Jazz and Cinema are natural bedfellows and there was no better proof of this than with Keith Price’s Double Quartet gig. A few days ago the CJC held the New Zealand premiere of Price’s ‘New Improvised Soundtrack to The Good the Bad and the Ugly’ and what a rare treat that was. The two art forms have complemented each other since the early twentieth century. Even before the talkies, a pianist would sit watching a flickering screen while he or she would churn out improvised music. In the cinemas segregated for coloured audiences, there were aspiring Fats Wallers, and in the white-only theatres’ grandiose theme music was conjured out of thin air.
While seldom defined as Jazz it was never-the-less reactive to the moment and the first talkie was a (now) controversial film called ‘The Jazz Singer’. Soon after came some iconic Jazz themed movies and in the era of the Neo Realists, a Jazz soundtrack or an incidental jazz segment was indispensable: Elevator to the Scaffold (Miles), Breathless (Martial Solal), Blow Up [Herbie Hancock).
It is not always obvious that a Jazz musician has composed a movie soundtrack but a surprising number of films can lay claim to this connection. John Williams who wrote the Star Wars soundtrack (plus ET Jaws, Schindlers List etc) was a Juilliard trained Jazz pianist (who once worked as a Jazz musician in New York bars). We have Jazz musicians in our own community who often appear in the credits (Crayford, Langabeer etc)
In the case of Ennio Morricone, the reverse is true. He was never a Jazz pianist but his compositions have become jazz standards. I mention Morricone because he composed the original soundtrack to The Good the Bad and the Ugly. This work by Keith Price is not in any way based on Morricone’s score. Price has turned the concept on its head and created something vital and new, and in this case, drawing on the film images to blaze a new trail.
Here, the images are subordinate or equal to the music and there is no incidental music to enhance the segments of dialogue. And because there is no spoken narrative something extraordinary occurs. We feel the music and absorb the images in new ways. It comes to us through many senses, through ears, body and eyes.
This is a through-composed work, but with space and opportunity for the musicians to react to the images (and to each other). It features group improvisation, but there is nothing aimless about the work. Each segment is built on what proceeds it with the charts guiding the ensemble forwards as they interact.
The ensemble was a double quartet and this doubling up of instruments required skilful playing and very good writing. Luckily we got both, and although the gig was loud, the intensity never tumbled into chaos. Each musician took on agreed roles, resulting in a heady, textural mix. There were two keyboards (piano and digital), two drummers, two basses (one upright, the other electric), a tenor saxophone and a guitar.
Price was on guitar and guiding the music with prompts. In a semi-circle facing the screen and keeping an eye on the leader were, Ron Samsom (drums), Olivier Holland (electric bass), Mostyn Cole (upright bass), Malachi Samuelu (drums), Kevin Field (piano), Ben Gailer (keyboards) and Roger Manins (tenor saxophone).
An unexpected plus for me was having the cinematography of Sergio Leone untethered from the screenplay. A new piece of music to a timeless movie. He was a towering genius of the cinema and it was nice to be reminded of that as we appreciated the preternatural framing of each shot. Leone drew on Samurai tales for his Dollar Trilogy and in doing so he reached beyond genre. These are ancient archetypes reframed and more profound than the faux wild west of John Wayne or ‘Hopalong’ Cassidy. The function of archetypes is to live on through reinterpretation and thanks to Keith Price, this story lives on.
JazzLocal32.com was 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 I write this it is International Jazz Day, a UNESCO sponsored day honouring the diversity and depth of the world improvising scene. It was, therefore, serendipitous that Carl Dewhurst and Simon Barker brought ‘Showa 44’ to town – especially in the days immediately preceding the big celebration. This gig offered actual proof that the restless exploration of free-spirited improvisers, lives on undiminished. I have sometimes heard die-hard Jazz fans questioning free improvisation, believing that the music reached an unassailable peak in their favourite era. To quote Dexter Gordon. “Jazz is a living music. It is unafraid …. It doesn’t stand still, that’s how it survives“. While a particular coterie prefers their comfort zone, the music moves on without them. Younger ears hear the call and new audiences form. Life is a continuum and great art draws upon the energies about it for momentum. Improvised music is not a display in a history museum.It is through listening to innovative live music that our ears sharpen. When sitting in front of a band like this the mysteries of sound become visceral. This was an extraordinary gig, at times loud and confronting, mesmerising, ambient and always cram-packed with subtlety. Fragments of melodic invention and patterns formed. Then subtly, without our realising it, they were gone, tantalising, promise-filled but illusory. We seldom noticed these micro changes as they were affected so skillfully – form and space changing minute by minute, new and yet strangely familiar – briefly reappearing as quicksilver loops before reinventing themselves.With the constraints of form and melody loosened new possibilities emerge. In inexperienced hands, the difficulties can overwhelm. In the hands of artists like these the freedom gives them superpowers. Time is displaced, tonality split into a prism of sound, patterns turned inside out. The first set was a single duo piece, ‘Improvisation one’ – unfolding over an hour and a quarter; Dewhurst and Barker, barely visible in the low light. This was about sculpting sound and seeing the musicians in shadow added a veneer of mystique. Dewhurst began quietly, his solid body guitar lying face up on his lap. The sound came in waves as he stroked and pushed at the strings, moving a slide – ever so slightly at first, causing microtonal shifts or new harmonics to form, modulating, striking the strings with a mallet or the palm of his hand. The illusion created, was of a single drone repeating. In reality, the sound was orchestral. As you listened, really listened, microtones, semitones and the occasional interval appeared over the drone. Barker providing multiple dimensions and astonishing colour, responding, reacting, crafting new directions.In this context, the drummer took on many roles, a foil to the guitarist, creating silken whispers, insistent flurries of beats and at times building to a heart-stopping crescendo. I found this music riveting and the audience obviously shared my view. In the quiet passages, you could hear a pin drop. If that’s not an indication of the musical maturity of modern Jazz audiences, nothing is. One of the prime functions of art is to confront, to challenge complacency. This music did that while gently leading us deeper inside sound itself. No one at the CJC regretted being on this journey. This is territory loosely mapped by the UK guitarist Derek Bailey, the Norwegian guitarist Aivind Aaset and the American guitarist Mary Halvorson. They may take a similar path, but this felt original, perhaps it is an Australian sound (with a Kiwi twist in Manins). The long multifaceted trance-like drones suggest that. The second set was shorter, ‘Improvisation two’ had Roger Manins aboard. I should be immune to Manins surprises but he frequently catches me off guard. His breadth and depth appear limitless. ‘Improvisation Two’ began with a broader melodic palette. Dewhurst and Barker set the piece up and when Manins came in there was a stunning ECM feel created. Barker tap-tapping the high-hat and ride. Achingly beautiful phases hung in the air – then, surprisingly they eluded us, unravelling as Manins dug deeper – dissecting them note by note. These interactions give us a clue as to how this music works, each musician playing a phrase or pattern and then re-shaping it, passing the baton endlessly.
This requires deep listening and turn on a dime responses; as the overarching but perpetually shifting theme guides them. By the time Manins had played for five minutes, the mood and pace had mysteriously changed. By fourteen minutes we were in free territory – at twenty minutes the Tom fell over. Barker swept it up and changed to brushes in an eye blink. The falling drum was seamlessly blended, a fresh percussive option. I have seldom seen such captivating responsive drumming. Making an accident a virtue.
I have watched the twenty-two-minute segment of ‘Improvisation two’ ten times in a row and it is just as jaw-dropping each time. It is not the purpose of this Blog to rate and compare, but if it were, I would need extra stars to do this gig justice.
Showa 44; Carl Dewhurst (guitar), Simon Barker (drums & percussion), with guest Roger Manins (tenor saxophone) – CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Albion Hotel, Auckland, New Zealand, April 27th, 2016.
Footnote: After posting this I spoke with Carl Dewhurst. I explained that I had an overwhelming sense of the Australian desert – hearing the textures and wide open spaces in the improvisations. In the end, I was overly cautious, not wanting to offend indigenous sensibilities, deleting a reference to the Didgeridoo and Clapsticks. After speaking to Carl I am adding the references back in here. He informs me that this project actually began in the vastness of the northern deserts, playing alongside indigenous Australians. I heard right.
