CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Concerts - visiting Musicians, Interview

Ari Hoenig as Time Lord

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Australian and Oceania based bands, Interview, Jazz April, Post Millenium

McAll – #ASIO Mooroolbark

Barney McAll 2 071 (1)Mooroolbark is a place, an album and a state of mind. It is an intersection of worlds and a testament to Barney McAll’s writing skills .

There is a special place where artistic expression transcends the immediate, a place where archetypes become manifest in varied and subtle ways. This is a place where unexpected journeys begin. Where the eyes, ears, touch, smell and feel guide you inexorably toward ancient and modern shared memories. Jung spoke of this as the ‘collective unconscious mind’ (or the ‘universal mind’). This is a mysterious well of ‘unknowing’ and the best improvising artists navigate its depths. McAll is a musician eminently qualified to navigate this journey.

He is a storyteller and a fearless explorer. Revealing seemingly endless worlds as the patina of time and space reveal new layers note by note. The trick of this is the subtle cues left along the path. If the listener comes with open ears and mind, new depths unfold. In truth these are ancient devices, long the preserve of poets, painters, improvisers and prehistoric cave artists. McAll and ASIO use these subliminal cues to confound, tease and cajole. All is revealed and all is not what it seems. We listen, we enjoy, but there is always a Siren to lure us deeper. ASIO tantalises with motifs that sound familiar, but which often dissolve into something else upon closer examination; echoes from the future as much as the past. These are the archetypes of sound and silence.  Barney McAll 2 072 (1)#ASIO stands for the Australian Symbiotic Improvisers Orbit, but even in the title the story deepens? Another ASIO comes to mind, as hard-won Australian freedoms vanish in the eternal quest for security. At a pre-release gig in Sydney’s Basement the band donned high-viz vests with #ASIO stencilled on them; high visibility music juxtaposed with secretive worlds. This #ASIO has some answers. The landscape of McAll’s new album ‘Mooroolbark’ is littered with these potent images and if you let your preconceptions go, they will come to you. These musical parables are modern ‘song lines’; age old stories told afresh. ‘Mooroolbark’ completes a circle. A return to familiar physical and spiritual landscapes. A reappraisal of the journey with old musical friends.

McAll is a thinker and perhaps a trickster as much as he is a musician. To quote from Jungian sources “In mythology, and in the study of folklore and religion, a trickster exhibits a great degree of intellect or secret knowledge and uses it to play tricks or otherwise disobey normal rules and conventional behaviour.”

While his previous albums have featured New York luminaries like Kurt Rosenwinkel, Gary Bartz, Ben Monder, Josh Roseman, Billy Harper and others this is mostly an Australian affair. The one exception is percussionist Mino Cinelu. McAll’s collaborations with Dewey Redman, Fred Wesley, Jimmy Cobb and others have brought him much deserved attention. Now the story moves to his home country. The Mooroolbark personnel are McAll (piano, compositions, vocals), Julien Wilson (tenor, alto clarinet), Stephen Magnusson (guitars), Jonathan Zwatrz (bass), Simon Barker (drums, percussion), Mino Cinelu (percussion), Hamish Stuart (drums), Shannon Barnett (trombone). These are well-known gifted musicians, but everyone checked their egos in at the door.  Barney McAll 2 071This unit performs as if they are one entity. Every note serves the project rather than the individuals. The sum is greater than its considerably impressive parts. I have seen McAll perform a number of times and his sense of dynamics is always impressive He can favour the darkly percussive; using those trademark voicings to reel us in, then just as suddenly turn on a dime and with the lightest of touch occupy a gentle minimalism. On Mooroolbark everyone’s touch is light and airy, open space between notes, a crystal clarity that surprisingly yields an almost orchestral feel. Avoiding an excess of notes and making a virtue out of this is especially evident as they play off the ostinato passages (i.e ‘Non Compliance).

Because they work in such a unified fashion it is almost a sin to single out solos. Inescapable however are the solos by McAll on ‘Nectar Spur and on the dark ballad ‘Poverty’; which has incandescent beauty. Wilson on the moody atmospheric ‘Coast Road’, and above all Magnusson and McAll on ‘Non-Compliance’. I am familiar with this composition and I love the new arrangement here.  Barney McAll 2 071 (2)A transformation has occurred with ‘Non Compliance’; morphing from a tour de force trio piece into an other-worldly trippy sonic exploration. All of the musicians fit perfectly into the mix and this is a tribute to the arrangements and to the artists. Zwartz (an expat Kiwi who has a strong presence here) holds the groove to perfection and the drummers and percussionists, far from getting in each others way, lay down subtle interactive layers; revealing texture and colour. Barker on drums and percussion is highly respected on the Australian scene (as are all of these musicians). Adding the New York percussionist Mino Cinelu gives that added punch. On tracks 6 & 7 noted trombonist Shannon Barnett adds her magic and Hamish Stewart is on drums for the last track.

