Dave Lisik Interview

This interview took place while jazz trumpeter Dave Lisik was in London on study leave. It had been teed up for some time but our plans were interrupted by the chaos that trailed on the heels of Covid. Dave has many strings to bow and not least his role as Senior Lecturer, Coordinator of Jazz composition at the School of Music, Victoria University, Wellington. Among his disciplines, are teaching Jazz pedagogy, composition, theory and arranging. Born in Canada and completing his higher education in various US Universities, he arrived in New Zealand in 2010 and he has remained here ever since, involving himself in a variety of important musical projects.  

On a personal note, there has been a long gap between posts and I appreciate the continued support and blog views during my absence. In July, I contracted a bad case of Covid, which has unfortunately been followed by debilitating Long Covid. I will endeavour to keep writing, my brain allowing, and I have reviews and interviews waiting in the wings. I can not attend live gigs at present, but I have access to various gig sound recordings and lots of review copies of new albums. Again, thanks to those who follow JL32. I appreciate you all. Improvised music is too good not to share. 

JL32 Thanks for giving me your time Dave: 

I am interested in the teaching connections between Canada and NZ. You, Ron Samsom, and Keith Price, all teaching Jazz studies at New Zealand Universities. A Canadian occupation seems to be occurring.

DL  Ha, yeah, Keith is from the same province I’m from and we were friends on FB. He saw the advertisement for Auckland University which I’d posted on my Facebook page. So in that case it was not random.

JL32   Your bio says that your musical education began in the Canadian Education system and I gather that certain places in Canada have an enlightened musical education curriculum.

DL  Manitoba, the province where I’m from, has a really strong focus on music education. It was the first place in the world to have a government-sanctioned Jazz curriculum. So pretty much every high school and junior high school had a Jazz band and a jazz curriculum to follow, so I wouldn’t be doing anything that I’m doing now if it wasn’t for that system in place. A lot of people do what they do because they had parents, siblings or a relative exposing them to that, but it wasn’t my experience. My interest in Jazz arose out of the jazz curriculum.  

JL32   What was your first instrument?

DL   The organ, I took organ lessons from second grade and sixth grade. What we don’t see in New Zealand is elementary-school music. My experience was that in Kindergarten (year one here) we had a forty-minute music class which happened four times in a six-day cycle. So four classes a week from the first day at school. So when ‘band’ starts, everyone knows the basics of theory and practice.

JL32    Learning music is essential no matter what field you’re going into. It gives you life skills, right? 

DL   Music should be taught more than it is in NZ. I have two daughters and that is a concern, but in my case, what they don’t get in the system, I can supplement.  

JL32   In Europe, an appreciation of the creative arts is so embedded in the culture that it is not even a topic of debate. Do you see gradual change happening here?

DL  So, we’re running traditional university music programmes throughout the country but we don’t have that (early learning) foundational strength and we are drawing on a smaller base. I do have reason to be hopeful though. I have noticed a considerable uptick in the abilities of university-level students in the thirteen years that I have been here. 

It often feels fragile though, as if it could disappear. Rodger Fox and I have been running the New Zealand Youth Jazz Orchestra for eleven years now but covid meant that we couldn’t run it during the last two years. You build things and it can be sort of precarious unless legislation is in place. Receiving quality students in an intake can depend on having a good teacher in a particular high school and unfortunately, those teachers come and go.

JL32   It has been that way in Auckland as well. A few exceptional secondary school teachers bring on some amazing musicians, and then they leave.

DL  I have adjudicated the KBB Music festival for a couple of years and there are like 750 Jazz kids at that festival and 43 Big Bands which means that there are enough people interested in Jazz to proceed from there. If we could get the right material to those students we could create something miraculous in no time. So the bands are there but getting quality pedagogical instruction to those teachers is important, teaching improvisation skills for instance. 

JL32   What do think about hybridity because that is attractive to many Jazz students today? Maybe that has always been the case. By its very nature, I believe that jazz has always been open to other influences and forms.

DL  I have some students looking into this right now, but some stupid arguments rage on Facebook. You know, ‘what is Jazz’ arguments?

JL32   Yeah, tell me about it, who fucking cares as long as it’s good music informed by Jazz right? There are some notable examples of Jazz students doing very well in the indie-pop or mainstream music world. The tag is less important among younger players. The French group Aquaserge do not tag themselves as Jazz at all, but when you listen it is all there in the harmonies, textured dissonant horn lines with bass clarinet  etc, 

DL  When Jazz trained people play other types of music, I’m thinking the Marsalis Brothers, Chris Potter, Donny McCaslin etc. They bring jazz to a classical or hip-hop project because it is part of them. It might be playing a classical piece slower, whatever. 

JL32   Mehldau interpreting Bach, or Jarrett. 

DL  When someone at the highest level, trained in the Jazz discipline, does something like that, I am endlessly fascinated by it. I think, what can a brain like Brad Mehldau’s bring to bear here? As a composition teacher I look to see if it’s interesting and in the end, that’s all that matters. Every new note and every choice is a chance to be as interesting as possible. Everything else is a tool to that end. 

JL32  Any further examples?

DL The best musicians I’ve had the opportunity to record with are New York musicians and most of them are very capable of undertaking projects that are very jazz adjacent, like Seamus Blake and Alex Sipiagin. They do not get enough credit for the capability they possess to play music outside of the genre norms. A restricted view some have.  

JL32  In classical, Glen Gould!

DL  He was an absolute genius, a Canadian. 

JL32  I didn’t know that he came from Canada.

DL  Yes, a brilliant and strange dude.  Stylistically and in mentality, he was not a Keith Jarrett, but you could almost imagine he could have been with the right influence. Keith Jarrett is one of my absolute favourites and although it’s an overused term, if anyone could be called a genius it is Jarrett. I can listen to that trio for hours at a time, my concentration, unbroken. He didn’t invent the format and plays standards but in an endlessly captivating way.  They don’t have to do the expected, it just draws you in.

JL32  And the Sun Bear concerts cut deep.

DL That’s a big box set for sure. I saw him do a solo concert in the Chicago Symphony Hall just before I came to New Zealand and I would have travelled anywhere in America to hear him. People say, what’s your favourite Jarrett but it’s difficult to choose, it’s the body of work.