A seasoned New York veteran when asked to comment on the quality of playing by young artists emerging from the Jazz Schools said, “Man they’re such great players. Many of them have chops to burn, but what is lacking is ‘character’. That is not taught in Jazz schools, you gain it inch by inch out of life experience”. To paraphrase Lester Young who put it best, ‘I hear the notes, but what is your story’. The character of a musician (or the lack of it), shows up in the music. Jim Langabeer has ‘character’ to burn. He tells wonderfully human musical stories and they are utterly beguiling.Langabeer is hugely respected on the scene and deservedly so. He has worked with greats like Gary Peacock and Jaco Pastorius and in spite of absorbing the essence of North American Jazz, his ideas and sound possess a Kiwi authenticity. When he plays his tenor there is often a street-raw raspy intonation. The sound is at times reminiscent of Archie Shepp, but the story and flow of ideas are entirely his own. His flute playing is soulful and as soft as silk in the breeze. Because he is so comfortable in his own space he can incorporate everything from the avant-garde to indigenous music without it sounding contrived. These seamless references work beautifully in his hands. We talked of this after the gig and agreed that many of the earliest attempts at blending middle eastern, far eastern or ethnic music were less successful than now. As the boundaries between cultures blur in a globalised world, the mutual respect between improvising traditions grows. I have posted an example of this effortless genre-blending in a clip from the CJC gig titled ‘Ananda’s Midnight Blues’. Those who are familiar with Buddhism will grasp the meaning immediately. Ananda was Gautama Buddha’s childhood friend and later his disciple. Beloved, worldly and yet never afraid to challenge his enlightened teacher. There is a feeling of deep questing spirituality in the piece – reaching beyond mere form.Whether Langabeer plays flutes or reeds, everything serves the composition. His spare lines (which are devoid of undue ornamentation) establish a theme and then vanish like a will-o-the-wisp, giving a nudge to the imagination and enriching the piece as a whole. There are no wild flurries of notes on the saxophone or flute because the story resides elsewhere. His writing creates an over-arching logic and the ensemble has the freedom to move in and around tonality. In some pieces ostinato patterns create a drone effect, becoming a single note over which to restate the melody. This freedom allows for an organic interaction, free or inside and with a deep gut-felt pulse.When putting a band like this together the choice of musicians is supremely important. Not every musician could handle such freedom. Needless to say, Langabeer chose well. The ensemble was rich in contrasting colour, rich in character. It was our good fortune that Jim Langabeer’s daughter Rosie Langabeer was back in town. I can’t imagine a better-qualified pianist for this role. A leading avant-gardist and experimental musician who crafts compelling filigree and rich beauty into her music. Rosie Langabeer can play outside one minute and the next you hear a deep subtle swing, a rare kind of pulse that you can feel in your bones. A gifted composer and leader in her own right, an extraordinary sides-women when required. Moving from percussive, richly dissonant voicings to heart-stopping arpeggiated runs – somewhat reminiscent of Alice Coltrane’s later piano offerings. Her iconoclastic playing delighted the audience.On alto was Roger Manins. Although the alto is not his main horn he is extraordinarily fluent on the instrument. Langabeer has been focussing on multiphonics and microtonality of late and he and Manins showcased some atmospheric numbers utilising various blowing techniques. Manins has long impressed by playing in a variety of styles with equal facility. On guitar and pedal steel guitar was Neil Watson, bringing his mix of blues, Jazz punk, and avant-garde to the fore. Another iconoclast and one we love hearing. The pedal steel guitar has been in his possession for a year now and his rapid mastery of the instrument is impressive. A difficult beast tamed beautifully. On Bass was Eamon Edmundson-Wells. A versatile young bass player most often found in the company of experimental musicians. His performance on this gig was right on the money.On drums and percussion was Chris O’Connor. Perhaps more than anyone else O’Connor personifies this free-ranging music. Of all the New Zealand drummers, his are the widest-ranging skills. Colourist, minimalist, indie rocker, straight-ahead jazz, avant-garde, experimental percussion and film work. There is nothing he won’t tackle and everything he touches benefits from his musicianship. When a piece titled ‘Tapu’ was played O’Connor stole the show. While Langabeer played the difficult and wonderfully atmospheric Putorino (a traditional Maori flute of the Taonga Puoro family), O’Connor simulated the Tawhirimatea (A traditional whirring instrument dedicated to the god of winds). The effect was eerie and electrical. Later in the piece he blew through the stem of his snare stand – recreating the effects of the Pututara (a conch trumpet). Only O,Conner could have pulled this off so well. Like Langabeer, he has a deep awareness of multicultural issues.The one standard was Strobe Road (Sonny Rollins). A lesser known standard and played with enthusiasm. The remainder was a selection of Langabeer tunes, many referencing Maori of Kiwi themes. His tune Rata Flower was a stunner – it deserves to become a local standard. He has obtained funding from Creative New Zealand for this project and we might see a ‘Sketches of Aotearoa’ album soon. I truly hope this occurs and I will be the first to purchase one.
Sketches of Aotearoa: Jim Langabeer (flutes, Taonga Puoro, tenor saxophone, compositions), Rosie Langabeer (piano, keys), Roger Manins (alto saxophone), Neil Watson (Fender guitar, steel guitar), Eamon Edmundson-Wells (bass), Chris O’Connor (drums, percussion). Performed at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Albion Hotel, Auckland, New Zealand – 20th April 2016.
Musicians of a certain calibre are peripatetic, going where the music or the work takes them. This partly arising out of necessity, but also out of an impulse to explore new sonic and cultural environments. When a child or a grandchild arrives the musicians journeys circumscribe smaller arcs and are less frequent; the local scene being the beneficiary. This is the case with Nathan Haines; happily young Zoot tethers him in our midst for the moment. Haines has a solid reputation here and in the UK, with a loyal fan base in both locations. He has never been afraid to push in new directions, but at the heart of whatever explorations he embarks upon, a default soulfulness underpins the enterprise. This leads him to productive collaborations with like-minded artists, and not necessarily all Jazz purists. From the Hardbop-infused to Soul Jazz to DJ funk – it all works for him. While all of these collaborations are pleasing, none is more so than when he plays alongside brother Joel Haines.The Haines brothers have different musical careers, Nathan Haines outgoing, a public performer and award-winning recording artist – understanding well, the vexed world of marketing and the presentation of non-mainstream music. He balances these competing forces better than most. Brother Joel is a successful composer and a gifted performer as well, but his career these days centres on TV and film work. An engaging musician and a crowd pleaser; less in the public gaze by choice. Improvised music thrives on contrasts and the rub between different sounds always works well in the right hands. Nathan creating soulful innovative grooves and catchy melodies over traditional Jazz offerings, Joel bringing a warm-as-toast Jazzgroove edge, wrapped in a blues/rock package.
The first set kicked off with ‘Eboness’ by Yusef Lateef. A number that Nathan Haines recorded on his award-winning and popular ‘The Poets Embrace’ album. That album recreated the vibe of a particular era – the edge of Blue Note and the warmth of Impulse updated. This version is an exercise in skilfully blended contrasts. The enveloping warmth of Joel Haines and Keys/Synth player Michal Martyniuk created a platform for Nathan Haines to work over. This skilfully juxtaposed blend of ‘cool’ and ‘soul’ is not done often and hearing this I wonder why. Haines playing Lateef is a natural fit, as Lateef was never afraid to stretch beyond mainstream Jazz sensibilities.Next up was ‘Desert Town’ a Haines tune from ‘Heaven & Earth’. That was followed by an earthy version of ‘Set us Free’ (Eddie Harris) and then ‘Mastermind’ (Haines) from his recent ‘5 a Day’ album. Last up on the first set was ‘Land Life’ a tune based on a Harold Land composition. It pleased me to get a mention from the bandstand at this point. It is no secret that I’m a real Harold Land enthusiast. The band tore up the propulsive changes and moving free, made the tune their own.
The second set began with the stunning tune ‘Right Now’ (Haines/Crayford). This collaboration was extremely fruitful and we will see a new project from these musicians in the near future. Next up was a tune by keys player Michal Martyniuk. This had never been aired in public before and its trippy synth-rich vibe took me back to the space Jazz/funk of the 80’s. Appropriately, and immediately following, was a Benny Maupin number ‘It Remains to be Seen’. This is a space-funk classic from his fabulous ‘Slow Traffic to the Right’ album. The album cut in 1978 – at a time when a plethora of wonderful analogue machines entered the market. It was great to hear a number from this scandalously overlooked experimental era – and reprised so effectively. More of this please guys, much more.
The set ended with two more numbers, including a reflective and soul drenched composition by Joel Haines. The tune is temporarily titled ‘Untitled’. Whatever the name, it worked for us. The ‘Nathan Haines Electric Band’ is by now an established entity and the ease with which they hit their groove confirms that. Having the ever inventive and highly talented Cameron McArthur on bass gave them a groove anchor and punch. Rounding that off with Stephen Thomas on drums gave lift off. I highly recommend this group as there is something there for anyone with Jazz sensibilities. History and modernity in balance.
Nathan Haines Electric Band
Nathan Haines Electric Band: Nathan Haines (winds and reeds), Joel Haines (guitar), Michal Martyniuk (keys and synthesiser), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Stephen Thomas (drums). The CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Albion Hotel, 13th April 2016
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
Mark Isaacs is an important and highly respected Australian musician and it was a pleasure to see him in Auckland again. It was October 2013 when he last visited and since then he has been busy with the presentation of his symphony and a number of other noteworthy projects. He is a celebrated Jazz and classical musician and he continues to excel in both genres. Musicians like this are rare, as the two disciplines require very different approaches. When you talk to Isaacs you realise that he is passionate about both. He respects the art forms far too much to settle for anything less than his best. In either genre.
I once recall naively asking a visiting musician whether the ability to perform at the highest level on an array of difficult instruments was a unique skill. I have never forgotten the answer. “No it’s the outcome of hard work and an exponential increase in practice time. Every instrument you play is practiced equally and intensively’. I am certain that the same would apply to working across different genres. That said, I suspect that attitude and aptitude are still somewhere in the mix.