A sense of place may pervade these tunes, but there is also a question mark. This is not a place set in aspic but a query. Places or ideas dissolve into merged realities like the music that references them. Layers upon layers again.

This is art music, street music and musical theatre of the highest order. Everything that you hear, see and experience serves the music in some way. It is a bittersweet commentary on the human experience. A scientist on New Zealand National Radio said that exploring the dark unseen areas of space is the new magic. I think that he is right. This album is replete with trickster references but the intent is deadly serious. This music turns the arrows of listening back on us like a Zen Koan.  Barney McAll 2 072Barney McAll is an award-winning, Grammy nominated Jazz Musician based in New York. He was recently awarded a one year Peggy Glanville-Hicks Composers Residency and he currently resides at the Paddington residency house in Sydney, Australia.

I would urge you to buy the ‘Mooroolbark’ album at source rather than purchase it on iTunes. The cover art and the messages are a trip in themselves. Available June 5th.

For two sample tracks on ‘Soundcloud’ go to: https:\\soundcloud.com/barneymcall

I took the photos of Barney McAll during a two-hour interview with him in Sydney April 2015.  I chose not to use the traditional question and answer format as this begged a different approach. For better or worse getting inside a story Gonzo style is what I do.  The first and last pictures are from the ‘Mooroolbark’ album artwork by Allan Henderson & Jenny Gavito and Andre Shrimski. The bird is the wonderful Frogmouth Owl (shedding the old New York skyline from its plumage).

The Album: ‘Mooroolbark’ – Barney McAll (piano, compositions, vocal), Julien Wilson (tenor sax, alto clarinet), Stephen Magnusson (guitars), Jonathan Zwartz (bass), Simon Barker (drums, percussion), Mino Cinelu (percussion), Hamish Stuart (drums [8]), Shannon Barnett (trombone [6, 7]) – released 2015 by abcmusic

Purchase information: http://extracelestialarts.bandcamp.com/

Biographical information @ www.barneymcall.com

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CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Interview, Jazz April, Piano Jazz

Jonathan Crayford – Making Pianos Sing

Jonathan Crayford Interview  (part one)

Jonathan Crayford 071 (2) When the luck runs your way, an interview with a musician will mysteriously transform itself into something more. If you know how to read the signals and respond appropriately, you find yourself traversing musical galaxies; places where words and musical ideas merge. I was acutely aware of this when I interviewed Jonathan Crayford recently. He is the ideal person to spend time with if you like to explore the improbable connections between seemingly unrelated things. It was an interview where the rhythms of the moment guided what we discussed and the best part of a day flew by before I knew it. This cerebral world is where Crayford prefers to live. He is perpetually on the road, dreaming up and shaping musical projects as he goes. His life is truly the troubadour’s life. As I probed him for insights, one episode in particular threw light on how serendipity and happenstance can guide him.

While living in Paris a few years ago, he reached the conclusion that the time had come to move on. Around this time he met a Catalan photographer and she invited him to perform at a Catalonian arts festival. When he asked how well it paid, she replied that they had no budget, but offered him a jar of marmite. Impulsively he packed up his belongings and moved to Spain. That began a fruitful creative collaboration that led to the photographer and Crayford doing gigs together in a number of European cities like Vienna.Jonathan Crayford 073I asked him why this type of project drew him so strongly. “I’ve been travelling for years and it’s the excitement of new projects and the risks associated with being in unfamiliar places that lures me. I like being in a new place, an exotic place, somewhere outside of my life’s experience. It is like a rebirth. New loves, new sounds new smells, new food and a new vantage point from which view life. The grist of creativity comes directly out of this”.

I had recently attended his concert at the Te Uru Waitakere Gallery where he was one of the featured artists in the ‘Black Rainbow’ concert series. I asked him about that and the carved piano, but as we talked the topic shifted to his quest for the perfect piano. His sense of reverence when talking pianos was palpable and he needed no encouragement to elaborate. “The acoustics of the room worked well for solo piano and the instruments bones are high-end Steinway. Here is a paradox though; the musician in me is always uncomfortable with carved or painted pianos. I understand that this is a wonderful piece of art, but the piano is already the ultimate piece of furniture. It is perfect in form and highly functional. Any alterations or adjustments should serve the sound. 

Pianos sing for me and I can hear when pianos are sad. I feel their sadness and work with it, but it still troubles me”.

He talked of pianos so reverently and I wanted more on this topic, so I asked him about some of his favourite types of piano; the special ones. “I find the Australian made Stuart & Sons piano extremely interesting. With such a presence of upper harmonics you really need a different approach to playing. That was my impression of the one I played. A wonderfully crafted instrument. A few months ago I travelled to Australia to meet up with Barney McAll who is back from New York. He is currently artist in residence for a year, having been awarded a Glanville-Hicks residency. They have a custom made Stuart & Sons piano there. It’s a wonderful instrument. Of course I love the high-end Steinways, Bosendorfers and Fazioli. I have also played a wonderful Schimmel.

