The Inflatable Ram ~ ShekBand Ukraine

Some stories play out quietly while others are thrown into sharp relief against a tapestry of upheaval. ShekBand is from Ukraine, and as missiles fly about them, it is tempting to place their project solely within the context of the unprovoked invasion. That would be a mistake. While the horror is inescapable, there is a bigger story at play here and ShekBand tells that story eloquently through their music. It is not usual to see musicians this young touring and recording, but their achievements are a testament to their dedication, a supportive home environment and the quality of a Ukraine Jazz education. Wars destroy, musicians create and the human spirit is bigger than war. This is an album to inspire; it is a beacon of hope.

Yesterday I wished Shekband’s drummer Maksym Shekera a happy birthday. He turned 12 years old. Along with his sister, Anna (14) and Artem (16) they are about to leave Ukraine. Their first album The Inflatable Ram has just been released and they have a tour of Europe ahead of them. The itinerary will take them to Warsaw, Berlin, Leipzig then back to Warsaw and on to Lithuania. They have been looking forward to getting on the road. Attend a gig if you can.

The album is filled with delights and as the respected bass player, Jeff Ballard commented, “All the compositions are well thought out. They are full of invention and cover a very large range of expression – very dramatic and sensitive qualities. Great stuff.”  Among the 9 tunes on the album, you will hear original compositions, Ukrainian folk references and their arrangement of a Wayne Shorter Standard.

Having fled Kyiv without their instruments they sought practice instruments along their escape route: old drums, town hall pianos, gaffer taped double bases. Emerging from air-raid shelters they focused on the tunes and to tweaked the arrangements. They eventually found a haven in the southwest, but they must now undertake some perilous journeys. Last week they drove back to Kyiv and were able to retrieve some instruments. It was a dangerous place to be. Today they face the missiles again as they drive towards the Polish border. 

Credit is also due to Patricia Johnston, co-owner of Taklit Artist and Concert Management in France. She came across these musicians during the 7VirtualJazzClub competition and her company awarded them an honourable mention. That company is behind the release on HGBS Blue/Black Forest Sounds. Patricia and I are fellow 7VJC judges and so I offered my assistance. The English version of the official press release is my small contribution. Yours will be to listen to the album and when physical copies are available please purchase one. From today it will be available on all major streaming platforms. Search for The Inflatable Ram or ShekBand on Spotify, Tidal, AppleTunes etc. Give likes, share and post comments. With our help, this will be the first step on a long and rewarding journey.

Anna Shekera: piano, chant – Artem Shekera: contrabasse, chant – Maksym Shekera: Batterie, chant 

For more information on the plight of Ukrainian musicians during the invasion, refer to my two earlier Ukraine posts which are available on this site.

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

The Painter / Far Star

During recent months, a number of jazz projects have occupied my time and in particular the 7VirtualJazzClub competition. I am one of the judges. Both albums came to my attention via that platform, as the Tobias Meinhart band had an entry last year and Gilad Hekselman won four years earlier. 

Both albums reflect our interesting times as both were conceived during the lockdowns; they are uplifting and filled with promise. They inspire. Improvising musicians are torchbearers, reminding us of what could be and how unstoppable the creative spirit is. Even when the times are sorely testing.

The Painter: Tobias Meinhart 

This is an all-star band and with these musicians on board, it’s hardly surprising that it is such a great album. I came upon the band recently while judging the 7VirtualJazzClub competition. I was listening blind and the minute I heard the bass opening on White Bear I thought, oh, that could be Matt Penman and it was. I thought it might even be a Penman tune, but I learned later that Meinhart composed the tune with Penman in mind.

The German-born Meinhart has long been a significant presence on the New York scene. He attracts great players and this album features a dream lineup. Eden Ladin on keys, Matt Penman on bass and Obed Calvaire on drums; with guests, Ingrid Jensen on trumpet and Charles Altura on guitar; each one bringing their best to this project.

The compositions draw on many sources; a dumpling house, a koan, a painter, a baseball player, a meteor, racial injustice, Shep and Jarrett, The influences may be diverse but all resonate and invite deeper listening. White Bear, for example, is irresistible, a torrent of joyous invention, killing melodic lines, heart-stopping rhythms, and moments of surprise and all drawing our attention beyond the underlying complexity.

The tunes are Meinhart’s, with the exception of the lovely standard Estate (Martino). Estate is a duet with Ladin and I was reminded of the timeless Art Pepper duets with George Cables. There was a suggestion in the phrasing but especially so in the tone or intonation; a warm summery caress. A modern take on an old tune and done respectfully. The Last Dance is a tribute to Impulse, Jarrett and Shep. It is especially beguiling, a story told obliquely, it is perfect. 

There are many moods explored here, some delicate, some touching on the mystical, others capturing exuberance. The liner notes refer to a painterly or synesthetic approach and that is evident throughout. It is a feature of contemporary jazz to hold such conversations, reaching across art forms. Such a conversation is realised perfectly here.

Tobias Meinhart: tenor & soprano saxophones, alto flute, voice

Ingrid Jensen: trumpet 2 & 6

Charles Altura: guitar 1 & 10

Eden Ladin: piano, Rhodes, ARP Ensemble

Matt Penman: Bass

Obed Calvaire: drums

The album was released by Sunnyside Records and it is available now on Bandcamp, in digital form or on compact disk 

 

Far Star: Gilad Hekselman

When I was offered a review copy of ‘Far Star’ I jumped at it. Gilad Hekselman stands at the forefront of contemporary jazz guitarists. His discography is impressive, with a string of acclaimed albums and each one encompassing a widening cohort of fans. He is a guitarists guitarist, but he remains accessible. He possesses an extraordinary technical facility, but it is never deployed unnecessarily. Above all, he is adventurous and he brings his audiences along for the ride. 

It is a solo album with guests although not billed as such. The genesis of the album tells its own tale, a collection of tunes originally composed as vehicles for a live band became a different type of project, one born out of pandemic isolation. Creatives rise to such challenges and Hekselman certainly did. He plays a dizzying array of instruments here, guitars, keys, bass (and deploys effects). The leader’s contributions were recorded in Israel; some guests were recorded in other countries. 

pic/Josh Goleman

The drummer Eric Harland appears on 5 of the tracks and his addition was a masterstroke. He is always in lockstep but subtly manages to play with time. On track 5, Magic Chord, he took my breath away. In all, there are nine musicians appearing on the album although often fleetingly so. The gifted Israeli pianist Shai Maestro plays keys on track 2 and along with Nomok, is a co-producer.  

The opening track ‘Long Way From Home’ is a stunner. It begins with a pretty whistled melodic line. As the piece unfolds subtle complexities are introduced, and this simple beguiling melody morphs into a vehicle for exultant improvisation. Again, Harland is extraordinary, Hekselman the guitarist plus multi-instrumentalist is beyond belief. 

This is an album with many facets and it is an album that listeners will return to again and again; it has so much to offer, joy – and above all hope. The title track is the most reflective and wistfully so. There is Americana and there is edginess and the track titled ‘Cycles’ is pure and unalloyed beauty. When an artist produces an album this good, you have to marvel, and you wonder, how could he ever top that. 

Gilad Hekselman: guitars, keys, bass

Eric Harland: drums (1,2,3,5,6

Shai Maestro: co-production, keys (2)

Nathan Schram: viola, violin (4)

Oren Hardy: bass: (4)

Alon Benjamini: drums, percussion (4)

Nomrok: co-production, keys (7) 

Amir Bresler: co-production, drums, percussion (7)

Ziv Ravitz: drums (8)

Release date 13 May 2022 by Edition Records giladhekselman.bandcamp.com

Another Dance: Nock/Stuart/Wilson/Zwartz

This is an ensemble of seasoned observers operating from their shared vantage point of empathy and humanism. Jazz at its best reflects the world about it and it never shirks from truth-telling. To achieve this, primal emotions must be invoked. Something to cut through the memes, words, pretty tunes or familiar licks that inhabit our everyday life. It is not that the aforementioned attributes lack validity, but there are many a dances we can choose. This dance invites us to remember, to do better and to pay our dues in the turbulent world that we helped create.

It is unsurprising that this particular group locates the stark beauty hidden among the ashes and the ebbing floodwaters. The mood is darker than in ‘This World’ but in spite of that, the album resonates with hope. It is the hope that follows acknowledgement. This is an album for our times and it touches on the rawness of the human predicament and it does so unflinchingly. To add further context, it was cut in the midst of the epidemic; surreal and unexpected chaos that has characterised our existence of late. 

The tunes are all originals composed for the album and it feels like a collaboration in the fullest sense, musicians attuned to each other and to the musical possibilities unfolding ahead.

Deception (MP3)

For example, the intro to ‘Deception’ opens with a single chord, echoed quickly by another. The latter is more percussive, stinging, beautiful, and as those chords decay the mood is established with a series of sparse utterances. This is one of Mike Nock’s trademark devises, to beguile without overwhelming, to explore from an oblique viewpoint, then land you deep inside the tune. When you become aware of the others, everyone is so in sync that it takes your breath away. The process is seamless. This is the product of good writing and great musicianship, with Nock’s compositional input particularly evident throughout (especially so in ‘Winter’).

Winter (MP3)

Any of Julien Wilson’s fans will be delighted with his performance here. Although practically vibrato-less (as modern saxophonists are), he captures a Getz like warmth; on occasion his upper register breaking into cries or sighs, tugging at the heartstrings.

I introduced the album to a friend who was floored by its beauty. Wilson, Stuart and Zwartz react so instinctively to Nock’s phrasing and subtle comping. Adding depth, subtlety, texture and gently playing with the time. Zwartz and Stuart are the go-to musicians for an album like this and without them, the album would be the poorer. However overworked the phrase is, this group are rightly referred to as a supergroup. ‘This World’ attracted accolades and award nominations. ‘Another Dance’ is on the same trajectory.  

Mike Nock (piano), Hamish Stuart (drums), Julien Wilson (saxophone, effects), Jonathan Zwartz (bass)

The album is produced by Lionshare Records and is available in digital format on Bandcamp.

There is good quality streaming available upon purchase, and downloads are available in either standard CD format or the higher quality HD 24bit/96khz Audiophile Quality. I downloaded the Audiophile quality album and for those who have good equipment, it is a must. I have seldom heard such astonishing sound definition. It is like being in the studio and hearing the instruments breathe.

lionsharecords.bandcamp.com

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

Footnote: I hadn’t realised that the tune credits were embedded in each individual track listing. In a message exchange with Julien Wilson later he pointed that out. When I wrote that I detected Mike Nock’s hand in the composition ‘Winter’, I was both wrong and right. ‘Winter’ was composed by Jonathan Zwartz as a tribute Nock’s beautiful ‘Ondas’ from the ECM album of the same name. What a great tribute to a seminal album.

Part Two: Ukraine ~ A Jazz Story

It took me a minute to recognise what I was looking at. It was a picture of a burnt piano after a missile attack. No musician should ever need to post a photo of a bombed piano but Lyudmila Shekera did. It is now her Facebook banner. A symbol of defiance, loss, and perhaps of hope. While instruments can be targeted, music is impervious to shelling.

However, there are no photos of her family’s sewing business, which lies in ruins after a Russian missile fell. Non-combatants, the elderly, heavily pregnant women and babies, are mere collateral damage in the minds of the aggressors.  

This is a continuation of my earlier post because the story is ongoing. The families I wrote of have yet to escape the horrors of the invasion, and the journey across Ukraine is fraught with difficulty. It is snowing and bitter cold. Bombs and missile attacks dog their every step. At last writing, they had formed a small convoy and were moving from town to town. Sometimes they were able to stop and Lyudmila would dutifully message me. It is hard to sleep in an air-raid shelter. Relatives who lived through the blitz told me that.  

I am continuously anxious for their safety, but there is something else besides. I am captivated by the other stories, those of happier times.  And I love hearing about Ukraine’s musical history. Lyudmila is keen to share these stories and we should listen. Telling stories is how we survive and listening to them is an act of solidarity. They are essential for her and necessary for us, especially while the fabric of Ukrainian culture is under attack.

There are pictures of the Family factory in happier times, the Shekera children being shown how the sewing machines work. There is nothing left of the factory now as Russian shells razed it to the ground.

The best person to flesh out this narrative is Lyudmila. She speaks many languages but her English has a poetic resonance. It reminds me of what a critic said of the author Joseph Conrad. ‘Born in Ukraine, he didn’t learn English until he was in his twenties. He thought in his native tongue but wrote beautiful English prose’.  

Lyudmila wrote: ‘Girls, happy spring holiday! As my good friend from the local defence says, the weather is for us – the targets are not visible, the saboteurs leave traces. But you know how much I love snow. Since it is a holiday I will start my morning, not with coffee; every decent young lady has to throw a cosmetic bag into an anxious suitcase and find time to use it. Everything will be for Ukraine’. 

The above post appeared on Lyudmilas’s Facebook page in Cyrillic script. I pushed translate and gained a sense of it, I asked her to render it into English and she did. The tone is that of a haiku or an imagist poem, each word conveying a subtle subdivision of mood. And as she reassures her children and friends, she channels her anger into something of greater utility. Gentle defiance wrapped up in nostalgia. It is a plea to remember and hold the joy close before it sinks from view. 

Musicians never abandon their instruments, but what was previously unthinkable, is now overrun by necessity. For musicians, the lack of instruments brings another calamity, they can’t practice. To non-musicians, this might appear a small thing, but I assure you that it is not.  

Lyudmila: ‘Oleksii Proschenkov our music teacher and Anastasia his spouse joined us in Fastiv. But then Fastiv was attacked too. Russian troops keep trying to drag the city of Kyiv into a ring of human catastrophe, cowardly destroying everything in their path with shelling and tanks. We moved south, first to Vinnitsya where a Jazz festival is often held. Friends gave us a place to sleep. It was our first night without air raid alarms and bomb shelters. Then the airport was bombed, destroyed, so we decided to find a small town without important infrastructure. 

Our friend who organises the Vinnetsya Jazz Festival (and an opera festival) recommended Tulchyn, the motherland of a famous Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych who wrote Carol of the Bells. He founded a music school there a hundred years ago, (and when we arrived) they kindly opened the doors for us. Leontovych was killed by the NKVD in 1921 (Stalin’s secret police). 

They had a fantastic grand piano and drum set, and some friends even found us a broken double bass which the defence officer fixed with striped yellow defence tape. It was very kind of the Chief Manager of Culture Ms Natalia Tretyakova and Mr Vasyl Fedorivych the director of Tulchyn Music school to let us practice there. 

Mykola Leontovych

My children, ShekBand, held a concert in the hall before we moved south again. In Ukraine, that particular music school and the composer/founder Mykola Leontovych are symbols of freedom. Now we have to protect freedom once again.

It is important to be busy so that we don’t go crazy. War kills not only the body but the soul. My children keep working on their music arrangements, making a website. They want to be ready for future contests and Jazz festivals. It helps us to stay brave and to find strength. Ahead of us, gigs are waiting in Leipzig, Munich, Dublin and Nice.

It is safer now we are in the south but we can’t cross the border. Our teacher is not allowed, so we will stay awhile. We will check the news each morning so we can decide. In case of big danger, of course, we must leave to save our children. But my heart is here. 

I pray for peace and a strong beautiful Ukraine.

Many of us watch helplessly from afar and do what we can. We write and we donate cash to Ukraine Rescue, UNICEF,  Medicines Sans Frontiers, Ukraine Animal Rescue. And if like me, your childhood was filled with cold war dread, you feel that familiar nemeses return. A madman with bombs and chemicals is on the loose again.  

