Tyler Cooney ~ Modern Ideal

Since emerging from the shadows in the 50s, the Jazz guitar has become one of the most popular instruments with Jazz audiences. And, despite the plethora of styles appearing since then, most modern jazz guitarists defy stylistic pigeonholing. ‘Modern Ideal’ by Brisbane’s Tyler Cooney is a case in point as it is forward-looking and yet the richness of the lineage is evident as you listen. Since its release a few short months ago the album has received critical acclaim and that is not surprising. If you love jazz guitar you need to check it out.

This is an album with pleasing contrasts and moods. The title tune ‘Modern Ideal’ with its embracing warmth is gorgeous. The harmonic invention is resonant as the guitarist digs into the tune; with a melodic clarity arising out of his well-executed voice leading progressions followed by a tasteful solo, carrying with it the essence of what has gone before. This voice-leading approach is even more evident in ‘Country Sumthin’. Here we find the echoes and swing of Jazz Americana at its best, and we are left wondering if the past ever sounded quite this good.  

My favourite track is ‘Wood Glue. This is where the lineage is most evident but the joy is most apparent. This has the trio blowing hard and killing it as they blaze in the moment. The album is beautifully recorded, but it is the quality of the compositions, the guitar wizardry and the interplay that make this such a fine album. It is so well realised that it is hard to believe that this is a young guitarist’s first release. What is not hard to imagine is that great things lie ahead for Cooney. 

Tyler Cooney plays the guitar, on the bass is Nick Quigley and on drums is the 2012 Australian National Jazz Award-winning Tim Firth (Firth has a solid following in New Zealand after he toured with Steve Barry over a decade ago). To purchase Modern Ideal go to tylercooney.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, a Judge in the 7VJC International Jazz Competition, and a poet & writer. Some of these posts appear on other sites with the author’s permission

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

Jim Langabeer Remembered

Jim left us in January, and the shock of his unexpected passing robbed me of the right words. In the following weeks, I mulled over my inaction, wanting to do justice to his story? Then I caught covid and more time passed. While it is usual to post an obituary within days of someone passing, I paused and reflected. And as I deliberated, I could sense his presence, knowing that he would approve of my waiting until the right words appeared. Jim’s life was a Zen koan, and you can’t rush a koan.  

We had spoken on the phone a week before he died and arranged a ‘hang’ in a nearby coffee bar. It was sometimes hard to catch him on the phone, but when he picked up you could feel the warmth radiating from the handset. The conversations were slow grooves. He would speak softly, radiate peace and intersperse his comments with periods of reflective silence. Jim seldom rushed his words, and the silences felt all the more weighty for it. He spoke as he played because he understood the power of space between sounds. 

I had known him for over a decade, but I wished I had known him for longer. He was a musician’s musician; the term used to describe a player of significance but one who is scandalously under-acknowledged. He had been on the Jazz scene his entire adult life and had played alongside some of the greats, but his natural habitats were in the Spiritual Jazz and avant-garde scenes. Many assume that the music of the avant-garde is strident. In Jim’s hands, the music was reflective, spiritual and embedded in indigenous culture.

He could crack open a note and let it breathe in multi-phonic splendour. He could whisper into a flute and then unexpectedly send forth a flurry of breathy overtones. He had great chops and visionary ideas, but he was not egotistical. Jim was about the music and not about himself. He was an educator and an empowerer. It was about transmission – telling the story, enjoying the moment and passing on the flame.

He had written the liner notes for one of the first American Spiritual Jazz albums incorporating his Buddhist name (Tony Scott’s ‘Music for Zen Meditation). He’d recorded with poets and acolytes and played alongside Dave Liebman and  Gary Peacock. He also had a presence on many New Zealand albums but seldom as a leader. At first, I put this down to modesty, but now I think otherwise. His musical journey inclined him towards humility; he possessed that in the best sense. Gentle souls leave softer footprints. 

He gave more to music than he received; to understand why you should know something else about Jim, his long involvement with Zen Buddhism. It was a particular connection that we had. Each of us had connected with Buddhism in our youth which informed our attitude towards in-the-moment music. Although I meditated then, mine was of the Beat variety of Zen, remaining a lazy ‘psychedelic’ Buddhist. Jim took his practice seriously, spending time in Zen Mountain Monastery, Mt Tremper, upper New York State. 