(Note) The Stuart & Sons Piano is innovative, a breakthrough in mechanical design. The piano has more keys and possesses amazing harmonic accuracy at the high end. No one has managed to change the acoustics and range of a piano in a very long time. Many pianists who have played the instrument claim that Stewart and Sons have done just that.

I couldn’t resist teasing this theme out further; wanting his reaction to a strange story of piano destruction, so I asked. “I recently saw a short film of a man playing a nice Steinway piano beside the Red Sea. ‘Red Sea, Dead Sea’ it was called and I suppose it was an allegory for the conflict in the Middle East. After five minutes a hooded man appeared out of nowhere and started smashing the piano with a sledgehammer. What do you think of artists who smash a piano to make a political statement?”

”A momentary look of surprise crossed his face as he pondered on what I’d said. “What is that destruction shit about man? I just don’t get it. The point of a piano is to be played and played well. Played by someone who understands what a piano is about. I once saw a pianist slowly, respectfully and carefully dismantling a piano at a concert. As each piece was removed he would tap it or pluck it. Each section had a very distinct sound, a note, resonance. This was a deconstruction, but I understood that because it was an exploration of the instruments capability, not an act of wanton destruction. That piano was still singing. That particular act of dismantling was a musical chart”. Jonathan Crayford 072

Smashing pianos for political ends is definitely not Crayford’s thing.

During the afternoon we traversed everything from Pythagoras to planetary formation. The relationship between harmonic intervals and physical objects was especially fascinating to him, as was higher mathematics. “I will compose a piece based upon prime numbers one day”, he said. He also talked of constructing a new ‘mode’ map. His love for stories about quirky historical characters and for mathematics came together in his latest album ‘Dark Light’. ‘Galois Candle’ tells of a hapless mathematical genius and his struggle for recognition. The poignancy of the tale is reflected in every note. I have heard this played in a trio setting and solo. It is sublime either way.

Crayford’s ‘Dark Light’ album was a finalist in the New Zealand 2015 Vodafone music awards. The album is simply stunning and it deserves to be heard more. Crayford feels that the album has legs and he hopes that it has a way to run yet. These days it is not the quality of the music, but distribution and exposure problems that hold an album back. This album certainly deserves wider recognition.Jonathan Crayford 071On April 15th Crayford returned to the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), but this time without bass or drums. The gig was billed as ‘solo piano’ with special guest. Roger Manins joining him for the final numbers of the second set. This was a first for the CJC as the club has never hosted a solo piano gig before. Interestingly a slightly higher entry fee was placed on the door, but far from deterring people it signalled that something special was to occur. You could have heard a pin drop during the performance. This audience really listened and they were amply rewarded for their attentiveness. This highlights the growing sophistication of CJC audiences and above all it demonstrates the deep respect that we have for Crayford as a performer.

I have seen Crayford perform many times and his approach to performance is to step free of ego. He described it to me as ‘diving into the sound’. Crayford treats performance like a Zen monk treats a ‘Koan’. His musical puzzles are not solved by wrestling with them, but by absorption, by letting go. Living in a musical moment devoid of superficial baggage. While a modernist in his approach, he also touches upon something timeless. Perhaps Crayford is best described as a cosmic troubadour?

Solo performances are high wire acts and the freedom afforded by the format allows an artist to take us where they may. We heard probing thoughtful interpretations of seldom-heard Jazz compositions, original pieces and compositions from unlikely sources. One moment we were at the edge of the modern classical repertoire and at other times following the fabulous, choppy, stride-infected swing of Monk. Nothing sounded out of place and everything was explored with the same vigour. Crayford’s environmentally referencing composition ‘Earth Prayer’ was simply profound. The musical narrative enveloped us in its utter clarity. Such was its impact that time stood still while audience, piano and artist seemed to breathe as one.Jonathan Crayford 072 (1)The duo numbers with Roger Manins also worked well. These are master musicians and they know how to make the most of freedom and space. When a piano and tenor saxophone perform in duo, certain unique opportunities arise; the musicians must be acutely aware of nuances and the subtleties of interplay. What we heard was a deftly woven tapestry of sound, a respectful satisfying interaction. The duos started with a burner and ended with the perennial favourite ‘The ‘Nearness of You’ (Washington/Carmichael). During the last number there was a flood of noise from the upstairs bar. In spite of that the audience yelled for more; wishing that the gig could go on for ever.

(Part Two of this post to be posted later)

Who: Jonathan Crayford (piano) – guest Roger manins

Where: Interview in Waitakere – Solo Piano gig at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland 15th April 2015 – Solo Piano, Te Uru Waitakere Gallery.2015voter-button

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CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Interview

Alan Brown Band – The interview part two

The interview with Alan Brown & his band continued………

David Hodkinson 004

Q.  Alan the world and its dog loves ‘Blue Train’.   Is there any truth to the buzz about town that there will be a Blue Train reunion in 2013?