To Lyudmila Shekera, her husband Alexander and ShekBand; who are Maksym, Artem & Anna. The Jazz world sends love and best wishes. Please stay safe.

Like Shekband on YouTube

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

The Invasion of Ukraine ~ A Jazz Story

John I am in bomb shelter and have received advice to leave as soon as can. I want you to have these photos and my story to tell the world  – one teacher can grow a new generation’.

The teacher who the writer alludes to is Alexey Proshenkov and as I write this his exact whereabouts are unknown. Ukrainian men under sixty are unable to leave. He is a gifted Jazz educator. Lyudmila Shekera (who left me the above message), is the mother of three talented children who are musicians. All are being tutored by Alexey and the results of that tuition are noteworthy.

Lyudmila’s children are young. Two began lessons at the age of five, the other at age three. The above was Lyudmila’s last message to me.  I have not heard from her recently and I worry about her every minute. 

The invasion of Ukraine caught most of us off-guard and it has severe consequences for the entire world. It is a living nightmare for those in Ukraine. What I have written arises from online interactions with Jazz industry people and musician friends from the Ukraine region. I write this at their request. 

Everyone and everything in Ukraine is adversely impacted by the invasion. It is an unimaginable horror in technicolour, playing out in front of their eyes. With missiles flying and landing amidst the civilian populations, communication is difficult and sporadic. For them, more immediate concerns must take precedence. I have omitted some names and altered a few details at my friends’ request. They are defiant and brave, but it is prudent to be cautious when confronted with a vengeful and tech-savvy superpower. 

I have long had contact with Baltic and East European Jazz people, but my contacts list grew bigger while judging the 7 Virtual Jazz Club International Competition. As the New Zealand judge, I was placed among a group of European and American judges: journalists, publicists, broadcasters, jazz educators and industry professionals. We introduced ourselves, participated in a Zoom call, read each other’s bios and friended each other on Facebook. Message comments would light up day and night as we were each oblivious of the other’s time zones. Out of that new friendships grew. 

The entries were of a high standard and they came from every corner of the earth. I loved seeing entries from countries traditionally regarded as jazz outliers such as Belarus, Latvia, Ukraine, Estonia and Taiwan. Non-aligned multilateral diplomacy was at work, Jazz style. 

The Jazz community is highly interconnected and as the covid peak faded, Jazz festivals reopened throughout Eastern Europe. Events were advertised, albums proliferated and the old rhythms of life seemed possible. Ukraine in particular has a growing Jazz community. Sadly, that is now under attack and the creative arts will soon struggle to function. Gigs and livelihoods are disappearing as the inhumane bombardment wrecks havoc.  

In the days following the invasion, I contacted my Ukrainian Jazz friends, not to talk music, but to see how they were. The initial reaction was disbelief. That was soon replaced by anger and resolute defiance. I asked fellow judge Anna Russkevich if she was safe and thankfully she was. I asked her a day later if she was leaving and she informed me that she couldn’t, as a semi-paralysed parent is in her care. She has little option but to stay as the horror descends. Cluster bombs and other munitions regarded as unlawful are falling on schools and civilian populations in that region.

At another Ukrainian friend’s suggestion, I made contact with a Jazz promoter in Kyiv, who in turn suggested that I talk to a musician on the other side of the city. That interaction was no longer possible as the musician is now active in the citizen’s defence militia. The idea of a peace-loving musician having to put down his instrument and pick up a weapon filled me with unutterable sadness. I was saddened, but I understood.

Some sent me clips of missiles destroying city buildings, the footage of a missile attack on a respected university is particularly horrifying. Nothing symbolises authoritarian aggression quite like an attack on culture and learning. I have many pictures but I have been asked to hide the geolocations. Screenshots will tell the story just as well. 

Lyudmila is the mother of three extraordinary young Jazz musicians. She speaks eight languages (including Russian). Her family were holed up in a forest hotel outside of Kyiv with forty others, mainly musicians. Instruments had been left behind as there was little room for anything other than clothes and toiletries. 

 Our exchanges have been extensive and often heartbreaking. She was keen for us to continue messaging as she said it gave her hope. It told her that the world was listening. She and her husband Alexander have sacrificed a lot to nurture their children’s talent and recently that has borne fruit. The children’s band, ShekBand, has a recording contract. I will post a clip or two. 

The recording was organised by a fellow 7VJC judge Patricia Johnson. She is the co-founder of Taklit, a successful publishing and production company based in France. She has worked tirelessly on this project and thanks to her efforts an album will be out shortly. Patricia is not someone to mess about and it would take more than an invasion to stop her. She is irrepressible and it is impossible not to like her. When the album’s out we should all click through and listen, and more importantly, we should buy it. It will likely be a digital release. The project can best be characterised as the future voice of Ukrainian Jazz. It is a marker for promise and hope.

It is uncertain if the family will be able to escape as the roads are clogged, a curfew is in place and petrol is scarce. There is also constant and indiscriminate shelling. Patricia and I have been on Facetime calls and have messaged frequently as this unfolds. She told me a few hours ago that accommodation has been arranged for Lyudmila in Poland. My fervent hope is that this Jazz loving family reach their safe haven. They symbolise much of what the world needs right now. Music may not be front of mind in the heat of an invasion, but it should be. In music resides hope and sanity. 

JL32: Lyudmila, I have been worried about you, we care. Are you OK?

LS: Thank you for checking. You and your country’s support gives me hope.

JL32: You have left Kyiv?

LS: We escaped Kyiv. I am now near (name of town withheld) at a forest hotel, with family, husband, kids and friends. We give shelter to music families and their friends. I stay in touch with Patricia from Taklit. She has all info about the ShekBand album which my children have completed. She helps me a lot. On the last evening before the invasion, we had completed recording and mastering the files for the album. 

Now we have a dream which will help us to be strong. You can use my name, my children’s and their music tutor. My children, study Jazz improvisation under Mr Alexey Proschenkov at State Music School #4 Kyiv. Siblings Artem. Anna & Maksym Shekera, Playing together as ShekBand since 2015. 

JL32: Hi again. Is all well with you?  I fear that the invasion is intensifying.

LS: While it is night here, I can tell you some stories. We gave shelter to some Turkish Journalists and they spread the word and now we get journalists from around the world to stay here as they pass through. We are happy to do that because it helps the world to learn the truth. They are very brave to visit Kyiv right now. John, please use my pictures but just make sure there is no geolocation. It is safer for us.

 In Kyiv, my children have been studying music since five years old. The younger Maksym since he was three. He wanted to be with his brother and sister. My husband Alexander is also a jazz musician, but says, that is his hobby: he loves guitar, plays and sings always when we meet with friends. He is the soul of the company. He works hard every day to give a chance for our kids to have the best teacher. Sometimes he plays and puts compositions up on YouTube anonymously. Alexey Proschenkov the children’s teacher has his own teaching method, he teaches all modern trends, history, composition, children love him. His students win a lot of Ukrainian and international competitions. 

One of my sons had been preparing to go to University this year, where my husband and I were students. But yesterday, the occupiers bombed the TV Tower of Kyiv and the University which was next to it. It was the first time that I cried.

The university where the children learn, bombed

JL32: It is so dreadful and heart-wrenching.

LS: I go and make some food. Thank you for listening. 

Lyudmila and I had many more exchanges over the next few days and Patricia and I talked for an hour via Facetime about their plight. Over the course of those four days, she sent me 73 pictures. Mainly of her children and their interesting but interrupted Jazz journey. They connect me to the horror unfolding, but they also speak to hope. 

Footnote: Minutes before posting this I learned that the family had taken to the road again in a convoy of four vehicles. Because it was proving too difficult to reach Poland, they were now heading for Romania. At each stop, missiles force them to move again. And a piece of good news. Today the family learned that ShekBand has been invited to play in Dublin.

Give Likes to ShekBand. Let the music play on. Please let the music play on.  

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

Alex Ventling ~ Nurturing the Creative Spirit

Interview January 2022

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

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

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

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

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

Trondheim

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

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

JL32: So where did your musical journey begin? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Brad Mehldau now teaches there also)

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

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

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

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

Jl32: How do you see the trio evolving?

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

JL32: So do you enjoy playing free?

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

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

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

JL32: Open exploration and embracing hybridity?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JL32: And has that approach changed?

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

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

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

JL32: As in they’ve internalised the ideas?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AV: And those forms will always be underdogs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

JL32: Learning to be the observer perhaps?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JL32: Where will you surf?

AV: Tawheranui.

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

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

Andrea Keller ~ Systems Over-Ride

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pause, Reset, Listen

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

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

Jim Langabeer Aotearoa/New Zealand

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

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

From Ethiopia

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

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

French improvisers

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

Improvising on traditional tunes Norway/Finland

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

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

Improvised music from Lahore

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

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

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

Jonathan Crayford Trio Christmas 2021

After a hundred and seven days in isolation, five days of equivocation and an anxious twenty minutes hunting for a parking space, there I was in the front row of the CJC Jazz Club; poised expectantly as the pianist’s fingers were about to descend. It was not as if I had been deprived of music during lockdown because my ears had been exploring a mélange of sounds. In fact, my noise-cancelling headphones had become such a fixture that I felt awkward without them. So what had I missed? I had missed sitting with friends, the hushed buzz of conversation before a first set and that feeling of joy as the lights lower. Live Jazz in an intimate setting is a unique experience, and for me, an addictive one. As Nietzsche said, a life lived without music would be a mistake.

I approach Jonathan Crayford gigs with high expectations and I am never disappointed. Even the occasional gigs in crowded streetside bars yield gold; but in a listening venue with a nice piano, you get the best of him. All good musicians feed on an enthusiastic audience, but with Crayford, there is a discernable x-factor, something quite beyond the ordinary. It is difficult to put into words, and I have approached this on previous occasions. You can see it in his gaze as he leans toward a piano, but it is also in his verbal engagements with an audience. When he talks and plays he is reaching beyond. Beyond a room, a city, a country. Gazing into the cosmos for inspiration.

His talk is peppered with a sense of place, or with improbable events and observations as he weaves them into intimate and odd narratives. A park bench in Central Park, a book read in Paris, a philosophical discussion with a homeless person. Pavement tee-shirt manufacturing — bikes in space! He talks as if new worlds and indeed the cosmos falls easily under his gaze and that is reflected in his music. To make extraordinary music requires seeing beyond the mundane. The interesting thing, however unexpected, is that for a moment, we hear through brand new ears. That is his gift. 

The gig featured a selection of Crayford’s compositions and all were extracted from his acclaimed New York Trio albums on Rattle. Anything from East-West Moon or Dark Light will please and fresh interpretations with a newly configured trio are always welcome. All three musicians were obviously pleased to be gigging again and I know that drummer Ron Samsom and bass player Cameron McArthur relished the opportunity to tackle these works. All three dug in and delivered as I knew they would.

If by some unfortunate oversight you have not heard East-West Moon or the earlier album, Dark Light, you need to remedy that over the Christmas break. I would urge you to bypass the streamers and purchase the album, or at least download it in WAV from www.rattle-records.bandcamp  Support Kiwi music. 

The CJC live trio: Jonathan Crayford (piano), Cameron McArthur (bass), Ron Samsom (drums) 

The NY album trio: Jonathan Crayford (piano), Ben Street (bass), Dan Weiss (drums) – Rattle Records (Rattle Jazz)

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

Seventh House Music ~ Exile / Murmurs ~ Review

‘Seventh House Music’ is a recent imprint of ‘Rattle Records’ and a portal into a specific sub-genre of free improvised music. The parent label, Rattle, occupies a unique place in the cultural life of Aotearoa. It is a natural home for innovative and predominantly Kiwi art music and the new imprint has emerged at an auspicious time. Rattle has just celebrated its thirtieth anniversary. It is a taonga, drawing inspiration from many sources, including that of Aotearoa’s indigenous peoples, and due to the careful curation by Steve Garden, it maps a unique arc of creativity. Or to quote from the website: ‘music born of open-ended boundary-free creativity, new music for open ears.

‘Exiles’ is the first album from Seventh House Music, and presciently, it appeared in the week of Jon Hassell’s passing. It engages the psyche, much like Hassell’s music. Adventurous music like this has been around for some time, but until recently, unaccountably, it has mostly flown under the radar. In fact, this is the second collaboration between Steve Garden and Ivan Zagni. Their first release, ‘Trouble Spots’ came about after a long collaboration and it finally appeared last year. I reviewed it in a post titled ‘Adventurous Spirits’ on this blog site. 

This album feels a lot bolder and it is as compelling as it is confronting. I would not categorise this as ambient music as it demands attention from the first. There is no equivocation here as the album hauls you deep inside its soundscapes and without preamble. You attempt to regain your equilibrium as you perceive the unfamiliar in the familiar. This is a world that Alice would have delighted in, a place where nothing is quite what it seems and where change can happen deceptively. You accustom yourself to a direction only to find that the moon and stars are not where you thought they were. 

There is a narrative flow throughout, but it is not dependant on the known. It laps gently at your feet in First Wave, then drops you unexpectedly into something utterly different. You strain to hear as a distant and disembodied voice urges, 

“you’ve got to stop dreaming at night’ (did I imagine hearing that?).  

Twenty-Three Fifty-Nine becomes a minimalist piano piece with crystalline chords dropping out of the ether. And there is subtle humour as well, as fragments of spoken word mess with your head. As in Collapse, which opens with percussion and delightfully so, and out of the rhythmic shapes emerges competing voices. 

  “I was close to my mother, (pause), in real life I mean”. “The twilight of the gods”

In times of upheaval, there is nothing more cathartic than a truly immersive experience, a place where the complexities of the world can be encountered, upended, then reordered. As always with Rattle productions, the artwork and booklet are pitch-perfect. Whomever UnkleFranc is, he/she should take a bow. Very few labels present such an attractive package and even fewer maintain such unerring consistency over time. If you haven’t checked out expansive psychedelic filmic music, this would be a great place to start. If you are familiar with adventurous music then you won’t need a second invitation. If you have noise-canceling headphones, grab them and push play: you will thank me, I promise.

The album was produced, recorded, and mixed by Garden and Zagni, with some mysterious others credited. It is available on Bandcamp or better yet on CD complete with a comprehensive ArtBook. Seventhhousemusic.bandcamp.com

‘Murmurs’ is the second Alan Brown album to be released in recent months, and like Alargo, it delves into free-improvised sound-sculpted music. While this is a solo album, it features many voices, shaped and curated by a variety of electronic means. One of the devices utilised is an iPad and this willingness to experiment and to push at the boundaries of technology is part of what makes Brown a trailblazer. 

Most importantly, Brown is a master of nuance and although he utilises an array of machines he humanises the effects and instruments at his disposal. There is always a keen acoustic awareness and he evokes a sense of the spaces he occupies. There is wizardry, but it is subservient to mood and texture. It is the continuation of an interesting and evolving journey and one we are lucky to share. 

The layering and looping effects on Murmur are seamless, as themes shimmer and shift. And because the changes flow so naturally, you are always inside the music. Transmission becomes Murmur and so on throughout. And because of these beguiling and subtle shifts, you lose your awareness of time and become more aware of space. I am unsure what the piece titled Halting Problem refers to, but it had me standing on a mountain top and breathing clear crisp air. In effect, these are engagements, and each invites the listener to become a participant. One will find a mountain top, another something entirely different. 

