It took me a minute to recognise what I was looking at. It was a picture of a burnt piano after a missile attack. No musician should ever need to post a photo of a bombed piano but Lyudmila Shekera did. It is now her Facebook banner. A symbol of defiance, loss, and perhaps of hope. While instruments can be targeted, music is impervious to shelling.
However, there are no photos of her family’s sewing business, which lies in ruins after a Russian missile fell. Non-combatants, the elderly, heavily pregnant women and babies, are mere collateral damage in the minds of the aggressors.
This is a continuation of my earlier post because the story is ongoing. The families I wrote of have yet to escape the horrors of the invasion, and the journey across Ukraine is fraught with difficulty. It is snowing and bitter cold. Bombs and missile attacks dog their every step. At last writing, they had formed a small convoy and were moving from town to town. Sometimes they were able to stop and Lyudmila would dutifully message me. It is hard to sleep in an air-raid shelter. Relatives who lived through the blitz told me that.
I am continuously anxious for their safety, but there is something else besides. I am captivated by the other stories, those of happier times. And I love hearing about Ukraine’s musical history. Lyudmila is keen to share these stories and we should listen. Telling stories is how we survive and listening to them is an act of solidarity. They are essential for her and necessary for us, especially while the fabric of Ukrainian culture is under attack.
There are pictures of the Family factory in happier times, the Shekera children being shown how the sewing machines work. There is nothing left of the factory now as Russian shells razed it to the ground.
The best person to flesh out this narrative is Lyudmila. She speaks many languages but her English has a poetic resonance. It reminds me of what a critic said of the author Joseph Conrad. ‘Born in Ukraine, he didn’t learn English until he was in his twenties. He thought in his native tongue but wrote beautiful English prose’.
Lyudmila wrote: ‘Girls, happy spring holiday! As my good friend from the local defence says, the weather is for us – the targets are not visible, the saboteurs leave traces. But you know how much I love snow. Since it is a holiday I will start my morning, not with coffee; every decent young lady has to throw a cosmetic bag into an anxious suitcase and find time to use it. Everything will be for Ukraine’.
The above post appeared on Lyudmilas’s Facebook page in Cyrillic script. I pushed translate and gained a sense of it, I asked her to render it into English and she did. The tone is that of a haiku or an imagist poem, each word conveying a subtle subdivision of mood. And as she reassures her children and friends, she channels her anger into something of greater utility. Gentle defiance wrapped up in nostalgia. It is a plea to remember and hold the joy close before it sinks from view.
Musicians never abandon their instruments, but what was previously unthinkable, is now overrun by necessity. For musicians, the lack of instruments brings another calamity, they can’t practice. To non-musicians, this might appear a small thing, but I assure you that it is not.
Lyudmila: ‘Oleksii Proschenkov our music teacher and Anastasia his spouse joined us in Fastiv. But then Fastiv was attacked too. Russian troops keep trying to drag the city of Kyiv into a ring of human catastrophe, cowardly destroying everything in their path with shelling and tanks. We moved south, first to Vinnitsya where a Jazz festival is often held. Friends gave us a place to sleep. It was our first night without air raid alarms and bomb shelters. Then the airport was bombed, destroyed, so we decided to find a small town without important infrastructure.
Our friend who organises the Vinnetsya Jazz Festival (and an opera festival) recommended Tulchyn, the motherland of a famous Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych who wrote Carol of the Bells. He founded a music school there a hundred years ago, (and when we arrived) they kindly opened the doors for us. Leontovych was killed by the NKVD in 1921 (Stalin’s secret police).
They had a fantastic grand piano and drum set, and some friends even found us a broken double bass which the defence officer fixed with striped yellow defence tape. It was very kind of the Chief Manager of Culture Ms Natalia Tretyakova and Mr Vasyl Fedorivych the director of Tulchyn Music school to let us practice there.
My children, ShekBand, held a concert in the hall before we moved south again. In Ukraine, that particular music school and the composer/founder Mykola Leontovych are symbols of freedom. Now we have to protect freedom once again.
It is important to be busy so that we don’t go crazy. War kills not only the body but the soul. My children keep working on their music arrangements, making a website. They want to be ready for future contests and Jazz festivals. It helps us to stay brave and to find strength. Ahead of us, gigs are waiting in Leipzig, Munich, Dublin and Nice.
It is safer now we are in the south but we can’t cross the border. Our teacher is not allowed, so we will stay awhile. We will check the news each morning so we can decide. In case of big danger, of course, we must leave to save our children. But my heart is here.
I pray for peace and a strong beautiful Ukraine.
Many of us watch helplessly from afar and do what we can. We write and we donate cash to Ukraine Rescue, UNICEF, Medicines Sans Frontiers, Ukraine Animal Rescue. And if like me, your childhood was filled with cold war dread, you feel that familiar nemeses return. A madman with bombs and chemicals is on the loose again.
To Lyudmila Shekera, her husband Alexander and ShekBand; who are Maksym, Artem & Anna. The Jazz world sends love and best wishes. Please stay safe.
Like Shekband on YouTube
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.
‘John I am in bomb shelter and have received advice to leave as soon as can. I want you to have these photos and my story to tell the world – one teacher can grow a new generation’.
The teacher who the writer alludes to is Alexey Proshenkov and as I write this his exact whereabouts are unknown. Ukrainian men under sixty are unable to leave. He is a gifted Jazz educator. Lyudmila Shekera (who left me the above message), is the mother of three talented children who are musicians. All are being tutored by Alexey and the results of that tuition are noteworthy.
Lyudmila’s children are young. Two began lessons at the age of five, the other at age three. The above was Lyudmila’s last message to me. I have not heard from her recently and I worry about her every minute.
The invasion of Ukraine caught most of us off-guard and it has severe consequences for the entire world. It is a living nightmare for those in Ukraine. What I have written arises from online interactions with Jazz industry people and musician friends from the Ukraine region. I write this at their request.
Everyone and everything in Ukraine is adversely impacted by the invasion. It is an unimaginable horror in technicolour, playing out in front of their eyes. With missiles flying and landing amidst the civilian populations, communication is difficult and sporadic. For them, more immediate concerns must take precedence. I have omitted some names and altered a few details at my friends’ request. They are defiant and brave, but it is prudent to be cautious when confronted with a vengeful and tech-savvy superpower.
I have long had contact with Baltic and East European Jazz people, but my contacts list grew bigger while judging the 7 Virtual Jazz Club International Competition. As the New Zealand judge, I was placed among a group of European and American judges: journalists, publicists, broadcasters, jazz educators and industry professionals. We introduced ourselves, participated in a Zoom call, read each other’s bios and friended each other on Facebook. Message comments would light up day and night as we were each oblivious of the other’s time zones. Out of that new friendships grew.
The entries were of a high standard and they came from every corner of the earth. I loved seeing entries from countries traditionally regarded as jazz outliers such as Belarus, Latvia, Ukraine, Estonia and Taiwan. Non-aligned multilateral diplomacy was at work, Jazz style.
The Jazz community is highly interconnected and as the covid peak faded, Jazz festivals reopened throughout Eastern Europe. Events were advertised, albums proliferated and the old rhythms of life seemed possible. Ukraine in particular has a growing Jazz community. Sadly, that is now under attack and the creative arts will soon struggle to function. Gigs and livelihoods are disappearing as the inhumane bombardment wrecks havoc.
In the days following the invasion, I contacted my Ukrainian Jazz friends, not to talk music, but to see how they were. The initial reaction was disbelief. That was soon replaced by anger and resolute defiance. I asked fellow judge Anna Russkevich if she was safe and thankfully she was. I asked her a day later if she was leaving and she informed me that she couldn’t, as a semi-paralysed parent is in her care. She has little option but to stay as the horror descends. Cluster bombs and other munitions regarded as unlawful are falling on schools and civilian populations in that region.
At another Ukrainian friend’s suggestion, I made contact with a Jazz promoter in Kyiv, who in turn suggested that I talk to a musician on the other side of the city. That interaction was no longer possible as the musician is now active in the citizen’s defence militia. The idea of a peace-loving musician having to put down his instrument and pick up a weapon filled me with unutterable sadness. I was saddened, but I understood.
Some sent me clips of missiles destroying city buildings, the footage of a missile attack on a respected university is particularly horrifying. Nothing symbolises authoritarian aggression quite like an attack on culture and learning. I have many pictures but I have been asked to hide the geolocations. Screenshots will tell the story just as well.
Lyudmila is the mother of three extraordinary young Jazz musicians. She speaks eight languages (including Russian). Her family were holed up in a forest hotel outside of Kyiv with forty others, mainly musicians. Instruments had been left behind as there was little room for anything other than clothes and toiletries.
Our exchanges have been extensive and often heartbreaking. She was keen for us to continue messaging as she said it gave her hope. It told her that the world was listening. She and her husband Alexander have sacrificed a lot to nurture their children’s talent and recently that has borne fruit. The children’s band, ShekBand, has a recording contract. I will post a clip or two.