Nothing annoys musicians more than being told that what they do is the result of a gift. It implies that the results come easily to them. Having great chops is only the starting point, as there is more to a successful Jazz musician than technique. Deep level communications are necessary and for a performance to work well, everyone must connect. Musician to musician and musicians to audience. Having something original to say and saying it well is something Mark Isaacs understands. Those performing at this level bring something unique to the equation. Something of themselves. An essence drawn from experience and an intuitive understanding of how time works. No matter how good a pianist, bass player or drummer, a piano trio is still a collaboration. Isaacs must have been happy with Holland and Samsom. They are two of our best musicians.
Isaacs comes from an exceptional musical family with a lineage stretching back to the Stephane Grapelli band and probably beyond that. Knowing the depth of his classical and Jazz heritage gives an added perspective to his multifaceted career trajectory.
I missed the first few numbers and arrived at the CJC just as the trio were warming up. The first number I heard was Kenny Dorham’s ‘Blue Bossa’. A much-loved standard that has remained extremely popular. Good improvising musicians extract gold from compositions like this (and often without needing to deviate far from the traditional chart). This was a night of wonderful standards played to perfection. Hearing a superb pianist and a solid rhythm section performing in such an intimate space is something Jazz fans live for. Everyone there experienced the warm glow. A warmth that only nights like this can impart. I truly wish Isaacs lived a lot closer. My appetite for his playing is far from being satisfied. My late arrival was due to a previous gig and as I walked in, the sound enveloped me completely. Before I had settled Ron Samsom had grinned in my direction, Oli Holland had poked out his tongue and Mark Isaacs had given a quick wave (mid solo). With those brief gestures the realisation swept over me that this club and these musicians are family. A. J. a club regular grabbed me in the break and said tongue in cheek, “Thank god your here man, the universe has realigned”. Ron Samsom the drummer added, “Yeah it took us a while to settle because there were two strangers in YOUR chair and you were nowhere to be seen”. I guess I am like the guy who lives perpetually on the bar stool of his local bar. Sort of Jazz furniture.
A performance of Mark Isaacs ‘Symphony’ has been professionally filmed and it was recently purchased by the ‘SKY Arts’ channel. It plays in New Zealand on the 10th June at 8pm. Please support this important work by watching and perhaps writing to SKY Arts and saying how much we appreciate seeing material like this (The same for the recent Mike Nock/Contemporary Dance film on SKY Arts). These are important artists and landmark events. We live in a crass market-driven world where the Philistines try to dictate our taste. Without our support these amazing artists can struggle for wider recognition. Writing to encourage the purchase of such films is the least we can do by way of thanks. Remember, this works best as a collective enterprise and all of us have a role to play in this.
What: Mark Isaacs Trio – Mark Isaacs (piano), Oli Holland (bass), Ron Samsom (drums).
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.
When I saw that pianist Chris Cody was coming to New Zealand I immediately recognised the name. For a moment I couldn’t fill in the blank spots of memory but I sensed that the connection was both Australian and international. My CD collection is huge and I knew that the answer lay buried somewhere in the unruly muddle of music lying about the house. Then it came flooding back; Cody recorded a great ‘Chris Cody Coalition’ album in the nineties. The first international Jazz NAXOS recording titled ‘Oasis’ and produced by Mike Nock; an innovative exotic project brimming with warm middle eastern influences. Some quick research told me that the Chris Cody Coalition was still an entity and what equally excited me was to see the name Glenn Ferris on several of the albums credits. ‘Oasis’ featured the Australian Trombonist James Greening and on several of the later Coalition albums Cody features trombonist Ferris (an utterly distinctive player). His whispers, growls and smears are at times otherworldly, but also mysteriously human. Cody works especially well with trombone players and his writing reflects this on the latest album.
I trawled the Paris Jazz clubs in the nineties and recall seeing Ferris perform. Later I picked up an album by Henri Texier ‘Indians Week’ and loved it. Ferris has appeared on 179 albums; everyone from Stevie Wonder (‘Songs in the key of life’), to a co-led album with Chico Freeman and an Archie Shepp album (‘Meeting’). The new Chris Cody Coalition album ‘Conscript’ is enjoyable from start to finish. An accessible album that bathes you in warmth and light. There is real intimacy about the recording, a feeling that you are in the front row and this is as much about Cody’s writing skills as the strong confident performances. It is also about the recording quality which is superb. I strongly recommend this album. I first heard the quartet at the Tauranga Jazz Festival. A CJC Jazz stage showcased the finale and the Jazz Tui Awards presentation. I spoke to Cody in a break and quickly learned that he had New Zealand blood running in his veins. Born in Australia of Kiwi parents he studied music before moving to Paris. Based there ever since and gaining a strong reputation on the wider scene. He has very recently move back to Australia but he intends to return to Paris to work periodically.
It is the diversity of life experience that makes for interesting Jazz musicians and Cody has the aura of Paris cool about him. While he often draws on very American sources like Jamal, he is also in the mould of pianists like Jacky Terrasson (also a Parisian). Cody’s compositions are well thought out and replete with interesting asides. We heard many of these at the CJC and the album ‘Conscript’ is all originals. I am a sucker for a Cole Porter tunes and when he opened with ‘I love Paris in the springtime’ I couldn’t have been happier. Happy because I love the song and above all happy because the quartet played it so well. I have posted a video of the CJC performance and the title track from the ‘Conscript’ album with Ferris (the latter an official video release). His pick up band are the familiar and popular Roger Manins (tenor), Oli Holland (bass) and Ron Samsom (drums). In the rush of the Tui awards there was little time to rehearse, but it didn’t show. This is 3/4 of DOG and they are the 2015 Jazz Tui winners after all.
Who: Chris Cody Quartet – Chris Cody (piano), Roger Manins (tenor sax), Oli Holland (bass), Ron Samsom (drums).Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand, 8th April 2015 #jazzapril #jazzappreciationmonth http://www.jazzapril.com
I first heard the JAC two years ago and I liked what I heard immediately. Their sound has textural complexity, but the charts are so well written that the band manifests as if it is a single organic entity. As they move through the pieces, rich horn laden voicings appear, shimmer and fade seamlessly into the next phrase. In spite of the heavy punch of the front line, the band can float airily over passages. This affords them choices that are seldom realised by larger ensembles. They have a real nimbleness and this is surprising considering their large musical footprint. A bigger footprint than the size of the band would suggest. The really good nonets and octets achieve this.
The solid four-part horn line is the power house of the unit, while guitar and piano balance out the sound. I have to mention Cameron Allardice at this point as he is so integral to the JAC’s sound mix. I have heard them play with and without Allardice and with him is my strong preference. He has grown so much as a performer and soloist over the last year that I hardly know where to start. He is not a loud player but his authoritative solo’s and fills just sing. He gives a soft but penetrating edge to the mix.
I watched him at the Tauranga Jazz festival and he approached his solos like Rosenwinkel. Not so much in phrasing but in energy as he gained momentum during solos; lifting free of the earth as the sound flowed among us, like water over a spillway. And all the while maintaining an absolute clarity of purpose. These high wire acts require courage and confidence and he showed these attributes in spades. He is also one of the main composers of the group and his charts are stunning.
This is an ensemble of stars and leader, altoist Jake Baxendale is certainly one them. He can deliver searing heart stopping solos and then drop into the mix in an eye blink. He is the other contributor of compositions (and arrangements) and his principle guidance that moulds the unit. His ‘Thieves in the Night’ is a masterpiece of composition. Their album ‘Nerve’, recorded early in The JAC’s life has wide appeal. Since its release they have been on the road (or gigging) almost constantly. The time on the road has sharpened them considerably and that must show in the new album; The recording session takes place in a few weeks and judging by the material that we heard at the CJC gig (and at The Tauranga Jazz Festival), an already polished band will jump up another notch.Every player is integral to this project but trumpeter Lex French certainly stands out. He arrived back in New Zealand from Montreal a seasoned performer; his credentials are impeccable. He is a strong ensemble player and during solo’s he pulls off feats of brass bravura that New Zealand audiences seldom hear. He has chops and ideas and the confidence to pull them off. I have at times worried about the meagre numbers of high-quality trumpet players on the local scene. French may well address this as he will certainly inspire others.
Daniel Millward on piano (and keys at Tauranga) gave impressive performances as did Chris Buckland (tenor) and Mathew Alison (trombone). Millward is a fine pianist but for some reason, probably the sound mix, he shone through more on keys at Tauranga. Buckland gave some stunning solos and again the Tauranga performances come to mind. Last but not least are bassist Nick Tipping and drummer Shaun Anderson. Behind every solid group are musicians like these. Tipping is the most experienced of the JAC musicians and he instinctively understands how to keep the groove. Linking rich and complex harmonies like these to the rhythmic flow requires just such a musician. Anderson likewise performs strongly. Working with Tipping and bringing that big band drum feel to the unit.