Our world is peppered by ugly social media outbursts, appearing to lurch from crisis to crisis. Because of that, our awareness of human shortcomings increases and we can easily become disoriented, angry or despairing. This album provides respite and applies a balm. It is a call to pause and reflect. It slows our steps and guides us to our better selves, and out of that, refreshed, we are the better for it. 

Listen and purchase from seventhhousemusic.bandcamp.com 

Rob Luft UK Guitarist ~ Interview

One of the few pleasures of lockdown is that it has afforded me time to conduct long-form interviews. But while I had the time, the subject of this interview was back touring again and his hectic schedule meant that dates and time zones had to be navigated with precision. Consequently, our pre-interview messaging often occurred during gig breaks. Guitarist Rob Luft is a significant presence on the UK and European Jazz scene. He is articulate and a good storyteller and so transcribing our zoom call has been a pleasure. We talked for nearly two hours. 

It was basically a long-distance hang, and when Jazz people are interviewed they tend to intersperse the geeky stuff with funny asides. This was no exception. For my part, I couldn’t wait to hear about his ECM experience with Manfred Eicher, but the unexpected foray into the joys of Arab music and being alone with Tutankhamun were the icing on the cake. It was never in doubt that Luft’s star would rise and it has risen on the back of sound judgement and hard work. And in aligning himself with astonishing vocalists like Alina Duni he has broadened his horizons. It is unusual to hear a young guitarist embracing thoughtful minimalism but in doing this he has shown real maturity. Under his fingers, less is invariably more.

JL32: Hi Rob, nice to see you again man and thanks for agreeing to an interview when you are so busy gigging.  I know that you had a gig in Oxford last night and were at Ronnie Scotts much of last week, before that on tour in Europe.

Luft: Hi John, good to see you too after a long strange few years. It’s been a while since we last met up. 

JL32. Yes, after your trip to New Zealand in 2016 (see review) we got together in London, first at the Barnes Jazz Club for the launch of Luna Cohens ‘November Skies’ album and then, a year later at Ronnie Scotts where you were playing with Kit Downes.

Luft: And I have played with both since, with Luna on my recent album and with Kit on a gig recently.

JL32: According to your discography you have been very busy since we last spoke. There was your Riser album with Joe Wright (sax),  Joe Webb (keys), Tom McCredie (bass) and Corrie Dick (drums), and then, a follow-up album with the same lineup adding vocalist Luna Cohan and on ‘Flumpit’ Byron Wallen. And over that same period, you were sideman on around eight albums. 

Luft: Yes and other projects, but, 2020 was almost completely dry of gigs because of COVID. We had the inverse experience to New Zealand because the UK was hit early and we were not open like your country.  Especially gig wise.

JL32: The last time we spoke you told me that you and the Albanian Jazz vocalist Elina Duni had an ECM album under discussion, and of course that came to pass with the beautiful ‘Lost Ships’. Looking at the release date, that must have coincided with the arrival of restrictions in the UK.

Luft: Well in the rest of Europe, after the initial lockdown, there were still gigs happening, I was able to play gigs in France, Italy, Germany, Spain and Switzerland throughout the summer. In the UK it was very different.

JL32: I’d like to come back to that, but before we proceed further,  a few biographical details if you don’t mind. I know that you were born in the London area and that you went to the Royal Academy of Music where you won the Kenny Wheeler Prize. 

Luft: Yes, and I had a bizarre sort of experience at the Academy. The class groups for the Jazz Studies Bachelor’s course were very small and in my year there were only five, then later four of us. And in my group was Jacob Collier, so for the best part of four years, I was there with Jacob who was obviously a multi-instrumentalist. We had no drummer in our year and so usually you would have a full group playing with you, and so Jacob would play a different instrument when each guest artist came to visit us. There was John Abercrombie, Kenny Wheeler, Stan Sulzman and so on, and Jacob would be there playing a different instrument for each ensemble. There was no sense of continuity or band sensibility because Jacob was fulfilling so many roles, quite bizarre actually.  

JL32: So in some ways your studies forced you to forge your own path.

Luft: I guess because the Academy only took in pupils who had advanced abilities at the outset. Less teaching and a more autodidactic approach, they encouraged that. They would get these great artists like Jerry Bergonzi to come in and play with us rather than teach us in the traditional sense. It was amazing to have people like John Abercombie come in and I’d be with him for a couple of days at a time.

JL32: That must have been especially good for you as a guitarist.

Luft: For me it was optimal. And obviously, the people coming in with Kenny Wheeler, like John Taylor, Norma Winstone and that class of musicians. 

JL32: Abercrombie, Wheeler, Taylor, they are no longer with us. 

Luft: Yes, back then Kenny Wheeler’s Big Band would come in and rehearse, imagine, you’re eighteen years old and you watch these legendary Jazz figures come in and rehearse in your music hall, it was amazing. Kenny had a huge influence on me, on my harmonic and textural approach. And Stan (Sulzman), a lovely player, and Ray Warleigh, they were all in that band, Ray was originally from Australia I think (Sadly Warleigh is also no longer with us).  

JL32: Kenny was across every style huh.

Luft: He was eclectic, as was Stan, across everything from playing alongside English folk guitarist Nick Drake to playing free alongside Evan Parker. And I love that open eclecticism, the Academy was like that, never dictatorial or saying, you have to play like this. 

JL32;  The UK scene historically, appears to have possessed enough confidence to do its own thing, not thinking that they had to sound exactly like American players. It appears to have an original voice, much as the Scandinavian scene does. What do you think?

Luft: Yeah it’s very similar to the Scandinavian Jazz scene. You will understand, because we meet up in London, that it’s a melting pot, with influences coming from all over Europe and everywhere else. Afro Caribean musicians because of the connections formed way back in colonial times. Or the Indian community in North London creating a hub of South Indian music and by the same token, there is a huge West African community bringing their traditional music, Ghanain, Congolese for example.

JL32: Like Shabaka Hutchings?

Luft: Exactly, Shabaka comes from a Barbadian background and is influenced by Calypso music.

JL32: And earlier, Joe Harriot from Jamaica, who was world-leading in his free and world fusion explorations.

Luft: Yes, and that’s the melting pot of London. So many forms of music around and played at a high level. And you came to see us in Barnes with the Brazillian vocalist Luna Cohen and her band features Brazillian musicians. I played with them again recently and Luna is on one of my recent albums. 

JL32: She sung wordless vocal lines, I love that.

Luft: I especially love that as a guitarist, the Pat Metheney group of the eighties, and Kenny with Norma Winstone, I can’t get away from it in my head, the vocalese. And the psychedelic jazz of the seventies, Mahavishnu and Alan Holdsworth. One of the first gigs I ever saw was Holdsworth with Jimmy Haslip and Gary Husband (Gary playing the drums and not keyboards). For better or worse, seeing that trio changed my life. 

JL32: Is Gary Husband English (Luft nods) I had no idea? 

Luft: A few months after my New Zealand trip I met McLoughlin at the Montreaux Jazz Festival and he adjudicated in a competition I had entered. Then his band played with the two winning bands, I got second place, all of us jamming a blues together and doing solos. I had to pinch myself and say, is this happening (laughs). He’s lovely, just lovely, and he speaks incredibly good French, but I was slightly dismayed that his North Yorkshire accent has all but disappeared. 

JL32: So moving to 2020 and your album ‘Life as a Dancer’, did you record that before or after the ECM album ‘Lost Ships’?

Luft: That was recorded six months before. I remember that session well because Byron had been held up. He needed to pick up his Flumpet which had a sticky valve. It sounds like a comedy sketch now (laughs), very Monty Python, me on the phone saying we need your Flumpet. We were recording and only had the studio booked for a limited time. When he arrived we only had time left for one take and he nailed it. 

JL32: I admire openness in writing, even after adding two extra voices (after Riser), that album still sounds spacious, and the palette creates a nice textural balance.   

Luft: I think you could say that the quintet was more inspired by textual, ambient ideas, perhaps Eno, more open and a washier sound, more open to explorations. We laid down a very simple progression and let the music go where it wanted to.

JL32: Are you drawn to open, model or spiritual jazz?

Luft: Yes, that new Coltrane album exemplified that, it blew me away. I am always inspired by that modal era, and when you add the electric guitar, electronics, which touches on those psychedelic influences, Eno, Byrne, then that whole world of sonic exploration opens. 

JL32: Jon Hassell?

Luft: Oh yeah, a huge loss. In 2019 I was on tour with Arve Hendrikson (Norwegian Trumpeter associated with Hassell), and I discovered Hassell after I had heard Arve, and I said to him, ‘hang on, there is so much in your playing that comes from Jon Hassell and I had no idea’.  

JL32: And guitarist Eivind Aaset, electronics improviser Jan Bang?

Luft: ‘Dream Logic’ is one of my favourite albums. The Norwegians are masters, they are like folk musicians. I met Eivind and Arild Anderson recently when I played at the Molde Jazz Festival, and I came to the realisation that these are deep folk musicians. Masters of sound, it’s about sound and the local roots. And Sidsel Endresen who is the biggest influence on Elina is astonishing. 

JL32: And last year, there was another album that was released. A trio with Norwegian bassist and vocalist Ellen Andrea Wang, You on guitar and Jon Falt on drums (Falt is the long time drummer with the ECM Bobo Stenson Trio). 

Luft: I’m a huge fan of Jon Falt and I love Bobo Stenson, a big influence across Europe, Here, he has an almost Jarrett-like status. 

JL32: Again that open airy free sound – like the American pianist, Marilyn Crispell,   minimalism and depth.

Luft: The trumpet player who appears on ‘Life is a Dancer’, Byron Wallen, has an album. I’m on tour with him at present. He plays trumpet, Flugel, Flumpet, piano, conch and reads poems. He’s of Belizian Descent and has this gorgeous dulcet voice, and while he reads a poem I play minimalistic triadic chords. A beautiful conversation, voice above the texture.  

JL32: Obviously, the thing I am keen to explore is your co-led album ‘Lost Ships’ and your impressions of recording with ECM. ‘Lost ships’ is the album that I am most likely to recommend to friends and your playing is a great example of less being more. You are understated, not all over the vocalist, but it feels so expansive. And all of you, relatively sparse instrumentation, Flugel, piano, guitar, vocals and not always at the same time, but a big sound.

Luft: I can tell you an amazing story about that recording. At that point, some countries like Italy were beginning to experience COVID but for us, it was a vague awareness of distant storm clouds gathering. We were there in the south of France and the days were mild. The studio Manfred had hired was in Avignon and the Israeli pianist Shai Maestro had just finished recording. And Manfred was there setting up the mics and desk levels, and then he had to return to Munich unexpectedly. So the set-up was complete and we had the engineer, but we were suddenly self-producing. 

I was initially gutted, but Alina who had recorded with Manfred before, said, this is an opportunity. His presence is everywhere in the studio, so we should draw on that and record as if he were here guiding us. We should play as though he were sitting on the other side of the glass. And we would do a take and listen and say to ourselves, how would Manfred view this, and it was kind of liberating because we had unexpected freedom and as a young guitarist, I might have been intimidated otherwise. 

JL32: Tell me more about the vibe.

Luft: I mean Manfred has produced some of my favourite albums like Metheney’s ‘Bright Sized Life’, John Abercrombie’s ‘Timeless’ with De Johnette/Hammer and many of my favourite guitar albums, so it took some of the weight off my shoulders to be imagining his presence. And as you pointed out, I felt able to play in a minimalist spacious way and I didn’t deploy all of my usual tricks and language.  I just told myself, be an ECM guitarist and it worked. I’ve been told that Manfred loves the album and that he plays it at dinner parties, so it’s a good sign. 

JL32: I would like to touch on the arranging, the writing, configuration etc. 

Luft: I did a fair bit of the arranging and we were lucky to bring onboard other musicians, Matthieu Michel on Flugelhorn, they call him the Kenny Wheeler of Switzerland, a mellifluous tone reminiscent of the Northern Europeans. Manfreds a fan of his playing and he’s featured on a few ECM albums, with artists like Susanne Abbuehl. And Fred Thomas who is a multi-instrumentalist. He went to the Academy about ten years before me, in the same year as Kit Downes (also an ECM artist). What I’m trying to say is that it is all very incestuous (laughs). It’s a beautiful thing that the entire Jazz world is so connected.

Getting back to ‘lost Ships’, it came out in November 2020, during the month that Europe called a circuit-breaker lockdown.  So right on release after the promise of clubs finally opening up again, lockdown. It was like a switch being turned off.  We were gutted that we could not promote our album and only one concert survived. We had a big release tour locked down and suddenly in my diary, everything had to be crossed out. 

The one remaining concert was the Cairo Jazz festival, Egypt! So in the middle of a lockdown, I showed up at Heathrow, guitar in tow, and boarded an Egyptian Airlines flight, without Matthieu. We were a trio with just Alina and Fred. But there was one gig on the way in Galicia Spain which was streamed and from there we flew directly to Cairo. (clip shown)

As we exited the Cairo terminal, the wafts of heat just swept over us, in stark contrast to wintery London. Taxi touts everywhere, shouting, and obviously no lockdown. We had two gigs at the festival and instead of live-streaming with no audience, we had a gorgeous venue and a full capacity audience. The Cairo Jazz Festival is amazing and we learnt an Arabic song for it, an ancient maqam from the 14th century. 

We met loads of great musicians and the director of the festival, Amr Salah said, why are you getting on a plane to fly into a lockdown? What will you do when there are no gigs? Why don’t you just miss the flight and stay in Egypt? It was a wine-fueled evening and we decided on the spot to do just that. We soon found ourselves exploring the wonders of upper and lower Egypt. There were no tourists and we had the ancient sites virtually to ourselves. I must be one of the few people to stand beside Tutankhamun without company. And it was just us inside the anti-chamber of the Great Pyramid of Giza. And one thing led to another and I stayed there seven months.

JL32: Did I hear you correctly, seven months?

Luft: I was there living my life as normal, learning a bit of Arabic, and I fell in love with the country. And for whatever reason, the desert or perhaps a lack of testing, but very few cases of the virus appeared. 

JL32: And are there any projects underway, ECM or otherwise?

Luft: Well three months ago Alina and I received an email from Manfred asking us to do another record. The finer details of which are under discussion right now and we might be recording in March 2022. And although we suffered through missing the lockdown release gigs, all of those bookings are suddenly active again, with promoters wanting us to appear all over. Strangely, I am busier with gigs now than I have ever been. In a few days, we head for Paris for a week of gigs, then around France. And another factor is that Elina and I work perfectly well as a duo and promotors find that easier to plan for. (some European countries have numbers restrictions again).

JL32: And how is the album doing?

Luft: By modern standards well and the sales are constant with gigs opening up again.  Loads of Radio Play in Germany and Italy especially. ECM is essentially an old fashioned business and what they do is remarkably successful. Manfred is across it all and he uses only a small number of studios and a handful of trusted engineers. There’s one in the South of France where we recorded, there’s one in Lugano south Switzerland. Even the famous Rainbow Studio in Oslo is not used anymore because the room is different. He values spaces and forms high trust relationships with certain engineers, and he probably delegates more than people think. Including delegating to the musicians. I have been told by other ECM musicians that his presence is felt, but not inserted into the project. Not insisting, I want you to do this now.  

JL32: Any plans for a down-under tour in future? 