The recording was organised by a fellow 7VJC judge Patricia Johnson. She is the co-founder of Taklit, a successful publishing and production company based in France. She has worked tirelessly on this project and thanks to her efforts an album will be out shortly. Patricia is not someone to mess about and it would take more than an invasion to stop her. She is irrepressible and it is impossible not to like her. When the album’s out we should all click through and listen, and more importantly, we should buy it. It will likely be a digital release. The project can best be characterised as the future voice of Ukrainian Jazz. It is a marker for promise and hope.
It is uncertain if the family will be able to escape as the roads are clogged, a curfew is in place and petrol is scarce. There is also constant and indiscriminate shelling. Patricia and I have been on Facetime calls and have messaged frequently as this unfolds. She told me a few hours ago that accommodation has been arranged for Lyudmila in Poland. My fervent hope is that this Jazz loving family reach their safe haven. They symbolise much of what the world needs right now. Music may not be front of mind in the heat of an invasion, but it should be. In music resides hope and sanity.
JL32: Lyudmila, I have been worried about you, we care. Are you OK?
LS: Thank you for checking. You and your country’s support gives me hope.
JL32: You have left Kyiv?
LS: We escaped Kyiv. I am now near (name of town withheld) at a forest hotel, with family, husband, kids and friends. We give shelter to music families and their friends. I stay in touch with Patricia from Taklit. She has all info about the ShekBand album which my children have completed. She helps me a lot. On the last evening before the invasion, we had completed recording and mastering the files for the album.
Now we have a dream which will help us to be strong. You can use my name, my children’s and their music tutor. My children, study Jazz improvisation under Mr Alexey Proschenkov at State Music School #4 Kyiv. Siblings Artem. Anna & Maksym Shekera, Playing together as ShekBand since 2015.
JL32: Hi again. Is all well with you? I fear that the invasion is intensifying.
LS: While it is night here, I can tell you some stories. We gave shelter to some Turkish Journalists and they spread the word and now we get journalists from around the world to stay here as they pass through. We are happy to do that because it helps the world to learn the truth. They are very brave to visit Kyiv right now. John, please use my pictures but just make sure there is no geolocation. It is safer for us.
In Kyiv, my children have been studying music since five years old. The younger Maksym since he was three. He wanted to be with his brother and sister. My husband Alexander is also a jazz musician, but says, that is his hobby: he loves guitar, plays and sings always when we meet with friends. He is the soul of the company. He works hard every day to give a chance for our kids to have the best teacher. Sometimes he plays and puts compositions up on YouTube anonymously. Alexey Proschenkov the children’s teacher has his own teaching method, he teaches all modern trends, history, composition, children love him. His students win a lot of Ukrainian and international competitions.
One of my sons had been preparing to go to University this year, where my husband and I were students. But yesterday, the occupiers bombed the TV Tower of Kyiv and the University which was next to it. It was the first time that I cried.
JL32: It is so dreadful and heart-wrenching.
LS: I go and make some food. Thank you for listening.
Lyudmila and I had many more exchanges over the next few days and Patricia and I talked for an hour via Facetime about their plight. Over the course of those four days, she sent me 73 pictures. Mainly of her children and their interesting but interrupted Jazz journey. They connect me to the horror unfolding, but they also speak to hope.
Footnote: Minutes before posting this I learned that the family had taken to the road again in a convoy of four vehicles. Because it was proving too difficult to reach Poland, they were now heading for Romania. At each stop, missiles force them to move again. And a piece of good news. Today the family learned that ShekBand has been invited to play in Dublin.
Give Likes to ShekBand. Let the music play on. Please let the music play on.
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.
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.
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 availableon 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?
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.
One of the few pleasures of lockdown is that it has afforded me time to conduct long-form interviews. But while I had the time, the subject of this interview was back touring again and his hectic schedule meant that dates and time zones had to be navigated with precision. Consequently, our pre-interview messaging often occurred during gig breaks. Guitarist Rob Luft is a significant presence on the UK and European Jazz scene. He is articulate and a good storyteller and so transcribing our zoom call has been a pleasure. We talked for nearly two hours.
It was basically a long-distance hang, and when Jazz people are interviewed they tend to intersperse the geeky stuff with funny asides. This was no exception. For my part, I couldn’t wait to hear about his ECM experience with Manfred Eicher, but the unexpected foray into the joys of Arab music and being alone with Tutankhamun were the icing on the cake. It was never in doubt that Luft’s star would rise and it has risen on the back of sound judgement and hard work. And in aligning himself with astonishing vocalists like Alina Duni he has broadened his horizons. It is unusual to hear a young guitarist embracing thoughtful minimalism but in doing this he has shown real maturity. Under his fingers, less is invariably more.
JL32: Hi Rob, nice to see you again man and thanks for agreeing to an interview when you are so busy gigging. I know that you had a gig in Oxford last night and were at Ronnie Scotts much of last week, before that on tour in Europe.
Luft: Hi John, good to see you too after a long strange few years. It’s been a while since we last met up.
JL32. Yes, after your trip to New Zealand in 2016 (see review) we got together in London, first at the Barnes Jazz Club for the launch of Luna Cohens ‘November Skies’ album and then, a year later at Ronnie Scotts where you were playing with Kit Downes.
Luft: And I have played with both since, with Luna on my recent album and with Kit on a gig recently.
JL32: According to your discography you have been very busy since we last spoke. There was your Riser album with Joe Wright (sax), Joe Webb (keys), Tom McCredie (bass) and Corrie Dick (drums), and then, a follow-up album with the same lineup adding vocalist Luna Cohan and on ‘Flumpit’ Byron Wallen. And over that same period, you were sideman on around eight albums.
Luft: Yes and other projects, but, 2020 was almost completely dry of gigs because of COVID. We had the inverse experience to New Zealand because the UK was hit early and we were not open like your country. Especially gig wise.
JL32: The last time we spoke you told me that you and the Albanian Jazz vocalist Elina Duni had an ECM album under discussion, and of course that came to pass with the beautiful ‘Lost Ships’. Looking at the release date, that must have coincided with the arrival of restrictions in the UK.
Luft: Well in the rest of Europe, after the initial lockdown, there were still gigs happening, I was able to play gigs in France, Italy, Germany, Spain and Switzerland throughout the summer. In the UK it was very different.
JL32: I’d like to come back to that, but before we proceed further, a few biographical details if you don’t mind. I know that you were born in the London area and that you went to the Royal Academy of Music where you won the Kenny Wheeler Prize.
Luft: Yes, and I had a bizarre sort of experience at the Academy. The class groups for the Jazz Studies Bachelor’s course were very small and in my year there were only five, then later four of us. And in my group was Jacob Collier, so for the best part of four years, I was there with Jacob who was obviously a multi-instrumentalist. We had no drummer in our year and so usually you would have a full group playing with you, and so Jacob would play a different instrument when each guest artist came to visit us. There was John Abercrombie, Kenny Wheeler, Stan Sulzman and so on, and Jacob would be there playing a different instrument for each ensemble. There was no sense of continuity or band sensibility because Jacob was fulfilling so many roles, quite bizarre actually.
JL32: So in some ways your studies forced you to forge your own path.
Luft: I guess because the Academy only took in pupils who had advanced abilities at the outset. Less teaching and a more autodidactic approach, they encouraged that. They would get these great artists like Jerry Bergonzi to come in and play with us rather than teach us in the traditional sense. It was amazing to have people like John Abercombie come in and I’d be with him for a couple of days at a time.
JL32: That must have been especially good for you as a guitarist.
Luft: For me it was optimal. And obviously, the people coming in with Kenny Wheeler, like John Taylor, Norma Winstone and that class of musicians.
JL32: Abercrombie, Wheeler, Taylor, they are no longer with us.
Luft: Yes, back then Kenny Wheeler’s Big Band would come in and rehearse, imagine, you’re eighteen years old and you watch these legendary Jazz figures come in and rehearse in your music hall, it was amazing. Kenny had a huge influence on me, on my harmonic and textural approach. And Stan (Sulzman), a lovely player, and Ray Warleigh, they were all in that band, Ray was originally from Australia I think (SadlyWarleigh is also no longer with us).
JL32: Kenny was across every style huh.
Luft: He was eclectic, as was Stan, across everything from playing alongside English folk guitarist Nick Drake to playing free alongside Evan Parker. And I love that open eclecticism, the Academy was like that, never dictatorial or saying, you have to play like this.
JL32; The UK scene historically, appears to have possessed enough confidence to do its own thing, not thinking that they had to sound exactly like American players. It appears to have an original voice, much as the Scandinavian scene does. What do you think?
Luft: Yeah it’s very similar to the Scandinavian Jazz scene. You will understand, because we meet up in London, that it’s a melting pot, with influences coming from all over Europe and everywhere else. Afro Caribean musicians because of the connections formed way back in colonial times. Or the Indian community in North London creating a hub of South Indian music and by the same token, there is a huge West African community bringing their traditional music, Ghanain, Congolese for example.
JL32: Like Shabaka Hutchings?
Luft: Exactly, Shabaka comes from a Barbadian background and is influenced by Calypso music.
JL32: And earlier, Joe Harriot from Jamaica, who was world-leading in his free and world fusion explorations.
Luft: Yes, and that’s the melting pot of London. So many forms of music around and played at a high level. And you came to see us in Barnes with the Brazillian vocalist Luna Cohen and her band features Brazillian musicians. I played with them again recently and Luna is on one of my recent albums.