If you love to hear well written charts played to perfection, referencing everything from fifties jazz up to modern times, purchase the JAC’s albums. Once again we must acknowledge Rattle here. Without a quality local label like this, such albums would have less chance of being released. The JAC were deservedly nominated as finalists for the Jazz Tui 2015. Expect to see them nominated next year.
Who: The JAC – Jake Baxendale (alto, compositions, flute), Lex French (trumpet), Chris Buckland (tenor), Mathew Allison (trombone), Callum Allardice (guitar, compositions), Daniel Millward (piano, keys), Nick Tipping (bass), Shaun Anderson (drums).
Where: The CJC (Creative Jazz Club) Britomart 1885 Auckland 1st April 2015 and The Tauranga Jazz Festival Easter Weekend 2015.
The DOG project was conceived two years ago and during its public outings the band garnered enthusiastic support. Those who heard DOG urged them to record and eventually they did. The long-awaited album was ready for release on International Jazz Day 2014; a gestation time roughly equivalent to that of an elephant. The time however has been very well spent, as the band members have composed a wealth of new material. DOG (formally Dr Dog) is Roger Manins, Kevin Field, Oli Holland and Ron Samsom. Manins, Field & Holland are lecturers at the Auckland University School of Music (Jazz program), Samsom is the senior lecturer. They are all in demand for the best gigs about town. They are the big dogs on the block.
International Jazz day was the perfect time to release this album, underscoring as it does a local Jazz scene crackling with life and teeming with invention. Anyone familiar with the Auckland Jazz Scene will know that these musicians are a driving force; inspiring, challenging and empowering emerging artists. It is a band of titans but it is also a true band of equals. In the Jazz world bands made up of many leaders often fall short. A juggling act’s required to unify a multiplicity of visions. That problem does not apply here. These men appear to breathe in unison and react to each other intuitively. At the ripe old age of two DOG is in peak condition.
The album is beautifully recorded and the mix could hardly be improved upon. Credit to the York Street Studios in Auckland and to the tasteful mixing by Rattle’s Steve Garden (and DOG themselves). ‘Rattle Records’ are going from strength to strength and if the last three months output is anything to go by, this will be their best year yet. From the first few notes the album reels you in and holds your attention throughout. There is a virtuosity and a tightness to the performances but it is more than that. Beneath the unquestionable musicianship there is a radiating warmth and a bounty of good humour which shines through. This was especially evident during the International Jazz Day performance at the CJC. It was a humour filled affair and delightfully laid back.
Roger Manins was the front man for the release gig and the dog jokes and banter had people in fits of laughter. He teased the band mercilessly and they responded with sad looks or dismissive gestures. The Zeppo Marx to Manins Groucho. This is a role that he is well suited to and his jokes are quintessential Kiwiana. Some of the titles contained obscure dog references. ‘Race to Space’ honours the Russian dog which led off the space race, others inspired by loveable but hapless dogs of good breeding as in ‘Evolution’. At one stage Manins directed people to a comparative dog intelligence chart. “This is my spaniel rated at number fifty three, which is around the middle of a descending scale”. Next he asked, “Does anyone here own an Afghan Hound?”. No one owned up, perhaps guessing what was to transpire. “Ladies and gentlemen they are number ninety two on the list, almost at the bottom of the intelligence scale”. Some brave soul responded, “Surely not”. “Have you ever tried to play cards with an Afghan Hound” was Manins quick response. Roger Manins drawings for the cover art say it all.
Because there are four composers, the tunes have a variety of moods and tempos. I like them all, but if forced to choose one I would go for Hollands ‘Didel Didel Dei’. There are burning solos on this uptempo track and the interplay is quite exceptional. On this track you will hear Manins at his best. As usual there is no sugar-coating as he pushes the tenor to its outer limits. Field, Holland and Samsom responded in kind. This music they play has the utmost integrity and the audience laps it up.
International Jazz Day has become the premier event on the International Jazz Calendar with the brightest stars in the Jazz firmament showcased. Auckland, New Zealand can hold its head high in the midst of these international celebrations. This album and this live performance did us proud.
Who: ‘DOG’ is Roger Manins (tenor Sax), Kevin Field (piano), Oli Holland (bass), Ron Samsom (drums) – compositions by all band members
I attended three Jonathan Crayford gigs while he visited New Zealand. All of the bands were different and all were exceptional in their way. This tells me something important about the artist; a leader able to communicate a vision with the utmost clarity and bring out the best in other musicians. Just over a month ago I interviewed Crayford and my first question was, “What projects do you have in the pipeline?”. He told me about an album that he is going to record in New York in a few months. We then talked about ‘Dark Light’, his new ‘Rattle’ album. As the title implies this is about that mysterious place behind the light. This recurring theme is regularly mined by improvising musicians. Monk, Jarrett, Maupin, Towner, Pieranunzi and others have peered into this chiaroscuro world, where the shadows between light and dark reveal subtle wonders. This piano trio album recorded in New York in late 2013, has the stellar sidemen Ben Street on bass and Dan Weiss on drums. The album was pre-released to New Zealand audiences during Crayford’s gig on Wednesday which was the fourth of the Creative Jazz Club’s 2014 #jazzapril series.
I hear a lot of music these days and much of it I like, but occasionally an album comes your way that really stops you in your tracks. This is just such an album. It has a profundity and a depth to it that works on so many levels. It is an album that deserves hearing over and again and since obtaining a copy I have done just that. At first impression I thought of game changing pianists like Esbjorn Svensson or some of the modern Scandinavians, but this has a strongly original feel. As in all Crayford’s compositions, we hear a skilfully written head, that gradually evolves into an ever-widening groove, begging deeper exploration. While it is music played at the highest level it is neither self-indulgent nor introspective. The album has real depth but it is also incredibly accessible. This is music that everyone will recognise at some level: partly because it is so articulate, but also because the blues and a myriad of other familiar song forms are neatly distilled into it.
It was obviously not practical to fly Street and Weiss (who are New York based) down for the CJC launch and so Crayford engaged two New Zealand musicians. While not hearing the full recorded trio was a shame, we were not disappointed by their substitutes. He could hardly have chosen better. On bass he had Wellington musician Patrick Bleakley and on drums was Auckland musician Chris O’Connore. I am less familiar with Bleakley but I certainly know him by reputation. The last time I saw him was with ‘The Troubles’, a delightfully anarchic Wellington band. He is an experienced and melodic bass player with an instinctive feel for time. On the album with Street and with the New Zealand trio, the bass player anchored the pieces; leaving piano and drums to react to each other. O’Connore is one of the finest drummers on the New Zealand scene and he routinely plays in diverse situations. This open skies approach gives him a real edge. He is a drummer and percussionist with a highly developed sense of space and dynamics and in this case his colourist tendencies were strongly in evidence.
The tracks have an organic logic in the way they’re ordered and a natural ebb and flow is discernible. The set list at the gig followed that order, creating the sense that we were on a journey. The titles of the pieces reference the ‘Dark Light’ theme and none more so than ‘Galois Candle’. Galois was a genius French mathematician (1811 – 1832) who used abstract algebra to prove the links between field theory and group theory. He suffered unbelievable bad luck in his short life and was not appreciated or understood until the 20th century. Many of his proofs were accidentally or careless destroyed by others, hence the title. As I play this sad evocative piece, the story of Galois unfolds before me. This is what Jazz can do well; steal a moment out of time and create a compelling narrative.
There is a luminous quality to Crayford’s playing; a quality which sounds newly minted and yet familiar. Crayfords contribution to Jazz deserves wider recognition and with this album it could happen. I would therefore give the album four and a half stars out of five, not out of some Kiwi patriotism but purely on merit. No Jazz lover will regret the purchase
I have posted a track titled ‘Bikes in Space’ below.
Who: Jonathan Crayford (piano) Ben Street (bass *album), Dan Weiss (drums *album) – Patrick Bleakey (bass *CJC), Chris O’Connore (drums, percussion *CJC)
When a Hammond B3 artist hits town, organ combo fans cheer and roadies duck for cover. The B3 is not the sort of instrument that musicians bring with them on a plane (unless they have chartered a Lear Jet or a Hercules). These mysterious musical behemoths are now harder to find, as the Hammond company folded in 1986 and the original tone-wheel B3/C3 has not been made since 1974. The instrument barely fits into a utility van and weighs more than 435 lb; with the accompanying Lesley Unit you can add 150 lb. The first problem for a travelling B3 artist is therefore to source a well restored working machine in the town where the gig will be held. Auckland is lucky in this respect as there are a few of the instruments around. To locate one in full working order is often difficult but the first port of call in Auckland is always keyboardist/organist Alan Brown. Alan has just restored his beloved C3 (an even heavier version of the B3).
Young unsuspecting musicians and a few experienced ones who should have known better, cajoled by Roger manins, moved this fabulous machine halfway across town, down two flights of stairs and into the basement of the 1885 building. They suffered for our enjoyment.