While on that scene he performed with other spiritually engaged Jazz musicians like Gary Peacock, Chris Dahlgren and Jay Weik. And amazingly, performed with famous Beat poets like Alan Ginsberg and Anne Waldman who had an association with the centre, and together, had set up the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute. In New York, he connected with Tony Scott and Dave Liebman. Later, Jim established a New Zealand Sangha in the ZMM lineage and brought out their first teacher.

I recall messaging him when I was last in San Francisco to tell him I was seeking the forgotten Jazz Clubs, the homes of lost poets and the San Francisco Zen Centre. Names leapt across the cyber-void, Black Hawk, Kerouac, Kaufman and DiPrima. Back and forth we messaged during that week. He, tapping out fragmentary reminisces of his Dharma experiences in America and recalling some of the Jazz musicians he’d encountered (eg. Jaco Pastorius, Rashid Ali, Arthur Rhames, Gary Peacock, Dave Leibman).

I, responded with pictures of a priceless Rupa as I stood in the Zen Centre Meditation room; buying a new translation of Han Shan’s Cold Mountain poems and sending him a picture of the cover. And me, reliving Ginsberg’s visions of Moloch as I wandered the corridors of his trippy nemesis, the Sir Francis Drake hotel. Buddhist practice, poetry and improvised music are old acquaintances. It was our instinctive connection.

I would bump into Jim at gigs. And he would say, “I hoped you’d be here, I have this for you” passing over a booklet on Finnish Jazz or a CD. He would press them into my hand without explanation and carry on talking about other things. These were Zen puzzles for me to unravel. I realised what treasures they were only later. 

He came to my seventieth birthday, a house party where he enjoyed the young musicians playing. He was photographed, deploying his best smile as he posed among us. On that occasion, he handed me a bag of goodies, a limited edition double album – a live concert featuring Arthur Rhames, Jaco Pastorius and Rashid Ali. Handwritten by sharpie was the cryptic inscription ‘jimjazz ⅕’ – another koan to solve. Did he record this?

Important chroniclers like Norman Meehan have written about him, but I’m sure there is more to say. His family and musician friends will create a fuller discography, preserve his charts and update his filmography. It is important. Because he was not a self-promoter, he could surprise you when he appeared in line-ups. With Indian vocalists like Sandhya Sanjana, Tom Ludvigson & Trever Reekie’s Trip to the Moon band, at the NZ Music Awards, at numerous Jazz Festivals and on movie soundtracks. And he played and contributed to daughter Rosie Langabeer’s various out-ensembles. He played the flute on the ‘Mr Pip’ soundtrack and saxophone on daughter Rosie Langabeer’s soundtrack for the indie film GODPLEX

He released at least two notable local albums as a leader, but perhaps there are more? Jim’s Africa/Aroha album with Barry Young (SUPERBREW) was released as an LP by Ode in 1984 and re-released in 2007. It has remained popular with jazz lovers. Prophetically, his composition Aroha cropped up on the hospital Spotify playlist during his last hours. The album broke fresh ground in New Zealand with its freedom-tinged Afrobeat and World Jazz influences. It is gorgeous. 

Around 2016 Jim undertook a research and performance project at the Auckland University Jazz School, where he was awarded a Masters’s Degree with first-class Honours. Out of that came his finest recording Secret Islands (Rattle). After recording, Jim phoned me and asked if I would write the liner notes and I was pleased to be on board. He also used my photographs.

I am an enthusiast of avant-garde music and a fan of Jim’s approach, so it was a labour of love. Secret Islands is one of a select group of albums that tells a New Zealand Jazz story. It could not have come from anywhere else. I had heard the band play a preview of the album and loved what I heard. The recording took things to another level. It featured an all-star lineup. With Jim’s vision and Rosie and the other player’s contributions, it was sure to hit a sweet spot. Later a live performance was reprised at the Audio Foundation with Jim on flute and tenor, Jeff Henderson on drums, Rosie Langabeer on Piano, Neil Feather on an experimental instrument and Eamon Edmundson-Wells on bass, with Roger Manins on Alto. It was a superb performance. I will never forget it. The Secret Islands album (clip above) featured Jim Langabeer on winds and reeds, Rosie Langabeer, piano and Fender Rhodes, Neil Watson, guitars, Eamon Edmundson-Welles, bass, Roger Manins, alto saxophone and Chris O’Connor, drums.

One last album that deserves mention is One Way Ticket – Daikajo.  Released in 1995 by ‘Dharma Communications’ Zen Mountain Zen Monestry NY and produced by Jim. On it, he leads the ensemble on alto saxophone, silver flute and shakuhachi. Like most of Jim’s albums, it is Spiritual Jazz. A subgenre of improvised music that is experiencing revival worldwide. 