JL32: She sung wordless vocal lines, I love that.
Luft: I especially love that as a guitarist, the Pat Metheney group of the eighties, and Kenny with Norma Winstone, I can’t get away from it in my head, the vocalese. And the psychedelic jazz of the seventies, Mahavishnu and Alan Holdsworth. One of the first gigs I ever saw was Holdsworth with Jimmy Haslip and Gary Husband (Gary playing the drums and not keyboards). For better or worse, seeing that trio changed my life.
JL32: Is Gary Husband English (Luft nods) I had no idea?
Luft: A few months after my New Zealand trip I met McLoughlin at the Montreaux Jazz Festival and he adjudicated in a competition I had entered. Then his band played with the two winning bands, I got second place, all of us jamming a blues together and doing solos. I had to pinch myself and say, is this happening (laughs). He’s lovely, just lovely, and he speaks incredibly good French, but I was slightly dismayed that his North Yorkshire accent has all but disappeared.
JL32: So moving to 2020 and your album ‘Life as a Dancer’, did you record that before or after the ECM album ‘Lost Ships’?
Luft: That was recorded six months before. I remember that session well because Byron had been held up. He needed to pick up his Flumpet which had a sticky valve. It sounds like a comedy sketch now (laughs), very Monty Python, me on the phone saying we need your Flumpet. We were recording and only had the studio booked for a limited time. When he arrived we only had time left for one take and he nailed it.
JL32: I admire openness in writing, even after adding two extra voices (after Riser), that album still sounds spacious, and the palette creates a nice textural balance.
Luft: I think you could say that the quintet was more inspired by textual, ambient ideas, perhaps Eno, more open and a washier sound, more open to explorations. We laid down a very simple progression and let the music go where it wanted to.
JL32: Are you drawn to open, model or spiritual jazz?
Luft: Yes, that new Coltrane album exemplified that, it blew me away. I am always inspired by that modal era, and when you add the electric guitar, electronics, which touches on those psychedelic influences, Eno, Byrne, then that whole world of sonic exploration opens.
JL32: Jon Hassell?
Luft: Oh yeah, a huge loss. In 2019 I was on tour with Arve Hendrikson (Norwegian Trumpeter associated with Hassell), and I discovered Hassell after I had heard Arve, and I said to him, ‘hang on, there is so much in your playing that comes from Jon Hassell and I had no idea’.
JL32: And guitarist Eivind Aaset, electronics improviser Jan Bang?
Luft: ‘Dream Logic’ is one of my favourite albums. The Norwegians are masters, they are like folk musicians. I met Eivind and Arild Anderson recently when I played at the Molde Jazz Festival, and I came to the realisation that these are deep folk musicians. Masters of sound, it’s about sound and the local roots. And Sidsel Endresen who is the biggest influence on Elina is astonishing.
JL32: And last year, there was another album that was released. A trio with Norwegian bassist and vocalist Ellen Andrea Wang, You on guitar and Jon Falt on drums (Falt is the long time drummer with the ECM Bobo Stenson Trio).
Luft: I’m a huge fan of Jon Falt and I love Bobo Stenson, a big influence across Europe, Here, he has an almost Jarrett-like status.
JL32: Again that open airy free sound – like the American pianist, Marilyn Crispell, minimalism and depth.
Luft: The trumpet player who appears on ‘Life is a Dancer’, Byron Wallen, has an album. I’m on tour with him at present. He plays trumpet, Flugel, Flumpet, piano, conch and reads poems. He’s of Belizian Descent and has this gorgeous dulcet voice, and while he reads a poem I play minimalistic triadic chords. A beautiful conversation, voice above the texture.
JL32: Obviously, the thing I am keen to explore is your co-led album ‘Lost Ships’ and your impressions of recording with ECM. ‘Lost ships’ is the album that I am most likely to recommend to friends and your playing is a great example of less being more. You are understated, not all over the vocalist, but it feels so expansive. And all of you, relatively sparse instrumentation, Flugel, piano, guitar, vocals and not always at the same time, but a big sound.
Luft: I can tell you an amazing story about that recording. At that point, some countries like Italy were beginning to experience COVID but for us, it was a vague awareness of distant storm clouds gathering. We were there in the south of France and the days were mild. The studio Manfred had hired was in Avignon and the Israeli pianist Shai Maestro had just finished recording. And Manfred was there setting up the mics and desk levels, and then he had to return to Munich unexpectedly. So the set-up was complete and we had the engineer, but we were suddenly self-producing.
I was initially gutted, but Alina who had recorded with Manfred before, said, this is an opportunity. His presence is everywhere in the studio, so we should draw on that and record as if he were here guiding us. We should play as though he were sitting on the other side of the glass. And we would do a take and listen and say to ourselves, how would Manfred view this, and it was kind of liberating because we had unexpected freedom and as a young guitarist, I might have been intimidated otherwise.
JL32: Tell me more about the vibe.
Luft: I mean Manfred has produced some of my favourite albums like Metheney’s ‘Bright Sized Life’, John Abercrombie’s ‘Timeless’ with De Johnette/Hammer and many of my favourite guitar albums, so it took some of the weight off my shoulders to be imagining his presence. And as you pointed out, I felt able to play in a minimalist spacious way and I didn’t deploy all of my usual tricks and language. I just told myself, be an ECM guitarist and it worked. I’ve been told that Manfred loves the album and that he plays it at dinner parties, so it’s a good sign.
JL32: I would like to touch on the arranging, the writing, configuration etc.
Luft: I did a fair bit of the arranging and we were lucky to bring onboard other musicians, Matthieu Michel on Flugelhorn, they call him the Kenny Wheeler of Switzerland, a mellifluous tone reminiscent of the Northern Europeans. Manfreds a fan of his playing and he’s featured on a few ECM albums, with artists like Susanne Abbuehl. And Fred Thomas who is a multi-instrumentalist. He went to the Academy about ten years before me, in the same year as Kit Downes (also an ECM artist). What I’m trying to say is that it is all very incestuous (laughs). It’s a beautiful thing that the entire Jazz world is so connected.
Getting back to ‘lost Ships’, it came out in November 2020, during the month that Europe called a circuit-breaker lockdown. So right on release after the promise of clubs finally opening up again, lockdown. It was like a switch being turned off. We were gutted that we could not promote our album and only one concert survived. We had a big release tour locked down and suddenly in my diary, everything had to be crossed out.
The one remaining concert was the Cairo Jazz festival, Egypt! So in the middle of a lockdown, I showed up at Heathrow, guitar in tow, and boarded an Egyptian Airlines flight, without Matthieu. We were a trio with just Alina and Fred. But there was one gig on the way in Galicia Spain which was streamed and from there we flew directly to Cairo. (clip shown)
As we exited the Cairo terminal, the wafts of heat just swept over us, in stark contrast to wintery London. Taxi touts everywhere, shouting, and obviously no lockdown. We had two gigs at the festival and instead of live-streaming with no audience, we had a gorgeous venue and a full capacity audience. The Cairo Jazz Festival is amazing and we learnt an Arabic song for it, an ancient maqam from the 14th century.
We met loads of great musicians and the director of the festival, Amr Salah said, why are you getting on a plane to fly into a lockdown? What will you do when there are no gigs? Why don’t you just miss the flight and stay in Egypt? It was a wine-fueled evening and we decided on the spot to do just that. We soon found ourselves exploring the wonders of upper and lower Egypt. There were no tourists and we had the ancient sites virtually to ourselves. I must be one of the few people to stand beside Tutankhamun without company. And it was just us inside the anti-chamber of the Great Pyramid of Giza. And one thing led to another and I stayed there seven months.
JL32: Did I hear you correctly, seven months?
Luft: I was there living my life as normal, learning a bit of Arabic, and I fell in love with the country. And for whatever reason, the desert or perhaps a lack of testing, but very few cases of the virus appeared.
JL32: And are there any projects underway, ECM or otherwise?
Luft: Well three months ago Alina and I received an email from Manfred asking us to do another record. The finer details of which are under discussion right now and we might be recording in March 2022. And although we suffered through missing the lockdown release gigs, all of those bookings are suddenly active again, with promoters wanting us to appear all over. Strangely, I am busier with gigs now than I have ever been. In a few days, we head for Paris for a week of gigs, then around France. And another factor is that Elina and I work perfectly well as a duo and promotors find that easier to plan for. (some European countries have numbers restrictions again).
JL32: And how is the album doing?
Luft: By modern standards well and the sales are constant with gigs opening up again. Loads of Radio Play in Germany and Italy especially. ECM is essentially an old fashioned business and what they do is remarkably successful. Manfred is across it all and he uses only a small number of studios and a handful of trusted engineers. There’s one in the South of France where we recorded, there’s one in Lugano south Switzerland. Even the famous Rainbow Studio in Oslo is not used anymore because the room is different. He values spaces and forms high trust relationships with certain engineers, and he probably delegates more than people think. Including delegating to the musicians. I have been told by other ECM musicians that his presence is felt, but not inserted into the project. Not insisting, I want you to do this now.
JL32: Any plans for a down-under tour in future?