Its been over a year since Michele Benebig and Shem were in town and we love them here. Their blend of hard swinging old school B3 Jazz groove and evocative South Sea Island referencing vocals is a perfect fit for New Zealand audiences. The Author Lawrence Durrell* once described a rare disease called ‘Islomania’. This affliction of the spirit causes a form of intoxication; an overwhelming desire to live on lush green Islands surrounded by limitless expanses of sea. For the afflicted this is a source of inner happiness. While Michel and Shem are often seen on the West Coast of America; in Australia, New Zealand or France, it is their Island home base of New Caledonia that defines them. Shem in particular fills her compositions with descriptions of exotic papillon (French for butterfly), colourful birds who warn the locals of impending storms and of the Pacific. She and Michel are clearly afflicted by Islomania and as a fellow sufferer I empathise. When this affliction meets the Jazz B3 obsession a potent hybrid arises and from the grip of this there is no escape.
After seemingly endless months of blue skies it poured down on the night of the gig. This was bound to affect attendance, but those who braved the storm heard something exceptional. If there is one compelling reason to brave wind and rain it is to hear a B3 Combo. There is a primal warmth radiating from a B3 that seeps into your body. From the first few chords you feel at one with the world and during the intense slow burning grooves you are lost to your cares altogether.
Several numbers into the first set we heard ‘State Highway Blues’, composed and arranged by Fabienne Shem Benebig (the previous day) while driving up the North Island. This blues in Ab was absolutely captivating and the way the musicians gently pulled back on the beat gave it a deep swing (a number that reprised in my dreams for days to come). This number had enough tension and release to power Big ben. There were many new compositions from both Michel and Shem plus the odd tune from Michel’s earlier albums ‘Black Cap’ and ‘Yellow Purple’. One notable exception was the inclusion of a number by the French organist Eddie Louiss. Several years ago Michel wrote ‘Blues for Rog..’ (for Roger Manins) and in this number much of his formidable technique is evident.
Fabienne Shem Benebig always accompanies Michel on the road and she is also a gifted musician. Her well thought out compositions and strong vocal presence are integral to the combo. ‘Shem’ mainly sings in her native French tongue and hearing the blues in that language is pleasant to the ear. That said she is not there for mere novelty value as her voice is authoritative. Whether whispering a ballad or belting out a Basie number she is equally compelling. Like Michel she has a captivating stage presence and her playful humour is the perfect foil to his studied cool.
Michel Benebig is gaining wider attention and his recent trips to California have resulted in two stellar albums. His command of the B3 is astonishing and if you want a masterclass in technique and cool watch him in action. He has an intuitive feel for this genre and every move, every pregnant pause and every gesture becomes part a his unfolding story. As the last of the old B3 masters leave us, Michel Benebig and others like him will be swiftly identified as the new cadre, ready to move up and occupy that hallowed space.
No organ combo is going to work properly without the right sort of guitarist and for this gig Michel used Auckland’s Dixon Nacey. Dixon Nacey and drummer Ron Samson had not long been back from New Caledonia where they joined Michel and Shem for the official opening of the new Astro Jazz Club (run by Michel and dedicated to organ Jazz and in particular Brother Jack McDuff). Dixon always looks happy when playing, but never more so when playing blues or groove. He really pulled out some great performances on this gig and the chemistry between he and Michel was evident. The multi faceted (and by default polyrhythmic drummer) Ron Samsom was cast in the unusual role of groove drummer here. He exercised restraint and kept the tight focus needed, stepping free at appropriate moments. The most important role for a groove drummer is to lock into the organs groove and he achieved that. Roger Manins and Ben McNicoll made up the horn section and while Roger played the heads and an occasional solo, Ben mostly played counterpoint. The tenor sax and baritone sounded wonderful together. Everything about this gig felt right and the genre was well served.
We are now halfway through the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) #jazzapril series and the program offers depth and variety. As we approach International Jazz Day we should reflect on the gift that we have at our disposal. While it is tempting to say that we’re lucky (and we are) I also mindful that the music we call Jazz is the result of hard work and dedication. This American art form has long had global outreach and down at the bottom of the Pacific we legitimately own a piece of that, thanks to a plethora of gifted musicians and enablers like Roger, Ben and Caro.
*Reflections on a Marine Venus – L Durrell
Who: Michel Benebig (Hammond C3), Fabienne Shem Benebig (vocals), Dixon Nacey (guitar), Ron Samsom (drums), Roger Manins (tenor sax), with Ben McNicoll (baritone sax).
Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 1885 Britomart, Auckland New Zealand. 16th April 2014
The second gig in the CJC #jazzapril series featured a quintet led by veteran Auckland musician Phil Broadhurst. Phil is a very familiar figure on the New Zealand Jazz scene thanks to his many recordings, his broadcasting, gigs and Jazz education. He is also a finalist in New Zealand’s 2014 Jazz Tui awards and we will hear the results this coming Easter weekend. The last two years have certainly been busy for Phil. In between running the Massey University Auckland Jazz Program and hosting visits by overseas Jazz musicians he has found time to compose new material and to record several highly rated albums. I have previously reviewed his passionate tribute to the diminutive Jazz pianist Michel Petrucciani ‘Delayed Reaction’ (he’s an authority on Petrucciani’s work), and his beautifully crafted ‘Flaubert’s Dance’ (now up for the Tui).
Phil Broadhurst compositions are well constructed and seldom just head arrangements. There is always a subtler framework behind the obvious; something that invites you to look beyond the tune. The song titles and the stories that accompany them give a strong sense of place or sometimes touch upon an all but forgotten quirky interlude from the past. Phil Broadhurst is well read in several languages and it shows in his work. His compositions reference this but never in a preachy way and there is a strong sense of seeing the world through his eyes. This experiential vantage point rather than any particular idiom informs his work most. His compositions also convey ideas and at the conclusion of a piece we feel like examining them further.
The first set began with ‘Delayed Reaction’ from his Petrucciani album, followed by a number of newer tunes. I have posted a You Tube clip from the latter titled ‘Precious Metal’. It initially sounded familiar but I couldn’t quite grasp why. It is a tribute to Horace Silver and the form here is recognisably hard bop. This gives a strong impression of the famous Jazz pianist and it was that impression which sounded so tantalisingly familiar. This is what Phil Broadhurst does so well.
As is normally the case with busy musicians there had been no time to rehearse other than a twenty-minute run-through before the gig. In situations like this it is essential to have good readers and if you are lucky musicians who are familiar with your work. With Roger Manins (tenor sax), Mike Booth (trumpet, flugelhorn), Oli Holland (bass) and Cameron Sangster (drums) it was always going to go well. There is a subtle difference between bands who work well together and those who really gel. There were no high octane numbers and the mood was consistent rather than variable. This worked very much to the bands advantage and the laid-back feel gave them a chance to delve deeply into the compositions during solos. Everyone pulled out great performances and you could tell afterwards how pleased they were that the gig had gone so well. It just goes to prove that nights like this can bring about just as pleasing results as the edgier higher octane ones.
Roger Manins and Mike Booth blended perfectly and Booth has never sounded better. Their solos were thoughtful, probing and often intensely melodic. They clearly understood what Broadhurst had in mind and worked with it. Oli Holland who sings lines during his bass solos was in great form (when is he not). Having played with Manins and Broadhurst often he needed no prompting, his powerful bass lines giving just the right momentum. Phil has used several drummers in the past but he obviously likes working with Cameron Sangster who is the youngest band member. “He has subtlety and gives colour where it’s needed” said Broadhurst afterward.
#jazzapril is a about sharing the joy of Jazz and it is about celebrating the diversity of the music. Improvised music is increasingly embraced by younger audiences and those audiences and the many younger musicians performing bring exciting new sounds to the mix. Getting the mix right between the experienced and the up-and-coming is a challenge but at the CJC appears to get it right. Jazz has long been established in New Zealand and this is a time to celebrate its longevity and its diversity.
Auckland’s CJC (Creative Jazz Club) has created a Jazz Appreciation Month program with all of the above in mind. This week there is a B3 master from French New Caledonia, next week the globe-trotting genius of the keyboard Jonathan Crayford. Best of all is the long anticipated album launch of ‘Dr Dog’ on International Jazz Day. I feel lucky to live near a club that can present such wonderful artists. Grab this opportunity by the ears Kiwis, now is the perfect time to enjoy this music and above all share it with others.
Who: Phil Broadhurst Quintet – Phil Broadhurst (compositions, piano), Roger Manins (tenor sax), Mike Booth (trumpet), Oli Holland (bass), Cameron Sangster (drums).
#JazzApril is International Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM) and the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) in Auckland New Zealand has lined up an impressive roster of artists. The opening gig for Jazz April was the acclaimed saxophonist Jamie Oehlers from Perth Australia and the club could hardly have done better than engage this titan of the tenor. Anyone who had heard Jamie Oehlers on previous visits needed no second invitation; the club filled to capacity. Jamie is tall, so tall in fact that I managed to chop off his head while filming the first video clip (having foolishly set up the camera during the sound check when he was not present). In fact everything about Jamie Oehlers is larger than life. His presence fills a room in ways that it is hard to adequately convey. The sound of his tenor has a warm luminous quality about it and it seems to penetrate every nook and cranny of a room; whether playing softly or loudly it reaches deep into your soul.