Just before the first lockdown, I visited him at his Farm Cove home as I wanted to record an oral history. I switched on my recorder while the conversation ran for two or three hours. It often veered into the esoteric. When Ī played it back, I realised that I needed another session with a greater focus on Jim’s achievements. I can usually keep an interview on track, but in Jim’s case, words were like pebbles in a pond. A series of moments setting off ripples haiku-like.  

Before I knew it the pandemic had arrived. I had lost my window of opportunity. Jim passed at the height of the second lockdown, and much as I wanted to attend his funeral, I couldn’t. I participated online and remembered him in silence, a copy of Secret Islands beside me and his tune Tangi playing softly in the other room. We loved Jim and mourn his untimely passing.

Footnote: The Rupa (Buddhist image) is an antique statue located in the San Francisco Zen Centre. It is likely the Bodhisattva Kuan Yin or Maitreya in Bodhisattva form. The video is Jim’s tune Ananda’s Midnight Blues which I filmed at CJC Jazz Club, Auckland. I have also included the clip ‘Tangi’ from Secret Islands. Lastly, I would like to fondly acknowledge Jim’s daughters, Rosie, Catherine and Celia Langabeer, and Jim’s partner Lyndsey Knight, who together, acted as fact-checkers.

JazzLocal32.com is rated 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

Inside Outside ~ a listeners lament

The term inside outside has a specific meaning in Jazz theory. There are well-delineated subcategories like side-stepping or side-slipping and in the hands of jazz writers, it can simply imply the comfort with which a player moves between playing the changes and free improvisation within a tune. Then there is the where. The joy of entering a club as you descend a winding staircase and feeling your heart skip a beat as you cross the threshold. That particular inside is about belonging and it is the salt being rubbed into the wound of a deprived club-goer. 

Inside is about the clubs, where the music has intensity and the physicality of the experience communicates directly; bypassing the mundane and teasing the senses one by one. The rawness brings everything straight to the heart and to the gut; the magic and the mistakes; it’s visceral, and you can feel the pulse beating against your body. 

When the pandemic hit, clubs closed the world over and we wondered how we would survive. We were sound junkies suddenly deprived of our fix. We missed the warmth. We missed being able to whisper our enthusiasm to the stranger beside us as a phrase took our fancy. We missed the ‘hang’ with the musicians during breaks, and above all, we missed that moment when the band hit the pocket and an involuntary sigh escaped our lips. That blissful experience of bathing in refined sound.

Inside Outside ~ Komeda ~ Astigmatic 1965

We were lucky in New Zealand as we eradicated the first round of the virus swiftly and thereafter we lived in splendid isolation for much longer than most. It was a time of normal life, sans travel or travellers. It was a time when the clubs remained open and when local music was the only and best game in town. That freedom lasted for the best part of two years and with only minor interruptions. Overseas, the death knell of iconic clubs was grimly sounding out. 

Then Omicron sneaked past the watchtower and took hold in the shadows. We paused, adjusted and looked outwards again. We are open to the world but the virus is the snake in the grass. It is back to normal and not back to normal because after the pandemic comes ‘the great forgetting’ as the young resume their lost lives and leave behind the silent ones. The cohort of the risk-averse, the older ones who are not yet ready to enter a subterranean venue. I am one of those. 

The older you are the more likely you are to be immune-compromised (or have a partner who is). Having experienced live jazz since my youth I am doing it tough and I am not alone. For a while, I thought that I was an outlier, but one by one, friends have outed themselves. Jazz radio DJs, record producers, journalists and musicians; the older ones. As if admitting to a crime, they drop their voices and whisper that they haven’t been inside a jazz club for ages. Perhaps it’s the fear of being mocked by the young and brave?

The thing about music is that it flows like water, seeping through the cracks and finding new levels. It is the law of physics that sound will find a willing ear so all is never lost. And although the clubs are temporarily off-limits the outside venues beckon. Open-air festivals are being planned and there are numerous bars with outside seating. Places where a person can bask in the winter sun and idle away an afternoon. And as one door closes another opens so we follow new music as it pops up online. Find time to think and to write about music, disappearing behind noise-cancelling headphones; listening to the new with fresh ears and to the old as if hearing for the first time. Pushing hard against the listening boundaries. Listening deeper and hearing more.    

