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