Two hundred years ago ( November 1814) a young Belgium instrument maker Adolphe Sax was born and in the 1840’s he patented the tenor saxophone. It has gone through relatively few modifications since that time. Fast forward to the Jazz age and the instrument came into its own. Nobody brought the instrument to the wider public’s attention more than Coleman Hawkins and few took it to such dizzying heights as John Coltrane. Listening to Jamie Oehlers perform made me think of the tenor’s history and above all it reconfirmed my deep love for the instrument. Last time he was in Auckland he played ‘Resolution’ from Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’ (it is the 50th anniversary of ALS this year). Among other numbers in the set list this year was Coltrane’s ‘Dear Lord’ (recorded by JC in 1963 but only released in the 1970’s on the ‘Dear old Stockholm’ album). Jamie Oehlers was born to interpret Coltrane and he certainly held our rapt attention last Wednesday.
He had requested the same local musicians for this visit as last time; Kevin Field (piano), Oli Holland (bass) and Frank Gibson (drums). Roger Manins joined the band for the last two numbers and the two tenor masters unsurprisingly wowed everybody by the way they cajoled each other to new heights. There were introspective ballads, freshly interpreted standards and a few fire-breathing fast burners. I filmed quite a few numbers and have posted a duo performance of Mal Waldrons ‘Soul Eyes’ (Jamie Oehlers and Auckland pianist Kevin Field). It is during ballads and especially the slower paced duo numbers that a musician is left naked. No pyrotechnics to hide behind, no lightening strike runs or off the register squawks to dazzle us with. This clip says everything about Oehlers as a man and as a musician. Thoughtful, compelling and always authoritative.
He was right to request Field, Holland and Gibson for this gig. They showed repeatedly that they were up to the task and gave of their best. It is gigs like this that make us proud of our down-under musicians and we know when we hear performances like these that we can hold our heads high in the wider Jazz world. There was no more appropriate gig than this in which to kick off Jazz April. Listen to the You Tube clip and I’m certain that you will agree.
Who: The Jamie Oehlers Quartet – Jamie Oehlers (tenor sax), Kevin Field (piano), Oli Holland (bass), Frank Gibson (drums).
The Auckland Jazz gigs during Jazz April have been high quality (see last four posts). Above all they have encompassed the breadth of improvised music. Song FWAA from Australia was therefore a perfect choice to round off a smorgasbord of tasty events. They (Song FWAA) are quite possibly the illegitimate love children of ‘Sun Ra‘ and while no DNA evidence has validated that theory the lineage is manifest in their music.
As a scene matures listening ears get tweaked through exposure to new sounds. The demand for a wider range of musical experiences follows that. This doesn’t happen by accident. It begins with musicians stepping into uncharted territory and ends with the listener reacting. The mere mention of ‘adventurous music’ can cause cold sweats from venue management and all the more so if an ‘out’ gig is proposed. Happily for us Roger Manins of the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) takes some risks and as the club audiences continue to grow that policy is vindicated. It is the job of artists to confront or challenge and listeners should welcome this. Settling for bland entertainment leads to musical confection, not jazz, not art. Some people are perfectly happy leading the lush life in some small piano bar, but that is not where the music develops. Improvised music is as much about audience engagement as about performing and without the feedback loop a musical project would become an unheard conversation between band members. Those who heard Song FWAA, heard edge, originality and musical humour so cunning that no weasel could better it.
The band has garnered rave revues around Australia and their 2011 album ‘Ligeti’s Goat’ is highly recommended. If you listen to the album you feel that you are listening to a much bigger unit. At first this seems attributable to the rhythm instrument, which is of the guitar family but quite different in timbre. This is a specially made 8 string ‘Frame’ played by David Reaston. The voicings, pickups and pedals used (i.e Moog pedal) give it distinct and very different sound. Not loud but other-worldly; a strangely subtle sound that can impart real richness.
Martin Kay plays alto saxophone and although this is a standard instrument he also manages to coax a range of different sounds from it. Martins multi-phonics and extended techniques give depth to the performance, just as drummer Jamie Cameron’s colourist approach and extended drum technique added depth. At the end of the evening I felt that the musicianship more than the instrumentation created this special groove.
The gig (and the album) was replete with compositional parables about animals and their epic adventures. Martin is adept at telling these tales; which have a ‘Hunter S Thompson’ quality about them. ‘Ligeti’s Goat‘ the title track for instance explores the eating-cycle of a goat. “Tonight” said Martin, “we will only be playing the second section – ‘digesting carrots’ “. Another number was a moving tribute to a peripatetic Polar Bear. To quote from the liner notes regarding the tune ‘Olefeig’ (AKA that which should not be shot): ‘Documents the transformation of scenery through the eyes of a Polar Bear, drifting on a shard of ice from Greenland to Iceland, where his destiny finds a bullet’.
A number titled ‘Mugwump‘ was most enjoyable. The gist of the introduction by Martin was that Aliens had come to earth to seek Moroccan desert fuel and somehow this referenced William Burroughs and the Dogon people of neighbouring Mali. He had me hooked as soon as he mentioned Morocco and Burroughs.
Song FWAA’s music is at times ‘free’ and at other times working long ostinato grooves. This moving ‘outside’ one minute and then playing ‘inside’ or following a melodic hook to its conclusion works. The group has something to say and they say it with genuine originality. I hope that they come back soon and share more animal sagas with us.
Their promo material describes them as the ‘wrong band for the right people’. I love that descriptor, but the one sour note struck was their failure to paint their faces ‘Art Ensemble of Chicago Style’ for the gig. This is how their webpage profile shows them and we are mature enough in NZ to handle that. As Roger Manins says, ‘truth in advertising is at the heart of jazz’. I have no idea what that means but we do love face paint.
What & Who: ‘Song FWAA‘ – Martin Kay (alto sax), David Reaston (frame guitar), Jamie Cameron (drums). Buy the album from www.songfwaa.com
I am writing this on International Jazz Day and reflecting on the diversity of improvised music occurring in my city of Auckland, New Zealand. We have straight ahead Jazz, free improvised music and everything in between. For me a livable community is better defined by its relationship to the arts than by any other measure. Having venues like ‘The Wine Cellar’ and the ‘CJC (Creative Jazz Club)’ is at the heart of this relationship, for that is where artistic experimentation and community interactions occur.
There is a tendency to compartmentalise music and it is the way humans like to view the world. These subdivisions are sometimes unhelpful but in the end the meanings we invest in the descriptors are largely subjective. I agree with the premise of semiotician, writer (and experimental Jazz liner notes author) Umberto Ecco. His viewpoint is that humans feel compelled make endless lists in order to plot their way through a chaotic world. It is a way of remembering ancient pathways, while embarking upon new and often scary ones. In the world of improvised music the riskier path is always taken and the charts are abandoned at some point. This music embraces the chaos and seeks out new patterns and motifs, however fleeting. Using charts (whether Braxton like or traditional notation) the form is merely the starting point. In this way both ancient & future are embraced.
The K’Party Spoilers of Utopia (formerly T’Party Spoilers of Utopia) is a nonet led by vibist, tenor horn player and musical explorer John Bell. His vision has been the guiding force for this extraordinary grouping of musicians and it is respect for him that spurs them on. I have known John for less than a year and I find him an immensely likeable and down to earth person. Beneath that matter of fact exterior lurks a keen mind, teaming with profound musical insights. I have read and re-read his exegesis on the Albert Ayler legacy and his views on alternative music are well-developed and worthy of examination. Like all musicians he has many facets to his character. When I asked him recently how long he had been a musician he casually replied, “quite a long while, but at one point I abandoned music for motorcycle racing”. “Do you still race motorbikes” I asked incredulously. “Definitely not he said”. I wanted to probe him further on this fascinating topic but the conversation turned back to music. On reflection I cannot think of a better career path for an avant-garde musician than motor cycle racing. Both are high-wire acts. I am wondering now if I imagined the whole exchange. Time will tell.
I’ve been aware of the ‘Spoilers’ for a year or more and have seen them play on a number of occasions. The collective began as a vehicle to explore Albert Ayler’s legacy and for a while you could hear brassy interpretations of the ‘The Truth Goes Marching In’ or other compositions by Ayler. There is however no such thing as a cover band of free Jazz offerings and band was always centred around John’s own compositions or his interpretations of Salvation Army and various evangelical hymns. In more recent times the repertoire has evolved to include compositions by band members. With John on hand to arrange, contribute his own charts and encourage, the project has finally been shaped into the ‘Spoilers of Utopia’ album. There are so many good compositions and vignettes in this music that singling out the individual musicians for praise would be a Herculean task. I can only congratulate them all and hope that there is more to come.
I have seen the band described as the purveyors of ‘apocalyptic’ sounds or ‘tongue in cheek’. I am not so sure about that, as there is is both structure and chaos in their music. The familiar sits comfortably with the unruly and the sweet with the sour. That sounds more like modern life than doom and gloom. Out of the completely free you will hear snatches of raw beauty and just as quickly the beauty dissolves into dissonance. I would call that a Zen koan – Life is a deadly serious stupidly happy joke.