JL32   Some Jarrett lovers ignore the work he did with Dewey Redman and Charlie Haden and I think, why would you do that? As you say, it’s a body of work. So to get back to your musical journey, it looks like you then headed south, over the border.

DL  Yeah I headed just over the border, first to North Dakota. I did my undergraduate studies there and then I completed my masters in Iowa, again south, but not too far from Canada. Then I taught high school for a few years in Canada before heading to Memphis in 2003 to do my doctorate around that time. Post 9/11, I thought, what is it that I wanted to do?  It was to write more music, study more and play more trumpet and Memphis was fantastic for that. I was very lucky as I got to study for my master’s and doctorate for free.

JL32  You weren’t tempted by ‘McGill’ in Montreal which has a strong focus on trumpet?

DL   I did think about it seriously. I was probably a couple of steps below where I needed to be to deal with McGill as an undergrad. Now, I think about what it would take for my students here in NZ to take that giant leap and consider a McGill or New York. Those seemed pretty insurmountable concepts when I was 17yrs old. I was winning awards at school festivals but there was still a gap to get me to that next level. That was the gap and that is always the gap in Jazz. It goes back to what you learn in a school orchestra, say playing the violin. If you can read music and play then you begin to imagine that you could do that in university. It’s the same deal. 

With a Jazz band, there is this whole other dynamic, being able to play solos and improvising, and if you don’t have that, doing a jazz major may not be on your radar. That’s one of the overlooked components in teaching Jazz at high school. It’s not that you are producing great improvisers, but setting them on that path. A city like Auckland is big enough and vibrant enough to have a vibrant high school jazz scene, involving serious tax dollars to get there, but it’s doable. But I am one step removed from solving that problem, I don’t live there.

JL32  It’s dependent in Auckland, or New Zealand, on being lucky enough to find yourself with a gifted music teacher, one who grasps that (we discuss a few examples of gifted music teachers).

DL  Almost everyone in the Jazz world has had the same experience, that they had a great music teacher. And those people inspire, some of their pupils then realise the importance of becoming Jazz teachers and they say, I could be that person. But not many New Zealand Jazz students can imagine themselves as being the Jazz teachers of their younger selves.

JL32  A similar country the size of New Zealand is Norway and they are producing so many great improvisers and probably underpinning that will be lots of great teachers. And they have shown innovation.

DL Some places are more comfortable with a wider variety of improvised forms for sure. Following the more traditional path though. I am a bit cautious about what I advise students to do, a bit more traditionalist I guess.  I had a student Henry Sherris, one of the more gifted students to come out of the high school programme. He plays on the recent CD that we released. He didn’t have a strong high school band to participate in, but I taught him trumpet privately for six years.  He got a scholarship to the ‘Manhattan School of Music and he’s in his second year there. He left in the middle of 2020 with covid happening. He had a suitcase full of masks and just decided to do it. It was brave. I was very comfortable with where he was at and he has Scott Wendholt as a teacher in the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. 

So I can simultaneously be impressed with the variety of musical forms on offer (and teach more traditionally)  and I am against the idea of a university being solely about training for employment opportunities, but that is still a legitimate concern. It’s an evolving situation and we will see where those who take a less conventional route end up. We have had a few students who got scholarships and ended up in places like the ‘Manhattan School of Music’. And, one has ended up subbing in the ‘Vanguard Jazz Orchestra’ and you are at that level at 23 years old, then I feel comfortable seeing what happens next, but with the knowledge that we didn’t steer them in the wrong direction. If your ambition is to compete with the New York guys, you need to be able to speak the language similarly.

JL32  Do you think that there are less traditional or alternate avenues that allow students to progress to that higher level? Once upon a time, jazz musicians polished their skills on the road. Some say that you should learn the fundamentals and then put yourself in danger and learn by getting your arse kicked by better musicians. (this topic always elicits a variety of viewpoints during interviews). 

DL  In the classical world there are many opportunities to reach a high level of competency, but I remain unconvinced that people can achieve that high level of competence or speak the language sufficiently unless they go to a New York Jazz school or a handful of other jazz schools. To think that you can do that another way, I’m a little sceptical. But the vast majority of Jazz musicians will maybe never end up with that as their goal (competing with top NY-based musicians).

JL32  New York is certainly the acknowledged nexus, there is a New York sound, but I hear great musicians coming from places like Israel. They come to New York bringing their own thing and interacting and it rounds them. But there are other examples like Chicago, a distinctive sound but very different — a lot of free music. Groups like ‘Irreversible Entanglements’, so maybe it depends on where you think you should be heading.

DL  Sure.

JL32  There are the Northern Europeans as well. Germany and the Nordic countries are centres for Jazz innovation. And the UK is often underestimated and I’m hearing some astonishing stuff from there.

DL  Oh yeah, My record label SkyDeck just released an album for a young guy who is going to do his master’s at the Royal Academy in London. He’s an alto saxophone player, a pretty interesting young player, an ad-hoc session that they recorded in France, but he’s a Londoner. Yeah, I agree, I’m going to Ronnie Scotts soon because the Mingus Dynasty will be there from New York. Some of the guys with who I did a recording session in December will be there, Alex Sipiagin who I work with a lot, Conrad Herwig and maybe Seamus Blake. I’ve done several recordings using the Mingus Dynasty rhythm section. The recording of Ryan’s that I did in December was probably three-quarters of the ‘Mingus Big Band,’

it will be cool to see Alex again. He and I have done about fifteen CDs since he first came out, but not in person since covid.

JL32   I love Ronnies. It is like the Village Vanguard, it defies conventional wisdom regarding layout etc, your knees are under your chin, and you recall Ronnie joking endlessly about the food, but it has history and magic. Sonny Rollins is said to have locked himself in there one night and composed the Alfy music there as he said the wall oozed the spirit of those who played there.

DL  I will be heading there in a day or so. 

There is no clear career path in Jazz like being a doctor, where you study, graduate and get a job at the end of it. It’s more like putting together the pieces of a big puzzle and hoping that when an opportunity arises, you will have done the preparation and will know how to reach out and take it. And every student will have a different idea. Some will do exactly what you say and some will do nothing that you say. Some will come up with stuff you’ve never thought of, some will not go into music and some will, and that’s OK. It is really about preparing students for opportunities.