A.  At least somewhat of a reunion concert is planned for the Waiheke Jazz Festival in Easter. Steve Sherriff, Jason Orme and myself recently played a lot of the Blue Train tunes at the Taste Of Auckland festival, and it all felt really good, so I thought “why not?” Once I also found out that Aaron Nevezie will be in town at the time, and was keen to do the gig, I made it happen. Aaron played guitar on the Never You Mind album back in 1998 and is a fantastic musician, and engineer/producer based in New York with his own studio, Bunker Studios. Bassist Matt Gruebner will also be visiting but won’t be here at Easter, and will only have a window of a couple of days when he and Aaron will both be here, but if I can wrangle another gig in that time frame, I will!

Q.  I would love to do an updated photo essay on Blue Train.  Do you have much archival material of this seminal Auckland Jazz Groove band?

A.  Yes I do – I have a box of clippings, magazine articles etc, going right back to the early days when a young Matt Penman was playing with us! I also have a lot of print-outs documenting our success on the former mp3.com website back around 2000. So you’re welcome to have a sift through all that.

Q.  You own the Jazz Groove space in Auckland and you are enormously well-respected about town.   Do you feel a little cheated that music as well received and as popular as yours has not been picked up for wider distribution?

A.  Thanks John. As Blue Train we did reasonably well and had a certain amount of recognition, but I guess it was hard for venues, labels etc to categorise us – not traditional ‘jazz’ enough for some, or too jazz for the groove crowd. Not having a singer also limited our ‘acceptance’ in the gig scene. You need to remember that NZ is still quite small, and even though there are fantastic jazz musicians and bands around, the general public don’t really get exposed to the diversity that exists. So the average New Zealanders perception of jazz is fairly limited and safe, thus it’s hard for many great artists to get a voice or get picked up. Yes it can be frustrating, but I really appreciate what people like Roger & Caroline are doing with CJC to raise the profile of what’s happening in NZ. I’ve seen many jazz bars come and go, but these guys have got it right. If anything,THEY need the wider exposure! However, I know the market is much bigger overseas, and when you check out sites like nextbop.com, you realise just how much incredible cutting-edge jazz is out there. The international market is definitely somewhere I will be focussing more on in 2013. In any case, the ability to create, produce and play ones own music is such an incredible privilege, and at the end of the day, as long as it touches or inspires even one other person, I’m happy.

Q.  Tell me about a few of your favourite local musicians both in and out of your band.

A.  In the band? Well, everyone! Truly, each of these players are inspiring to me, which is why I chose to work with them. Jono is an incredible drummer with an intuitive grasp of time, so with the odd-time stuff, he was the perfect choice. Plus, he shares a similar passion for Radiohead, and has a lot of good musical input, hence his assistant production role on the album. Marika has just an amazing feel and sense of groove – she knows precisely where to put the notes but also has a strong melodic sensibility. And Andy has all the rock, jazz influences but is unique. He’s a stunning guitarist and has a playfulness which works so well in this context. I have been working with David Hodkinson in bass duties of late, and he’s also a very good, keen, passionate player. He has slotted in perfectly with the band.

Outside of the band? There honestly are SO many local musicians that have inspired, or continue to inspire me. Of course Matt Penman was an early inspiration, and still is. It’s been inspiring just to see his incredible growth as a musician over the years, and he’s such a nice guy. Brian Smith was also a big inspiration – we did a number of gigs together in my early jazz years, and I learned so much from just playing with him. The list goes on: Dixon Nacey, Kevin Field, Roger Manins, Nathan & Joel Haines…in fact I really draw inspiration from all of the local players!  Some of the young players coming through now, like Matt Steel, just blow me away too.

Q.  You have a deep interest in many of the cutting edge Israeli Jazz musicians and in Middle Eastern folk melody.   You were recently doing a masters and focusing on these works.  Tell us a little about Yaron Herman and others?

A.  Actually I haven’t completed my Masters yet! Still a work in progress. I did my Honours study on Avishai Cohen, as I was fascinated how he managed to blend the Middle Eastern elements of rhythm & melody, with classical and jazz, and create something that was very fresh and exciting. I’ve had a long-term love of Middle eastern music, especially the rhythm, but also the structure of it in terms of the various modes or maqams; the use of quarter-tones etc. So discovering artists like Cohen, Tigran Hamasyan, Shai Maestro & Yaron Herman has been an epiphany in jazz for me! My Masters study is partly on Yaron’s music, but also on the way he was taught.

He only starting learning piano at age 16, under the tutelage of Opher Brayer, who used mathematics, philosophy & psychology! At age 18, with a scholarship, he went to Berklee music school in the US, decided he didn’t like it, returned home via Paris, and at a jam session was offered a gig then and there. How Yaron so quickly reached such an incredible level interests me, but also the use of aspects such as psychology in the process – obviously it enabled Yaron to connect on a deep level which I’m sure is part of his rapid development. Shai Maestro, who played piano with Avishai Cohen for a while, also was taught under Opher Brayer. I’m also really digging Tigran Hamasyan at the moment – he incorporates Armenian folk tunes into his tunes, but is an incredible and passionate player. Very exciting stuff.

