous. He is one of those pianists who was reaching for a fresh approach and his loss at such a young age is lamented to this day. The album cover would possibly not pass muster today. Contemporary often took a playboy approach to cover art.

Jazz Studio 2 ~ Holywood (Decca monaural LP 1954). There were at least three in this set, volume 1 featured east coasters like Hank Jones. ‘Volume 2’ is an early example of the cool west coast sound and the nonet features heavyweights of the day. The personnel: Don Fagerquist (trumpet), Milt Bernhart (trombone), John Graas (French horn), Herb Geller (alto saxophone), Jimmy Giuffre (tenor, baritone, clarinet), Marty Paich (piano), Howard Roberts (guitar), Curtis Counce (bass), Larry Bunker (drums). Unsurprisingly, Paich does most of the arrangements with a few by John Graas. Bunker is always attention-grabbing as a drummer (or vibes player), most memorably with Bill Evans in the ‘65 trio’.

Matka Joanna ~ Tomasz Stanko Quartet ( ECM 1994). This and the two albums that follow are in the overlooked category, hiding in plain sight. ‘Matka Joanna’ (Mother Joan) is a tribute to the award-winning Jerzy Kawalerowicz film about a group of possessed, eroticised, nuns on the rampage and set in the middle ages. The unusual genre called Nunsploitation thrived in the eastern bloc and became an outlet for artistic subversives during the communist era. Thirty-three years after the film came out Stanko produced this open, free-exploration in tribute. There are many reasons to like this with its dreamy vibe, but high on the list are the musicians. Stanko was a trailblazer with his euro-free inside-outside approach, an original. His east European style of Jazz was always informed by the world he grew up in, and particularly by Kristof Komeda. With Bobo Stenson on piano, Anders Jormin on bass, and best of all, Tony Oxley on drums, how could this not be extraordinary? Very few people know of this album and that puzzles me.

Nothing Ever Was Anyway. Music of Annette Peacock (ECM 1997) Marilyn Crispell Trio. This is a highly rated album, but perhaps because it is free improvised it remains on the margins. Marilyn Crispell is living proof that free improvised avant-garde music can also be beautiful. Her spaciousness, phrasing, and interactions with others, mark her out as one of the greats. She has recorded in New Zealand with Jeff Henderson and the late Richard Nunns (check that out on Rattle, it’s still available and streamed). 

Hampton Hawes At the Great San Francisco Music Hall (Concord 1975). There were two issues of this album and the details are sketchy. Mine was a vinyl conversion with no liner notes. Also hard to find is the Swedish ‘Black Lion’ album ‘Spanish Steps’. Hawes was a superb pianist and his playing was always recognisable (increasingly, passionately, funky over the years). Everything by Hawes is worth having and a lot is up on Spotify. Sadly the ‘Great American Music Hall’ album is not. On that disk, he shouts and stomps as he builds the tension. The rare ‘Black Lion’ albums only appear on YouTube. The clip below is from a year later than the ‘Great San Francisco Music Hall’ recording. 

The best source for small-label, rare, and previously unreleased recordings is Bandcamp. There are some great Dewey Redman recordings there for example. For Dewey, check out Barney McAll’s ExtraCelestial Arts page (a never before heard Dewey release) and also check out the great Canadian free Jazz unit, Jon Ballantine Trio with Dewey. I would like to acknowledge Welly Choy and John Good, who started many on this journey for the overlooked.

JazzLocal32.com is rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association, poet & writer. Some of these posts appear on related sites

Kiwi Jahzz ~ from the underground basements of Aotearoa

Last month, a new Kiwi record label was launched and if the first releases are anything to go by, it will surely become a popular destination for ‘out’ improvised music fans. The Kiwi Jahzz label is a significant addition to the Aotearoa recorded music scene, and like Budweiser, it reaches places that others don’t

The music found in these underground basements has long been a magnet for adventurous listeners, and especially for younger musicians who often cut their avant-garde teeth there. With the arrival of the pandemic, lockdowns followed suit and clubs took a hit. One of those venues was The Wine Cellar under St Kevin’s arcade. A popular home for independent music. 