Inside

Despite missing live music, my life is music rich. Review copies pour into my inbox daily and live-streamed concerts vie for my attention. I scan Bandcamp for the edgier improvised hybrid offerings, conduct interviews with musicians and hang with them over lazy lunches, I write reviews, judge musical competitions and involve myself in musicians’ causes. Biding my time until it’s safe enough to head down a staircase again.  

Footnote: Staying away from the upcoming CJC Wax///Wane concert with Lucien Johnson, Jonathan Crayford, Tom Callwood and Cory Champion will sorely test my resolve. I truly love that album and Lucian’s work. It’s my sort of thing and the musicians are quite extraordinary. 

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 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.

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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

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.

SNJO ~ Where Rivers Meet

‘Where Rivers Meet’ is a celebration of adventurous improvised music and it offers us a fresh window into the works of three departed titans (one still among us). The composers examined are Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Dewey Redman and Anthony Braxton, and while the spirit of these extraordinary musicians is evoked, this should not be regarded as a retrospective. What the SNJO have achieved is an in-the-moment exaltation of free spirits. The charts and performances are living breathing entities, rooted in the now. 

This is another waypoint on the open-ended journey that Coleman, Ayler, Redman and Braxton embarked upon. A journey that had no final destination in mind and the SNJO has approached these suites in that same enquiring spirit. Improvised music is at its best when it is not time-locked. 

Were lesser hands involved, it could be risky to combine arranged orchestral music with compositions that are famously organic, but here, it works well. The orchestration is never overdone and it adds contrast and unexpected texture to these vibrant open tunes.  The charts were orchestrated by four arrangers, Tommy Smith, Geoffrey Keezer, Paul Towndrow and Paul Harrison. Each suite is made up of three tunes by the composers and there are four soloing saxophonists involved, each tackling a different suite. 

The SNJO was established by Smith in 1995 and it is regarded as one of the pre-eminent jazz orchestras in Europe. It is also one of the most innovative. No matter what your taste in improvised music, you will find much to enjoy in this album. Ornette Coleman’s “Peace’ is a familiar and much-loved standard and the rendition by Towndrow is fabulous (on alto). The same applies to Dewey Redman’s lovely ‘Joie De Livre’ (Konrad Wiszniewski on tenor), or Ayler’s ‘Going Home’ (Tommy Smith on tenor). 

The meatier out-material is there also, Martin Kershaw is outstanding on the Braxton suite. I love this and ‘Composition 245’ especially. This is pure exaltation and Kershaw is killing. Here the spirit of Braxton shines brightest: minimalism, keening reeds, discordant joyfulness, space, tantalisingly distant vocalisations, swooping descents into quiet. Smiths sensitive, gorgeous rendition of Ayler’s ‘Ghosts’ is in a similar spirit. 

The performance took place in St Giles Cathedral Edinburgh while the gifted Russian expressionist, Maria Rud painted the cover artworks in real time (and in the presence of the orchestra). Spontaneous conversations between open art forms is the new realty and executed perfectly here. While there were no audience members present due to COVID, the artists have somehow magicked us into this hallowed space.

It also is nice to see some younger players alongside the veterans. I have been following James Copus rise with considerable interest. A wonderful player with an abundance of interesting ideas to communicate. 

Anyone who follows JazzLocal32.com will know that I endeavour to keep a focus on local improvised music, or that of Aotearoa in general. In this case, there is a strong local connection between the SNJO, Smith, and Wellington drummer John Rae. Smith and Rae formed their first band in Edinburgh when Rae was 14 and later they recorded together. Between 2000 and 2003, Rae was the SNJO drummer. 

The album was recorded in Edinburgh but it crosses a multitude of borders. Reminding me that local is about more than mere geography. Local can be a community of interest, a connectedness – beyond borders. The degree of separation is minimal in the Jazz world anyhow. Perhaps, Dave Holland put it best when he pled, ‘let’s not over-analyse the nationalist tendencies in Jazz’. No matter where we are from, it’s how well, and how authentically we tell our story. This is truly great music, universal music, full stop.  

To purchase visit the SNJO site or the SNJO Bandcamp page   http://www.snjo.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

Rare, Obscure, Overlooked

I’ve always been attracted to the albums which populate the margins. The material that is overlooked, and when discovered, brings with it a sense of having unearthed something rare. These discoveries make us feel like insiders, the inheritors of secret knowledge. And once we possess the navigation tools we join other explorers. Crossing terra incognito on a quest for sonic treasure.  