JL32   Looking through your discography and projects is interesting to see the variety.  I detect a direction of travel although there is diversity. I was drawn to the work you did with Richard Nunns and the Canadian pianist Amy Rempel.  

DL  I arrived in New Zealand in 2010 and recorded that in the first couple of years. And other Rattle releases followed 15 or 16 CDs in one year. 

JL32  Oh wow I hadn’t realised it was that many.

DL   Rattle had been around for 20yrs at that point and we doubled the catalogue in 1 year. In all 40 releases

JL32   Because you have these strong relationships with well-known trumpeters like Tim Hagens and Alex Sipiagin, you might be leaning more towards writing, arranging and producing.

DL  Yeah, I am doing many things at once and also having a young family influences what I do. And to top it off I broke both of my arms last year and I now have a plate in my elbow and a titanium plate in my wrist. 

JL32  That’s right, I recall seeing some gruesome FB pics.

DL  That made it hard to keep up the necessary practice required for the trumpet. My ability to play is fine but it was the time spent in a cast. The loss of 7 weeks can leave you with a lot of work to catch up on. I’m in London now on research leave so my plan when I get back, is to work on that. But I have some quintet projects coming up where I am the principal trumpeter. I am flexible, on certain projects when with Alex Sipiagin for example, who is one of the best trumpeters alive, I would rather listen to him than me (laughs). 

The project that just came out with the ‘Endeavour Jazz Orchestra’ is something that I have put together specifically for New Zealand composers. Essentially for people who have been my master’s and doctoral students. A few projects are coming up that I will arrange, but these projects are about them, the students I taught. It is part of my contribution as a teacher, to teach them composition skills and to help them to document their work. 

That project was Ryans’ (Ryan Brake) but the next one will celebrate Thad Jones’s 100th birthday. We will use some Thad Jones charts, which are fun to play, but with some peripheral projects that we will hopefully bring some attention to bear.  

JL32  With the Thad Jones charts, will you keep the original orchestration or re-orchestrate to suit a particular lineup that you have in mind? 

DL  We will do what the Europeans do when playing such material. Not slavishly trying to sound like the Mel Lewis or Thad recordings but following the tradition. It will be a fun project and it will involve a few guest artists. Our aim with the ‘Endeavor Jazz Orchestra’ is to create a nice library of releases that are maybe attractive to a broader audience.

JL32  Auckland’s AJO has a similar focus on NZ composers and arrangers, but getting the word out and finding opportunities to play is always a problem for big bands. Your focus is more on bringing on the younger players perhaps. 

DL  An advantage that I have is that I am supervising the students from undergrad onwards, so we are producing the music and recordings in-house. I try to ensure that the playing is on a certain level and then having a few guest artists elevates the level of the playing. We just got a 4-star review in Downbeat for the album (‘Solipsis’, SkyDeck Music). I know that there are differing views, maybe it’s a tall poppy thing, but some ask, why are you bringing in non-NZ musicians on a project promoting NZ music? I think it elevates the project and I’m into promoting the compositions of the particular artist. That is my way. And other than John Riley, the entire thing was recorded in Wellington. 

Also, locals Nick Granville and Roger Manins play a couple of numbers and they are great. So we certainly don’t think that there are no worthy Jazz musicians in NZ because that would be wrong. For example, Roger (Manins) plays several great solos on that album and in fact he plays great solos on every album he is on. We already know that and Nick (Granville) is a great guitar player and he plays a lot of great written parts as well solos.

JL32  And comping can require skill too.

DL   Oh yeah, the role of the guitar, perhaps more so than the piano as a comping instrument, brings so much variety than what is on the written page. With the greatest players, it’s being appropriate for the moment and being able to respond quickly and sensitively.  Like John Escreet, the piano player who played on a CD I did with Chris Potter and Alex Sipiagin a few years ago. He is British and I had not played with him before. What he adds to this album every second that he is playing makes you feel like, that’s the right choice every second of the way. On one of Alex’s albums, Chris Potter plays a ridiculous solo and later, at the mixing stage, John suggested that he transcribe it and play along on the keyboard. A week later he comes back and he lays down this technically difficult solo in one take. There is a video of it. So on the album, Chris Potter and John Escreet are playing this ridiculous solo in unison.

JL32  And I see that you are about to release a ‘Porgy & Bess’ project. How is that preceding?

DL  We have recorded parts of that already and Alex (Sipiagin) is going to record all of the Miles Davis parts. That will be an interesting album because there are 5 woodwind players, but only one is playing the saxophone. There is a lead alto part, but then clarinets; not really doubling, just flutes and clarinets and there are trombone parts and three french horn parts. It has been a project in the wings for a while, but it is such a beautiful piece of music. It is my favourite of the Gil Evans and Davis albums. 

JL32   And it is the ultimate gift as it keeps giving and sounding fresh. I particularly love the Paulo Fresu version with the ‘Jazz Orchestra of Sardinia (featuring David Linx and transcribed from the Evans charts by Gunther Schuller) – and another version by Fresu, ‘Kind of Porgy & Bess’ with unusual instrumentation including Dhafer Yussef on Oud. 

DL  There will always be people like that, no matter how often you tell them about how much money they will never make. The Chris Potters and others just push past that and achieve excellence. They fall in love with the music and determinedly seek out the information. They have to have that information and there will always be people like that. The impulse has no geographical boundaries. I get requests for trumpet information from places like Kenya. 

Some will succeed despite their circumstances but in musical education situations, you don’t want that. You want students to succeed because of the situation. 

JL32  Tell me more about your label SkyDeck. Was there a predecessor? 

DL  I lived in Memphis for 7 years before I came to New Zealand and I released a few quintet CDs and a big band album on a label named Galloping Cow Music, which is still the name of my ASCAP publishing rights. Then I worked with Steve Garden after moving here (discussed earlier) and years later while I was in NY, I decided to push ahead with the Vanguard project, and other projects, many of which had some research funding; so I decided to form my label which is SkyDeck. 