A hundred yards away in a nearby uptown basement, Jeff Henderson devised a plan. Why not move the Audio Foundation gear into the Wine Cellar. This included recording equipment and a ready-made audience. Out of that has come a string of recordings and a desire to make the music available to a wider audience. This is what musical freedom sounds like as the gigs are captured live. These recordings are street raw and bristling with energy, the sounds escaping from dark basements. 

Henderson is known for taking his time over a piece and for letting the moment dictate pace and length. A groove or vamp can run for as long as it needs to and with each utterance informing the direction of travel. It is music often liberated from harmonic distractions or from predictable pulses, so as it wends its way, it draws on a lifetime of experience, with each moment revealing yet another nested story. 

With the double trios recorded so far, the pieces have been shorter and this is perhaps a concession to the medium. In a darkened club you are more attuned to longer pieces, at home there are distractions. All but one of the initial releases features the Trioglodyte Trio. The core Trioglodyte lineup being Jeff Henderson, Eamon Edmundson-Wells and Chris O’Connor. It is perhaps more accurate to describe these albums as Trioglodyte led double trios because most of the releases to date feature a guest trio as well. A mixture of well-known musicians and enthusiastic up and comers. 

While Henderson is not a musician to blow his own trumpet, his baritone saxophone could flatten the walls of Jericho. He is the guiding force behind the growth of the improvised ‘out’ music scene in Aotearoa and his determination has built a sustainable and vibrant presence.  A saxophonist, composer, producer and visionary, someone formidable.

Rated X (Davis)

With him in the Trioglodyte trio are Eamon Edmundson-Wells on bass and Chris O’Connor on drums (and percussion). O’Connor is a legend across many genres and Edmundson-Wells has built a solid reputation in settings like this. The pair are the perfect foils for Henderson, being adept at reacting instinctively and both capable of carrying considerable weight. Edmundson-Wells is a powerful and unfaltering presence and this frees up Henderson to forge a melodic path. Meanwhile, O’Connor does what he is renowned for, delivers his extraordinary pulses in marvellously unexpected ways. 

Vol 1’ is modestly titled but don’t let that fool you, because immediately you click on the arrow, the introductory track comes right at you, delivering hammer blows to the senses. Perhaps there should be a warning upfront; beware there will be no ECM styled five seconds of silence beforehand. That track is titled ‘Bra Joe’. 

Henderson opens with an extraordinary squalling attack as he strides into the tune like a Titan, casting aside all that he deems superfluous. Underneath his saxophone, you are aware of the pumping and scuffling of Edmundson-Wells and O’Connor, followed by the second trio. Crystal Choi on keyboards, Bonnie Stewart on drums and Paul Taylor on percussion and electronics. This may be a short number, but the impact will linger long afterwards.

The second track ‘Bra Joe from Kilamajaro’ is a reimagining of the Dollar Brand standard. Here the pace is slowed and the volume lowered but the intensity is not. The way it unfolds over a long slow vamp imparts something of an Alice Coltrane vibe, with Choi’s keys rippling joyfully beneath the bass. In fact, every track references a Jazz standard (more or less). Some might wonder why an album of adventurous free music features standards, but the music here is as out and adventurous as you might wish. And as with most improvised music, there is an implication of fun, of not taking ourselves too seriously. My favourite track is definitely ‘Rated X’ (Miles Davis). This is a multi-layered sonic feast and everyone gets to strut their stuff here. Miles smiles I’m sure. On this particular track, it is easy to understand why Henderson is held in such high regard. The ideas just bubble from his horn and everyone responds in kind.  And Bonnie Stewart (is this the Irish born Bonnie Stewart, the drummer songwriter, who performs with SIMA in Sydney). I have always been a fan of Choi on keys and this is the proof of the pudding; she was always reaching for this space. And then Taylor, electronics and percussion; his inclusion rounding off the ensemble nicely. This is the way modern avant-garde music has been tracking of late, two, even three drummers, which offers more punch. 