Luft: The Melbourne scene is an important Jazz hub and the Melbourne diaspora (of jazz musicians) is felt throughout the world. We have a good friend in Melbourne who keeps threatening to organise a tour. If we were to go to Melbourne we would certainly try to facilitate a trip to New Zealand. And I would tour with Alina, it’s just a question of time. My mentality now, since we started touring again is, every concert is a blessing, a gift. Even if it’s stressful to get there with quarantine or with testing, we brush that aside and give the concert our all. I don’t want to lose that.
JL32: And I want to mention another name, someone you know. James Copus the Flugel player. I reviewed the recent Scottish National Jazz Orchestra album where they honour some free-jazz titans and James was playing in the orchestra. I loved his ‘Dusk’ recording.
Luft: Yes, James is one of my oldest friends, we shared a flat in North London, we drank too much, jammed too loudly and annoyed the neighbours. We would rehearse in our room with Balkan brass ensembles and the poor neighbours were incensed. We have known each other since we were fifteen as we were both in the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. And in the Royal Academy, we were in the same year with Jacob Collier. James and I are going to record together next year.
JL32: I see that you recorded as guest guitarist with the SNJO.
Luft: Yes one album. Tommy Smith is amazing, the UK Michael Brecker.
JL32: A few final questions. On ‘Lost Ships’ there is no bass player and minimal drums. How did you approach that?
Luft: Yes, it freed up space, but it also put a lot of responsibility onto my shoulders as a guitarist. So that’s why I used the electronics to give me an octave below and to fill out that space a bit more. And if there is a drummer they needed to be very aware. Play more with the lower toms and bass drum. I played bass lines sometimes while comping, it’s a flavour. You can’t talk about bassless jazz without thinking, Paul Motian Trio. In my head, that’s the textbook on how to do it.
JL32: Current influences?
Luft: I try to listen to new stuff all the time. Actually, Egypt was amazing for that. Being immersed in a whole world of Egyptian singers and musicians was great, I had no idea it existed. And now I hear that and it touches me deeply. It’s incredible the way the Oud players, singers and violinists improvise within a mode and often microtonally. No pianos anywhere. I’m a huge fan of Anouar Brahem, so to walk into a cafe, drink a really strong coffee and hear musicians doing what he does, magic, all of that drone-based modal music.
It’s lament music. Alina often points out to audiences, that once you cross the Bosphorus and arrive in the Middle East, something fundamental in the music changes. So in the West, a major key song is a happy song and a minor key song is a sad song. Once you cross the Bosphorus, the minor key becomes the happy song. And Jazz gets that as it understands dancing the sadness away.
JL32: So with Alina, you will have been exploring this type of music.
Luft: Because she’s from Albania, an ancient cultural melting pot, the Ottoman Turkish influence is strong, but it’s also a Mediterranean country with Italian and other influences. So Turkish microtonality blended with an Italian folky balladesque. And touches of Rock and Pop. The Balkans region influences me more and more. So I have an Oud now and I am beginning to explore that. The Oud shops of Cairo are the Tin Pan Alley of the Middle East. We have to innovate to keep moving.
JL32: And the recent album by Norwegian bass player Ellen Andrea Wang that you featured on. That is a prime example of the forward-momentum of improvised music. I get quite a few albums from that region for review, and many are similar to ‘Closeness’ in that they blend pop sensibilities with hardcore Jazz. Like folksy ballads alongside tunes like Ornette’s Lonely Woman or some Americana like Wayfaring Stranger.
Luft: All over London there are Jazz gigs in small venues featuring this exact type of music, so you get teenagers coming along in droves, and sometimes I do gigs like that. We will throw in a Radiohead or a Nick Drake number with Jazz harmonies. I love the excitement on the faces of new audiences as they hear that mix but also relate to the straight Jazz content. Brad Mehldau led the way. Many young Londoners are becoming tired of shallow formulaic pop music and they are searching. And they discover new stars like Shabaka Hutchings who is very popular. Myele Manzanza from Wellington is also very successful in London, he has real crossover appeal.
JL32: I am interested in your work as an accompanist, your sensitivity and awareness of the vocalist. Not every guitarist gets that, many overplay, miss the nuances when comping. Although you have a number of instrumental albums, you also gravitate towards vocalists. Are you drawn to them or do they seek you out?
Luft: I’ve always been drawn to singers because I love the spoken word. A number of years ago I studied at University College London, a degree course in the science of language. Along the way, I managed to pick up two additional languages, with a degree of proficiency, French and Italian, and I’m fascinated with the connection between poetry and melody. Voice and guitar, that extra layer that can be added. So I am drawn to them, but maybe it works both ways as they call me back for more gigs.
JL32: It appears that we’ve been talking for nearly two hours so I’d better wrap up and let you get some sleep (it’sMidnight in the UK). Thanks, for giving me so much time man, it’s been a really interesting and fun catch-up.
Luft: And you too John. Let’s hope that our paths will cross sometime in the new year or very soon after.
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.
As Aotearoa’s Jazz musicians become increasingly confident of their place in the world, it is timely to acknowledge those who paved the way. A significant figure in this journey is saxophonist and winds player Brian Smith. I had been meaning to interview him for some time and the recent lockdown provided the ideal opportunity. I have long been aware of just how innovative London Jazz was during the 60s and 70s. The output was considerable, different from what was happening elsewhere and it stands up well to this day and there is an increasing interest among jazz fans and Jazz historians in pouring over this material. Over a lengthy Zoom call, we discussed his musical career and in particular his involvement in the UK Jazz scene. What follows is extracted from that wide-ranging discussion.
Where Smith grew up and how he first engaged with music was the obvious place to start, but then as we proceeded I was struck by how modest Smith was, quietly brushing aside his considerable achievements in true Kiwi fashion. And the more we talked, the more I realised that a colourful piece of Jazz history was unravelling.
JL32: Hi Brian, thanks for agreeing to the interview.
Smith: Greetings John, where would you like to start?
JL32: Where were you born?
Smith: I was born in Wellington but I grew up in Stratford, Taranaki. It was there that I learned piano and later switched to the saxophone.
JL32: Did you start gigging in the Naki?
Smith: Yes as a schoolboy I was part of a band that played for local dances. It was so much fun that I stayed at school an extra year; beyond when I’d intended to leave.
JL32: what were your musical interests at that time?
Smith: It was then that my friends and I encountered 78s by the likes of Humphrey Littleton, Bennie Goodman, Louis Armstong, Lionel Hampton. I still have those under my bed (laughs and points). So, my first jazz interest was more Eddie Condon and I particularly liked the clarinet player Edmund Hall. It was his ‘feel’. It was hard to get records here then. But also among those recordings, I soon discovered Joe Newman, Wardall Grey, and early Miles.
JL32: Did Wardall Grey lead you to discover Dexter?
Smith: No, I discovered Dexter later, also Miles album ‘Around Midnight’ a little later again, those was significant albums for me.
After playing in a few small bands, Smith moved to Auckland (1958) and it was there, that he joined the Bob Paris dance band, later moving to Australia with them. During his time in Auckland, he became increasingly active on the jazz scene, playing at places like Trades Hall. When the Bob Paris band moved across the ditch, he went with them, joining the exodus of Kiwi musicians like Mike Nock who had left for Australia a few years earlier.
JL32: When we were discussing the Auckland clubs and musicians, you mentioned trumpeter Dave Ironside. I knew Dave well and I often wonder what became of him as I went to Sydney with him in 1967.
Smith: Yeah, Dave was a great bloke, he had a really good sense of humour, very funny.
JL32: And when was your move to Australia?
Smith: It was in 1960, I went on the Wanganella with Rick Laird, Barry Woods, Neddy Sullivan and Mike Walker, I was sick for two or three days as I recall (laughs). The trip cost us £30 each, a fortune in those days.
JL32: Did you get much work across the ditch?.
Smith: Well, after moving to Australia with the band, I met up with lots of musicians, such as Kiwi pianist Dave McCrae and our association was to continue later in London. (reaches into a box and produces a few Bob Paris recordings – one with vocalist Ricky May ). Later I obtained a residency on the Gold Coast through Bob Paris. That was where I met my wife. We were given accommodation and a percentage of the door. My wife was a receptionist at that hotel, she made sure that I was fed.
JL32: You connected with a lot of interesting Jazz musicians while in Sydney, notable Aussies, Kiwis such as Mike Nock, and others from much further afield.
JL32: Did you by any chance meet up with a blind multi-instrumentalist Claude Papesch while you were there?
Smith: Yes, I was driven around Kings Cross by him. (much laughter as we reminisced about this as we had both been nervous passengers while Papesch drove). Bob Gillett, Andy Brown, and I lived near Claude, and once after he’d painted his flat, he asked us to check the bits he’d missed and tap the wall to show him. He was such a character, a nice guy, he would call around and knock, and we would sit there quietly, then he would enter and find us one by one, feeling our ears and faces and naming us. I heard that he eventually became mayor of the Blue Mountains. Anyhow, after two years of gigging around Australia I moved back to Auckland. Once back home I played regularly with the likes of Tony Hopkins.
JL32: Lachie Jamieson was around then, did you know him?
Smith: Oh yes, a great drummer and vibes player. I played with him a bit too, and another drummer back from the USA, Ray Edmundson. Lochie was a big deal in Auckland as he’d played with Sonny Rollins, Ira Sullivan, and bands around Chicago. And apart from Tony Hopkins, I played regularly with Mike Walker, Marlene Tong, different people. Some tours happening around then.