Q.  Your music is very contemporary and reflects new streams of Jazz influence.  Finally tell us about your interest in and the use of material by Bjork, Radio Head, Parks etc?

A.  I’ve touched on some of these artists in terms of how aspects of their styles has been a direct influence on writing for the quartet, but I guess what attracts me is their total uniqueness, and in many cases, such as Bjork, flying in the face of trends and expectations. Radiohead did the same with Kid A. Their writing also resonates with me – and aside from adapting specific aspects of that, the emotional & spiritual affinity I have with the music is what moves and inspires me. My goal is to similarly express my heart & passion in the most complete way I can – whatever musical form that takes.

Thank you for your time Alan.  Best wishes for 2013.

Andy Smith

I also asked drummer Jono Sawyer the following questions:

Q.  Jono you have played with Alan Brown for a long time and certainly from the beginning of the ‘Between the Spaces’ lineup.  How did you two team up?

 A.  Alan was actually a key part of my love of jazz as I grew up – I used to listen to the cassette of the debut ‘Blue Train’ album in the car with my Dad when I was about 6 or so! (This album also featured my great drum teacher Jason Orme). Alan and I got to play together after I approached him to see if he’d be interested in playing on my first Honours recital when I was studying at NZSM, and I think he liked the tunes I was hoping to do for the performance so he agreed. I was actually really nervous when I approached him and never thought he’d actually do it, here was a guy I listened to from when I was a boy and helped to shape my love of music, yet he was super into it! We’ve been playing together a lot ever since cause I think we both are on the same wavelength when it comes to contemporary jazz and the exciting stuff coming out of the modern scenes, particularly New York.

Q.  One day I asked you about your role in playing a groove beat across differing time signatures.  You told me then that it was instinctive.   Are you able to articulate the process of locating those grooves?

A. Half of the grooves are actually already written in their basic form when Alan brings a new tune to the group. He’ll demo a tune up on Logic so we get a good idea of the vibe he’s going for, and then as we practice the tune the groove becomes more refined and I add my own variances and subtleties to make it into the product… Of course, what Alan, Andy and Marika were doing would shape this; I remember the groove from ‘Sustainable Resources’ being slightly less related to the bass line at first, but as we jammed it just felt right to really articulate most of the bass line between the kick and snare, which in turn helped the flow of the tune, despite it being in 15/8 – I guess that’s where the instinct part comes in!

Q.  Tell me a little about who impresses you the most from among modern drummers.

A. I have a real passion for odd time playing through my love of 70s prog rock particularly, but what really impresses me from guys like Eric Harland, Ari Hoenig and this drummer called Gavin Harrison, is how they can navigate these odd times with such flow and ease. As well as this, they never let what they’re doing get in the way of the groove and the overall musicality of the tune. Ari is certainly one of my favourite players he has such control over the drum set that he can essentially play anything he wants! But also understands that sometimes, laying back on the groove, whether it be swing or more contemporary stuff, can be all that’s necessary for a tune to become perfection. All of these great players also have a wide knowledge of the greats that have come before them, and I’m finally starting to understand the importance of this too.

Q.  Where to from here?

A. Hopefully another Alan Brown album! I know Alan’s really passionate about trying to get some international gigs under our belt so that will be exciting if we get some dates lined up. I’m also keeping busy with Batucada Sound Machine, and we’re looking ahead to our European summer tour… I’m also involved in a project with the APO for a concert they’re doing in May, which should be good fun!  Lots of work to do for all those things though so I’d better get practicing.

Jono Sawyer 006

Lastly I interviewed David Hodkinson about his role on bass

I thought that I would ask a few of the other band members questions as well. The newest member of the lineup is David Hodkinson who plays electric bass. The original BTS album had Marika Hodgson on it and she had quite a following as her intense goove lines were compelling. David has seemlessly stepped into the role which was big ask and so I asked him what that was like.

Q.  David, I am impressed by how you handle your bass duties in this band.  How are you enjoying playing with an Alan Brown band?

A. I am really loving being a part of this group, the combination of a strong groove, interesting harmony, and odd meters make it fun on many levels! Also I consider these guys a ‘dream team‘ to play with, I have a huge amount of respect for them.

Q.  How did that happen.  Were you recommended by a friend, apply or were you approached directly?

A. I have known Alan for some time now, through University and playing with Trudy Lile/Mojave when he had filled in. I met Andy and Jono whilst studying too, and played in Andy’s Masters Combo. I was very excited when Alan approached me to be a part of it.

Q.  Tell a me a little about who impresses you most and your influences.

A. I am a big fan of Juan Nelson from Ben Harpers ‘Innocent Criminals’ band, also players like Bakithi Kumalo from the Graceland album, and Incognito. A big thing for me in regards to musicians is what kind of person they are, I would rather work with an absolute beginner with a good attitude than the opposite.