Milestones (Davis)

Vol 2’ has a different mood entirely. It opens with a moody piece of Frisell styled Americana, with one guitarist playing chords over a soft drone while the other answers. When Henderson comes in, new possibilities open up, and a subtle interplay involving all six musicians takes this into freer territory. Track two has a delightful New Orleans barroom kind of vibe. Again, Henderson leads the way with raw gutbucket blues. It shouldn’t surprise anyone to hear him play like a soulful Texas tenor player (complete with shouts) as there is ample evidence of this on earlier Henderson led albums. As you move through the tracks the Americana theme merges with other influences, a two drummer conversation titled Bonnie & Chris, a short piece titled Eamon & Jeff.  And following that is the blistering and rollicking ‘Impressions’; this last piece is best described as a Knitting Factory styled blues with the drums and percussion setting up the tune. Unadulterated crazy magic. Apart from Trioglodyte, the album features guitarists Kat Tomacruz and Bret Adams plus drummer Bonnie Stewart.

Vol 3’ is not a Trioglodyte album and unlike the other three in the series, it was recorded in Wellington at the Poneke Beer Loft (November 2020). Here Henderson is with bassist Paul Dyne and drummer Rick Cranson. All are heavy hitters and well used to traversing the jagged lines of Monk and responding to the keening cries of an Ornette Coleman tune. As well, the tracklist offers freely improvised pieces and a standard. The liner notes make reference to Henderson’s garrulous saxophone, and while that is accurate, it is also true that we can find a more measured and interrogatory tone from him here. Perhaps because this traverses familiar ground with old friends, the trio decided to take an oblique look at the material. This is particularly evident on the Raye/de Paul war-horse ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’. Together they have recut this diamond and revealed burning shafts of light hitherto unseen, and in doing so, they forged a minimalist route to the lustre. ‘Black ‘n’ White ‘n’ Blues’, dances joyfully over ostinato bass lines and a steady pulse, Colemans ‘Blues Connection’ is delightful and captures the essence of the great man; also, the two Monk tunes ‘Bye Ya’ and ‘Friday the 13th’ refresh and delight. 

Vol 4’ is another Wine Cellar recording and the lineup here is mouth-watering. There is no Chris O’Conner in the core trio this time, but his replacement Julien Dyne slots in seamlessly. Dyne is a marvellous drummer, comfortable in a multitude of settings. He is also responsible for the great artwork on all four of these releases. And as if there were not already an embarrassment of riches, Jonathan Crayford features on Fender Rhodes. The other musicians are J Y Lee on alto & flute (a player featuring in many innovative bands about town) and as in Vol 1, Paul Tayler on percussion and electronics. This album takes in a broader perspective on improvised music. It is filled with interesting cross-genre references and it invokes many moods. Here Henderson deploys a fuller armoury of alto, C soprano, baritone and C Melody saxophones.

The opener has an Afro Beat feel. Powerful propulsive and utilising repeated phrases to amp up the tension. Track two ‘The Rubble’, by contrast, is a dark filmic piece powered by the percussive utterances of Dyne and Taylor and the mood deepened by the arco bass of Edmundson-Wells.  Three is airy and open, wending its way purposefully, led by Crayford as he sets the pace and mood. People unfamiliar with free improvised music often fail to comprehend that this type of music can on occasion be gentle and reflective. It is honest music dictated by the moment. The flute and saxophone are pelagic birds circling above the rolling swells of a vast ocean. A most appealing piece.  

Track four, ‘Milestones’ (Davis) is a wonderful Dewey doing Miles fifteen-minute romp and the best reimagining of the tune I’ve heard in ages. This is so good that I had to put it on repeat play. The two saxophones playing unison lines, then Henderson (and Lee) playing the changes before launch off, Crayford dropping space chords underneath and soloing like Sun Ra’s chosen successor, Dyne, Taylor and Edmundson-Wells lifting the intensity beyond the high watermark. This track is everything you could ever wish from a Jahzz group. No wonder Tony Williams kept begging Miles to keep the tune in the repertoire post Bitches. Again 5 stars. There is one more standard ‘The Girl from Ipanema’.  They have taken a ‘same beach different girl’ approach here. This is completely free and not a bossa beat in evidence. This is a musical territory that the Norwegian electronic improvisers claim so convincingly. It is explorative and anyone with open ears will enjoy the ride. Mood dominates and form is irrelevant.  Having some of our best musicians collaborating on a project like this is a masterstroke. The open-eared must support Kiwi Jahzz and if we do there will certainly be more riches in store. You can find downloads and high quality streaming at Bandcamp on kiwijahzz.bandcamp.com