Then a few years later, I packed up and decided to move to the UK as my wife came from Lancashire. On the way, I had a one-night stopover in New York, and during that night, I attended three gigs. I heard John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, and Herbie Hancock. Clifford Jorden was the tenor player with Mingus which was at the Half Note.
JL32: What was your first destination in the UK?
Smith: I went to Manchester and met a few people on the scene. One of them was a bloke called Ernie Garside, who managed a Jazz Club there. I would sit in from time to time and my wife’s brother would come with me. He eventually became Maynard Ferguson’s manager. At that time Maynard was playing in Manchester. This was not long before his London concerts. Ernie Garside asked if I wanted to play in Maynard’s band and I did. It got busy as I was juggling three bands.
JL32: If it’s 69/70 you would have been playing with Nucleus, Tubby Hayes Big Band, and Maynard Ferguson.
Smith: Yes, and one or two other things were happening. I was playing with Alan Price as well.
JL32: I have listened to recordings of Tubby Hayes from that period. Nice band.
Smith: There was a TV Show and bits that were recorded. I had no solos but I was in the saxophone section with Alan Skidmore and Peter King. Peter King was great, I played with him quite a bit, a real nice guy.
JL32: I have jotted down a list of the significant UK bandleaders of that era you’ve played and recorded with: Graham Collier (70), Maynard Ferguson (65-75), Michael Gibbs (63-70), Keith Tippett (78), Mike Westbrook (69), Humphrey Littleton, Tubby Hayes, and particularly the Scottish horn player and composer Ian Carr (69-82). You have regularly played alongside UK-based Jazz greats like Kenny Wheeler, Stan Sulzman, John Marshall, Alan Holdsworth, Peter King, Tony Oxley, Stan Tracey Barre Philips, Jack Bruce, John Surman, and many more. And course Alexis Korner, the proto blues unit that influenced John Mayal, the Stones, etc. That’s some list.
Smith: It was a busy time.
JL32: I want to spend a bit of time on ‘Nucleus’, but before I do, I see you played regularly with Kenny Wheeler.
Smith: Yes and he was such a humble guy. He would come away from a concert or recording session after playing well, look concerned and ask us if he played alright.
JL32: At around that time was Kenny working with John Taylor and Norma Winstone, right?
Smith: Yes Norma Winstone and John Taylor were actually in Nucleus at one point, during my time the only other vocalist was Joy Yates (a Kiwi). But back when I first arrived, there were other people important to me. Rick Laird was in London by then and he was working at Ronnie Scotts. He introduced me to a drummer, percussionist called John Stephens who ran the Spontaneous Music Ensemble.
JL32: He was a notable early free player. Tell me more?
Smith: He was good to me. He had a caretaker flat off Harley Street. He let me stay there and I played with him at the ‘Little Theatre Club’, with Trevor Watts. I played with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble a bit at that time. Dave Holland would come up, Kenny Wheeler, Jeff Klien, Evan Parker. One night Chick Corea turned up and sat in and I didn’t know who he was at the time. We were playing a lot of free stuff and he was stomping and slapping the piano sides.
JL32: Anyone else?
Smith: Oh yes I was with Alexis Korner between 1965-66).
JL32: Did you ever encounter the legendary Phil Seaman?
Smith: yes, once I recall we were on the same gig.
Note: Alexis Korner Blues Incorporated was a very important band at the time and the great British blues bands like the Stones and John Mayal were all heavily influenced by it. Musicians like Jack Bruce, Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Ginger Baker, and Graham Bond were all in the band at some point. The Alexis Korner band moved freely between jazz and blues venues and included Jazz standards in the repertoire.
JL32: Was the 1970 album ‘Elastic Rock’ the first Nucleus album you were on? I think that you were a founding member of that band.
Smith: I was. The band was formed by the Scottish trumpeter and arranger Ian Carr and multi-instrumentalist (Sir) Karl Jenkins, I was with them right up to when I left the UK and on many of the albums between 1970-82, except when I was touring with Maynard Ferguson.
JL32: It was very successful. I arrived in London in 1985 and it was still popular then. Don’t you think the term Jazz-Rock Fusion was a bit of a marketing exercise? To my ears, you were a jazz unit edging at times into free territory. Not nearly as rock-sounding as in the guitar-heavy fusion bands. Listening again I find stronger synergies between Nucleus and the late 70’s output by Bennie Maupin or Eddie Henderson etc. And it sounded like a true collective with no egos dominating.
Smith: Yes we were a collective and you could argue that there was a synergy between our music and the era you mention. Nucleus did do well and there were a few other Kiwis who joined the band after I did. Billy Kristian, Dave McCrae, Roger Sellers, Joy Yates.
JL32: Overall, 45 members are listed as passing through the band, and there were 21 albums by my count. You are credited on many of those albums. And some well-known figures from the London Jazz scene came and went; Kenny Wheeler, Tim Whitehead, Tony Coe, Gordon Beck, John Taylor, Norma Winstone, Allan Holdsworth, Neil Ardley and so many more. And of course, you were in the core group. I notice that your playing attracted favourable mentions from reviewers.
Smith: Oh well (downplaying it), I got along with Ian and it worked out for me. There were quite a few of us (Kiwis) in London during the 70s, Frank Gibson and Bruce Lynch for example. We were all doing different things. Anyhow, the last tour I did with Maynard was March 75, and I went back to Nucleus and played with them right up until when I returned home. Bob Bertles the Australian saxophonist filled in while I was touring with Maynard.
During his time in London, Smith was often in brass sections accompanying well-known popular musicians or visiting artists. These included: Gladys Night And The Pips, Donavan, Dusty Springfield, Nancy Wilson, T Bone Walker, Georgie Fame, Alan Price.
JL32: You played tenor, soprano, and alto flute. Your soprano sounded great and the arrangements were interesting. Did you write any of the tunes?
Smith: Yes I wrote a few.
JL32: I’m guessing that the tune Taranaki would be you, there’s a clue there.
Smith: Yes that’s me (laughs).
JL32: What about arranging?
Smith: The arranging was basically whoever wrote the tune and then everyone had input.
JL32: And so not long after, Nucleus won the Best European Band competition at Montreux.
Smith: Yes that was 1970 around the time we released Elastic Rock, our first album. The big radio stations used to sponsor bands, all of the big European stations, and our sponsors were the BBC and we won (laughs). So because we won at the Montreux Jazz Festival, as best European band, the prize was an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival.
JL32: How was that?
Smith: Fantastic, yeah, so after Montreux, we travelled to Newport. It was in the afternoon, I can’t remember which day, but it was funny actually, because Dave McCrae and Rick Laird were there also with the Buddy Rich band. And Mike Nock with Fourth Way on the same weekend as well.
JL32: So you got together for a hang?
Smith: Yeah, because we hadn’t seen each other for quite a while. And then we played one night in New York at the Village Gate. It was amazing.
JL32: Did this lead to more work for Nucleus?
Smith: After we returned, we toured a lot, Italy and Germany in particular, Festivals and clubs. It became a regular thing.
Nucleus gained a significant following and after Elastic Rock, many successful albums followed. They reflected the times and the restlessness of 70s youth culture, complete with psychedelic cover art and cross-genre appeal, but they were firmly grounded in the Jazz tradition. The albums following: We’ll Talk About it Later, Solar Plexis, Belladonna, Roots, Labyrinth, Under The Sun, Snakehips Etcetera, Alleycat, In Flagranti Delicto, Out of The Long Dark, Awakening (and more after Brian Smith left). The labels during the 70s were Vertigo, Capitol, Mood. Some are still on issue and most will be available on streaming sites (one Nucleus album is also available on Bandcamp featuring Smith)
JL32: You played with Kieth Tippett’s Frames around then? You are credited on ‘Music for Imaginary Films. With Stan Tracey.
Smith: Yes I played with Stan a few times, but there was a trombonist named Malcolm Griffiths. He and I got a quintet together for just a little while in 1977, and we did a couple of gigs and a broadcast and Stan Tracey was on that with Brian Spring and Dave Green. And another one I did some playing with was a great piano player, Gordon Beck. I was in a band with him called Gyroscope right at the beginning. At around that time I started touring America with Maynard and Gyroscope hired Stan Sulzmann.
JL32: I associate him most strongly with Kenny Wheeler’s ‘Music for Small and Large Ensembles’. (we agree that this double album is an essential desert island disk)
Smith: yeah Stan and I were pretty good friends and still keep in touch. Oh, and in the late 70s, Dave McCrae put a band together called ‘Pacific Eardrum’. That band did two or three albums, one before I joined, and several later, including one after I returned which we all did back here in New Zealand.
JL32: So looking back over that period, what gave you the most satisfaction?
Smith: Well playing Nucleus, but playing with Maynard especially so. I’d always had this thing about the big band era, the bands that toured America constantly, and (having) the chance to do that in 1974. I spent a whole year in America and I was touring around the whole time. It was just that whole road thing, being on the bus with a bunch of guys and having a good time, playing some good music. Once upon a time, it was like going to school, that’s where musicians made a name for themselves. I learned a lot playing with that band. Sometimes it was the incidental things, like playing at the Bulls Head in Barnes, playing with small units, like the Tony Lee Trio as a guest, or with Martin Drew. And Paz, that was a Latin Band run by Dick Crouch and we recorded a few things. That was a great band and I enjoyed that.