Many Jazz artists are taking control of their work these days. I am not collecting any money from people to release their projects, and in some cases, I am paying for distribution, but I have a good job and I can do that.  For example, Umar Zakaria’s album a few years ago, Roger Manins was on it and Leo Coghini’s solo albums (JL32 reviewed both). So it’s not about the money when recording these student or former student projects, but about providing the infrastructure.

We have a nice recording setup in the student union building, which is the big band rehearsal room. There is the essential isolation booth for the drums and we can make as good a recording as anywhere else in the country. The room is pretty dry which is ideal for rehearsing and recording. Some better-known performance rooms are great for chamber music but atrocious for anything with a drum set.

JL32  The Auckland Uni Jazz school also has a good room, which was set up originally for radio orchestras, so ideal. Jazz recording certainly favours some rooms over others. I am more familiar with the old Massey room before you moved up to Victoria.

DL  That room wasn’t terrible, but it had some weird steel panels on the wall that would vibrate at certain frequencies. The Rattle recording with Richard Nunns was done there and it turned out well; he was close-miked and we got good sound capture. The one I like best from that era is his ‘Ancient Astronaut Theory’ which is only him. Sometimes up to 50 layers of his instruments; just him with me composing from his sound library. 

JL32   So how many albums has SkyDeck released? The Wikipedia page has a list but a few like Thad Jones and the ‘Porgy and Bess’ are still awaiting release. 

DL  Some are released under my name, some under the Endeavour Orchestra and then there are various artist releases, but I am involved in the post-production work like the mixing, some editing etc. And there were a few duo CDs I released, Bonnie and Clyde, Joust and Nemesis. Those have Dave Kikoski and Alex Sipiagin playing, but my compositions. Then there’s the big band project with Rodger Fox and Michael Housten which I was involved and others. I am playing the trumpet and producing on the Endeavour Orchestra CDs like ‘The Hillary Step’. 

JL32   ‘Coming Through Slaughter, the Buddy Bolden album was released as The Dave Lisik Orchestra featuring Tim Hagans. That is so slick.  I take it that the name derives from Michael Ondaatje’s book. Another Canadian.

DL   Tim Hagans was someone I admired, but I didn’t know him. When I graduated with my doctorate in 2006 I was asked, what was I intending to do with it (the Buddy Bolden project). There were trumpet solos, and the question arose, who would play them? As it was conceived with Tim Hagens in mind, a friend Luis Bonilla, who was in the Vanguard Orchestra knew Donny McCaslin, and he knew Tim Hagans and both agreed to become involved. And suddenly I had a CD which was beyond my expectations with these guys who played at a high level.  

Using ‘Coming through Slaughter’ got me into a wrangle with Ondaaje’s publicist and lawyer, but after a few terse exchanges and a cease and desist letter (which was roundly rebutted by my lawyer), the problem just evaporated. I don’t know if he even knew about it. 

JL32   And how about ‘Donated by Cantor Fitzgerald’?

DL  That was my 9/11 project. Cantor Fitzgerald was an investment firm which occupied the top floors of the World Trade Centre and lost a whole lot of people. It was a niche story within a bigger story. The album has Tim Hopkins and Colin Hemmingsen on it. It needs a video to go with it and I will probably do that. It is challenging to listen to, like the event. One hour three seconds, one track. 

JL32  And can you tell me something about the ‘NZ Youth Jazz Orchestra’? 

DL  That entity is specifically a youth Jazz Orchestra for high school students. The NZ Jazz foundation has been running that since around 1981. I am the chair of that now and Roger Fox and I have been directing it since 2011. Whereas the Endeavour Jazz Orchestra is the best NZ jazz musicians, Roger Manins, Mike Booth, also, former students of the NZSM like Louisa Williamson (readers should check out her album ‘What Dreams May Come).

JL32   Yes she’s doing very well.

DL  So, former pupils like Partick di Somma the bass trombone player and Leo Coghini who you know of and reviewed. Depending on the project and the guest artists involved, the personnel can change. It’s not finalised yet, but we’re hoping to do a thing on Michael Brecker. My all-time favourite musician. He imprinted himself on me at a young age.

JL32   And Randy Brecker are still doing amazing stuff too.

DL  Imagine having Michael as a younger brother – there must have been a lot of respect and healthy competitiveness. Sometimes students say to me, why do we have to compare ourselves to everyone else? But I say, not everything is equal. Getting a job in a symphony orchestra is competitive. Music is a craft and if you want to be good, you have to compare yourself to other people. You have to achieve a certain mastery of craft before anyone cares what you have to say as an artist. 

I can listen to Chris Potter play in any style because he has mastered his craft. Even the weirdest shit imaginable, but I’m in because I’ve bought into the brand. When I listen to a Jazz musician I can hear if they’ve done their (jazz) homework. The definition of Modern Jazz is music played by Jazz musicians who have emersed themselves in, or studied Jazz; not a particular style. 

There are exceptions such as Jazz musicians playing classical music and deliberately not playing Jazz. But if they want to play some weird multi-metre fusion thing, then they bring their jazz sensibilities to that. Utilising the encyclopedia that’s in their brain. I don’t mind labels, I like labels. Some stupidly argue that we don’t know what bebop is, but we know exactly what bebop sounds like, or hard bop, postbop or swing. We know what instruments are involved, and we know what the melodic and textural content is.

JL32   Lee Konitz or Paul Bley. You need to have some context regarding their journeys and all that preceded them before they arrived at what are atypical sounds.  Running over the lines, unusual elided voicings etc. 

DL  When I was young, it took me a while to understand Keith Jarrett and after listening to a ton of Charlie Parker I could gradually understand the lineage. And to understand Charlie Parker you need to understand Lester Young and swing. I give my students ‘The Complete Roulette Box Set’ of the Basie Band to study. Until you understand Basie you won’t understand Parker or Coltrane.

JL32  And to get Prez you need to listen to earlier players like Bean. 

DL  A book I helped edit a few years ago was titled ‘Body & Soul – the evolution of a tenor saxophone standard’ (recently up on YouTube). My friend Eric with whom I co-wrote the Village Vanguard Jazz Orchestra book had done a lot of transcription and the first was Coleman Hawkins ‘Body & Soul’, then Lester Young, then Dexter Gorden, Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Michael Brecker, Chris Potter – nine in all. It is a great book in terms of the history of Jazz. So through this one tune, there is a history of Jazz evolution. What Colman Hawkins was doing had not been done before, that angular approach and change running. 