As far as influences go, I grew up playing Jamiroquai, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Rage Against the Machine, and then it was really Paul Norman who introduced me to jazz/funk. I credit Paul as the biggest influence in my musical life. I was lucky enough to go through Avondale College and witness players like Ben Turua, and have Max Stowers as my tutor, so I was very fortunate.

Q.  I watched you play those bass groove lines once when you had no drummer in the Alan Brown band.  That is a lot of weight to fall on a bass players shoulders.   Was that a challenge?

A. It wasn’t really a challenge, just a shift in method. I try to get the pulse in my body through movement, which can then give me the seperation mentally to process it in the same way as if there was a drummer, good fun!

Q.  Where to from here?

A. Well I’ve bought some pedals so have been enjoying experimenting with different sounds. I play in the bands dDub, and Spiral as well so I am quite content at the moment. I have also been enjoying playing double bass again so I would like to do more of that in the future.

I would like to thank Alan Brown and his band for their indulgence with this.  I believe it to have been an incredibly worthwhile exercise as it gives insights into an important aspect of music within the Auckland Jazz spectrum.  Sadly Andy Smith was out of town but his contribution is considerable and acknowledged here.

John Fenton

Jazz Local 32.com

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Interview

Alan Brown interview & part one

IMG_3131 - Version 2

Interview with Alan Brown:  Leader, Composer Jazz/Groove Musician

Alan, thank you for agreeing to this interview – On behalf of Jazz Local 32 I would like to gain a few insights into your music and your primary influences.

Q. I have seen various configurations of your bands over the years but I would first like to concentrate on the ‘Between the Spaces’ album.   As the composer and leader are you able to reflect on just what this particular body of work means to you?

A. It’s the culmination and articulation of ideas that had been floating around in my head for a while. They didn’t really solidify until I decided on a format (i.e. the quartet and choice of musicians thereof). Once I had that sorted, a lot of the ideas took shape, as I could hear how they would work with this line-up and the particular strengths of each musician. It also represents a new freedom in my writing, that of allowing all my various influences equal voice. Previously I had felt a bit stifled in my writing as I was constantly aware of ‘trying’ to write in a more ‘jazz’ style (whatever that is).

I was often aware of feeling the (self-imposed) pressure to make harmonies more complex where, in many cases, it wasn’t needed and took away from the purely creative and spontaneous aspect of writing. I mean I know there’s always an editing and fine-tuning that happens but sometimes I found I was just trying too hard to be ‘jazz’. Upon hearing some of the younger generation of jazz composers who were not afraid to push the boundaries but also use rock, RnB compositional ideas and harmony, I discovered a new freedom in my own work, and allowed the classical and pop/rock influences which were an early part of my growth, to be heard – without fear!

Q. This has the feel a well-conceived album, which is largely built around finite concepts.   Is that just my impression or was there a compositional focus?

A. There was definitely a compositional focus, even though a few of the tunes were older pieces I had written. The new writing freedom, along with a strong picture of the quartet sound I had in mind, and especially what each player was bringing to it, gave me a focus that I hadn’t had for a long time. There is a strong odd-time and polyrhythmic element to many of the tunes, which was partly inspired by what I was listening to at the time, such as Avishai Cohen et al. However, I distinctly remember one of the first tunes I wrote for the quartet, Captivated (which sadly never made it to the album, but is available on-line), was built from an idea I had for a while but just couldn’t get anywhere with.

One day I thought to try the idea in 7/4 rather than 4/4, and basically the rest of the tune wrote itself! I guess the excitement and challenge of the odd-time signatures propelled the writing burst that followed, although I never tried to force odd-times etc to fit – it still had to feel right no matter what was happening in the tunes. I was also inspired by the writing of bands like Radiohead in terms of song structure and dynamics, so the inclusion of forms such as coda sections to my tunes are a direct result of that. However there are also techniques I have used in my writing since the Blue Train days (and earlier!) present in these tunes, hence the groove element especially.

Q. What are the primary influences behind the BTS compositions?

A. Artists such as Avishai Cohen, as I already mentioned, in relation to the fresh combination of Middle Eastern rhythms and classical influences in his writing; Aaron Parks in terms of sound, structure and the strong sense of melody; Radiohead with regards to structure as I mentioned, but also harmony and again, strong melodic ideas.

The emotion that is present in Radiohead songs is something I was searching for in presenting these tunes in the quartet form I chose; Classical music plays a big part in my upbringing so much of the harmonic sense comes from that, especially in tunes like Eastern and Tableau. The latter tune also includes an obvious nod to minimalist classical composer, Philip Glass.

Q. Those touches of orchestration where you added strings and flute sounded so good.   It put me in mind of the CTI label of Creed Taylor where expanded works and orchestrations by Don Sebesky were the norm.  How did it feel working with an expanded sound palette?

A. I loved it! It presented its own challenges in terms of writing and understanding how the textures work together but it’s something I definitely want to explore further and include in subsequent compositions. Again it’s a sound that has strong ties to my classical influences, and therefore presents an emotional canvas that really resonates with me.