Luft: The Melbourne scene is an important Jazz hub and the Melbourne diaspora (of jazz musicians) is felt throughout the world. We have a good friend in Melbourne who keeps threatening to organise a tour. If we were to go to Melbourne we would certainly try to facilitate a trip to New Zealand.  And I would tour with Alina, it’s just a question of time. My mentality now, since we started touring again is, every concert is a blessing, a gift. Even if it’s stressful to get there with quarantine or with testing, we brush that aside and give the concert our all. I don’t want to lose that.

JL32: And I want to mention another name, someone you know. James Copus the Flugel player. I reviewed the recent Scottish National Jazz Orchestra album where they honour some free-jazz titans and James was playing in the orchestra. I loved his ‘Dusk’ recording.

Luft: Yes, James is one of my oldest friends, we shared a flat in North London, we drank too much, jammed too loudly and annoyed the neighbours. We would rehearse in our room with Balkan brass ensembles and the poor neighbours were incensed. We have known each other since we were fifteen as we were both in the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. And in the Royal Academy, we were in the same year with Jacob Collier. James and I are going to record together next year.

JL32: I see that you recorded as guest guitarist with the SNJO.

Luft: Yes one album. Tommy Smith is amazing, the UK Michael Brecker. 

JL32: A few final questions. On ‘Lost Ships’ there is no bass player and minimal drums. How did you approach that?  

Luft: Yes, it freed up space, but it also put a lot of responsibility onto my shoulders as a guitarist. So that’s why I used the electronics to give me an octave below and to fill out that space a bit more. And if there is a drummer they needed to be very aware. Play more with the lower toms and bass drum. I played bass lines sometimes while comping, it’s a flavour. You can’t talk about bassless jazz without thinking, Paul Motian Trio. In my head, that’s the textbook on how to do it. 

JL32: Current influences? 

Luft: I try to listen to new stuff all the time. Actually, Egypt was amazing for that. Being immersed in a whole world of Egyptian singers and musicians was great, I had no idea it existed. And now I hear that and it touches me deeply. It’s incredible the way the Oud players, singers and violinists improvise within a mode and often microtonally. No pianos anywhere. I’m a huge fan of Anouar Brahem, so to walk into a cafe, drink a really strong coffee and hear musicians doing what he does, magic, all of that drone-based modal music. 

It’s lament music. Alina often points out to audiences, that once you cross the Bosphorus and arrive in the Middle East, something fundamental in the music changes. So in the West, a major key song is a happy song and a minor key song is a sad song. Once you cross the Bosphorus, the minor key becomes the happy song. And Jazz gets that as it understands dancing the sadness away. 

JL32: So with Alina, you will have been exploring this type of music.  

Luft: Because she’s from Albania, an ancient cultural melting pot, the Ottoman Turkish influence is strong, but it’s also a Mediterranean country with Italian and other influences. So Turkish microtonality blended with an Italian folky balladesque. And touches of Rock and Pop. The Balkans region influences me more and more. So I have an Oud now and I am beginning to explore that. The Oud shops of Cairo are the Tin Pan Alley of the Middle East. We have to innovate to keep moving.

JL32: And the recent album by Norwegian bass player Ellen Andrea Wang that you featured on. That is a prime example of the forward-momentum of improvised music. I get quite a few albums from that region for review, and many are similar to ‘Closeness’ in that they blend pop sensibilities with hardcore Jazz. Like folksy ballads alongside tunes like Ornette’s Lonely Woman or some Americana like Wayfaring Stranger.  

Luft: All over London there are Jazz gigs in small venues featuring this exact type of music, so you get teenagers coming along in droves, and sometimes I do gigs like that. We will throw in a Radiohead or a Nick Drake number with Jazz harmonies.  I love the excitement on the faces of new audiences as they hear that mix but also relate to the straight Jazz content. Brad Mehldau led the way.  Many young Londoners are becoming tired of shallow formulaic pop music and they are searching. And they discover new stars like Shabaka Hutchings who is very popular. Myele Manzanza from Wellington is also very successful in London, he has real crossover appeal. 

JL32: I am interested in your work as an accompanist, your sensitivity and awareness of the vocalist. Not every guitarist gets that, many overplay, miss the nuances when comping. Although you have a number of instrumental albums, you also gravitate towards vocalists. Are you drawn to them or do they seek you out?

Luft: I’ve always been drawn to singers because I love the spoken word. A number of years ago I studied at University College London, a degree course in the science of language. Along the way, I managed to pick up two additional languages, with a degree of proficiency, French and Italian, and I’m fascinated with the connection between poetry and melody. Voice and guitar, that extra layer that can be added. So I am drawn to them, but maybe it works both ways as they call me back for more gigs.

JL32: It appears that we’ve been talking for nearly two hours so I’d better wrap up and let you get some sleep (it’s Midnight in the UK). Thanks, for giving me so much time man, it’s been a really interesting and fun catch-up.

Luft: And you too John. Let’s hope that our paths will cross sometime in the new year or very soon after. 

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

Kiwi Jahzz ~ from the underground basements of Aotearoa

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rated X (Davis)

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

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

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

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

Milestones (Davis)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alargo Live @ CJC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonita ~ July 2021

The Bonita Project is fueled by good compositions, nice arrangements and above all by the exuberance of leader Chelsea Prastiti. It is the second time that Bonita has appeared at the CJC in recent times and people returned for more. It is a worthy project as it reimagines a time and rides on a powerful vibe; the sort that the world needs right now. There was always an easy-going breezy quality to post-war Brazilian music and that quality could beguile. Underneath, however, there is a powerful engine, as the melodies float over a plethora of complex rhythmic structures. 

It is impossible to listen and to keep your feet still as the urgency underlying the beachy vibe captures you. It is also true that in this golden era there were dangerous political undercurrents. Out of that dashed hope came a flowing of art forms and the authoritarian colonels who tried to snatch it all away could not silence the music. Many of the musicians like Elis Regina were harassed, but the music never faltered.

There were three arrangers credited on the gig, Prastiti, Sinclair and Passells. The compositions were by Prastiti (and with one co credited to Kenji Hollaway). Some of the tunes we had heard before, including the lovely ‘Cassandra’ (posted as a video last time). There were also new tunes and among them ‘Peter Pan’ was especially appealing.  The band had changed slightly from last time, with Connor McAneny replacing Crystal Choi. McAneny had been out of the country for a few years and his return is welcome. His piano playing has a muscular quality to it, which was less evident before he left. 

The opportunity afforded by a diverse sound palette was well utilised by the arrangers; bringing out the best in the music without overwhelming melody. This was achieved with three vocalists, an acoustic guitar, piano, double bass, percussion, kit drums, trumpet + flugelhorn,  clarinet + flute, tenor saxophone and a second flute. It was pleasing to hear a 12 piece ensemble perform in this way. A configuration like this allows an arranger to impart a degree of airiness out of a large ensemble sound. This was achieved by having the instrumentalists or the vocalists moving in and out of the mix as required. The tunes had lyrics, but just as often there was wordless singing. I love to hear the human voice used as a (non-verbal) instrument. Perhaps because of my ongoing enthusiasm for Winston/Wheeler/Taylor in their ECM ‘Azimuth’ days. This was a nice project and all the more so because it was presented with infectious enthusiasm.

Bonita: Chelsea Prastiti (vocals, arranging), Eamon Edmondson-Wells (upright bass), Ron Samsom (percussion), Tristan Deck (drums), Connor McAneny (piano), Michael Howell (guitar), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Elizabeth Stokes (trumpet/flugelhorn), Ben Sinclair (clarinet, flute, arranging), J Y Lee (flute), Rachel Clarke (vocals), Gretel Donnelley (vocals), Callum Passells (arranging). 

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

Sanctuary ~ Lovell-Smith/Baxendale

If you follow the New Zealand improvised music scene, you need to check out  ‘Sanctuary’, a collaborative album released by the Wellington-based saxophonists’ Jasmine Lovell-Smith and Jake Baxendale. And although the release date was only a month ago, it is already receiving significant attention, including from outside these shores. When you listen to Baxendale’s Walt Whitman referencing ‘Leaves of Grass’ Suite or Lovell-Smiths gorgeous ‘Sanctuary’ suite you will understand why.

The album is replete with imaginative writing. Of tastefully painted brush strokes from an unusually rich colour palette, and this enabled by the configuration of the eleven-piece ensemble. It is saying something important but never at the expense of approachability, for example, Baxendale’s suite, the opener, brings Mingus to mind. Mingus in a Felliniesque wonderland.  

The album is getting cut through because it is superbly realised and above all because it speaks convincingly of our times. In Lovell-Smith’s case, there is a distinct pastoral quality to her work and it invites us to reflect. This is similar to the approach that Maria Schneider takes, drawing attention to what is often passed over in haste and clothing the political in a softer raiment. 

Check it out here JasmineLovellSmith.bandcamp.com

Because of the writing and the quality of the musicianship, this is an especially cohesive ensemble; but nevertheless, the voices of the individual musicians shine through strongly. First and foremost among the soloists are the co-leaders, Baxendale on alto saxophone and Lovell-Smith on soprano saxophone, each featuring strongly on the album. Both give stunning performances. They have assembled a formidable line up here and no one falls short. Among the fine performances, Blair Lathem on bass clarinet and baritone, Ben Hunt on trumpet, Louisa Williamson on tenor, Hikurangi Schaverien Kaa on drums, Aleister Campbell on guitar and Anita Schwabe on piano (with her innate sense of swing). 

Baxendale is acknowledged as an important New Zealand composer and he has frequently been nominated (and has won) Jazz Tui awards. He is the spokesperson for the award-winning group The Jac (the winner of this year’s Tui with ‘A Gathering). He has travelled the world with his music and is associated with a number of New Zealand’s finest jazz units. Also a noted composer is Lovell-Smith who has resided, taught and performed in a number of countries, especially the USA and Mexico. Her return to New Zealand has enriched the scene here as she brings valuable insights and experience with her. Her innovative group the Noveltones is well worth catching.    

The subject matter for the two suites, and for the additional pieces are perfectly pitched. Whitman the beloved poet and humanist who spoke his truth in unforgiving times. His love of nature and his common cause with open-minded souls. And Sanctuary, that loaded word that evokes both safety and confinement. The album was recorded after our borders with the world had closed. And while the album evokes a sense of our enforced isolation, it also speaks to our interconnectedness; of human beings existing in a complex ecosystem, and hopefully realising that this is a rare window of opportunity. Music like this helps illuminate our way.    

To purchase or download the album visit jasminelovellsmith.bandcamp.com – Tell friends about it and support New Zealand music.  

Rachel Eastwood (flute), Ben Hunt (trumpet), Jasmine Lovell-Smith (soprano saxophone), Jake Baxendale (alto saxophone, bass clarinet), Louisa Williamson (tenor saxophone), Kaito Walley (trombone), Blair Latham (baritone saxophone, bass clarinet), Aleistair James Campbell (guitar), Anita Schwabe (piano), Chris Beernink (bass), Hikurangi Schaverein Kaa (drums) 

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

Andy Sugg NZ Tour

With the opening of borders between New Zealand and Australia, it was hoped that improvising musicians could begin touring again. Apart from three returnees and several stragglers who chose to shelter in place, we had not seen an international for fifteen months. Unfortunately, the pandemic reestablished itself in Australia and that window closed within a week of its opening. There was, however, one musician who timed it perfectly and that was saxophonist Andy Sugg. 

He flew out of Melbourne just days before another lockdown was announced and we were very pleased that he had slipped the net. Sugg is a gifted saxophonist with broad appeal and there was no better way to break the tour drought. The tour was billed as an album release but the setlist also included earlier compositions and two tasty standards. The album titled Grand & Union was recorded in New York in mid-2019 and released last year. For obvious reasons Sugg was unable to take to the road and certainly not with his New York-based bandmates. 

Grand & Union is a rail hub in Brooklyn but it is also a metaphor for the album. ‘A musical intersection where styles and motifs merge before moving somewhere else’. It is an album of diverse stylistic influences but the musicians’ craft a tasteful amalgam from the underlying base metals. In the liner notes, the leader mentions Stravinsky as a prime inspiration and ‘The Rite Stuff’ with its deep propulsive groove is the most overt reference; a stunning piece, which evokes the now without jettisoning the history underpinning it.  

Sugg is a particularly coherent improviser who takes a listener along as he tells his ear-catching stories, and his tone is particularly arresting. Warm as toast and seldom straying into the lower registers. On the soulful ‘Ruby Mei’, his sound reminded me of the great melodic improviser, Ernie Watts. Much credit is also due to his New York bandmates who are seasoned musicians all, and who worked as a tight cohesive unit. 

His Auckland gig featured a local rhythm section and they also acquitted themselves well. The first set opened with the title track Grand & Union and was followed by Ruby Mei and other tunes from the album, Then came a more expansive offering in several sections. This enabled Sugg and the band to stretch out. This was a gig of highly melodic offerings and as an added treat, the second set featured two popular standards. A musician said to me recently; playing a popular standard to a discriminating audience, means, that you must play it extremely well and you must insert something of yourself into it. They did. The standards were the gorgeous ‘Someday My Prince Will Come (Churchill/Morey) and the much loved ‘In a Sentimental Mood’ (Ellington). The audience shouted their approval, obviously delighted.  I have posted a YouTube clip from the Auckland gig. 

While each of the local musicians has experience playing with offshore artists, considering how long that has been, they were very much on form. Of particular note was Wellington drummer Mark Lockett. I could hear people commenting enthusiastically about his drumming between numbers. They were right to comment as he pulled one out of the bag that night. He and Sugg go back a long way and the connection was obvious. 

The gig took place at Anthology for the CJC Creative Jazz Club on 14 July 2021. I recommend the album and it’s worth checking out Sugg’s earlier album also. To order physical copies, download or stream, visit AndySugg.Bandcamp.com    

The album personnel: Andy Sugg/tenor saxophone. Brett Williams/piano & keyboards, Alex Claffy/acoustic & electric bass, Jonathan Barber/drums.

Gig personnel: Andy Sugg/tenor saxophone, Keven Field/piano, Mostyn Cole/acoustic bass, Mark Lockett/drums

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

O’Connor/Derrick/Johnson

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

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

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

Excerpts from concert

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

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

Derrick, O’Connor, Johnson

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

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

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

Henrique Morales Sextet

As pandemic upheavals continue, in New Zealand we count ourselves lucky. Not only are we one of the safest nations on earth at present, but we have also been experiencing more live music than most. Over recent months various streams of Latin music have come our way and last week we heard the Brazilian born Kiwi Henrique Morales at the CJC Jazz club. 

Morales has just released his first New Zealand album as leader ‘Alô Brasil’.  He has long been the frontman for the funky Batucada Sound Machine and Santiago Soul Stars and his current band is increasingly popular around town. His musical journey began at a young age in South Brasil, soon bringing him into contact with the most respected musicians of his region. This grounding proved fortuitous as it enabled him to become familiar with the many styles of Latin American music and in particular the regional variations of Brazilian music. 

While the music of central America frequently sheds sparks, the Brazilian musical styles are generally associated with a different vibe. They feel like a warm embrace.  Once the Jazz world had encountered Yao Gilberto, Elis Regina and the towering twentieth-century genius Tom Jobim, the linking of the two swing based styles was conjoined forever. Brazilian music in all its forms remains popular throughout the world and western influences like reggae and Jazz have readily been adapted and absorbed. Morales interprets the many styles of his home country including Brazilian popular music and Latin Jazz fusion. The material was mostly original compositions by Morales.