There is no crying declamatory saxophone voice on this album (as there would be with an Ayler recording). This is a brassy sound closer to the military bands and to the street bands of the church militant. Any analysis of New Zealand’s colonial history will reveal a proliferation of such bands. Add in a Moog, squeeze horns and a skittering electric guitar and you have arrived at the Spoilers doorstep, Jazz April 2013. This is a manifestation of avant-garde New Zealand.
The Wine Cellar (Vitamin ‘S’) is a place for experimental and improvised music and under the watchful eye of out-guru Jeff Henderson it flourishes against all commercial odds. It is like the CJC located in a basement and in this case, deep in the bowels of Karangahape Road. Visit the website and call by some night. The music is can be utterly ‘free’ or follow a more structured pathway. It is always experimental though and improvisation is at its core.
John Bell left New Zealand for Korea two days after the album release gig, our loss. He will be sorely missed in New Zealand but the music goes marching on. We have a lot to hear from his band mates yet and I am already picking up whispers of new projects.
Where: The Wine Cellar – Vitamin ‘S’ St Kevin’s Arcade off K’Road
Who: K’Party Spoilers of Utopia – led by John Bell (vibes, tenor horn, misc sounds), Finn Scholes (trumpet, flugal horn), Ben Zilber (trombone), Don McGlashan (euphonium), Neil Watson (guitar), Owen Melhuish (tuba), Darren Hannah (double bass), Chris O’Connor (drums), Kingsley Melhuish (trumpet, flugal horn, trombone, tuba) + Cameron Allen (Moog), Gerard Crewdson (trombones), Jacob Unuia (pau), L J Unuia (pate), Tua Meti (pati)
Jazz was famously described by Whitney Balliett as the ‘sound of surprise’. This is at the very essence of improvised music as it strives to unravel, reveal, polish and at times shock. What you think you know is often challenged and this confrontation is the primary role of art and improvised music. When a familiar tune is reinterpreted and presented afresh it’s pleasing (if done well), but there are many ways that music can surprise. What we sometimes hear is an aggregation of profound subtleties and that is harder to define. We need ears attuned to nuance and a memory capable of recalling just what has preceded these vignettes. It is in these less obvious corners that we often find the most profound of revelations.
The Kevin Field trio (plus guest) appeared at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) on the 17th April. This was an important CJC/Jazz April event. Everyone on the New Zealand Jazz scene is familiar with Kevin Field the pianist, composer, teacher, and gifted accompanist. He delivers and so good sized crowds turn up.
Kevin had earlier humped his Fender Rhodes down into club and it sat nestled respectfully against the grand piano. The bass was lying on its side like an expectant whale and the drum kit was sparkling out of the gloom. Behind the drum kit you could barely make out the image of a guitar on a stand. Those gifted with 20-20 vision would have discerned that this was a Godin Guitar which can only mean one thing in Auckland; Dixon Nacey would be sitting in for a few numbers.
When Kevin Field and his trio filed to the band stand I experienced a tinge of anticipation. I had been looking forward to the gig because Kevin Field never settles for a mediocre performance and he is certainly no journeyman. With Cameron McArthur on bass and Stephen Thomas on drums we hoped for sparks. While Kevin often appears in support of others, or fronts bigger lineups he had not brought a piano trio to the club for a quite a while.
What happened next caught me quite off guard and perhaps it shouldn’t have. When you rate an artist highly you can easily fall into the trap of thinking that you know everything about them and that is plain foolish. There is also something about the CJC that urges musicians reach deep and many visiting artists have commented on that. The CJC is more than just a benign space, it is an enabling one. A performance space that says to an artist, ‘there I’ve created the ambiance for you, now make it happen’. It would take a subterranean ‘Feng Shui’ specialist to analyse this phenomenon .
The Kevin Field that we saw perform was quite extraordinary. It is hard to put into words but he approached the keyboards with such confidence and invention that was almost supernatural. At times I thought that I heard hints of Hamp Hawes or the modern Europeans (rich, spacious and original), but mostly I heard Kevin Field, alive to the moment and brim full of fresh ideas. His voice is definitely post Herbie Hancock and it engages with the realities of the post millennial world. This is a voice that marks Kevin Field out as an original stylist.
The numbers were all originals and while a few were written for his recent ‘Warners’ album ‘Field of Vision’ (shortlisted for a Tui award), many were new to me. They came bundled up with stories and anecdotes and to see Kevin in the role of raconteur was delightful. When commenting on his second number of the evening ‘Complex Blue’, he told us that it was written with a Simply Red cover-band in mind. “Complex Blue could be a new type of Simply Red cover-band who would play everything but Simply Red tunes, thus giving them a broader repertoire”. The hilariously improbable tall stories and the incredible music made this a perfect evening of Jazz. I asked Kevin later if he had plans to record this new material and he indicated that he would be doing so shortly. If he captures half of what we experienced it will be well worth buying.
Cameron McArthur (bass) has experienced a meteoric rise to prominence and he has achieved this while still a student at the Auckland University School of Jazz. I can clearly recall his first tentative performance steps. Confidence, chops and musicality have become the default for him now and he is increasingly accompanying our best musicians. Stephen Thomas has been studying drums and performing at a high level for some time and he was an obvious choice for Kevin. We are seeing more and more of what he is capable of and as with Cameron there will be a lot more yet. This band works exceptionally well together and while Kevin is clearly in control as leader there is plenty of room for the others to shine.
In guest slot was Dixon Nacey. A guitarist who attracts superlatives and accolades as few others do. He always injects that special ‘Dix’ quality into a performance; brilliance tinged with unalloyed happiness.
Sometimes when the stars align the gods of music breathe extra life into a performance. When this occurs, those who are there feel incredibly fortunate and vow never to forget it. This was such a night.
Because this was the main CJC – Jazz April gig night the audience learned what the month stands for, who’s involved and why it is important. Everyone was challenged to do three things, (1) visit and ‘like’ the JJA Jazz April pages and International Jazz Day site (2) bring one or more friends to future gigs and spread the word (3) Hug and thank a Jazz musician tonight and in the following days. By sharing and growing this wonderful music we will see it survive.
It is always great to see the renowned tenor player Brian Smith performing in the intimate space of the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) and whenever he plays older and newer fans turn up to see him. While it is tempting to refer to him as being ‘seasoned’ or ‘an elder statesman’, any notion of that has a built-in redundancy factor. He is a ball of energy and ageless on the bandstand.
Brian has played with so many great artists over his long career that it would chew up serious bandwidth to enumerate even half of them. Being a member of the Maynard Ferguson band and numerous other well-known line-ups saw him playing across the world. His co-led genre stretching ‘Nucleus’ (with Ian Carr) won the top European band award at the Montreux Jazz Festival (1970). Since returning to New Zealand to settle (if a musician ever really does that) he has worked on numerous film scores and put out some well received (and commercially successful) albums.
Accompanying him on the 10th April gig were Kevin Field (piano), Kevin Haines (bass) and Frank Gibson Jr (drums). With this particular lineup he could dive deeper into his favoured repertoire of Hard Bop Jazz standards (with a few originals thrown in). When ‘Footprints’ was played Brian Smith approached the warhorse in an interestingly oblique manner; giving us a tune that contained the merest hint of familiarity and a large dollop of brooding mystery. This was a highpoint of the sets and a good example of how good musicians can extract new wine from old bottles. The introduction began with a very personalised statement on tenor which caught the attention while offering no insight into where it was going. Then out of nowhere the melody was stated, only to disappear as quickly as it had appeared; merged in probing re-haromonisations and oblique explorations.
The tunes of Wayne Shorter have remained perennially popular with Jazz audiences and they are constantly being reworked and updated. I have heard two versions of ‘Footprints’ performed in recent weeks and both mixed the familiar with the the new. These re-workings of familiar tunes have always been the bread & butter of Jazz and in the case of reworked ‘Footprints,’ Wayne Shorter sets the bar high. I saw him perform this in Verona, Italy a few years ago and after laying out a pathway to the melody he suddenly plunged us into a world of elision; forcing us to fill in the gaps as we listened. A familiar tune floating between chasms of crystalline emptiness; a tune more implied than played. I have posted a You Tube clip of the Brian Smith band playing ‘Footprints’ at the 10th April CJC gig.
Accompanying Brian on piano was Kevin Field who is so well-respected about town that he is a real drawcard in his own right. I have often mentioned his ability to add value to any band he plays with and this night was no exception (A post on his April 17th gig will be up shortly). On bass was Kevin Haines who is not only the most experienced bass player about town but one of the best. lastly there was Frank Gibson Jr on drums who is another respected and talented veteran Jazz identity about Auckland. Frank Gibson Jr, Kevin Field and Kevin Haines have all appeared recently leading groups. These guys will always impress and they proved that on this gig.