I particularly love the modern orchestration on Brad Mehldau’s Highway Rider album in terms of the close harmonies and inner movement within the strings, creating a vibrant, sometimes dissonant, but compelling texture. I recently found out that Brad was influenced by the the work of Francois Rauber in his work with Jacques Brel, and Bob Alcivar in his work with Tom Waits. I am starting to check these orchestrators out myself now.

Q.The complex rhythms, counterpoint and multi textural nature of the tunes must add a degree of difficulty.   Every band member has to work a different groove while keeping in mind what is happening elsewhere.  Is that a hallmark of the Alan Brown sound?

A. Yes and no. I mean, it was definitely something I had in mind for this album but I’m always wanting to stretch myself and be open to other influences, so I don’t want to be confined to a particular sound or approach. However, every writer does have their own signature style which is something that should come through unconsciously, but the vehicle for expression should be open to whatever provides the creative ‘spark’ at the time. In saying that though, I do love the multi dimensional nature of what happens in these tunes, that there are elements that one can focus on and think “that’s cool”, but that they’re still part of the whole. In other words, it’s got to groove no matter how difficult or ‘clever’ it may appear.

Q. Is there a ‘Between The Spaces two’ planned?

A. I’d like to think so! I have been slowly writing some more tunes, at this stage with the quartet in mind, but as I mentioned, I’d also like to explore various palettes more, especially with strings. Some of the writing is with my Masters study focus, but is still very much what resonates emotionally with me.

Part two and a short review to follow in the next post:

Avant-garde, Interview

The ‘Troubles’ – John Rae & Lucien Johnson interview

The Troubles Nonet

This e-interview was conducted over the 7th and 8th May 2012 – interviewer John Fenton for Jazz Local 32.    Those interviewed were John Rae (drummer, composer, arranger) and Lucien Johnson (alto & soprano saxophones, flute, composer, arranger).  ‘The Troubles’ is out on ‘Rattle Records‘ and was supported by Creative New Zealand.

Question: Time and place are important to both artists and audience and the interplay between them. I know that Wellington’s ‘Happy Bar’ has been a place to hear free improvised and experimental music for some time. The location and the vibe seem to be connected in this recording?

Lucien: I would say that Happy has been a largely supportive place and it’s nice to play on a stage, which is quite rare for jazz gigs in Wellington. Other than that though, since Happy stopped being a musician run place and turned into a business the vibe wasn’t quite the same – except for our Sunday nights! John may see things differently as he didn’t know it before, but I would say that any place that we have the capacity to virtually take over for the night we would see the same result. (A regular crowd of 50-80 enthusiastic and attentive listeners).

John Rae: All the above are true. Time and place are important. I’d been playing at Happy since I arrived in Wellington three years ago as the composer in residence at Victoria University and The Troubles are a part of a lineage. If there had been no Happy, Lucian wouldn’t have sat in with the group I was playing with, I may not have met Patrick, Dan or any of the other musicians who now make up The Troubles. But things move on. We now have another regular gig at Meow in Wellington and it’s going fantastically well. On a wider note, in Scotland we had a similar gig called Henry’s that ended up being an art’s council funded venue for jazz. We all know the financial difficulties of running a jazz gig and it is shameful that we have no problem funding classical venues to the tune of millions of dollars but can’t find what would be relative peanuts in comparison to support a jazz venue!

Question: While comparisons can be odious I was put in mind of an iconic and (at the time) controversial album that came out in 1969 “The Music Liberation Orchestra” Charlie Haden. Is that a fair comparison?

Lucien: I’m a big fan of the Liberation Music Orchestra, and the latter-day “Dream Keeper” is a personal favourite. I don’t know how aware John is of it though.

John Rae: It’s a wonderful comparison but purely accidental….

Question: You have no Carla Bley or Sam Browne on chordal instruments. Was that deliberate or happenstance?

Lucien: It was definitely a conscious decision. For a start there are no pianos at any venues in Wellington and we didn’t feel that there was anyone on piano or guitar who quite fit the bill anyway. We thought it would be more fun to have the strings acting as harmony players and/or have more open improvisations. I have avoided chordal instruments in my acoustic jazz groups except when I play with Jonathan Crayford.

John Rae: Yes it is. We like the freedom of not having a fixed harmonic instrument like guitar or piano.

Question: With a Nonet the sound palette and textures can have a big band feel. I sense that there has been serious writing and arranging done here. Is that my imagination or are there some well-arranged charts involved?

Lucien: There is very precise notation going on most of the time. The illusion of anarchy is due to familiarity and comfort with the material and the group.

John Rae: Lucian and I put a lot of thought into the writing. Personally I like my music to have a life of its own after my initial bit. So it’s important to write music that has an opportunity to breath and grow the more the musicians understand it. Or in other words, to treat the music with the contempt it deserves!

Question: How much of what we hear is free or changes based improvisation?