He appeared at the CJC with a slightly different lineup to that on the album. The saxophonist Thabani Gapara had been replaced by Daniel McKenzie. The remaining band members were Mark Baynes on the keyboard, Gustavo Ferreira on the bass, Jono Sawyer on drums and Fabio Camera on percussion. I liked the arrangements as they never overwhelmed the warm rhythmic pulse and the melodicism, both of which are so central to this music. 

After a long absence from the club, it is good to see Dr Mark Baynes back (twice in a month).  He has been concentrating on Latin musical styles for some time now and I can think of no one else locally who is better fitted to accompany South American artists on piano. He also brings his Jazz credentials to the music. His playing was a highlight for me with his Jarrett like vocalisations (freeing the spirit) and his Latin swing feel. Another treat was hearing the soft rich tone Morales evoked as he plucked the strings of his Godin A6 Ultra, a prince among guitars and perfect for Morales’s music. For a copy of the album check out a local store or best of all catch the band around town. 


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

CTI All-Stars Tribute

Jazz Funk is a subgenre of Jazz and although it draws on R & B and Soul it is a distinct niche. While it draws on many sources, it never completely overlaps them. It is a black American sound. it is accessible with a strong backbeat, good arrangements and shorter but tightly focussed solos. Above all it is danceable and that brings joy. Back in the seventies, it received a measure of grief from both sides of the spectrum. Jazz purists complained that It was not cerebral enough or too reliant on electric instruments while some in the broader music press complained that it was too much like mainstream Jazz. 

From today’s perspective, such nonsense is laughable. When Jimmy Smith, Gil Scott-Heron, Herbie Hancock, George Benson and Freddy Hubbard started releasing stunning Jazz Funk albums the naysayers were left with album sized chunks of egg on their faces. 

A few days ago Ben McNicoll brought his popular Jazz Funk unit to the CJC. His unit is called the CTI All-stars Tribute band and the reference is a potent one. The original CTI Allstars were leaders who came together for a large California concert: George Benson, Freddie Hubbard, Hubert Laws, Stanley Turrentine, Hank Crawford, Johnny Hammond, Ron Carter, Billy Cobham and Airto Moreira. The CTI label was the brainchild of record producer Creed Taylor. 

Povo

A man whose legacy is incalculable. He worked at Bethlehem Records, ABC-Paramount, Verve, Impulse and A&M before founding CTI (and its imprints). He signed John Coltrane for Impulse, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Stan Getz to Verve. He signed Oliver Nelson, Gil Evans, Bill Evans, Wes Montgomery and many more. His last great project, the CTI label captured a moment in Jazz history, bringing with it those warm funk-infused albums and for a time, a wider audience.  

Crab Apple

McNicoll is a musician who puts in the hard yards and he captured the CTI vibe perfectly. While featuring a gig of covers is not a CJC thing, this was much more than that. Yes, CTI covers were aired, but only in the context of an over-arching project. McNichol’s band offered us a valuable window into this epoch and his selection of overlooked standards captured the vibe to a tee.  It was great to see these numbers aired as they are often left languishing in the shadows. 

The tunes were infectious and they soon brought people to their feet and on a chilly winters night, what could be better? They were tunes redolent of an era and they were happy tunes. For those in the audience around during the seventies, they brought back fond memories, for the rest, the joy of discovery. Among the tunes played were Freddy Hubbards ‘Red Clay’, ‘Gibraltar’ and ‘Povo’. The ‘Taxi’ theme, Herbie Hancock’s ‘Hornet (a funky tune written around two notes), A Bob James and a Wayne Shorter tune and very pleasingly Idris Muhammed’s ‘Crab Apple’, a Louisiana funk classic. This is the music that you can hear in the New Orleans clubs. A unique sound that rides a groove to the moon and back. 

McNicoll

I have put up the ‘Povo’ and ‘Crab Apple’ cuts. The band featured Ben McNicolls on baritone saxophone, soprano saxophone and tenor saxophone, Joe Kaptein on Rhodes, Mostyn Cole on electric bass, Kurt Dyer on percussion, Andy Keegan on drums and special guest Jason Herbert on guitar.  The gig was at Anthology, CJC Jazz Club, 9 June 2021.

I would also like to acknowledge McNicoll for his tireless work on behalf of the Auckland Jazz scene. Most know him as the person who introduces the gigs each week, but the observant will be aware that he also helps set-up and pack-down; he does the sound checks and sits at the ‘desk’ and on top of that he frequently organises gigs for other musicians. He is a prime example of how a not-for-profit organisation remains functional. In short, he us the archetypal (unpaid) A & R person.


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.

Steve Barry Quartet

I clearly recall the first time I heard Steve Barry. It was around eleven years ago at the1885. He was not long back from Australia, bringing with him bass player Alex Boneham and drummer Tim Firth. At that time the Creative Jazz Club was located in a dark atmospheric basement; an ill-lit venue bordering on gloomy and perfect for a Jazz club. You would grab a drink, sink into a well-worn leather armchair with broken webbing and wait for the band to begin. 

The music that night was unforgettable. Somewhat denser than I was accustomed to at the time, but never-the-less fully engaging and exciting. When the second tune was announced I pushed record on my iPhone because I knew that I was hearing a piece of music that merited further attention. It was a tune that he was working on and it would appear on his first album a short time later. That was the year of Aaron Parks and his Invisible Cinema, and Barry’s tune was titled ‘Parks’. I listened to that phone clip an awful lot over the following months and I could hear the future. 

Each time Barry has appeared in New Zealand he has showcased fresh ideas. He is a forward-thinking and innovative composer/pianist and as such he never rests on his laurels. Although born in New Zealand, Australia claimed him long ago. He is popular there, has obtained a doctorate and awards there and teaches at the Sydney Con. As expected, he brought us new compositions this visit, but as I listened I was also reminded of that first gig. While he moves on constantly and is not composing or playing in the way he did back then, there is still a hint of that younger player. Of past learnings gathered and picked through as he builds fresh iterations, crafted in part from the bones. I am not surprised that he studied with Craig Taborn.

His compositions are no doubt demanding and require good responsive players. He had assembled just such a crew for his CJC Anthology gig. Callum Passels on alto, Cameron McArthur on bass and Ron Samsom on drums. Local musicians of the highest quality. Passels has a gorgeous tone, but what sets him apart is his ability to push at the boundaries. His best work occurs when playing compositions that afford him certain freedoms and these compositions worked well for him. At times he would run over the lines which contrasted nicely with his tight unison playing. The sort of advanced musical thinking I associate with Warne Marsh. Perhaps because this was a quartet, the music also felt more spacious. The density and serialism were still evident but as always with Barry, there were fresh vistas revealed at each turn. 

The gig took place at Anthology K’Road for the (CJC Creative Jazz Club). 2 June 2021. For Barry’s album visit Rattle Records or stevebarrymusic.bandcamp.com

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.

Two Drummer Led Albums

Drummer led albums often tell stories in different ways and the releases reviewed here exemplify that. On the surface, they are dissimilar, but both convey raw energy and immediacy. These improvisers transcend the ordinary in their search for an ancient to modern language. 

CRISIS & OPPORTUNITY

The first is a newly released album by Myele Manzanza titled Crisis and Opportunity. It is the artist’s eighth release. And this time, his compositions were crafted while the artist was locked down in London during the worst months of the UK COVID crisis. As with his previous albums, there is something big-hearted about this work. As you listen, you gain the sense that he is telling a story that transcends time and place. This is realised through some very fine writing and crafted over his warm mesmerising beats.

Crisis & Opportunity Cover

Manzanza draws on strong roots and influences. He is a Kiwi, a citizen of the world and of African heritage. His father is a Master Congolese drummer and his formative years playing hand drums will have informed his approach to the kit. Among the other influences evident are broken-beat and Jazz electronica. Out of these influences and his own life experiences, alchemy is forged. He is forward-looking and overtly political. He is someone to watch with interest.  

Teaser to Crisis & Opportunity

Joining him on the album are some London musicians plus Mark-de Clive-Lowe (a Kiwi Keyboard maestro based in LA). I am familiar with trumpet player James Copus, as his impressive Dusk album came to my attention quite recently.  The other horn player is George Crowley on tenor saxophone. When the horns are playing in unison it is hard to believe that the horn line is not much bigger. On piano is Ashley Henry and on bass Benjamin Muralt. Both chasing those hypnotic dancing beats to good effect. And with de Clive-Lowe adding his deft brush strokes, a magnificent Album is realised. If you go to his Bandcamp label you can purchase a digital copy or order vinyl. www.myelemanzanza.bandcamp.com

WORDS

The other drummer led album that caught my attention is a free-jazz album released by Alex Louloudis. It arrived as a digital review copy with very little attached information, so I embarked on some research. In reality, the music speaks for itself and the biographical details are of less importance. The first track of ‘Words’ is ‘Surviving’ and it pulls you into a frenetic life-dance full of raw beauty and endless recalibration. It is propulsive and joyous and I fell for it immediately. It is the sort of track that brings me back to listen over and again and because of the immediacy, you know it’s real. 

This is free music that can move inside or outside with extraordinary ease. Nothing is quite what it seems and the river of sound flows over a cushion of compelling beats. There is often an ostinato bass line as in The Magic of 3. The melodic lines avoid the obvious and there is almost no repetition of phrases. In the right musical hands, following such principles opens up huge possibilities. This is a killing band and it is unmistakably a drummers band. 

I learned that Alex Louloudis was born in Drama, Greece, moved to America to study at the age of 19 and that he records on the Belgian based label ‘Off’. Since completing his studies in New York, Louloudis has moved among like-minded improvisers and attracted favourable attention. Although the artist was previously unknown to me (my bad), he has certainly come to the notice of important musicians and commentators (Gary Bartz, Billy Harper, Reggie Workman, Oliver Lake, Jeff Ballard, to mention just a few). The title track ‘Words’ is the final track and it rounds off the album perfectly. Opening to soft brush beats, it morphs into a dreamy slow-moving rendition of Over the Rainbow,  which in turn introduces the reflectively cutting poem, recited by Rosdeli Marte. 

  

The musicians: Alex Louloudis (drums), Raphael Statin (tenor saxophone), Dean Torrey (bass), Rosdeli Marte (vocals #1,6), Kaelen Ghandhi (tenor saxophone (# 1,6), Aaron Rubinstein (guitar #1,6), is available from Bandcamp at https://stilll-off.bandcamp.com/album/words

In this post, I have deviated from my usual practice of reviewing only albums from Aotearoa, New Zealand (or those offshore who maintain connections to our rohe). During the Covid lockdowns, I worked with the world Jazz community on platforms like the Jazz Journalists Assn site to ensure that the musician’s stories still were being told. Many writers were unable to engage, and in my country, we had freedoms others did not. No rule is worth having if it cannot be broken for a good cause. ‘Words’ is the exception that proves the rule and I couldn’t resist.   

 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.

New Dog Extra Strength

The genesis of DOG goes back a long way as I first reviewed them in 2012. Over that period they have gained various accolades and awards. They are Dr Lonnie Smith in reverse because the group began their journey as Dr DOG but then ditched the title to better accord with their egalitarian street-dog ethos. Their reputation extends well beyond New Zealand shores and their second album was recorded with guest Australian guitarist James Muller. They have two albums out on Rattle and both are exceptional. 

Their first album featured the core group, and each of them contributed compositions: Roger Manins, Kevin Field, Oli Holland and Ron Samsom, The second album followed the same pattern, but with James Muller contributing as well. These are all exceptional players and the albums have allowed them to place a deeper focus on their writing skills. When musicians of this ability come together they are better able to push past arbitrary limits. 

Ten years on there is a new guest in the lineup and as always there are new compositions from everyone. I hope that this recent gig is the prelude to a third album because together this iteration is crackling hot. With guitarist Keith Price on board, they moved into fresh territory and alongside the burners, there were touches of big-vista Americana. No wonder the gig was billed as the New Extra Strength Dog. At times it was Industrial strength.

Although the group is co-led, Roger Manins is the compare. Any gig that he fronts will have X-factor and this was no exception. The first set opened with a tune by Price and it was blistering. From the front row, it was like being in a jet-stream but it was not just bluster. Price is a terrific composer and this tune rode a freight train of tension and breathtaking harmonic shifts. It was initially titled #3unnamed, but now titled ‘Karangahape’ (a nearby street with interesting tensions). That set the pace. 

With one exception (the encore), these were all new tunes and each complemented the other. This was a feast of good writing, tunes played and written by musicians at the top of their game. In spite of their long association, it is obvious that these guys enjoy playing together. The respect and warmth shine through the music. They are in sync because they respect the music and each other. The large club audience picked up on that, thus completing the virtuous circle.

I  have posted the first and last gig tunes as YouTube clips. ‘Karangahape’ (Price) and ‘Schwiben Jam’ (Manins). Both of the DOG albums remain popular and they are available from stores or directly from Rattle (and on Bandcamp). If you don’t own copies grab one now, and if you do, buy one for a friend. We are lucky to have artists of this calibre in Auckland and if we show our support, more albums will surely follow. www.rattle-records.bandcamp.com 

Keith Price

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.

Keith Price Double Quartet 2021

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.  

Excerpts from the concert

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). 

Ben Gailer, Malachi Samuelu, Mostyn Cole & Eli

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.

Mark Lockett Quartet

The Spirit of Ornette Coleman hung in the air last Wednesday, manifesting itself in the form of the Mark Lockett Quartet. It was a quartet devoid of chordal instruments. It was Coleman, not Mulligan. It was original music and an example of Coleman induced Lockdown creativity. The inspiration may have come from Coleman’s approach, but Lockett is a true original. He drums musically and tells stories at every turn. His tune titles, his solos and his announcements are tales from a true raconteur. He is a storyteller with an open vocabulary.   

I am always enthusiastic about a Lockett gig and with Lucien Johnson in the line-up, it was a sinch. I have reviewed several of Johnson’s albums, the last one, Wax///Wane, was especially fine. Like Lockett, he is adventurous and his musical fearlessness was an asset here. While Lockett composed the tunes (excepting two Monk tunes), Johnson was the principal arranger. 

The resulting gig was a tribute to freedom. The sort that shocked in 1959 and doesn’t know. Colman never abandoned the rules, he just invented new ones. His hard to nail down theory of ‘harmolodics’, an evolving rearrangement of hierarchy, with harmony, melody, speed, rhythm, time and phrases jostling for equality. I think that he would have enjoyed this gig as he never wanted followers. What he wanted, was fellow travellers and he found that with this band.

I can’t recall when I last saw a trumpeter, Oscar Laven. He was smokin’ last Wednesday and his forthrightness and bright tone, balanced out the thoughtful and softer toned explorations of Johnson on tenor saxophone. Everyone took solos and the notes they blew added something worthwhile. Behind them and pounding out meaty basslines was Umar Zakaria. We saw Zakaria recently when he fronted his own gig. Here, he was at his best, a Mingus like figure powering the music to greater heights. He was just the right anchor and the others benefitted from his solid earthy cushion.   

As the tour progresses throughout the Islands, the audiences will find much to enjoy, and as a bonus, they will hear Lockett’s tall tales of New York and elsewhere. His banter is worth the ticket price alone and if you add to that the joy of fresh sounding music, it’s a bargain. 

Mark Lockett Quartet: Mark Lockett (drums), Lucien Johnson (tenor saxophone), Oscar Laven (trumpet), Umar Zakaria (upright bass). The gig was at Anthology, CJC Creative Jazz Club, 22 April 2021.

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.