JL32   And notably, one of the most recorded tunes in the history of music. 

DL   A lot of younger people, and I was the same, don’t want to listen to older music. Perhaps partly because people like Parker never made a Hi Fidelity record. You have to look past the technology to hear what a beautiful sound he had. Louis Armstrong. I mean WW2 movies look grainy and pretty shit, but the world was not actually in black and white then, so a mature evaluation requires you to look past that.

JL32   It’s getting near wrap-up time so name those up-and-coming releases again.

DL   We intend to have the Thad Jones mixed by the New Year. The mastering will be done in NY – so we aim for a release in January 2023. Covid delayed the Hillary Step project. On that master’s students wrote many of the charts.  I wrote one chart, but we missed the anniversary, but next year is the 70th anniversary of Hillary’s summiting of Everest.  

JL32  Anything Else?

DL  There’s a John Psathas piece and a Requiem Mass coming up which a student wrote for his father.

JL32   Ok Dave, thanks for your time and commitment and I apologize if my Covid-fogged brain slowed me down. It feels like walking uphill through treacle some days. 

  To view Dave Lisik’s discography, go to www.davelisik.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 other sites with the author’s permission

Anthony Donaldson

Devils Gate Outfit

Devils Gate Outfit was recorded live at Wellington’s Meow two months ago. The album is bursting with restless spirits, and I am not surprised that such a powerful genie was let out of the bottle so quickly. There are multitudes of spirits hovering over the recording, fragmentary echoes of Ornette and Miles, but the predominant voices are those which haunt the ragged windy Wellington coastline. All are paid their due, but the album is unconfined by the many streams that feed it. It is above all a succinct commentary on the breadth of improvised music that is thriving in Aotearoa right now. 

The album is out on Kiwi Jahzz, a natural home for adventurous and original free music. And it captures a particular night at Meow where the band holds a residency. The playing is great, and so is the overarching vibe. Delivering great performances without defaulting to any ‘look at me’ moments. It is a band uncoupled from tired old formulas and thus able to move as freely as it desires. Sometimes this results in tantalisingly fleeting glimpses of the past, then just as suddenly you are plunged into the forward-looking improvised groove music favoured by younger audiences.  

The album is loosely programmatic but does not follow a linear storyline. It establishes a theme, then drops kaleidoscopic images. letting the music paint evocative sound pictures. There is a wealth of musicianship evident here as well. I am familiar with most of the players (apart from Steve Roche and David Donaldson). Although new to me, I am delighted to hear both for the first time. It was also good to hear Cory Champion expanding his percussion role to Vibes.

I am picking that drummer/composer Anthony Donaldson is the nominal leader in this outfit and around him are a truly formidable crew. The interactions between them are impressive as they navigate that fine line between spontaneity and cohesion. The slow-burning bluesy Wood Drift is the closest thing to straight ahead and it is a delightfully spacious piece of music – it could (and should) find cut-through with any Jazz taste. And I can never hear enough of Blair Latham’s playing. On Wood Drift, his woody sonority and captivating lines caress the melody against a gentle background of Daniel Beban’s understated guitar and Callwood’s bass, setting up Champion, Roache and Beban for solos, such a languid and appealing groove tune. 

Contrasting nicely, The Portal to Red Rocks is a burner and a showcase for Latham on saxophone and the very capable Roche. Here the bass and drums provide propulsive energy as they navigate the shifting rhythms and washes of electronic effects. If I had to pick a tune that best exemplifies the album it would be the opener Storm of the Century. Anthony Donaldson owns this track and it is his pulse that sets the others free. I will be surprised if this isn’t a contender for Tui Jazz Album of the year.

The Devils Gate Outfit: Anthony Donaldson (drums), Tom Callwood (double bass), Steve Roche (cornet, baritone horn, Cassio), Blair Latham (saxophones, bass clarinet, David Donaldson (bass banjo, percussion), Daniel Beban (guitar, electronics), Cory Champion (vibes, percussion, synthesizer) It was released 19 October 2021, on Kiwi Jahzz and is available digitally on Bandcamp: kiwijahzz.bandcamp.com 

School of Hard Nocks ~ by Village of The Idiots

This amazing recording is extracted from a number of live shows organised by the visionary drummer Anthony Donaldson. Among the shows referenced are ‘Seven Samurai’ ‘Oils of Ulan’ Po Face’ and others. The overarching implied theme is the Samurai film genre. This is an album where open conversations occur between two art forms. It belongs to an interesting subgenre of improvised music and in my view an avenue worthy of continued exploration. You encounter it convincing in Zorn’s Filmworks. These were reimagined soundtracks, or more accurately, soundtracks to reimagined movies. Music aligned to the essence and untethered from any strict narrative form. Auckland/Canadian guitarist Keith Price did just this with his reimagined The Good the Bad and the Ugly score. Jazz has always been associated with the cinema, but extending the brief and pushing into clearer air is where the gold lies.   

The album is painted on a vast canvas and has a cast that must rival that of a Spaghetti Western (or Carla Bley/Paul Haines Escalator Over the Hill). Thirty-one musicians are credited here and a significant number of them are high profile improvisers. Throughout, they come and go, as larger and smaller ensembles change places, with some artists like Jonathan Crayford appearing on a single track. The mood can shift at lightning speed, as a tune ends abruptly and a fresh exploration emerges. Another aspect that can’t be overlooked is the underlying humour. Music like this is not pitched at the serious-faced, dinner suit/ball gown-clad denizens of dress circles (although I’d love to see that attempted). It is anarchic and plays with imagery. The open-eared will quickly grasp this point and every piece of mind-fuckery will bring them joy. 