This particular CJC gig fitted in perfectly with the wider Jazz April ethos which is about profiling Jazz & Improvised music in all its diversity. The month had kicked off with a co-led trio featuring guitar, bass and drums (all original music by Samsom/Nacey/Haines), A few days later we saw Nathan Haines at the ‘Q’ Theatre (a tentet complete with French horns and vibes) – a few days after that the Auckland ‘Jazz & Blues club’ featured a gig with a Caribbean-Jazz ensemble. The Kevin Field trio on the 17th. Auckland benefits from a rich sonic diversity and clubs like the CJC, The Auckland Jazz & Blues Club and Vitamin ‘S’ deserve our ongoing support. The month of Jazz April will conclude with two avant-garde bands (one local, the ‘Kparty Spoilers of Utopia’) at Vitamin ‘S’ on the 23rd at 8pm and one visiting from Australia (Song FWAA) which is a CJC gig on the 24th at 8pm. This is a cornucopia of riches and not one of these gigs should be missed. Note: The Vitamin ‘S’ gig is the last chance to see John Bell vibist, who departs for Korea on Thursday.
Who: the Brian Smith Quartet – Brian Smith (tenor), Kevin Field (piano), Kevin Haines (bass), Frank Gibson Jr (drums)
After the success of ‘Poets Embrace’ it is hardly surprising that Nathan Haines new album ‘Vermillion Skies’ has climbed so high in the charts. The album was the fifth best selling New Zealand album the last time I looked and this happened within days of its release by Warners. For a modern Jazz album anywhere to achieve this success is unprecedented. This has followed hot on the heals of ‘Poets Embrace’ winning the Tui Awards ‘Best Jazz Album of 2012’.
Anyone who knows Nathan will hardly be surprised to learn of his obsessive commitment to the last two projects. His approach has been Ghandalf like, as it involved a long period of woodshedding, an epic journey in search of analogue equipment and a reconciliation with the gods of past times. While Poets Embrace plumbed the depths of Coltrane’s vocabulary, Vermillion Skies has opened up the perspective and tapped into the wider ethos of 1950’s Jazz. What Vermillion Skies is not however is a cosy journey down memory lane.
It is about examining the epiphanies and sounds of the 50’s era and interpreting them with modern sensibilities. With the exception of one number, these are fresh compositions; a happy synthesis between past and present. Deliberately retro though is the analogue recording methodology. A one-take take approach and sound augmented by the use of reverb (not using a plate).
I followed the Vermillion Skies project from its inception and because I was in contact with the musicians via Face Book it was not difficult to keep abreast of progress. Alain Koetsier was returning from China, Nathan was returning from the UK and to use ‘GCSB speak’ there was a heightened level of ‘chatter’ about town.
Their fist gig was at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) and at this point the tunes had never been aired before. Some tunes were in embryonic form and they had only been rehearsed briefly. We were a focus group Nathan informed us; musical crash test dummies. The audience loved the gig but they knew that even better was to come.
A month later the musicians and veteran London Producer Mike Patto headed into the York Street studios to cut the tracks. The album was recorded in around two days of mostly live takes. To obtain an authentic reverb sound Nathan used the studio car-park, which is a huge cavernous brick building, resembling a stripped out Victorian cathedral. The neighbours in the posh Edwardian apartments next to the studio lacked the cool to appreciate this innovation. The reverberating horns made one of them complain (in tears) as the fulsome brassy sounds echoed across Parnell rise.
A few weeks after the recording Nathan contacted me and asked if I would interview him at York Street for the promotional video. I turned up a few hours before the appointed time and asked Jeremy (who runs the studio) if I could hear the masters. Hearing the material in its final form and in that space was a revelation. I quizzed Jeremy and Nathan about aspects of recording. I learned that the piano was isolated in a booth, but the drums and horn section were in the larger space with the saxophone. When it came to the vocals the band went home; those tracks were recorded without onlookers.
Nathan has sung on a previous album but he readily admits that it is not his comfort zone. It interested me that he didn’t have the same degree of confidence in his singing abilities as his voice is simply superb. In my view it compares favourably with Mark Murphy’s. The charts are well written and the hooks in ‘Navareno Street’ are so powerful that I am still hearing them in my head weeks later.
Interviewing Nathan Haines is a pleasure as he is knowledgeable, articulate and expansive when prompted. Because he is across his topic he can talk at length about the minutia of the project, but what was surprising was they way he allowed me to discuss his vulnerabilities. His warmth and often self-effacing commentary gave the interview an added depth.
On April 9th the official launch occurred at the ‘Q’ Theatre in Queen Street Auckland. The tickets sold out quickly. The theatre is well suited for such a performance as it has the space, sight-lines and well padded surfaces. This enabled good sound control. Unlike the CJC gig, there were twelve musicians appearing (not quite the full album line-up which had a 15 piece band on one track). The first half featured the basic quartet with a few guest artists such as brother Joel Haines on guitar and two others. Joel can channel the rock god thing while fitting perfectly into a Jazz ensemble. His sound is modern but his lines are Jazz. Also on stage was John Bell the multi talented vibist. John Bell’s contribution added texture and depth. He does not rely on heavy vibrato, favouring a more minimalist approach. I reflected that I had last seen him in a decidedly avant-garde setting. This was far from Albert Ayler but as always his musicianship impressed. Mike Booth (lead trumpet in the horn section) also appeared in the first half. Mike Booth has a clean tone on trumpet and flugal and is the go to guy for anything involving horn sections or Jazz orchestras. His sight-reading skills are as impressive as his performance skills.
by John Chapman
In the second set, a six piece horn section joined in and the arranger Wayne Senior conducted the ten piece band. Wayne Senior is part of the history of New Zealand Jazz and he is especially renowned for his work with TV and Radio orchestras. His ensemble arranging is legendary. The six piece horn-section was two French horns, Two trumpet/flugal horns, a trombone and a bass trombone.
I love nonets and tentets as they have a big sound while leaving room for a band to breathe. The textural qualities of this tentet and the rich voicings were particularly noteworthy. ‘Frontier West’ (by Nathan Haines) left the audience gasping in delight as the ‘Birth of the Cool’ vibe in modern clothing gave us a rare treat. Such wonders are seldom heard in this country. The last item (and the only tune not written by Nathan) was the aching beautiful ballad ‘Lament’ by J. J. Johnson. The best known version of this is on the ‘Miles Ahead’ album. That Gil Evans arrangement involves a 20 piece orchestra. Wayne Senior re-arranged this for tentet and the results are amazing. Nathan caught every nuance of the tune as he built his improvisation around the rich voicings. I am in no doubt that the ‘Lament’ on ‘Vermillion Skies’ compares favourably with the best historic versions (Miles, JJ Johnson, Rahsaan Roland Kirk).
The performances on the album and at the various gigs have all been different. This is because it is Jazz where ‘you never play anything the same way once’ and because there have been personnel changes along the way. As leader and player, Nathan Haines always seems to squeeze that bit extra out of each performance. His intense focus on the tenor of late has been good for him and good for us as his approach to this material while fluid, never looses its edge. He is arriving at that enviable place where people will say after one bar, “oh….that has to be Nathan Haines”.
Kevin Field and Nathan go back a long way and their chemistry is evident. Kevin is the pianist of choice for many local and visiting bands. As an accompanist he never looses sight of what an accompanist is there for. He can shine during the piano solos, but his fills, deftly placed chords and subtle comping speak to his other strengths. It was often necessary for him to keep out-of-the-way of the other instruments (such as the horn section which occupied a register that he would normally utilise). Drummer Alain Koetsier returned to New Zealand for the recording and his drum chops and musicality had not subsided during his sabbatical away from Jazz performance. He is a fine musician and sorely missed on the Auckland scene now that he resides in China. The bass player Ben Turua is also rock solid on the recording. I have heard him play often but never better than here. Sadly he has since departed for Sydney, where he will no doubt flourish as do many Kiwi Jazz expats.
The departure of Alain Koetsier and Ben Turua left a gap and so the original recording lineup was amended for the gigs to include Stephen Thomas on drums and Cameron MacArthur on bass. I cannot speak highly enough of Stephen Thomas. He has been on the scene for a few years and if anyone was going to fill Alain’s shoes it would be him. He is a hard-working young drummer who demonstrates his passion and skill every time he sits at the kit. The other replacement was Cameron McArthur who is still a student at Auckland university. This was a big step up for him and he took it with ease. His bass solo at the ‘Q’ Theatre brought a huge applause and like Stephen Thomas we can expect great things of him.
This album marks another high watermark in New Zealand Jazz as it is brave enough to confront the past without being captured by it. Nathan Haines is heading back to London in a few weeks and we can’t begrudge him that. His ascendency offshore is our gain and we should never forget that these two great albums have been recorded in Auckland, New Zealand and with Kiwi musicians.
Who: The Nathan Haines Band. Album – Nathan Haines (tenor sax, vocals, leader, composer). Kevin Field (piano), Ben Turua (bass) , Alain Koetsier (drums), Joel Haines (guitar – 2,5), Leon Stenning (guitars -5), Mickey Utugawa (Drums – 5), Mike Booth (lead trumpet, flugal), Paul Norman (trumpet, flugal), David Kay (French horn), Simon Williams (French horn), Haydn Godfrey (trombone), John Gluyas (bass trombone), John Bell (vibraphone 2-5), ‘Big’ Cody Wilkington (steel guitar, vocals, percussion – 5), Wayne senior (arranger, session/launch gig conductor). ‘Q’ Theatre and later gigs replace Koetsier with Stephen Thomas (drums), replace Ben Turua with Cameron McArthur (bass).