Michal Martyniuk Trio + Dixon Nacey

The old adage ‘good things are worth waiting for’ proved correct last Wednesday. After two lockdown cancellations, the Michal Martyniuk Trio (+ Dixon Nacey), finally performed their long-awaited CJC gig. There had been much anticipation as the band is popular, and when the gig finally happened, everyone was excited. The European continent is a long way away and so we don’t hear many European bands live. The Martyniuk Trio (whether playing alongside Kiwi or Polish musicians), always manages to capture a piece of that northern vibe for us. 

I have previously reviewed Martyniuk gigs and they never disappoint. I like them because they are uplifting. I like them for their melodic and harmonic richness. Martyniuk is a gifted pianist, but his compositions and arrangements are real standouts. The Awakening, The Opening’ Jazz Dance etc. His tunes feel like modern standards and I never tire of hearing them interpreted afresh. He doesn’t rest on his laurels either, bringing memorable new tunes to the bandstand with each gig. 

A case in question was a soulful tribute to Lyle Mays (For Lyle). A reflective ballad, celebrating a creative giant now lost to us. The tune, captured the essence of Mays the musician while evoking sadness at his untimely passing. It was also somehow fitting that Martyniuk’s own tunes should be bookended by two Metheny tunes. Metheny’s and Martyniuk’s had been the last gigs I attended in the hours prior to the first lockdown. When tours stopped I recall wondering; when will I ever hear live music again? I listened to both Metheny and Martyniuk over the turbulent months that followed and recaptured the joy of those events. We are lucky to have live music again, and especially when so many others are deprived of it.

Another obvious reason for adding Metheny tunes to a programme of originals was the inclusion of Dixon Nacey in the band. Nacey’s interpretations of Metheny tunes are standouts. During recent gigs, he has introduced many of these into his repertoire and to much acclaim. He was very much on form last week and his soaring smooth as silk delivery filled the room. His warm sound also complimented the richness of the Martyniuk compositions. One of Nacey’s own compositions was also played.

Videoing this gig proved extremely difficult, as the room was dark and the sightlines impossible. It was also a packed house and so capturing the sound from a suitable location was compromised Those who want to hear more of the group should buy an album or go see them live.

The remaining band members, Cameron McArthur (bass) and Ron Samsom (drums) have long been part of the Martyniuk trio (NZ), having played with him for years and having appeared with him at ‘Java Jazz’. They are highly experienced musician’s and familiar with the material so they can explore its facets.  

Dixon Nacey

My recommendation is to buy Martyniuk’s records and to check out some of the recent YouTube vids captured in his native Poland or Auckland. I don’t know how long he will remain in New Zealand as his career in Poland is on the rise. While he remains here, do check his band out.  It’s a treat you should not deny yourself – from michalmartyniuk.bandcamp.com

The gig was at Anthology, CJC Creative Jazz Club, Wed 14 2021. Michal Martyniuk (piano), Dixon Nacey (guitar), Cameron McArthur (bass), Ron Samsom (drums).  

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.

Wouldland ~ Michael Gianan

Michael Gianan’s ‘Wouldland’ gig caught my attention immediately.  First off, was that wonderfully evocative title (and accompanying poster), suggesting a balm to ease our way through troubled times. For a lover of forests and explorative sounds, it was irresistible. I was hopeful that this event would hit the mark because I have kept an eye on the leader’s trajectory since he graduated with honours from UoA Jazz School two years ago. During that time he has been associated with some diverse and interesting bands. This was his second CJC gig as a leader and the proof was to be in the pudding. 

The gig title suggested an elemental offering and in many ways it was. While it referenced many ideas and styles, all were distilled to their essence. Out of this, Gianan had forged a clear vision. It was a surprisingly mature offering and his strength as a leader became apparent as the sets progressed. He knew exactly what he wanted from the musicians and he signalled his intentions as the tunes progressed. The compositions, while structured, did not confine the musicians. They were pieces written with the ensemble in mind.  

It was particularly evident in the head arrangements, which were anchors for the developments which arose from them. Brief exchanges between guitar and saxophone, momentarily broke free of the structure, and this contrasted with the steady bass lines and drum pulses. There were burners and ballads, and every twist and tune seemed to balance what had preceded it. 

Gianan’s guitar can be either nimble or deliberate, but he never tries to make it just about him. His comping is supportive while the flurry of exchanges with the other musicians are to the point. Gianan’s Jazz school alumni Lukas Fritsch was the perfect foil for him here. His alto lines tight in the heads, and stretching during exchanges. His lines are often elided and I like that, he can say a lot with what he leaves out. Knowing when to leave space is important and again this says something about the quality of the compositions. 

Completing the line up were two experienced musicians, Bass player Mostyn Cole and drummer Ron Samsom. Cole’s electric bass work has appeal. There were fragments of vibrato-tinged melody, played in unison; at other times a pumping groove. He was a late addition to the lineup and a good choice. We expect much from Samsom and we are never disappointed. He seemed to relish playing alongside his former pupil. He was on fire. 

I have put up a clip titled ‘Manara’. Unfortunately, the battery on my Rode mic gave out, so the filming relied on the camera mic. It is not ideal, but the music shines through. All of the compositions were Gianan’s. The tune titles were intriguing and added something to the vibe. Often Jazz musicians pay scant attention to titles, but not so with Gianan ( Wouldland’  ‘B B Tressler’  ‘Maegraeneous’ ‘Astigmatisn’ Manares etc). Enigmatic titles can add value and these felt like they belonged to the tunes.

It is noticeable when a gig flows naturally. Afterwards, something remains with you, an essence, not just a tune, but a sense of what the musician is communicating.  At times, this gig evoked a wistful feel, but it mostly suggested what could be. I for one will wait for what comes next with interest. 

The gig was at Anthology, CJC Jazz Club Auckland 7 April 2021 Michael Gianan (guitar), Lukas Fritsch (alto saxophone), Mostyn Cole (electric bass), Ron Samsom (drums). 

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. Some of these posts appear on other sites by arrangement.

Hot Foot @ Creative Jazz Club

Happenstance is the midwife to surprise and in the musical universe, random events occur often. They appear unheralded, bringing chaos or joy and for seasoned improvisers, they are welcome visitors. So it was with Hot Foot, a band cobbled together in haste; a sonic singularity, a concentration of energy. The advertised gig was an organ trio, but at the last minute, that event was rescheduled, so with hours to spare, Roger Manins revived Hot Foot and how fortuitous that turned out to be. 

There is provenance to Hot Foot, but the details remain sketchy. Leader Manins hinted that they had once played at a village market but a long time ago. He introduced the trio with a story about a Sydney band of similar configuration. A saxophone trio he’d played in as a much younger man. For him, that had been a formative experience, a chance to play without the safety net of a chordal instrument. A chance to cut his musical teeth alongside more experienced players and to road test the Sonny Rollins Way Out West trio thing. 

On Wednesday, the spirit of Rollins hung over the proceedings, the way Manins gnawed away at a tune and tugged at its fabric without losing the form. We were treated to long intros where a familiar melody was hinted at, then abandoned to a flurry of arpeggios. It was riveting to watch and to hear. There were clear signals and subtle hints as the intros unfolded; sometimes accompanied by verbal exclamations or questions directed at the audience or to Jazz School students. The solos were extracted from the tunes by paring them back and then exposing the naked ideas; sometimes stopping at the brink of freedom. If this sounds chaotic it was not. It was a masterclass for Jazz lovers and it was realised in a spirit of joy and levity.

A saxophone trio reveals the melodic lines unadorned, but in doing so there are specific responses required from a bass player and a drummer. Cameron McArthur’s bass gave us some pared-back harmonic references and more importantly, he centred the trio. In this instrumental configuration, it is important that a bass player holds the form, and McArthur did so admirably. This not only gave the saxophonist the room he needed but opened up opportunities for the drummer.

Drummer Ron Samsom made the most of his space and his musical intelligence came to the fore. His was a modulated voice as there was nothing that intruded or jarred, there was a pulse but it was mainly implied. He explored the kits melodic possibilities and added flashes of colour. Improvisers function best in a high trust environment and that was what we saw last week. It is here where experience counts and where a band manifests personality. 

The gig also unleashed Manins alter ego, Comedian Roger. There are often flashes of humour in his musical performances and it is especially evident when he introduces tunes. He never takes himself too seriously and this balances his serious commitment to his art form. His humour is unplanned and you never know what is coming next. The CJC audiences love to see this side of him. The clip I have posted is a Monk tune titled ‘Ask Me Now’. This is a favourite of mine and judging by the whoops of delight when the coda morphed into the tune, it is an audience favourite also. The bravura, the exploration, the verbal interactions; Among the tunes played were songbook standards like favourite ‘Sunny Side of the Street’ (Dorothy Fields/ Jimmy McHugh), Strode Rode (Rollins) and an Australasian Jazz standard, the blistering rendition of Bernie McGann’s ‘Latitude’. Ask Me Now is a question I am happy to answer. Yes, this was a very good night.   

Hot Foot Saxophone Trio: Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums)

The gig took place at Anthology, CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Auckland. March 2021

Ben Frater & Rachel Clarke

Emerging Artists night

It’s impossible to over-estimate the influence that the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) has had on the Auckland and wider New Zealand Jazz scene. For those unfamiliar with its history, the club was set up over a decade ago, as a place to bring original improvised music to discriminating listening audiences. A secondary function was to ensure that emerging artists were given a shot on select gig nights. Last week brought two bands, the Ben Frater Band and the Rachel Clarke band. 

Frater is an undergraduate at the UoA Jazz School and for an emerging performer, his drum-work shows surprising maturity. In common with many up-and-coming performers, his approach is not confined to any particular style and this openness has informed his approach. The gig was billed as swing influenced, but leaning towards fusion, and the descriptor was accurate. Frater is a compelling drummer and he will further enrich the local scene. 

The leader enrolled former and current students for this gig and in consequence, a shared vision was evident. CJC audiences are by now quite familiar with guitarist Michael Gianan and with keyboard wiz  Joe Kaptein; both have featured often during the last year. The other band members were Jimmy Olsen on electric bass, Andrew Isdale on tenor saxophone and Jack Thirtle on trumpet.   

Olson was a powerhouse with those urgent pumping bass-lines; the sounds of Jazz-fusion deserve slippery grooves like that. And Kaptein impressed as he always does, his calm demeanour belying what was flowing from his fingertips. He backed into the pieces like a pro and established grooves on top of grooves; then he reached underneath the bonnet and messed with the sound in a good way.  

The groove tunes took a bold step in the direction of improvised Jazz electronica; the direction of Eivind Aaset in particular. I hope that Frater takes us further down that road. It has until now been a Nordic sound and it is extremely popular in the northern regions. This band gave it a Kiwi flavour, and I for one am ready for more. I have posted a clip titled ‘Montgomery’ (Frater).

The second set brought us, vocalist, Rachel Clarke’s band. Clarke had assembled some formidable firepower. Ben Frater and Jimmy Olsen were present again, Gretel Donnelly and Chelsea Prastiti as backing vocalists, Nathan Haines on flute, Alex Pies on guitar and Ron Samsom on percussion. Clarke is a recent graduate from the UoA Jazz Programme and I first heard her when she was called on at short notice to replace Caitlin Smith at a live gig, just days before the first lockdown.   

All of the tunes in Clarke’s set had a Latin flavour and more specifically, a Portuguese flavour. Many of the tunes were sung in Portuguese. Again, it is a credit to the Auckland University Jazz School that they nurture such diversity within their programme structure. Out of this diversity, an Auckland sound is being forged. 

It can be daunting to find yourself in front of a large discriminating Jazz audience, but Clarke demonstrated her ability to win an audience over. She has a fine voice and she mastered the rhythmic complexities of her Latin tunes with ease. Alex Pipes also nailed the rhythms, with Olsen, Samsom and Frater adding counter pulse and texture. Nathan Haines provided perfect fills and a gorgeous solo or two. His Latin Flute chops are legendary.   

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. 

Ruckus, 2021

For those who don’t live where we live, live gig reports could feel like salt rubbed into a wound. I write from a warm Pacific Island. A place where the virus is not in the community but where we can roam free (we don’t have snakes) and where we have live music available. We have had two short sharp lockdowns this year and as we emerged from each of them, the music venues filled up with enthusiastic punters; so what better way to exit the last lockdown but with joyful noise. Ruckus is a genre defying, assemblage of anarchic improvisers under the guidance of David Ward. 

 Last week saw the inclusion of saxophonist J. Y. Lee in the Ruckus lineup and his bold delivery added piquancy. There were three Monk tunes performed, and on these, Lee played Baritone saxophone. The richer palette worked well and the contrasting instrumentation gave the jagged bouncing lines of Monk’s compositions a rich earthy feel.  Ruckus is one of several local groups which invariably include Monk tunes in their repertoire. Ward’s quirky Monk arrangements are always worth listening to.

Ward’s arrangements for Ruckus are also notable for their eclecticism, their lack of cliche. blues, Americana, latin tinge, free and swing and all fused into a jazz-grounded brew. There were folksy ballads and a tango referencing tune (I have posted the latter). This time, there was less Americana influence but it was still evident. The band’s sound is crafted from pedal steel guitar, a standard electric guitar (or guitars), drums, upright bass and multiple saxophones. 

As always, Neil Watson alternated between pedal steel guitar and standard electric guitar. He and Ward are old hands at this material and they play off each other well. When both played guitar they never got in each other’s way, throwing challenging lines between them or else comping quietly as they laid down a cushion for the other. 

Eamon Edmundson Wells upright bass work stood out on this gig. He sounded great. This is the type of band where he is at his best, the type of band where a degree of freedom is afforded him.  Tristan Deck again proved his worth as a multi-faceted and capable drummer. I loved the stick work on the tango-esque number.

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. Some of the posts also appear on other sites.

Recent Releases ~ February 2021

            Recent Releases ~ Feb 2021

The pandemic hasn’t stopped the music, and while it is true that the clubs, bars and concert halls are placed out of reach for many, music has the qualities of water. It will flow through the cracks until it has found its own level. The recent Kiwi lockdown was mercifully short, and in random and serendipitous ways new music found me. As always, I was happy when it did. Below are three very different albums – check them out.

Early Risers ~ John Scurry’s Reverse Swing

During our recent lockdown I received an album in the post from Lionsharecords. The album, ‘Early Risers’ is John Scurry’s Reverse Swing ensemble, his second such release.  Scurry’s earlier Reverse Swing album ‘Post Matinee’ was showered with praise, with one American reviewer describing it as ‘Ellingtonian’. The 2020 album has 19 original tunes spread over two CD’s and we are invited to view each volume as distinct but complementary.  

Having recently travelled to New Orleans, I detected those influences in this band immediately. When you spend any time in NOLA, you realise that that city’s influences are very broad indeed. Everything from swing to soulful gator-funk, from Sun Ra to the various free jazz offshoots. It is a living, breathing up to the minute music and one with its own flavour. So it is with ‘Early Risers’, and with this album there are also a multiplicity of rich local influences.

I loved the album for its warmth and approachability. It is instantly engaging, but this is not a nostalgic romp. There is real depth here and many treasures are revealed to the deep listener. The interplay between the musicians is simply stunning and their time feel beyond caveat. Track one on the first album is my favourite and while comparisons can be odious, this gave me the same feeling as I had when first hearing the Cy Touff Octet & Quintet album. Perhaps there is even a hint of ‘West Coast’ as well – Sheldon ?