There are so many good performances and so many great musicians here that it is beyond my scope to enumerate them all. When you see names like Anthony Donaldson, Jeff Henderson, Bridget Kelly, Daniel Beban, John Bell, Patrick Bleakley, Lucien Johnson, Jonathan Crayford, Chris O’Connor, Steve Cournane, Riki Gooch, Richard Nunns and Tom Callwod on a setlist, you check it out immediately. The way the units are configured creates a unique set of textures and there can be no doubt that this is a drummers band.  Donaldson’s drumming leaves a powerful impression, but he leaves plenty of space for other percussionists. A  glance at the lineup tells that story best, as I counted seventeen drummers and percussionists on the album. As they come and go, they never get in each other’s way and this is a tribute to the arranging. Some of course are doubling on percussion instruments (e.g. Noel Clayton plays guitar, bass banjo and punching bag, while Maree Thom plays electric bass, upright bass, bass drum and accordion). And to complete the illusion of filmic authenticity, Donaldson adds foley to his drum/percussion roles.   

For a full listing of the musicians involved check out Donaldson’s site. Better yet buy immediately. The album was digitally released on Bandcamp in early November 2021 and it can be located at anthonydonaldson.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

The Brian Smith Interview

As Aotearoa’s Jazz musicians become increasingly confident of their place in the world, it is timely to acknowledge those who paved the way. A significant figure in this journey is saxophonist and winds player Brian Smith. I had been meaning to interview him for some time and the recent lockdown provided the ideal opportunity. I have long been aware of just how innovative London Jazz was during the 60s and 70s. The output was considerable, different from what was happening elsewhere and it stands up well to this day and there is an increasing interest among jazz fans and Jazz historians in pouring over this material. Over a lengthy Zoom call, we discussed his musical career and in particular his involvement in the UK Jazz scene. What follows is extracted from that wide-ranging discussion. 

Where Smith grew up and how he first engaged with music was the obvious place to start, but then as we proceeded I was struck by how modest Smith was, quietly brushing aside his considerable achievements in true Kiwi fashion. And the more we talked, the more I realised that a colourful piece of Jazz history was unravelling. 

JL32: Hi Brian, thanks for agreeing to the interview. 

Smith: Greetings John, where would you like to start? 

JL32: Where were you born?

Smith: I was born in Wellington but I grew up in Stratford, Taranaki. It was there that I learned piano and later switched to the saxophone.

JL32: Did you start gigging in the Naki?

Smith: Yes as a schoolboy I was part of a band that played for local dances. It was so much fun that I stayed at school an extra year; beyond when I’d intended to leave. 

JL32: what were your musical interests at that time?

Smith: It was then that my friends and I encountered 78s by the likes of Humphrey Littleton, Bennie Goodman, Louis Armstong, Lionel Hampton. I still have those under my bed (laughs and points). So, my first jazz interest was more Eddie Condon and I particularly liked the clarinet player Edmund Hall. It was his ‘feel’. It was hard to get records here then. But also among those recordings, I soon discovered Joe Newman, Wardall Grey, and early Miles. 

JL32: Did Wardall Grey lead you to discover Dexter?

Smith: No, I discovered Dexter later, also Miles album ‘Around Midnight’ a little later again, those was significant albums for me. 

After playing in a few small bands, Smith moved to Auckland (1958) and it was there, that he joined the Bob Paris dance band, later moving to Australia with them. During his time in Auckland, he became increasingly active on the jazz scene, playing at places like Trades Hall. When the Bob Paris band moved across the ditch,  he went with them, joining the exodus of Kiwi musicians like Mike Nock who had left for Australia a few years earlier. 

JL32: When we were discussing the Auckland clubs and musicians, you mentioned trumpeter Dave Ironside. I knew Dave well and I often wonder what became of him as I went to Sydney with him in 1967.

Smith: Yeah, Dave was a great bloke, he had a really good sense of humour, very funny.

JL32: And when was your move to Australia?

Smith: It was in 1960, I went on the Wanganella with Rick Laird, Barry Woods, Neddy Sullivan and Mike Walker, I was sick for two or three days as I recall (laughs). The trip cost us £30 each, a fortune in those days.

JL32: Did you get much work across the ditch?.

Smith: Well, after moving to Australia with the band, I met up with lots of musicians, such as Kiwi pianist Dave McCrae and our association was to continue later in London. (reaches into a box and produces a few Bob Paris recordings – one with vocalist Ricky May ). Later I obtained a residency on the Gold Coast through Bob Paris. That was where I met my wife. We were given accommodation and a percentage of the door. My wife was a receptionist at that hotel, she made sure that I was fed.

JL32: You connected with a lot of interesting Jazz musicians while in Sydney, notable Aussies, Kiwis such as Mike Nock, and others from much further afield.     

JL32: Did you by any chance meet up with a blind multi-instrumentalist Claude Papesch while you were there? 

Smith: Yes, I was driven around Kings Cross by him. (much laughter as we reminisced about this as we had both been nervous passengers while Papesch drove). Bob Gillett, Andy Brown, and I lived near Claude, and once after he’d painted his flat, he asked us to check the bits he’d missed and tap the wall to show him. He was such a character, a nice guy, he would call around and knock, and we would sit there quietly, then he would enter and find us one by one, feeling our ears and faces and naming us. I heard that he eventually became mayor of the Blue Mountains. Anyhow, after two years of gigging around Australia I moved back to Auckland. Once back home I played regularly with the likes of Tony Hopkins. 

JL32: Lachie Jamieson was around then, did you know him?

Smith: Oh yes, a great drummer and vibes player. I played with him a bit too, and another drummer back from the USA, Ray Edmundson. Lochie was a big deal in Auckland as he’d played with Sonny Rollins, Ira Sullivan, and bands around Chicago. And apart from Tony Hopkins, I played regularly with Mike Walker, Marlene Tong, different people. Some tours happening around then. 

Then a few years later, I packed up and decided to move to the UK as my wife came from Lancashire. On the way, I had a one-night stopover in New York, and during that night, I attended three gigs. I heard John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, and Herbie Hancock.  Clifford Jorden was the tenor player with Mingus which was at the Half Note.

JL32: What was your first destination in the UK?

Smith: I went to Manchester and met a few people on the scene. One of them was a bloke called Ernie Garside, who managed a Jazz Club there. I would sit in from time to time and my wife’s brother would come with me. He eventually became Maynard Ferguson’s manager. At that time Maynard was playing in Manchester. This was not long before his London concerts. Ernie Garside asked if I wanted to play in Maynard’s band and I did. It got busy as I was juggling three bands.