The albums are often rare private issues or bootlegs. Or they appear, then vanish during the collapse of a niche label, never to be reissued. Sometimes they are recordings taken by clubs from a live feed. Many archival treasures have been unearthed from these sources. This is the realm of mislabeled or rejected treasures, languishing in the vault of a disinterested multinational or forgotten in a private home. But by far the richest source, the recordings made by musicians, and stored away for posterity.  

Before the era of digital micro-recorders, people with scant respect for copyright smuggled recording devices into concert halls or practice rooms (obsessives like Dean Benedetti, Bird’s stalker, dangling his crude mic through a hole in the ceiling and covertly recording Bird practicing). I met people who wired themselves like police snitches and secreted a mic up each sleeve (stereo capture) and held their arms aloft during a concert in order to get the best sound. 

In my collection, I have examples of all of the above which leads me to the focus of this post. When the domination of 33rpm LPs was overrun in 1983 by the CD format, record companies had a field day, reissuing popular albums. For the big labels, it was largely about estimating the number of units that could be sold. For the smaller labels, it was a marginal enterprise and runs could be limited. During this period a determined group of obsessives digitised the bootleg tapes and the missing 78’s, EP’s and LP’s, old favourites which never made the cut. In Tamaki Makaurau there were several local musicians who had worked in broadcasting and they possessed the expertise to clean up and digitise scratched or hissy analogue recordings. This involved mysterious processes like ‘de-clicking’ and transferring micro-segments to fill a dropout. They did this for altruistic reasons and a number of rare recordings survive because of these efforts. 

Hawes Live At The Great American Music Hall #2

One of my lockdown projects has been to sort through these older albums and craft a playlist. Because of the nature of the material, some of it I have not posted as it has not yet become available on streaming services. Here are a few that took my fancy.

Paul Bley ~ Mr Joy (Limelight 1968). This album doesn’t appear in Spotify or in most discographies. It is an interesting and very rare album filled with great material. With Bley (p) are Gary Peacock (b) and Billy Elgart (d). The liner notes are hilarious and random. ‘Voice: Why do they call you Mr Joy? MJ: Because I’m unhappy about a lot of things’ Mr Joy went on to say that he was unhappy about imitators and impersonators, his own performance, but happy about people with open ears like Gary Peacock and Billy Elgart. The ghosts of Annette Peacock and Ornette Coleman inform this album.  

Anita O’Day ~ Angel Eyes (Emily Records/Lobster Records 78-81). These fabulous Anita O’Day small group sessions are a hybrid of two Japanese recording dates – 1979 and 1981. It came at the most troubled period of her life when her addiction problems were made public after a bust. Here, she is with her partner John Poole (trio leader and drummer). Poole has been blamed for her woes of that time, but later evidence suggests that he took the heat to protect her. She kept in touch with him and gave him work long after they parted. This is not the bright sassy O’Day of later years, but a smoky-voiced vocalist channelling her pain. Some may think that material like this should be forgotten, but I disagree. Would we ditch the difficult Billy Holiday years? This is Anita at her most soulful. A later limited compilation from these sessions was released by Kayo. My copy was extracted from two EP/LPs and has bespoke liner notes. John Poole (drums), Don Abney (piano), Dwight Dickerson #2 (piano) Harvey Newmark (bass). My converted copy finally corrupted.

Jimmy Giuffre 3 ~ Flight Bremen 1961 (Hat Hut / Radio Bremen) This Giuffre/Bley/Swallow album was taken from the live feed by Radio Bremen and later released by Hat Hut. It does not appear in many discographies and is particularly interesting as it proceeds the ground-breaking album ‘Free Fall’ and ‘Free Fall Revisited’. This adventurous music shocked many Giuffre fans who purchased it thinking that they were getting more of ‘The Train and The River’ trios. He changed his trio to include Bley and Swallow in 1961 (after 17 folksy albums with his old trio). During this period the discographies can be confusing. An album called ‘Fusion’ came out and ‘Fly Away Little Bird’ on the French OWL label. In 1989 ‘Life of a Trio: Sunday’ came out.   Free music was still very controversial in 1961 – ‘Flight Bremen’ is a bridge between the two styles. My copies are all extracted from LPs. Giuffre on clarinet.

Turkish Women at the Bath ~ Pete La Roca (Fresh Sound May 1967). This recording has an interesting tale to tell. After it was recorded, a well-known member of his band (not the leader) released it under his own name. La Roca was incensed and went to court over the copyright. After a long court battle, he won the case, and all existing copies were recalled. It was later released by Fresh Sound with the correct attribution. La Roca studied and became a copyright attorney and had a successful practice defending artists against violations like those he suffered. It is an exceptional album filled with modal grooves and open compositions. The personnel, Pete La Roca (drums), John Gilmore (tenor sax), Chick Corea (piano), Walter Booker (bass). La Roca is an interesting drummer who could create a loose swing feel over freer music. Gilmore is fabulous. 