JL32: Do you think that it gives you an edge playing with big bands?
Smith: Well it depends on the person, but it is a good training ground, and for young players, they must play with lots of different people, whether in small ensembles or large. Learning to read but also learning to blend in, hearing the phrasing, and knowing how to react.
JL32: When you returned to New, Zealand I guess people wanted to take lessons. I heard somewhere that you taught Roger Manins for a while.
Smith: He used to come to my place in Glenfield when I lived there, maybe for a year or so. I like Roger, we get along fine.
JL32: And in the years after you returned I recall the Brian Smith Band and an album ‘Southern Excursions’.
Smith: Yes that was with Frank (Gibson) and Billy (Kristian), and my friend Jeff Castle, a pianist from England. He came out here and lived with us for a year in 1984. And then there was the collective ‘Space Case’. We did three or four albums with that band. There was Kim Paterson on trumpet, Murray McNabb on piano and Bruce Lynch on bass (and later on, Andy Brown) and George Chisholm did some trumpet things as well, that was around 84-86. I also did an album with Jacqui Fitzgerald in the 80s. Then there was the time when Roger Fox brought Anita O’Day out and Louis Bellson and we did a brief tour. Lastly my album Taupo (Ode), with Billy Kristian, Kevin Field, Kim Paterson, Lance Sua, Kevin Haines, Alain Koetsier. The two Moonlight Sax albums did pretty well also.
JL32: Have you done much teaching?
Smith: Yes I’ve done a lot. I taught at Northcote College for 20 years and other schools, Papakura, Rosehill College, Kings College. The last school I worked at was Whangaparaoa College.
JL32: I don’t suppose musicians ever retire because I’ve seen you doing gigs about town over recent years.
Smith: Yes there have been a few, and I had a regular gig at a local bar called the Paroa Bar until this lockdown. With Frank, Dean Kerr, and Neville Grenfell on trumpet. Then we had a band with Dean and his brother and a Sunday spot at Muldoon’s in Orewa for a time. Again that was with Frank and Dean, and an occasional gig at Downbeat as well. We don’t know what will happen at present, but I’m hoping the Paroa Bar opens up soon. They’ve got a nice big stage.
JL32: We’ve covered a bit of ground.
Smith: Yes that’s about all I can recall at the moment but there may be a few holes in it.
JL32: Thanks for giving me so much of your time Brian.
Smith: Well, I’m off to play a few notes.
The interview covered a lot of ground, but I knew that there would be much more to uncover. I have always had an interest in British Jazz and so when a new Bandcamp label, Jazz in Britain Archival Project was launched, I took note. Going through it this morning I have located four albums featuring Brian Smith. Some of these contain never-before-released material. Smith expressed a particular fondness for Paz and there is a Paz recording among the Ron Mathewson archival tapes. There is an unreleased Live Nucleus session titled Solar, and best of all Neil Ardley’s ‘Kaleidoscope’ and Alan Cohen’s band Oracle. Here is the lineup on the Oracle Album: Kenny Wheeler, Henry Lowther, Mike Osborne, Alan Skidmore, Brian Smith, John Surman, Chris Pine, Mike Gibbs, Martin Fry, Ron Mathewson, Trever Tomkins. I will watch this space with keen interest.
I can’t help but wonder if the kids’ Smith taught, realised, that he’d once played a part in the wild and heady days of London’s music scene.
Additional sources: The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, The Rough Guide to Jazz, The British Jazz Project, ephemera such as posters and pamphlets. Acknowledgments British Jazz Archives.
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.
With humankind and their dogs confined to home, I set up a Zoom call with an innovative Wellington-based Jazz musician, John Rae. I knew instinctively that he was the right musician to initiate the lockdown interview series with. Rae is an important musician; here and well beyond these shores. He is a natural storyteller.
Born in Edinburgh to a musical family, he began gigging at age sixteen. Accompanying him on those youthful gigs was his friend, saxophonist Tommy Smith. Later Rae worked with Smith in the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra. Rae’s recording output is prodigious and there is much to bring a listener joy among those offerings. I will add links.
While those in Scotland or England will associate him with his two BBC albums of the year or his ‘Herald Angel Award’ from the Edinburgh Festival, New Zealanders will love him for his work with The Troubles. A Joyous anarchic Mingus like ensemble telling it like it is. Rae’s compositional work looks out toward the world and it frequently blends with ethnic music; Celtic, Japanese Koto, Middle Eastern. As a drummer he exhorts the band, standing up and urging them on, while his beats roil beneath them like a gathering storm cloud supporting the sky above. I was not surprised to learn that he had frequently visited New Orleans (and played there). I can hear that unique influence in his drumming. The perfect cushion and always conversational.
The good news is, that he has a number of albums ready for release or re-release. The re-releases include his ‘Best of John Rae’s Celtic Feet’ from the 1990s and amongst his newer offerings, a Troubles album ‘KAPOW’ (live at Meow). His website is johnrae.biz His current recording labels are: Thick Records at www.thickrecords.co.nz, Rattle Records at Rattle-Records.bandcamp.com Please buy these albums and keep this important original music alive. Check out the samples on the website.
John Rae: composer, bandleader, arranger, educator, drummer, Celtic Fidler ~ improviser in all styles from swing to free.
The lockdowns won’t stop jazz! To assist musicians who’ve had performances cancelled, get their music heard around the globe. The Jazz Journalists Association created Jazz on Lockdown: Hear it Here community blog. for more, click through tohttps://news.jazzjournalists.org/catagory/jazz-on-lockdown/
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.
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.
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. #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. This 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. 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 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.
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 ), Shannon Barnett (trombone [6, 7]) – released 2015 by abcmusic
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.I 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”.
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.On 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.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.
The interview with Alan Brown & his band continued………
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
I understand that you were lucky enough to attend one of the recent Brad Mehldau/ Joshua Redman duo Concerts in Australia. Even better you were able to meet them afterwards and so I would love to know something about both concert and meeting. Your impressions will go some way towards assuaging the feelings of jealousy we are all experiencing.
JF. Which of the three Australian concerts did you attend?
MB. I saw both Sydney concerts, one was at the brand new concert hall in Chatswood (North Shore) on the 19th January and the other was at the City Recital Hall, Angel Place on the 20th January.
JF. I am unfamiliar with the venues, so how was the sound quality and how were the sight lines for you?
MB. The Chatswood venue was much better. I noticed immediately that the piano sound was more acoustic sounding at that venue. I spoke to Brad about that, it turns at the sound engineer was forced to use more amplification at the City Recital Hall as the natural acoustics were unsuitable for this kind of performance, so consequently the piano sounded more amplified and forced.
JF. Are you also able to give me an idea of their set list?
MB. Yes, Brad and Joshua played 2 completely different sets. However each night began with a composition of Brad’s, then a composition of Joshua’s, then a Monk tune. They told me later that this was coincidental.
Concert 1 – Chatswood The Falcon Will Fly Again (Mehldau), Note to Self (Redman), In Walked Bud (Monk), Final Hour, Sanctus, My Old Flame, Anthropology, Hey Joe, Encore??
Concert 2 – City Recital Hall Always August (Mehldau), Highcourt Jig (Redman), Monks Dream (Monk), Unknown, Mels Mode(?) The Nearness of You, Unknown, Encore??
JF.What numbers were the standouts for you?
MB. At the Chatswood concert I loved their version of Hey Joe, Mehldau played a superb contrapuntal solo, it was a great crowd pleaser . Also the opening tune, ‘The Falcon Will Fly Again’ was incredible, Redman’s fluency with this tune was outstanding, they really seemed to be on the same harmonic page together. It was interesting hearing Mehldau improvise over rhythm changes during Anthropology, I have heard him talk about the importance of not sounding clichéd when soloing over rhythm changes and to me I really felt like he was constantly searching for originality during this performance, it was extremely effective and refreshing. At the City Recital Hall my favourite track was the ballad ‘The Nearness of You’. I am particularly fond of the way that Mehldau performs ballads, this piece contained all of the things I love about his ballad playing e.g. his independent phrasing, use of the piano’s range and touch were all simply wonderful.
JF. These musicians have played together before and we have heard them recently on Mehldau’s ‘Highway Rider’ and on a good number of Joshua Redman albums (plus a Kurt Rosenwinkel album).Did you get the sense that they were especially musically attuned to each other or were they just two top-rated professionals doing what they do?