JL32: If it’s 69/70 you would have been playing with Nucleus, Tubby Hayes Big Band, and Maynard Ferguson.

Smith: Yes, and one or two other things were happening. I was playing with Alan Price as well.

JL32: I have listened to recordings of Tubby Hayes from that period. Nice band.

Smith: There was a TV Show and bits that were recorded. I had no solos but I was in the saxophone section with Alan Skidmore and Peter King. Peter King was great, I played with him quite a bit, a real nice guy.

JL32: I have jotted down a list of the significant UK bandleaders of that era you’ve played and recorded with: Graham Collier (70), Maynard Ferguson (65-75), Michael Gibbs (63-70), Keith Tippett (78), Mike Westbrook (69), Humphrey Littleton, Tubby Hayes, and particularly the Scottish horn player and composer Ian Carr (69-82). You have regularly played alongside UK-based Jazz greats like Kenny Wheeler, Stan Sulzman, John Marshall, Alan Holdsworth, Peter King, Tony Oxley, Stan Tracey Barre Philips, Jack Bruce, John Surman, and many more. And course Alexis Korner, the proto blues unit that influenced John Mayal, the Stones, etc. That’s some list.  

Smith: It was a busy time.

JL32: I want to spend a bit of time on ‘Nucleus’, but before I do, I see you played regularly with Kenny Wheeler.

Smith: Yes and he was such a humble guy. He would come away from a concert or recording session after playing well, look concerned and ask us if he played alright. 

JL32: At around that time was Kenny working with John Taylor and Norma Winstone, right?

Smith: Yes Norma Winstone and John Taylor were actually in Nucleus at one point, during my time the only other vocalist was Joy Yates (a Kiwi). But back when I first arrived, there were other people important to me. Rick Laird was in London by then and he was working at Ronnie Scotts. He introduced me to a drummer, percussionist called John Stephens who ran the Spontaneous Music Ensemble.

JL32: He was a notable early free player. Tell me more?

Smith: He was good to me. He had a caretaker flat off Harley Street. He let me stay there and I played with him at the ‘Little Theatre Club’, with Trevor Watts. I played with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble a bit at that time. Dave Holland would come up, Kenny Wheeler, Jeff Klien, Evan Parker. One night Chick Corea turned up and sat in and I didn’t know who he was at the time. We were playing a lot of free stuff and he was stomping and slapping the piano sides.   

JL32: Anyone else?

Smith: Oh yes I was with Alexis Korner between 1965-66).

JL32: Did you ever encounter the legendary Phil Seaman?

Smith: yes, once I recall we were on the same gig. 

Note: Alexis Korner Blues Incorporated was a very important band at the time and the great British blues bands like the Stones and John Mayal were all heavily influenced by it. Musicians like Jack Bruce, Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Ginger Baker, and Graham Bond were all in the band at some point. The Alexis Korner band moved freely between jazz and blues venues and included Jazz standards in the repertoire.

JL32: Was the 1970 album ‘Elastic Rock’ the first Nucleus album you were on? I think that you were a founding member of that band.

Smith: I was. The band was formed by the Scottish trumpeter and arranger Ian Carr and multi-instrumentalist (Sir) Karl Jenkins, I was with them right up to when I left the UK and on many of the albums between 1970-82, except when I was touring with Maynard Ferguson. 

JL32: It was very successful. I arrived in London in 1985 and it was still popular then. Don’t you think the term Jazz-Rock Fusion was a bit of a marketing exercise? To my ears, you were a jazz unit edging at times into free territory. Not nearly as rock-sounding as in the guitar-heavy fusion bands. Listening again I find stronger synergies between Nucleus and the late 70’s output by Bennie Maupin or Eddie Henderson etc. And it sounded like a true collective with no egos dominating.

Smith: Yes we were a collective and you could argue that there was a synergy between our music and the era you mention. Nucleus did do well and there were a few other Kiwis who joined the band after I did. Billy Kristian, Dave McCrae, Roger Sellers, Joy Yates. 

JL32: Overall, 45 members are listed as passing through the band, and there were 21 albums by my count. You are credited on many of those albums. And some well-known figures from the London Jazz scene came and went; Kenny Wheeler, Tim Whitehead, Tony Coe, Gordon Beck, John Taylor, Norma Winstone, Allan Holdsworth, Neil Ardley and so many more. And of course, you were in the core group. I notice that your playing attracted favourable mentions from reviewers. 

Smith: Oh well (downplaying it), I got along with Ian and it worked out for me. There were quite a few of us (Kiwis) in London during the 70s, Frank Gibson and Bruce Lynch for example. We were all doing different things. Anyhow, the last tour I did with Maynard was March 75, and I went back to Nucleus and played with them right up until when I returned home. Bob Bertles the Australian saxophonist filled in while I was touring with Maynard. 

During his time in London, Smith was often in brass sections accompanying well-known popular musicians or visiting artists. These included: Gladys Night And The Pips, Donavan, Dusty Springfield, Nancy Wilson, T Bone Walker, Georgie Fame, Alan Price.

JL32: You played tenor, soprano, and alto flute. Your soprano sounded great and the arrangements were interesting. Did you write any of the tunes?

Smith: Yes I wrote a few.

JL32: I’m guessing that the tune Taranaki would be you, there’s a clue there.

Smith: Yes that’s me (laughs).

JL32: What about arranging?

Smith: The arranging was basically whoever wrote the tune and then everyone had input.

JL32: And so not long after, Nucleus won the Best European Band competition at Montreux.

Smith: Yes that was 1970 around the time we released Elastic Rock, our first album. The big radio stations used to sponsor bands, all of the big European stations, and our sponsors were the BBC and we won (laughs). So because we won at the Montreux Jazz Festival, as best European band, the prize was an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival.

JL32: How was that?

Smith: Fantastic, yeah, so after Montreux, we travelled to Newport. It was in the afternoon, I can’t remember which day, but it was funny actually, because Dave McCrae and Rick Laird were there also with the Buddy Rich band. And Mike Nock with Fourth Way on the same weekend as well. 

JL32: So you got together for a hang?