There are many moods and whether a gentle ballad or a hotter number, all contribute uniquely to the whole. Underpinning each number are the quiet urgings of leader John Scurry’s guitar. We hear swing style guitar infrequently these days and more’s the pity. The tunes here were all penned by Scurry and he is also the co-arranger and producer. He has been a popular feature of the Australian scene for many years and I wonder what took him so long to launch this particular project.  to listen go to Early Risers Lionsharecords

The other arranger (and horn arranger) is trumpeter Eugene Ball.  Ball is another veteran of the Melbourne scene and a Bell award winner. I associate him with the moderism of Andrea Keller. Here you are overwhelmed by the richness of his sound. His tone production is often reminiscent of the latter-day swing trumpeters like Harry Sweets’ Edison and Henry ‘Red’ Alan. 

I have also encountered James McCauley, and again I associate him with Keller. He is perfect in these very different rolls. The band members here are John Scurry (guitar, arrangements), Eugene Ball (trumpet, arrangements), Brennan Hamilton-Smith (clarinet),  Stephen Grant (alto sax), Matt Boden (piano) Howard Cairns (bass), Danny Fischer (drums), + Sam Keevers (piano). The textures, tunes and uncanny interplay render this a terrific album. It may have its roots in traditional swing, but I defy anyone, whatever their taste in jazz, not to love this. It is released on Julien Wilson’s lionsharecords.com and on bandcamp. All art-work by John Scurry.

Wax///Wane ~ Lucien Johnson

Wax///Wane was released over summer and I’ve just caught up with it. I am always keen to check out gigs or albums featuring Lucien Johnson, so I downloaded it on Bandcamp. There was no information about the band or the recording on the album page, but my ears began to fill in the gaps. John Bell had to be the vibes player, surely it was him (an online search confirmed that)? Few south of the equator punch out modal grooves quite as convincingly as Bell. Of the remaining four musicians, two were known to me and two not. Michelle Velvin was on harp, Tom Callwood on upright bass, Cory Champion on drums and Riki Piripi on percussion (listed under the undividual tks).  

The album features six compositions and each of these has an evanescent quality. They hint at places we think we might know, but can’t quite remember. Blue Rain, Forest Rendezvous, and Rubicon appear as if in a dream and as with the missing liner notes, we are encouraged to fill in the gaps with our imagination. 

Blue Rain

Johnson has chosen his bandmates well. Bell and Callwood are genre defying and have open-ears, and as with Johnson are well immersed in the freer regions of improvised music. I have seen Cory Champion several times, but never heard him in this context; very impressive. Adding a harp player and percussionist added texture in finely hued layers, and this gave the album that delightful Alice Coltrane feel. It’s great to see the harp revived as an improvisers instrument and especially with the vibes. They could get in each others way, but in skilled hands this is avoided and a shimmering pulse arises to good effect.

Johnson is a musician we most often associate with the Wellington scene, but these days he is perhaps better termed an international musician. Like all modern saxophonists, there is a foundation of Coltrane in his sound. There is also an airy freedom. Here, he has curated a groove fest. The sort of grooves that Bobby Hutcherson, Alice and John Coltrane, Julian Priester and others explored. It is what might be loosely termed spiritual Jazz. Music defying the mundane, an invitation to a better place where gravity is abandoned. In times like this we need music, and actually, we need more music like this. Music that stimulates the imagination and doesn’t preach.  The playing here is superb but don’t over think the experience, sink into it and enjoy the trip.  The cover-art is by Julien Dyne. Available on Bandcamp Lucienjohnson.bandcamp.com

Alan Broadbent/Georgia Mancio  ~ ‘Quiet is the Star’

Alan Broadbent has an unerring ear for melody and this is in part, why he makes such a sensitive accompanist. While his albums can really swing, they also take direct aim at the heart. An astonishing technical mastery is evident but it is never allowed to obscure the essence of a tune. To put it more simply, he connects us to real emotions and to human life with its manifest joys and frailties. There are innumerable facets to his long and formidable career and none should be overlooked. 

Most recently, he released ‘Trio in Motion’ his second album with bassist Harvie S and drummer Billie Mintz. And if you haven’t done so before now, check out his discography, a body of work that astounds; critically acclaimed albums, two Grammys and so it goes. The man is a legend. 

‘Quiet is the Star’ is the second album from the Broadbent/Mancio duo. Their last album’ Songbook’ aired in 2017 and it was pure delight; this new release is a welcome follow up. Georgia Mancio is a London-based award-winning vocalist and lyricist and the pairing has reaped dividends.  They have performed together since 2013 and toured Europe and elsewhere to acclaim. 

Mancio has a lovely voice and she uses it to great effect, her emphasis though is on breathing life into her lyrics. The stories she reveals are intimate and she invites the listener to share in these experiences. While all good duos are conversational, here we are invited in on the conversation and it is a privilege.   Released by Roomspin Records 27 March. Cover artwork Simon Manfield.

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. some of these posts also appear in other music sites. When purchasing, please support the Bandcamp platform whenever possible. Respect musicians rights.  

Multiple Streams, Deeper Rivers

I have been absent during the last month as my computer was deliberately unplugged. I needed time to walk among trees, read and spend time with visiting family. None of the above kept me from checking out new music and it afforded me some time to reflect more on the global changes feeding Jazz. There is nothing quite like a pandemic to make us re-evaluate our place in the world and to make us value comity over isolation. These connecting threads lead us into every corner of the improvised music diaspora. 

Just in time for the holidays, I gave several Christmas presents to myself. The first was Keith Jarrett’s magnificent ‘Sun Bear Concerts’ box-set, recorded in Japan (which I had long lusted after). It was fitting in light of the news that Jarrett is unlikely to perform or record again due to a debilitating stroke. This boxset has often been overlooked. It is a musical statement of pure genius.  The second album was a recent release ‘Architexture’ by the German Jazz musician Florian Ross. ‘Architexture’ is an extraordinary album, sitting astride the broader traditions of ensemble Jazz. It is configured atypically and consequently it has a distinctly airy feel to it. 

The album features a traditional jazz quartet, augmented by a conducted seven-piece wind ensemble. Ross is a gifted composer (and pianist) and his music has often been performed by large jazz orchestras such as the WDR. In this case, a more unusual configuration has let in additional light, while at the same time offering a rich and diverse textural soundscape. Using this palate Ross has crafted a programatic and personal journey through the world’s architecture.   

The music speaks strongly of place, but not just Germany (where Ross lives). It speaks of the locations where his favourite architecture is found, and out of that comes an idiosyncratic chiasma. The streams that feed this album are plentiful and among them the twentieth century western classical tradition. The only composition not his own is an arrangement of Elgar’s Nimrod (var.9) for saxophone and wind ensemble. Elgar composed many of his works in a rented cottage and it is ‘Brinkwells Cottage’ in conjunction with Elgar’s works which inspired that particular arrangement.  

From start to finish, this is a worthwhile journey, an evocation of archtectural visions, the places and sounds that inspired their constructions, and of course of Ross’s connection to those places. Alvaro Siza of Portugal, Antoni Gaudi of Catalonia Spain, the incomparable Oscar Niemeyer who designed Brasilia and many more. His Developments 1-4 are short through-composed pieces dedicated to specific architectural spaces or forms; Brazilian Architecture, the floor plan of a cathedral, the suburban prefabricated house, Bavarian Rococo; and dear to my heart ‘Glebe Cottage’ the home of Jazz pianist John Taylor.  

The Album is out on the German Naxos label and can be accessed on streaming sites. I urge you to buy a physical copy as the booklet is a small masterpiece. Featured are some wonderful musicians, Florian Ross (piano, compositions) Sebastian Gille (saxophone), David Helm (double bass), Fabian Arends (drums), The Event Wind Ensemble, Susanne Blumenthal (noted conductor). The album can be ordered in stores or online. For more information check out www.florianross.de 

Just before Christmas I attended a concert by Auckland based Musician Ben Fernandez. The occasion was the release of his latest album ‘The Music Never Stopped’ but it also served as a homage to the spirit that was evident in the community during the New Zealand COVID lockdowns. Fernandez is of Goan extraction but was musically active in Mumbai before settling in New Zealand. He studied Jazz at several Auckland institutions and is a regular performer about town. He has also maintained a connection to the Bollywood Film industry. Along the way his musical influences have been rich and varied and he showcased many of those during his concert of mostly original compositions.  

There was a spontaneous improvised piano piece, A tribute to his former teacher Phil Broadhurst, tunes written for various family members and of particular interest to me, a duo involving Persian musician Rasoul Abbasi.  Abbasi played a Kamancheh which is an ancient-bowed instrument with a wonderfully mournful tone. The composition itself, and the contrast between piano and Kamancheh worked to the advantage of both (I have posed a sound clip). This ability to make strong and authentic intercultural connections is where Fernandez excels. It spoke to the universality of the improvised music traditions, and of empathy and the Jazz sensibilities. 

Another tune of Fernandez which captured a pan-global essence was a piece written for a beloved family member ‘Chuchi’.  I have included that as a video clip. The line-up was varied and featured many of the musicians he had studied with such as Andrew Hall (who gave a great saxophone solo on the heartfelt tribute to Phil Broadhurst). The musicians on the trio number were Jo Shum (bass) and Ron Samsom (drums).  The concert finished up with Auckland vocalist Maria O’flaherty singing a great rendition of the much-loved standard ‘What a Difference a Day Makes’. In light of the pandemic, the tune had added resonance. ‘The Music Never Stopped’ features Ben Fernandez (compositions, arrangements, piano), Jo Shum (bass), Ron Samsom (drums), Warren Mendonsa (guitar), Rasoul Abbasi (Kamancheh), Jess Rogers (vocals), CeleBRationChoir conducted by Alison Talmadge. The album is available from benfernandez.com 

While writing this, a number of interesting review copies and new releases hit my inbox. Among them, a soon to be released album from a Lebanese Jazz bassist Makram Aboul Hosn titled ‘Transmigration’. This wonderfully inventive musician has released his first album under extremely adverse conditions. As well as facing the devastation of COVID19 in Lebanon, there have been ongoing violent political upheavals, Banks froze the artists touring money, and if that were not enough, there was a devastating Port Explosion. The recording of ‘Transformation’ went ahead anyhow only three days after that last mentioned cataclysm. His is an album well worth checking out and to top off the stelar ensemble performances there are a number of guest artists like Joe Locke (who appeared remotely). The album will soon be available from all major streaming platforms. This is proof that high-quality Jazz exists everywhere. The artists are Makram Aboul Hosn, Nidal Abou Samra, Christopher Shaheen, Khaled Yassine, Joe Locke, Tariq Amery, Sima Itayim. Release date 18th February.

The last album to be mentioned is an ECM offering by Norwegian Kantele player and folk/Jazz vocalist Sinikka Langeland. The cut I will post is from her last release and it is so measured and so beautiful that it sends a shiver down the spine. Langeland is accompanied by Jazz Nordic legends in this album. She performs with the likes of Arve Henriksen, Trygve Seim and Anders Jorman. The YouTube track posted is ‘Deep in the Forest’. Available from all music stores and from streaming sources.  

All of the above demonstrate the multiplicity of influences feeding Jazz. From multiple streams come deeper rivers. 

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. Many of these posts also appear on Radio13.co.nz – check it out.

What Jazz Musicians Read (The lost libraries of Impronesia)

There are projects which begin with a bold imaginative vision, only to founder on the reefs of overreach. This was just such a project.  It was during the first lockdown that an idea formed; triggered by an email exchange with a New York Jazz musician. During our communications, the discussions had shifted from music to books and we both drew comfort from that. The gigs had all vanished and musicians everywhere were suffering. We had lost Lee Konitz and Henry Grimes to the virus and the bad news kept coming at us like an out of control freight train. By common assent we realised that there was little use in dwelling on the horrors at the door, so we sought solace in the warm embrace of classic literature. 

The rebuke from my bookshelf

‘I see that you’ve been reading ‘Don Quixote’ he said, as I often post reviews of my reading material on Facebook. ‘It’s next on my must-read list’ he added. The discussion then shifted to plague literature as I had been reading ‘Samual Pepys Diaries’ to see how he navigated the 1665 London plague. That was followed by ‘The Plague’ by Albert Camus and ‘A Journal of the Plague Year’ by Daniel Defoe. The books were strangely comforting; proving that there is nothing new under the sun, just variations on ancient themes. Books like that, with the clarity of hindsight, can reveal what is currently obscured by proximity. 

What have you been reading I asked? He replied with an impressive list of books which ranged from ‘The History of the Peloponnesian War’ by Thucydides to modern political biographies and sociological studies of the American psyche. 

At that point and without real evidence, I decided that Jazz musicians were voracious readers. It made sense due to the preternatural sparking of the improviser neurons. I further speculated that creatives may handle adversity better than others, as they possess a richer interior life. My own encounters with improvisers reinforced that view as they are overwhelmingly articulate, liberally minded and they understand the arc of history. What arose out of that was my big idea. 

That improvisation was not only fed by notes and imaginings but by artistic cross-connections; resulting in subliminal intertextuality. 

At the time I was conducting ZOOM interviews for the US-based Jazz Journalists Association website. As I interviewed the musicians I would glance over their shoulders to see what was on their bookshelves. What I saw reinforced my view. Convinced that I was onto something, I became the voyeur, hunting online for Jazz lockdown interviews and living room gigs: looking behind the subjects to the books in the background. Writers are obsessed with others reading habits and seldom grasp how uncomfortable it can make people.

My next step was to design a survey and this is where my vision crashed to earth. I have designed many surveys in my life, but for some reason, I forgot the basic elements. Survey basics 101: (1) ensure that the survey captures a wide enough sampling of your target demographic to be truly reflective of the group. (2) randomise the selection within target areas and don’t cherry-pick in order to get the answer you expect. (3) anonymise the forms and the returns to ensure that the answers that you receive are without prejudice. (4) choose the wording carefully and never preempt a conclusion by telling the participants what you expect to find. (5) never send out a survey just before Christmas. 

Apologies to Alberto Manguel for defacing his wonderful cover art

It is fair to say, that I not only failed to meet the basic design standards, but I also managed to scare off almost all of the participants. Even those who were normally happy to engage with me. It was the worst of all worlds from their point of view. Because they were replying under their own names, their choices were as follows: (1) risk looking like a geeky bespectacled barn owl. (2) risk looking like a dumb-arse in front of their intellectual peers. (3) tell lies, then risk exposure later when an ex-girlfriend called them out on the lie and mocked them on social media, posting pics of empty bookshelves.  (4) play it safe and pull down the cone of silence. 

Here is an overview of the replies: Only one musician fulfilled all of my expectations and his replies revealed both breadth and depth. A gifted European musician said he read manuals for relaxation and little else. He had no books on his plan-to-read list and confessed, that the only library in his home was his wife’s (I take that reply with a large pinch of salt owing to the many erudite references in his song titles). Another replied that he had read half a comic during the lockdown. Yet another prominent local musician, from whom I regularly receive erudite reading lists, went ominously silent. 

Hindsight is an exact science and the flaws in my methodology never occurred me until after I had sent out the survey. The results, such as they were, revealed a different story than intended. I had wasted a perfectly good theory on the altar of poor design. I still ascribe to the theory of subliminal intertextuality, but a better scholar than me will have to pursue that study. I have no doubt that it is real and my abject failure to nail it down will taunt me, every time I spot a clever literary reference in a Jazz tune or in an album title. 