MB. Yes they were definitely in tune with each other rhythmically harmonically and conceptually; this was obvious from the first track. This duo has been performing together for quite some time. Brad told me that they have so much repertoire that they can enjoy a great deal of time without repeating any tunes because they have been playing together as a duo for so long now. Interestingly enough however, the style of the duo was vastly different from one night to the next. Mehldau definitely led the Chatswood concert in many ways, slightly overshadowing Redman balance wise, he played many intense solos that were often linear in texture rather than chordal. This is a generalisation of course but it conveys the idea. The City concert was more balanced, Redman played more soprano as opposed to tenor and there was more subtle interplay between the two masters. Mehldau played with colour and texture much like some of his solo work (Live in Marciac) rather than employing a linear concept. Words that come to mind are ‘soundscape’; ‘explorative’, ‘joyful’ and it seemed to be a more relaxed duo performance. Both concerts were spellbinding however, just very different. I spoke to Brad about his concept, he talked about the ‘cerebral’ process found in improvisation and described how he likes to visualise that part of his playing as being kept behind a virtual ‘curtain’ at the back of his head, always present but just hidden from view. He then went on to talk about how sometimes that this cerebral process is more prominent on some nights than others. Brad told me that this was ok, suggesting his acceptance to the fluid process of improvisation and the humanity contained within.
JF. Regarding the hang; how did you manage to get invited to meet them after the gig? I can only imagine your anticipation in the days prior to that.
MB. I have been in contact with Brad for several years now via email. He brought his trio to the Wellington Jazz festival and I bumped into him (literally) very briefly afterwards. He kindly agreed to answer some questions to help me with my studies. He was later kind enough to put my name on the guest list for both nights at these recent concerts but this won’t be the last time I hear him play this year. I am playing with King Kapisi at the Babel festival (March 31st) in Marseille, France. I will be flying to Europe a few days before the gig so that I can hear his trio play 3 times and one solo concert. Brad has agreed for a hang during that time too; I am very much looking forward to it as I find him to be an honest and very human person. That tour will be on –March 22nd, 2012 Bimhuis Amsterdam (Netherlands), March 23rd, 2012 Bimhuis Amsterdam (Netherlands), March 24th, 2012 Bimhuis Amsterdam (Netherlands) [*solo], March 25th, 2012 International Bergamo Jazz Festival Bergamo, ITALY.
JF.Tell me about what you or others asked them and how they answered or what they spoke about.
MB. After the show Brad invited my friend and I to join them both for dinner. I found both Joshua and Brad to be down to earth people who just wanted to hang out after their gig like any other working musician.
JF.Did you gain any musical or other insights from the exchanges?
MB. The intensity in which I was able to listen to both of the concerts has stayed with me since last month and I try to emulate the integrity and thoughtfulness that both players possess in my regular gigs. Since those concerts I have made a list of questions that I will ask Brad when I see him next, so as to better my understanding of his musical concept. Brad mentioned the necessity of finding an original voice in jazz. After studying the greats this may be the most important thing. I see originality and full emotional connectivity as being important future goals.
Mark Baynes is a British born pianist. He has performed for 15 years as an international artist playing for a long list of clients ranging from the BBC and Auckland Philharmonia plus many of New Zealand’s best-known Artists.
Mark leads a piano trio called ‘The Ironic Trio, their latest release is an all original album entitled ‘In Song’ with Jason Orme (drums) and Aaron Coddel (bass). This has cross over appeal. In 2009 the Ironic Trio recorded an EP entitled ‘In Colour’ which has a more traditional jazz flavour.
Mark is a university tutor / lecturer at Auckland University and Massey University (New Zealand School of Music). In 2008 Mark was awarded the Ariadne Danilow Music prize (Victoria University of Wellington) and the Sir Alan Stewart Postgraduate Scholarship (Massey University) enabling him to pursue further study. Mark now holds an MMus in jazz performance (1st Class Honours) and is currently studying towards his DMA (Doctor of Musical Arts) in jazz performance. Marks DMA topic is entitled ‘Brad Mehldau’s stylistic innovations and their implications for jazz piano performance’.
I would like to thank you for agreeing to this written interview as I know how busy you are. This will serve as an addenda to the post on your album ‘Pacif.ist‘ and give context to the Pacifica/Turkish connection. Above all it will provide an insight into the charts and your choice of ancient and modern instruments. (read in conjunction with previous blog)
Q. Can you tell me a little about the harp you played at the launch? It seemed smaller like the Celtic harp and wonderfully ornate. Was that the one that you played on the recording?
The harp I played at the launch is a nylon strung harp made by Andrew Thom in Tasmania. It is a standard size for larger celtic harps – 36 strings – though they can come in any size. The ornamentation is actually quite industrial – a silver aluminium frame with black dots, and some subtle functional wooden detail. It has a carbon fiber soundboard and an aluminium soundbox covered with leather. But the shape of the arch and column itself is amazingly organic, comparable to dripping glass, with a koru curl. The “Holden Red” colour makes it quite sexy, like a stiletto.
I played this harp on one piece on the album – Time. Although most of the pieces were written on lever harp, when it came to recording I preferred to use the concert harp – the sound is richer and deeper. I used the lever harp on Time because the composition includes string bends that are a sounds you get particularly with levers. For the rest of the recordings I used my Lyon & Healy Style 23 Concert Grand (a big classic ornate wooden harp like those you see in the orchestra).
Q. Is some of that music improvised or were you following a score (or Jazz chart)?
There is improvisation in all of the pieces except for Interlude for Grozda, which I wrote out very quickly one day and I played that from the notes because I really liked them. Usually I make a kind of jazz chart with melody, and we go from there. Generally my aim is to improvise, so we’ll play the first round from the sheet and then expand on the ideas after that. I love the way Aksam Duasiturned out because there’s so much improvisation in it. It had one of the most minimal charts. Greenstones is a piece that is usually ‘set’, ie, I usually play pretty much the same thing every time. In this version on the album, there was an extra melody chasing me all the way to the studio that day. It wanted to be included in the recording. So when I got there, I tried to make room for the extra phrase. It resulted in an improvised introduction of 2 or 3 minutes which I think worked very nicely with Richard Nunns‘Taonga Puoro.
I love improvising, and if I’m not improvising, I don’t mind making mistakes so that I have to improvise my way out of them. Even if I’m playing the set tune, it’s still got to feel like an improvisation. That’s the good music. That’s what I’m chasing.
Q. Were those compositions originals or created out of traditional motifs?
That begs the question ‘Is there such a thing as a completely original work’? I try to keep things as original as possible. I try to let the music tell me how it goes rather than the other way around.
The only piece in which I really used a particular template is the first part of Akşam Duasi(Evening Prayer). That melody came about one day when Izzet and I were looking at a traditional Turkish rhythm called Hafif which is a single bar of 32 counts. You say “Dum tek tek, Dum tek tek, Du-um te-ka du-um tek tek-a…” like this. I made up a melody to help me remember the rhythm, we liked it and it became one of our tunes. The second half of that piece came about when we were having a lukewarm jam one afternoon and the ezan (call to prayer) began. Suddenly the instruments got hot and took off as if on their own accord, jamming along with the ezan. It’s simple and it feels good – familiar but from where?
Certainly in my early compositions, I used things that were ‘evocative’ for me, colours and feels from genres I’m familiar with. Greenstones has obvious Celtic influences, but begins with what for me is a bassy Polynesian rowing rhythm. I recall now that it’s melody was influenced by speech and the motivic nature of the Kanun (Turkish zither). As I got more comfortable with composing, I became more excited by melodic or harmonic movements that would surprise me. These days I spend more time trying to figure out what it is that I wrote.
Q. The quality of the percussion work was extraordinary and I gather that your husband is the drummer. How many percussion instruments were used apart from a normal drum kit.
Yes, Izzet Kizil is an extraordinary percussionist, and is my husband, and is a big influence on my work. He has a very advanced, distinctive, intuitive personal style. In fact he is not really a drummer, even though he played kit on these recordings. He specialises in Middle Eastern hand percussions. His main instrument is the Turkish Darbuka. The other instruments he used were Turkish Bendir (a frame drum similar to the Irish Bodhran, which he plays with hands and brushes), Daf, a Kurdish and Persian frame drum like the bendir but with dangling rings on the inside of the drum which makes the thunder sound that I love. You can hear him play Kanjira (a small hand-held Indian drum with one zil) and Kup or Gattam (Indian clay pot) on Uc Adim. He also plays a number of small effects percussions like clusters of seeds and bells. He sets himself up a little kit made of the above instruments and a small snare and cymbals, which he plays with hands, brushes and sticks. In Butterfly Effect he also plays percussion with his voice and fingers hitting his mouth and throat.
There is another drummer on the album and that is Riki Gooch. Because Izzet isn’t a regular drummer, Riki noticed that some of the grooves could use some firmer ‘laying down’, (Gul Cayi, Sunshine Sister, Uc Adim), and he added in some very sensitive cymbal and highhat to complement what Izzet had already done. Riki and Izzet met in Wellington, spent time and played together, so it was a nice vibe rhythm section even though the recordings happened on either side of the globe.
Q. Is there any connection between your music and the Sufi musical tradition. Many Jazz groups in southern Europe now use an Oud (Italy especially) and some extraordinary Sufi trained musicians like Dhafer Youseff are having an impact. I have seen him perform twice and it was a profound musical experience.