Smith: Yeah, because we hadn’t seen each other for quite a while. And then we played one night in New York at the Village Gate. It was amazing.

JL32: Did this lead to more work for Nucleus?

Smith: After we returned, we toured a lot, Italy and Germany in particular, Festivals and clubs. It became a regular thing.

Nucleus gained a significant following and after Elastic Rock, many successful albums followed. They reflected the times and the restlessness of 70s youth culture, complete with psychedelic cover art and cross-genre appeal, but they were firmly grounded in the Jazz tradition. The albums following: We’ll Talk About it Later, Solar Plexis, Belladonna, Roots, Labyrinth, Under The Sun, Snakehips Etcetera, Alleycat, In Flagranti Delicto, Out of The Long Dark, Awakening (and more after Brian Smith left). The labels during the 70s were Vertigo, Capitol, Mood. Some are still on issue and most will be available on streaming sites (one Nucleus album is also available on Bandcamp featuring Smith) 

JL32: You played with Kieth Tippett’s Frames around then? You are credited on ‘Music for Imaginary Films.  With Stan Tracey.

Smith: Yes I played with Stan a few times, but there was a trombonist named Malcolm Griffiths. He and I got a quintet together for just a little while in 1977, and we did a couple of gigs and a broadcast and Stan Tracey was on that with Brian Spring and Dave Green. And another one I did some playing with was a great piano player, Gordon Beck. I was in a band with him called Gyroscope right at the beginning. At around that time I started touring America with Maynard and Gyroscope hired Stan Sulzmann.

JL32: I associate him most strongly with Kenny Wheeler’s ‘Music for Small and Large Ensembles’. (we agree that this double album is an essential desert island disk) 

Smith: yeah Stan and I were pretty good friends and still keep in touch. Oh, and in the late 70s, Dave McCrae put a band together called ‘Pacific Eardrum’. That band did two or three albums, one before I joined, and several later, including one after I returned which we all did back here in New Zealand. 

JL32: So looking back over that period, what gave you the most satisfaction?

Smith: Well playing Nucleus, but playing with Maynard especially so. I’d always had this thing about the big band era, the bands that toured America constantly, and (having) the chance to do that in 1974. I spent a whole year in America and I was touring around the whole time. It was just that whole road thing, being on the bus with a bunch of guys and having a good time, playing some good music. Once upon a time, it was like going to school, that’s where musicians made a name for themselves. I learned a lot playing with that band. Sometimes it was the incidental things, like playing at the Bulls Head in Barnes, playing with small units, like the Tony Lee Trio as a guest, or with Martin Drew. And Paz, that was a Latin Band run by Dick Crouch and we recorded a few things. That was a great band and I enjoyed that.

JL32: Do you think that it gives you an edge playing with big bands?

Smith: Well it depends on the person, but it is a good training ground, and for young players, they must play with lots of different people, whether in small ensembles or large. Learning to read but also learning to blend in, hearing the phrasing, and knowing how to react.

JL32: When you returned to New, Zealand I guess people wanted to take lessons. I heard somewhere that you taught Roger Manins for a while. 

Smith: He used to come to my place in Glenfield when I lived there, maybe for a year or so. I like Roger, we get along fine.  

JL32: And in the years after you returned I recall the Brian Smith Band and an album ‘Southern Excursions’.

Smith: Yes that was with Frank (Gibson) and Billy (Kristian), and my friend Jeff Castle, a pianist from England. He came out here and lived with us for a year in 1984. And then there was the collective ‘Space Case’. We did three or four albums with that band. There was Kim Paterson on trumpet, Murray McNabb on piano and Bruce Lynch on bass (and later on, Andy Brown) and George Chisholm did some trumpet things as well, that was around 84-86. I also did an album with Jacqui Fitzgerald in the 80s. Then there was the time when Roger Fox brought Anita O’Day out and Louis Bellson and we did a brief tour. Lastly my album Taupo (Ode), with Billy Kristian, Kevin Field, Kim Paterson, Lance Sua, Kevin Haines, Alain Koetsier. The two Moonlight Sax albums did pretty well also.

JL32: Have you done much teaching?

Smith: Yes I’ve done a lot. I taught at Northcote College for 20 years and other schools, Papakura, Rosehill College, Kings College. The last school I worked at was Whangaparaoa College. 

JL32: I don’t suppose musicians ever retire because I’ve seen you doing gigs about town over recent years.

Smith: Yes there have been a few, and I had a regular gig at a local bar called the Paroa Bar until this lockdown. With Frank, Dean Kerr, and Neville Grenfell on trumpet. Then we had a band with Dean and his brother and a Sunday spot at Muldoon’s in Orewa for a time. Again that was with Frank and Dean, and an occasional gig at Downbeat as well. We don’t know what will happen at present, but I’m hoping the Paroa Bar opens up soon. They’ve got a nice big stage. 

JL32: We’ve covered a bit of ground.

Smith: Yes that’s about all I can recall at the moment but there may be a few holes in it. 

JL32: Thanks for giving me so much of your time Brian. 

Smith: Well, I’m off to play a few notes. 

 The interview covered a lot of ground, but I knew that there would be much more to uncover. I have always had an interest in British Jazz and so when a new Bandcamp label, Jazz in Britain Archival Project was launched, I took note. Going through it this morning I have located four albums featuring Brian Smith. Some of these contain never-before-released material. Smith expressed a particular fondness for Paz and there is a Paz recording among the Ron Mathewson archival tapes. There is an unreleased Live Nucleus session titled Solar,  and best of all Neil Ardley’s ‘Kaleidoscope’ and Alan Cohen’s band Oracle. Here is the lineup on the Oracle Album: Kenny Wheeler, Henry Lowther, Mike Osborne, Alan Skidmore, Brian Smith, John Surman, Chris Pine, Mike Gibbs, Martin Fry, Ron Mathewson, Trever Tomkins. I will watch this space with keen interest. 

I can’t help but wonder if the kids’ Smith taught, realised, that he’d once played a part in the wild and heady days of London’s music scene.  

Additional sources: The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, The Rough Guide to Jazz, The British Jazz Project, ephemera such as posters and pamphlets. Acknowledgments British Jazz Archives.

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