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. His blogs also appear on the Radio13 website

Dixon Nacey Band ~ CJC December 2020

With 2020 nearly done, the penultimate gig at the CJC was an optimistic signpost; signalling hope and possibility. After a long and turbulent year, the music had bounced back better than ever and in spite of the obstacles along the way new energies were flowing. In amongst the offerings from our up-and-coming artists were gigs and albums by our finest. Last Wednesday’s Dixon Nacey Band and the release of Kevin Field’s ‘Soundtology’, stand out as musical high points. In a year of plague and pestilence, the music only grew stronger. There is a thing about genuine creatives; when the bats start to circle, they work with the chaos and create better. Dixon Nacey is very much in that category; what an extraordinary musician. 

Nacey appeared this time, with the same lineup that accompanied him on his Tui award-winning ‘Edge of Chaos’ album. There were numbers from the album, plus a few new tunes. In addition, he played a blues and two arrangements of Pat Metheny tunes which delighted everyone. I had missed his Ponsonby Road Metheny gig, which everyone who attended, raved about for weeks afterwards. 

Punching Bag (Nacey)

Nacey is a musician who keeps moving forward, and with each passing year, he reaches new heights. He is less inclined these days to rely on pedals and an uncluttered spaciousness is evident in many of his compositions. What he has absorbed has now been internalised, so there is no over-thinking, and out of that comes clarity and a cleaner sound. This enables him to say more and to give deeper meaning to the notes and phrases and underlying everything is some great writing. Playing like this demonstrates the best features of his Godin guitar, which in return, reveals its best self. The tune above is a recent Nacey composition. New Zealand Jazz at its finest.

And Then I knew (Metheny)

The band were superb and the tricky unison lines were executed well. Roger Manins is an excellent reader, and you could not have slid a cigarette paper between his and Nacey’s lines in the head arrangements. And behind those, adding fills or comping unobtrusively was Kevin Field. Responding exactly as he should and consequently giving the music a floating quality. There were rhythmic complexities on many of the numbers, but because they were navigated so well, they were rendered as easy. One or two pieces came close to being a shuffle beat, but not quite. This was a layered sound and the complexity of the overlaying time signatures needed skilled craftsman to make them fit properly. The reason it held together so well was down to Oli Holland on bass and Andy Keegan on drums. This is how a tight unit should function. What we got was a superb night of engaging music and it brought us end-of-year joy.

Dixon Nacey: guitar, arrangements, compositions – Roger Manins : tenor saxophone – Kevin Field: piano – Olivier Holland : bass – Andy Keegan : drums

The gig took place at Anthology K’Road for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, December 9, 2020

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. Many of these posts also appear on Radio13.co.nz – check it out.

Umar Zakaria ~ Fearless Music Collective

Umar Zakaria is an easy-going soul, but on the bandstand, he is a sonic warrior. He evokes a Mingus like presence with his powerful resonating bass lines; pushing, urging, as he rides the momentum. Although he was situated behind the horn line, his presence was palpable. You could see him dancing in the shadows, as his bass moved frenetically, and your ears took you straight to the nexus of fingers and strings.

 It is good to see that a band arising from Zakaria’s award-winning Fearless Music album survives. The album was marvellous and I would urge anyone who has not checked it out to do so. It brought a new perspective to New Zealand’s Jazz scene and one which we embraced. The album won the 2018 Jazz Tui against some very stiff opposition and deservedly so. It was a showcase for Zakaria’s compelling compositions, which drew upon the music of his Malaysian roots. It was a quartet featuring Roger Manins, Leo Coghini and Luther Hunt. 

The current Fearless Music Collective has an expanded lineup. This time, there was a four-piece horn-line and that opened up new possibilities. Zakaria’s arrangements, in particular, were impressive, as the players were given room to interact organically. It was nowhere more evident than on ‘Deadline’ with its textural qualities and interwoven communicability. It kept to a simple theme but told a big story. It was slick and appealing, but with a controlled raggedness that you usually find in a New Orleans street-band (or in a Mingus ensemble).  

The over-arching kaupapa of any collective is to provide a vehicle for its members to contribute, and they did. The compositions were varied in nature and often quirky, like the trombone players ’See You on the Launchpad’.  Others were more reflective like Zakaria’s ‘100 Homes’, evoking the impermanence of his student years.  Apart from the leader’s tunes, I was impressed by the pianist’s tune ‘Well Kept’, and the trumpeter’s titled ‘Freight Train’. The latter was a recreation of the trumpet led Hard-Bop era and it crackled with life. It is good to see young trumpet and trombone players coming through. Compared to Australia, New Zealand has lagged behind. 

Throughout, however, it was the powerful presence of the bass which guided and spoke from the music’s heart. It was not that the bass overwhelmed, but that it spoke with such authoritative clarity. It was obviously a bass players band, and no one would wish it otherwise. The album can be sourced from https://www.umarzakaria.com or purchased from NZ retail outlets.

The Fearless Music Collective: Umar Zakaria (bass), George McLaurin (piano), James Guilford (trumpet), Martin Greshoff (trombone), Nicholas Baucke-Maunsell (alto saxophone), Aiden McCulloch (tenor saxophone), James Feekes (drums). 

The gig took place at Anthology K’Road for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, December 9, 2020JazzLocal32.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. Many of these posts also appear on Radio13

Bonita ~ Chelsea Prastiti

Chelsea Prastiti’s Bonita gig was a phantasmagoria of warm evocative sounds. I have the greatest respect for her work and in this case, she curated something rare; she conjured up the vibe from another place and time, and she did so without a hint of contrivance. The Brazil of the sixties and seventies with its Bossa Nova soundtrack was an era of infinite possibility. In the end, the dream was stolen by a repressive authoritarian regime but the music, a timeless gift to the world, lived on. Over the last half-century, the Jobim songbook, in particular, has remained popular, and while some interpretations have been breathtaking, others, have been pale imitations. 

What Prastiti has done here is both respectful and innovative. She has composed a suite of tunes that nails the vibe as it taps into the essence of New Wave Brasileira while evoking the founding era. The concept for this gig and many of the tunes were conceived years ago. Prastiti had other projects cooking back then, and so she waited her time. As it turns out, she timed it perfectly. With our borders closed, the desire for high-quality Kiwi music is at an all-time high. Audiences are not being distracted by ‘once again and for the very last time’ tours by fading greats, and the realisation is dawning that homegrown is often better. 

Stars above water below

Another plus for holding the gig now was that her friends and collaborators were all within reach: notably, Elizabeth Stokes and Ben Sinclair of ‘The Beths’. The recent winners in the Best Group category at the NZ Music Awards would probably have been back on a world tour right now, but the pandemic curtailed that. The ensemble members all go back quite a way with Prastiti and I believe that the warmth they radiate arises from those long-held connections. 

Cassandra

The ten-piece ensemble oozed a Brazilian vibe, with its flute players and fingerstyle acoustic guitar. Add to this the unmistakable rhythms of Samba and Bossa Nova and the course was set. There was a horn section of trumpet and a tenor saxophone and one of the flute players doubled on clarinet. Behind them was an upright bass, drum kit and percussion and in the darkness, and to one side, a piano. The arrangements were beautifully textured and the harmonies absolutely gorgeous. As well as the instrumental harmonies, there were vocal harmonies contributed by two of the instrumentalists (one being Stokes, who has a fabulous voice – the success of the Beths underscores that). Prastiti composed all of the tunes and arranged most of them. The other credits go to Sinclair who arranged Prism, Callum Passells who arranged Bumblebee and Kenji Iwamitsu-Holdaway who is co-credited for the composition titled ‘Stars Above and Water Below’. 

Chelsea Prastiti is one the most innovative vocalists to appear on the local scene and she is never afraid to take risks or to explore new territory. The rest of her ensemble were: Elizabeth Stokes on trumpet and vocals, Crystal Choi, who appeared last week, this time on piano and vocals; bringing a beautifully voiced minimalism to the proceedings and echoing Tom Jobim’s delicate spidery lines. Roger Manins was on tenor saxophone with fills and some tasteful solos – J Y lee played an edgy melodic flute (it is not his primary, but he brought expression to an instrument that in the wrong hands can lack it). Beside him was Ben Sinclair (bass guitarist from the Beths), alternating between clarinet and flute, the ever-reliable Adam Tobeck was on the drum kit, with Ron Samsom on percussion. Lastly, and hidden in the shadows was Michael Howell, utilising the voicings and fingerstyle of the Brazilian acoustic guitar. He absolutely nailed those warm pulsing rhythms which fell about us like a warm summer shower.  

Eleven years ago, I began this Jazz blog and one of my first posts was an opinion piece about this era. I looked back at it today for the first time since writing it, and apart from a few missing commas, it stands up. I was worried when I wrote it that it might get something wrong, but a Brazilian musicologist messaged me to thank me for it. Anyone wanting to gain an additional sense of this era could follow the link to my original post. It is an opinion piece, but it could serve as a springboard to more authoritative, Brazilian-sourced information. https://jazzlocal32.com/2011/06/07/wave-antonio-carlos-jobim/

The gig took place at Anthology K’Road for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, November 25, 2020

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. Many of these posts also appear on Radio13.co.nz – check it out.

Choi/Howell ~ Kõmanawa

Kômanawa is a duo, and duos are seldom heard in the bigger Jazz clubs. The gig was billed as a first for the CJC, but what of ‘Showa 44’ I thought? That was an Australian duo featuring Carl Dewhurst & Simon Barker, so I checked back, and although Showa 44 was a duo, they had included Roger Manins as guest. So yes, Kõmanawa was a first. 

There is a unique kind of intimacy to a Jazz duo performance and it is quite unlike other configurations. It is a fluid conversation between equals and in that regard Chrystal Choi and Michael Howell were well matched. They may have different styles, but they are both attentive listeners and they showed respect for each other’s musical space. 

Over the years there have been plenty of fabulous Jazz duos and the best of the duo albums remain perennially popular: Charley Haden & Pat Metheny, (also Haden with Hank Jones or Kenny Barron), Bill Evans & Jim Hall, and my favourite, Carla Bley & Steve Swallow. The Jazz duo is a unique form and especially suited to nuanced musical conversations.  Out of that a skillful interplay arises. People took particular note when Evans cut the two albums with Hall, because a piano and guitar can all too easily occupy the same register and get in each-others way. 

All of the above had been assimilated by this duo and they wove around each other with care. Their performance was also warm and engaging, and as they played, you felt like you were eavesdropping on an intimate conversation. That is how a duo performance works best, avoiding any fireworks, and by modulating showiness. The audience got that and paid close attention. 

While both musicians contributed tunes, the majority were from Choi. I was so engaged that I failed to notice that I had not switched on the external camera mic. The absence of the small green light dawned on me just before the end of the gig and the tune that I most wanted to post is recorded as a well-choreographed silent movie. The tune in question was titled ‘Playground Song’ (Choi) and it swung softly like a Carla Bley/Swallow tune. You will have to take my word for that, but it really did. There is an EP or an LP waiting to happen here, and I hope that they record this material. I captured only one tune, the second to last tune. It is an arrangement of a tune that Choi wrote for her Indie pop group.

Throughout, Choi moved between the piano and vintage Wurlitzer, Howell sometimes used a slide and produced wonderfully atmospheric sounds. The gig took place at the Creative Jazz Club, Anthology, November 18, 2020.

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. Many of these posts also appear on Radio13.co.nz – check it out.

Kevin Field ~ Soundtology

With closed borders and venue restrictions biting, the release date for Kevin Field’s ‘Soundtology’ album became a movable feast. The original proposal would have seen some of his New York band appear, but because of the pandemic, that plan was ditched. If he was flustered by these frustrating circumstances it didn’t show. Making a virtue out of necessity he engaged local musicians and launched his album anyway. It was a night to remember.

Field is one of our finest musicians and his reputation stretches far beyond these shores. He has previously recorded with highly-rated New York Jazz musicians and also with the best of New Zealand’s improvisers. As an adventurous musician, Field eschews stasis and his developmental arc is particularly evident with this latest album. He is an artist who arrives at a successful formula and then turns it on its head. With each album, he makes references to his earlier works, and then he moves foreword. Everything that has gone before becomes a springboard to a new moment and each iteration is better than that preceding it. 

There is a lot to like about Fields new album ‘Soundtology’. The tunes are sublimely melodic, and as always, his trademark harmonic developments astound. I have always enjoyed his avoidance of cliche and in this case, there is something else. Even when upbeat, the tunes feel more contemplative, and the space afforded, lets the music speak with clarity.  This is the album of a mature composer and it is deserving of wide acclaim.

‘Good Friday’ Live in Auckland

The album has eleven tunes and features two quartets (alternating throughout). This provides contrast while not affecting the flow and continuity. All of these tunes belong together and each unit locates something special. The first quartet features Field (Piano Rhodes),  Nir Felder (guitar), Orlando Le Fleming (bass) and Charles Haynes (drums). The second quartet has Field (piano, Rhodes) Mike Moreno (guitar), Matt Penman (bass) and Nate Wood (drums). These are heavy hitters and Field could not have chosen better crews to spin gold out of his compositions. I was immediately drawn to the inclusion of Moreno, one of the worlds great guitar improvisers. I once flew to Sydney just to catch a concert of his. 

‘Soundtology’ is a beautifully presented album and it was recorded to perfection.  It is an album to be enjoyed on many levels; for its beauty and freshness and for its accessibility. If ever there was an example of complex music made to sound easy, it is here. The tunes are beguiling and memorable, but underlying them are twists and turns which elevate the tunes into listening adventures. A good example is the first track Quintus Maximus. It opens over an ostinato sequence, where a broken rhythmic pattern is established by bass and Rhodes. The intro is a teaser as it hints at possible directions without necessarily committing to them; then the melody soars and brings it together until the underlying ostinato phrases reappear. An interesting and enjoyable piece of music. 

The second tune, ‘Good Friday’ is a great composition. It is among the most melodic of Fields tunes and it has been around since he first recorded it on his 2012 Warner release ‘Field of Vision’. Back in 2012, the tune was a slower-paced offering. Over the last few years, I have heard it performed often; now, it has emerged as a punchier version of its former self. It is fascinating to hear good tunes like this under constant development. This is what Field does and it is his impulse toward reinvention that elevates him beyond the pack.  It is not surprising that he was recently awarded a doctorate.

There is no better example of its ongoing trajectory than the version of Good Friday we heard at Wednesday’s live performance. It had been rearranged to include a bass clarinet and a soprano saxophone. There were two guitarists as in the album, but the addition of the horns gave us yet another vantage point from which to examine the composition. A band member told me afterwards that the charts were interestingly structured. They forced the soloists to think outside of the square and to avoid any formulaic approach. 

‘People factory’ was the perfect vehicle for Moreno, Penman and Wood. This number is like silk in a ruffling breeze, I have never heard Moreno sound better (and he always sounds good). The responsiveness Field extracts from Wood and Penman is also marvellous. This is seamless interplay at its best.  Actually, everything is great on this album and there’s plenty of variety.  This one is 4.5 stars. My advice is, buy multiple copies and impress everyone with your hip good taste.

‘Soundtology’ by Keven Field ~ Released on TimezoneRecords.com 2020

Album: Keven Field (piano, Fender Rhodes), Mike Moreno, Nir Felder (guitar), Matt Penman, Orlando Le    Fleming (bass), Charles Hayes, Nate Wood (drums).   

Live gig: Kevin Field (piano, Fender Rhodes), Michael Howell & Kieth Price (guitars), Nathan Haines (tenor, soprano saxophones), Lewis McCallum (bass clarinet), Cam McArthur (bass), Stephen Thomas (drums).

The live gig took place at Anthology K’Road for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, November 11, 2020

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. Many of these posts also appear on Radio13.co.nz – check it out.