I have been very influenced by the sounds of Sufi music and musicians in Turkey, primarily the guitarist Erkan Ogur, and his albumsFuad and Hiç, the title of which is a Sufi concept meaning ‘anything and nothing’. In fact Mevlana or Rumi, the father of Sufism, was based in the town of Konya in southern Turkey during his enlightenment period with the philosopher Şemş. Today Konya is called ‘the kitchen’ of pure Turkish classical music particularly because it is connected strongly with the study of Mevlana. When I first came to Istanbul, I played mainly with Turkish classical musicians in Sufistic concerts. I will add here that the reason I was very attracted to Turkish music was not only for it’s beauty, but also the fact that it is an artform which melds improvisation with the written note. Recently I performed repertoire from the Sufi composer Yunus Emre with a singer at a Mystical Music Festival. At that performance I was encouraged to improvise deeply and generously, because this is one of the expressions of union with the divine.
Izzet comes from a Sufistic tradition – his father played percussion for religious reasons. Sufism is a liberal and mystical branch of Islam. Living in an Islamic country with lots of philosophical artists around, Sufism is an underlying feeling. I think it has been entwined in the development of Turkish music over the centuries, recognisable in the sense of expansive space and melodies of emotional longing for the divine. I work towards deepening this kind of energy in my music.
Q. Is there a strong Jazz community in Turkey?
Yes there is. It’s relatively small but dedicated. There’s a club in Istanbul called Nardis which is a dedicated seven night quality jazz place where lots of great Turkish musicians play. Izzet plays for a group called “Ilhan Erşahin’s Istanbul Sessions” which is a New York-Istanbul jazz triphop outfit which is very popular. A lot of international jazz artists tour through Istanbul. There are lots of great Jazz festivals going on, musicians coming over from Europe and the states.
Q. I understand that you were born in New Zealand and are of Samoan descent. Is that correct? Is there a Pacific influence in your music?
I was born and grew up in Wellington, witha seven stint in Los Angeles in my childhood. My mother is Samoan and my father is Australian – Scottish English descent. The album is entitled Pasif.ist because I think of it as Istanbul through a Pasifikan’s experience. The music is my response to the local environment as someone who is from ‘somewhere else’ and far away. This is the manner of the Pacific influence in my music. It is also in the concept of feeling the vibe of the environment and being in harmony with it. Taonga Puoro is the ultimate example of this in my opinion. If I’m in Aotearoa with a harp, I’m inclined to play clean air music with intervals inspired by tui calls. In the Pacific Islands I’m inspired by the warmth and rhythms of the water and trees. In fact, these experiences are my references. The antipodes are fierce with nature. So moving into the densely populated, polluted, urban environment and foreign soundscape of Istanbul, I both absorbed the experience and reacted to it.
Some things that are particularly Pacific to me are the introduction of Migration, inspired by bird calls and contemporary NZ classical music. Greenstones is another one. Seeing the social-political situation between Kurdish and Turkish communities here, it made me think about Maori and the other communities which have journeyed to Aotearoa. In that piece I always imagine the West Coast of NZ, clear starry skies and cold air. Sunshine Sister (my homesick song) is a sunny island tune about laughing and joy, as is the second part of Aksam Duasi. Like that, the influence weaves its way through the music.
One of the reasons I started writing tunes here was to find a middle ground where I could communicate better with my Turkish musician friends. One time at a first gig, I said to the band, “let’s just jam this one on a dub groove.” Well, I started, the bass player came in with something slightly different, the drummer joined with something different again, the violinist changed it more and by the time it got to the second tabla player, I had no idea what we were playing, but it wasn’t any kind of dub that I recognised. There were suddenly all these alien rhythms my ears were trying to process. It was pretty funny. So I figured out that we all have different vocabularies according to our experiences. I wrote music that mixed my perspective with a local vibe – where there weren’t too many preset rules and everyone could bring their own interpretations.
Q How many strings on the violin like instrument? It sounds similar to the Chinese Erhu.
The violin like instrument is the Classic Kemençe(keh-men-cheh) played by Sercan Halili. It has a three string and a four string version, and in Time, Sercan plays an Alto Kemençe which he had designed for himself. It is the first and only recording of that instrument. I love it because it sounds like a raspy old man. I love all the kemençes for their soulful vocal sound – so etheric. The instrument is played with a bow, but balances between the knees rather than on the shoulder. It has gut strings, and the tones are created by pressing against the strings with the backs of the fingernails. It is a very highly regarded Turkish instrument for its delicate and emotional nature. Mostly it is played in Turkish classical music settings; Sercan is quite adventurous. He is a talented young player fluent in the Turkish classical world and working on a number of cross-over projects.
Q Have you considered doing an even more Jazz influenced album one day? Your music on Pacif.ist swings.
Thanks man. I like swinging. I love jazz. I’m doing a Masters degree in Jazz at the moment, so I reckon there will be a few new tunes popping out that are more jazz influenced.
In fact the first piece of the next album is a jazz tune already. We were going to put it on this album but felt it needed more time to mature. That was a session with the great bass player Dine Doneff (aka Kostas Theodorou) from Thessaloniki. I met him out in Skopje which is where I study jazz with the guitarist Toni Kitanovksi. Dine later came to Istanbul to record on some pieces and it was such a great experience working with him.
Q. Could you tell me your link with Rattle Records? Steve is doing a fabulous job of recording NZ Music and a number of those albums are absolutely world-class (‘Zoo’ by Tom Dennison is my very favourite).
Steve Garden and Rattle Records have been fantastic. I approached them with my demo a couple of years ago and asked if they’d be interested to release it on their label. Happily, they said yes, and they’ve been really supportive throughout the process. There are many artists for whom I have huge respect and admiration on the Rattle label, so I’m honoured to have my album in the same catalogue. The recent output by Rattle of artists and new music is phenomenal and gorgeous. Really a cool support for art music in NZ. Many thanks to them.
Q. What is your connection to Bic – I gather that you have been recording with her?
I’ve been playing with Bic Runga since about 2006, when we did the Acoustic Winery Tour and I played in her band. Since then we’ve worked together when we get the opportunity. I recorded on Belle, the title track of her new album. She invited me to play support for her recent national tour. So I did the support performance, releasing Pasif.ist, and then I joined her and the band on stage for a couple of numbers. We had a great tour, with Kody Neilsen and Michael Logie in the band. I admire Bic’s stellar output and her musicality. She’s always encouraged me to get my music out there.
I must thank you for the thought that you put into your answers Natalia. I look forward to your next visit home and to any future albums.
The Masonic Tavern in Devonport overlooks the Waitemata Harbour in Auckland and the view from there is always easy on the eye. Last night it was also easy on the ear; in fact as the evening progressed the music developed a distinctly Western drawl. On Friday night the Tavern hosted two Jazz groups from the USA; the Tom Warrington Trio and the Bruce Forman CowBop band. These bands exemplified Jazz-infused Americana from differing prospectives and in that variance lay a world of fun.
It is always a pleasure to see the Warrington Band in town and I always seek them out when they pass through (this is their 4th trip to New Zealand as a trio – Tom Warrington, Larry Koonse, Joe La Barbera). As soon I arrived I spotted Larry the trio’s guitarist (an old friend) and we were able to spend a good few hours catching up and laughing at the outrageous humour of the CowBop quintet (who played the second set).
The Warrington trio opened their set with one of my favourite tunes ‘you must believe in Spring’ by Michelle Legrand’. For a guitar trio (minus piano) to do justice to this type of highly melodic tune they must keep out of each others way while the guitar and bass execute the right voicings and establish the melody line (implied or otherwise). This is what good jazz bands do and this band is extremely good. Joe laid down a solid beat and his brush work is equal to the best in the business. We heard Evan’s tunes and originals from the ‘Back Nine’ album and it was never less than swinging, intelligent, well executed music. All of these guys are stars in their own right having worked alongside the greats of Jazz and their intuitive feel for getting the best out of the music was communicated to their audience.
Like all Jazz fans I could not resist asking Larry later about the various people he has recently worked with and he singled out Alan Broadbent as someone he just loved working with. I hopefully suggested that they should think about recording a duo or quartet album together. My one regret was not asking Joe about the Pieranunzi/Philip Catherine date – next time.
When F. Scott Fitzgerald said that there were no second acts in American life he had not foreseen the second act on Friday night. This was cheeky, sassy, swinging, bop-infused countrified music and against all odds it was seriously hip. American life was re-branded that night and as we witnessed it in disbelief, we participated in the fun. Bruce Forman is a Jazz legend, as he has been a fixture on the Jazz circuit for three decades now. Like Larry he has also been at the forefront of Jazz education and has accompanied some of the musics icons. Bruce is a natural comedian and he really pushed the envelope with his in-your-face CowBop humour. It is hard to describe adequately in words, as the context was everything, but suffice to say it worked. There were musical jokes of the highest order and some home grown corn; both delivered from under a stetson hat with a twinkling eye. The CowBop bands treatment Besame Mucho sat somewhere between ‘Cheech & Chong‘ and ‘Diana Krall‘ and I loved it. As Bruce said when he began the set: ‘If you try this music at home I urge you to do so responsibly’. Packs containing the bands CD ‘Too Hick for the Room‘ were supplied with a bottle-opener connected to a memory-stick – pre loaded ready for illegal downloads. The sly BeBop quotes were everywhere and they slid in between the cow-licks with ease. Bruce added as I was leaving “The good thing is, if you hate this music you just give it to your enemies“.
This was a great night out and the intimate setting added to the enjoyment – thanks to Roger Fox for bringing them.