Footnote: A pointless question is sometimes asked of me, ‘but is this Jazz’. My response is, who cares, followed by, but did you listen with open ears and did the music talk to you? That’s all a listener needs to know about approaching unfamiliar music. Perhaps in future, I will answer by suggesting that they may be confusing Jazz with Jahzz.

Jazz is a catch-all descriptor for a broad swath of improvised music, and like all attempts to define an open art form, it eventually hits a brick wall. Jazz doesn’t require a scholarly explanation because the listener ‘just knows’; or as Pat Metheney put it, ‘you can’t see, touch or smell Jazz (unless you’re Frank Zappa), but a listener can recognise it immediately. Sound is air vibrations passing over the small bones in the inner ear, then it becomes electrical impulses. Jazz is physics fused with alchemy. 

JazzLocal32.com is rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association, poet & writer. Some of these posts appear on related sites

The River Tethys ~ Ben Wilcock Interview

It had been quite a while since the pianist and composer Ben Wilcock and I last caught up, so when I heard about his new album, I set up a ZOOM interview. It was a wide ranging discussion, more like a hang really, and because we were both relaxed we found a lot to talk about. The most obvious place to start was with Greek Mythology, a topic that we both had an interest in. Exploring this topic backgrounded the album nicely and the consequent intertextuality enhanced my appreciation of the project.    

So, Tethys was a Titan and the daughter of Uranus and Gaia (Sky and Earth). She was associated with bathing spots and rivers. Among her siblings were Hyperion and Oceanus (the latter her brother and husband). Tethys later gave birth to the numerous water gods and nymphs who appear throughout Greek literature (Oceanids). 

My assumption that the album directly referenced this mythology was only partly true. In fact, the prime inspiration was a series of SciFi novels titled ‘The Hyperion Cantos’ by Dan Simmons. I had no knowledge of his works, as my basic reference for Hyperion was John Keats’ aborted poem. My bad. The Hyperion Cantos is now on my reading list.

Aenea

The project topic was an immediate hook, but the way that Wilcock tackled it makes it extremely interesting. In the novels, the river Tethys flows between different worlds and in order to capture the mood of those worlds, he assigned each tune to a different world or place. He also decided that the pieces should not be programmatic and with that in mind he allocated each tune to a world after they were recorded. 

The artistry of the musicians and the arrangements lead you to think that the work is through-composed, but in reality it is ninety percent improvisation and much of that free. Therefore, I was not surprised to learn that the tunes were mostly captured in one-take. Each of them sparkles with a spontaneity which arises from that in-the-moment approach. The tunes are mostly Wilcock originals but with three standards interposed, the juxtaposition works very well.  

The blistering rendition of Gillespie’s ‘Groovin High’ is a roller coaster ride, pulling at the very fabric of the tune, and much like the hot music of the Mos Eisley Cantina in Star Wars, you wish that you could hang there. As Wilcock put it, ‘melody over chaos time’. Another standard is a take on de Paul/Rayes ‘Star Eyes’, a tune made famous by Tommy Dorsey. The remaining standard is ‘La Rosita’ (brought into the Jazz lexicon by Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins). All of the above are assigned a different mood (e.g La Rosita has an old movie vibe, later settling into a delicious Ahmed Jamal groove with its easy loping swing). 

As interesting as the standards are, it is the originals that truly reel you in. Right from the opening number you know that you are in for a treat as a succession of expansive tunes entice you phrase by phrase. This is an album that rewards repeat listening. Some are slow burners while others are edgy, and in spite of the oblique references to familiar music, this is a forward looking and original album. 