Lucien: A mixture, although when it’s free there is usually a tonal center present.

John Rae: A bit of both. I like musicians to dictate their own harmonic structures whilst soloing. Not always though and I have written tunes with changes but I hope that the improvisational aspects of my music allow the soloist to expand the harmonic possibilities as far or as simple as they want.

Question: I loved the way the band hinted at serious political topics but then appeared to instill humour and even an element is piss taking. Can you comment on that?

Lucien: John is quite political in this sense and contributes much of the humour (although musically Anthony’s percussion also adds this element). I prefer to leave both these things alone in music, without being extremely serious about it either. That’s just the way the group went with John’s personality present and I’m up for a laugh.

John Rae: I am a political animal but it’s important for me that people enjoy themselves whilst hearing my music. I’ve been around and played with ‘serious’ musicians most of my life and to be honest they now bore the pants of me. That’s not to say what I’m doing isn’t serious. It’s just that I’m over all the bullshit and let’s face it, in the current political climate if you didn’t laugh you’d cry.

Question: Is there anything you want to add?

John Rae: I love the jazz community here in New Zealand. It has some wonderful musicians and a lot going for it. On the other hand though it is really shit. No one seems to be asking the big questions. There is a lack of co-ordination, organization and vision. I look at what’s going on in Scotland and can’t help but compare it to here. No national jazz orchestra, no national jazz federation, jazz touring schemes, international profile etc and yet you can’t move for degree courses! As Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen the Danish jazz bassist said many years ago with regard to the Danish jazz scene, ‘it won’t improve until we stop making excuses’. The life of a jazz musician in NZ is incredibly hard. I believe it needn’t be soooo hard. It’s never going to be easy but through vision and togetherness we could make the living condition for jazz musicians a lot better. Ask any of the salaried brothers playing in any of the state funded orchestras if it’s possible!!!! I plan to have a gathering later this year of jazz musicians and people with an interest in the music to discuss some of the above and come out of it with a strategy on how to move the New Zealand Jazz scene forward. All together for the good fight….

Thanks guys that was an incredibly worthwhile exercise.

John Fenton – Jazz Local 32

Avant-garde, Interview

‘The Troubles’ – Review

This is part one of two posts on ‘The Troubles’; An interview with John Rae and Lucien Johnson to follow in a day.

When I received a brief email from Steve at Rattle Records informing me that he was sending me two very interesting disks I sensed that he was excited about what was on offer.  When the tightly wrapped package arrived I wrestled ‘The Troubles’ from its box.  Putting it straight on, I was stunned by what I heard and I played it through twice, letting the sound wash over me.  Steve was right; this was special.

Jazz is supposed to be fresh and to convey the ‘sound of surprise’ and this was bloody surprising.  It immediately put me in mind of ‘The Liberation Music Orchestra’ or even Charles Mingus in the various incarnations of those bands.  Having said that this is very much a New Zealand sound.

The Troubles is performed by a Nonet with the instrumentation hinting at the albums context.  Adding a texture to the music; its wild but perfectly placed brush strokes marking it apart.

There is a string section of violin, cello and viola (Tristan Carter, Andrew Filmer, Charley Davenport) which contrasts nicely with the winds and reeds.  Lucien Johnson plays tenor sax, soprano and flute – Nick Van Dijk doubles on trumpet and trombone while Daniel Yeabsley plays alto, baritone and clarinet.   Add to the above the insistent drumming and shouts of John Rae, the bass of Patrick Bleakley and especially the percussion of Anthony Donaldson and you have a band that is capable of much.

The band had been playing at ‘Happy’ (a Wellington Bar renowned for experimental music) for some time and for a number of reasons this proved to be serendipitous.  What came together during those months is perfectly captured here.  This was recorded on one particular night and due to the exceptional musicianship of the band, the skillful writing and connectedness of everyone involved (including the loyal audience) we have a very special album.

Against the odds New Zealand Jazz is rapidly becoming identifiable as a separate and interesting entity.  Perhaps a subset of the Australasian-Pacific Jazz sound.  On the best Kiwi albums and in the clubs I hear this certain something and I want to confront the musical establishment and say, “Are you freakin deaf…can’t you hear this”?    This thing is ours, it can be wonderful and it is certainly worthy of proper attention.  New Zealand music is very diverse and this is a healthy thing.   Original and exciting bands are continually being formed, but in order for this vibrancy and originality to flourish the music must be better supported.     Here is an album that exemplifies this diversity and it says something unique about us and our place in a sometimes troubled world .

Support the band, buy the album but above all relax and enjoy it.  I defy anyone to dislike this roller-coaster ride through the worlds troubled spots.  It is a journey undertaken with deep humanity but also with a liberal helping of humour throughout.   A warm echo derived from the cacophony about us and filtered through an anarchic but sharply focussed Kiwi lens.

Purchase from Marbecks, JB HiFi, Real Groovy, or leading record stores – otherwise purchase directly from Rattle Records.