First Gate

One of the things Wilcock and I spoke of was how improvising artists hate to be confined or pigeon-holed. This album firmly establishes Wilcock as a capable modern stylist. Yes, he is adept at creating a Peterson, Monk or Garner vibe, but he is so much more than that.  There is free improvisation on this album and he is very much at home in this space. I can’t wait to hear more. This must surely be his direction of travel from here out. 

When you check out the album, listen to the slow burning and bluesy ‘Sol Draconi Septum’. A tune where the form is implied and liberated. Or check out the extraordinary ‘The Secret Life of Music’, which opens with a scuffling dissonant urgency (think Paul Bley), then unexpectedly merges into a delightfully syncopated Willie the Lion stride romp. Then there is ‘Aenea’ with its otherworldly violin soaring over the trio like a circling eagle; and that subtle elegant progression in the middle which briefly reminds you of Evans playing The Peacocks. 

With the colourist drumming and interactive bass, the openness of the offering is reinforced. That the music could be simultaneously inside and outside, is a tribute to the musicians. And Wilcock’s piano is superb throughout, a joy from start to finish and worth the album price alone. Accompanying Wilcock are his frequent collaborators, John Rae (drums) and Dan Yeabsley (bass). On a number of tracks they are joined by the interesting violinist Tristan Carter. No one put a foot wrong here. 

I have always been a fan of John Rae’s drumming and partly because it is always totally appropriate to each situation. Therefore, I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear those spare, Motian-like, colourist pulses emanating from his well tuned drum heads.  I love minimalism and there is plenty of it to enjoy on this album. The best example can be found in ‘First Gate’. Here, the quartet speaks as one and they capture the very essence of minimalist Jazz, something rare, sparse and beautiful. The opening bar begins with three chords, then the sound decays as the seconds tick (how wonderful), gradually that tap, tap, tap and the arco bass or snatches of violin. Five stars for this tune. 

The last number on the album is Star Eyes and as the trio settles into a warm groove, we are eased back to the familiar.  Having experienced this journey. I know that I will return often; these are worlds that beg a deeper exploration. To purchase the album visit Thick Records (follow the link). It is also available on streaming services, but it is best to purchase and support these artists – this one you will want to own in any case. 

JazzLocal32.com is rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association, poet & writer. Some of these posts appear on related sites

Alargo Live @ CJC

If Alargo had appeared in the year 1644, Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General would have instigated an urgent investigation. Such was the supernatural wizardry and shapeshifting that occurred last Wednesday. On that night we were invited into new sonic worlds and transported beyond the mundane. The event occurred just after the passing of Jon Hassell and that made it especially appropriate. Hassell was a standard bearer for this measured, avant-garde music; and there were others. Eddie Henderson and Miles spring immediately to mind

The point of improvised music is to establish a form and then to craft something afresh. To build, shape and react in the moment, and above all to surprise. Sometimes the surprise comes softly, as a shape is crafted from an unexpected whisper. In the modern world the sources of sound are limitless, but the world is a frenetic and noisy place and we tend to overlook the deeper sounds or the slower journeys. 

This particular style of free improvised music takes its time to unfold, and in the process, moments of rare beauty are revealed. However, like all music, it has its structure. It is linear and it ebbs and flows according to the specifics of mood and pulse. Harmonies appear fleetingly then shift or fade. They exist to enhance mood. 

While it was technically a duo performance it was more than that. There were two musicians but they spoke in numerous instrumental voices. All of the voices were shaped in real time and shaped on machines both ancient and modern. It was acoustic and electric. It was analogue and digital and it worked well because the musicians understood and exploited the possibilities. It is seldom that you hear the subtler dynamic possibilities explored as effectively as this. 

There have been two Alargo albums released to date, and the good news is that another is on the way. This time Rattle is involved and the experimental nature and quality of the music renders it a perfect fit for the label. There were three tunes from Alargo’s Central Plateau album, two from the Primacy album and the rest were either new pieces or those to feature on the up-coming album. I have posted Actopia which is from Central Plateau, the longest piece of the night and a good showcase for this band. 

Keyboardist Alan Brown is a popular and celebrated Auckland musician. He is known for his versatility and deep grooves. It was nice to learn that his famous Blue Train band was performing again recently. As co-leader of Alargo Brown played (utilised) 2x iPads (as sound sources) with synths and effects-apps controlled through a MIDI keyboard, he also played an analogue synth, a darbuka drum and a Suzuki Andes recorder keyboard. 

Kingsley Melhuish is well known around town as a multi-instrumentalist. He is as likely to pick up a conch shell as a trumpet; vocalise or play reeds and other brass instruments. He is also a noted academic, composer and educator. On this gig he played trumpet, tuba, conch shells, percussion, vocal effects, a Boss Loopstation and iPad for effects.  

The Alargo albums are available via alanbrown.co.nz or in stores. Keep an eye on the Rattle releases for the up-coming album. 

JazzLocal32.com is rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association, poet & writer. Some of these posts appear on related sites

O’Connor/Derrick/Johnson

Last Wednesday’s CJC gig brought us a feast of truly adventurous music and it was beautifully executed. It was ‘free’ and ‘experimental’ and although within the improvised music spectrum, it is probable that many in the audience would not have encountered a prepared piano before. At the heart of the trio was the critically acclaimed pianist Hermione Johnson with drummer Chris O’Connor and reeds player Reuben Derrick. Anyone unfamiliar with a ‘prepared piano’ trio performance could not have wished for a better introduction. 

The beauty of experimental music is that you can put away the straight jacket of preconception and bring your imaginings to bear. New and unexpected worlds can be crafted out of the fragmentary detritus of the old. This is surely the ultimate purpose of improvised music. Freeing us from the tyranny of the obvious. 

This performance dove into the heart of sonority; creating sounds not generally associated with the instruments that made them. The piano had been prepared before the audience arrived and I wish that I had seen it. I have been lucky enough to witness this ritual on previous occasions, and ritual it is. There is a concentrated delicacy required in instaling the objects which muffle or extend the range of a piano. It is an installation and the precursor of new music. Items like chopsticks are inserted precisely between adjacent strings or perhaps a metal bowl is positioned. Few if any in New Zealand exceed the artistry of Johnson in this regard. 

Excerpts from concert

And it was not only the piano that reached for new sounds. No one thinks twice when they hear an instrument’s range extended by electronic means, nor should they when this is achieved acoustically. O’Connor, the drummer’s drummer is the most familiar to CJC audiences. He is one of Aotearoa’s best-loved and most adventurous drummers as he sits astride many genres with deceptive ease. During this performance, he added colour via fingers, mallets, sticks, gongs or rims, and no available surface or drum position was left unexplored. And he underscored the deep pulse emanating from the piano, tapping out some passages with surprising delicacy. 

Completing the trio was Christchurch based reeds player Derrick. The last time I saw him perform was in 2013 with his ‘Hound Dogs’. That particular unit performed a Monk heavy set that was well-received as I recall. Since then he has travelled extensively to places like Warsaw, Colombo, Vienna and Ljubljana. He is a noted composer and has collaborated across many cultural traditions. His fluency on the clarinet automatically singles him out, as the instrument is famous for punishing anyone who takes it up half-heartedly. On this gig, he doubled on tenor saxophone and his uncanny ability to locate the acoustic possibilities on both was evident. It’s a pity that he doesn’t live closer, I am up for more of what he has to offer.

Derrick, O’Connor, Johnson

This was music but it was also performance art of the highest order. It stretched us as improvised music should. It was wonderful. The only way that I can begin to do it justice is by abandoning written syntax. Filigree, texture, tropical thunder, raindrops, gamelan orchestra, quasar, delicate motifs, deep pulse, sighs, dance, hot tiles, exquisite, exotic. It reminded me of the first time that I heard Bley/Giuffre/Swallow’s Freefall.  My ears were realigned after that experience.     

Hermione Johnson (prepared grand piano), Chris O’Connor (drums, percussion), Reuben Derrick (clarinet, tenor saxophone). The gig took place at Anthology, for the CJC Jazz Club, 7 July 2021

JazzLocal32.com is rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association, poet & writer. Some of these posts appear on related sites