Steve Kuhn ~ Oceans in the Sky (Owl 1989). The French label Owl was always worth checking out and this straight-ahead album is a gem. With Kuhn are Miroslav Vitous (bass) and Aldo Romano (drums). It was recorded in Paris, probably to suit the Czech bassist and Italian drummer. Nothing in Jazz quite evokes the feeling of looking down from space like this. Every time I listen to it I am overjoyed afresh. I wore out one copy and purchased a new one upon re-issue. ‘The Island’ by Ivan Lins is glorious. Such a lovely slow swing feel and if they laid any further back on the beat, they’d surely fall.

Playboy styled covers were popular on the West Coast

Curtis Counce ~ You Get More Bounce With Curtis Counce (Contemporary 1956). Curtis Counce was a star that burned out far too soon. He died of a heart attack while his career was on the rise. Counce, a stellar bass player, managed to play with an extraordinarily talented range of musicians before forming his own quintet in the Bay Area. In his lineup were some of the finest musicians on the west coast. Carl Perkins (piano), Harold Land (tenor), Jack Sheldon (trumpet), Frank Butler (drums). It was opportune for Counce, that Land quit the Clifford Brown/Max Roach band because he missed his family. Land has one of the most recognisable sounds on tenor saxophone, Perkins was a rising star, but tragically, he died of a drug overdose just as the band was becoming famous. He is one of those pianists who was reaching for a fresh approach and his loss at such a young age is lamented to this day. The album cover would possibly not pass muster today. Contemporary often took a playboy approach to cover art.

Jazz Studio 2 ~ Holywood (Decca monaural LP 1954). There were at least three in this set, volume 1 featured east coasters like Hank Jones. ‘Volume 2’ is an early example of the cool west coast sound and the nonet features heavyweights of the day. The personnel: Don Fagerquist (trumpet), Milt Bernhart (trombone), John Graas (French horn), Herb Geller (alto saxophone), Jimmy Giuffre (tenor, baritone, clarinet), Marty Paich (piano), Howard Roberts (guitar), Curtis Counce (bass), Larry Bunker (drums). Unsurprisingly, Paich does most of the arrangements with a few by John Graas. Bunker is always attention-grabbing as a drummer (or vibes player), most memorably with Bill Evans in the ‘65 trio’.

Matka Joanna ~ Tomasz Stanko Quartet ( ECM 1994). This and the two albums that follow are in the overlooked category, hiding in plain sight. ‘Matka Joanna’ (Mother Joan) is a tribute to the award-winning Jerzy Kawalerowicz film about a group of possessed, eroticised, nuns on the rampage and set in the middle ages. The unusual genre called Nunsploitation thrived in the eastern bloc and became an outlet for artistic subversives during the communist era. Thirty-three years after the film came out Stanko produced this open, free-exploration in tribute. There are many reasons to like this with its dreamy vibe, but high on the list are the musicians. Stanko was a trailblazer with his euro-free inside-outside approach, an original. His east European style of Jazz was always informed by the world he grew up in, and particularly by Kristof Komeda. With Bobo Stenson on piano, Anders Jormin on bass, and best of all, Tony Oxley on drums, how could this not be extraordinary? Very few people know of this album and that puzzles me.

Nothing Ever Was Anyway. Music of Annette Peacock (ECM 1997) Marilyn Crispell Trio. This is a highly rated album, but perhaps because it is free improvised it remains on the margins. Marilyn Crispell is living proof that free improvised avant-garde music can also be beautiful. Her spaciousness, phrasing, and interactions with others, mark her out as one of the greats. She has recorded in New Zealand with Jeff Henderson and the late Richard Nunns (check that out on Rattle, it’s still available and streamed). 

Hampton Hawes At the Great San Francisco Music Hall (Concord 1975). There were two issues of this album and the details are sketchy. Mine was a vinyl conversion with no liner notes. Also hard to find is the Swedish ‘Black Lion’ album ‘Spanish Steps’. Hawes was a superb pianist and his playing was always recognisable (increasingly, passionately, funky over the years). Everything by Hawes is worth having and a lot is up on Spotify. Sadly the ‘Great American Music Hall’ album is not. On that disk, he shouts and stomps as he builds the tension. The rare ‘Black Lion’ albums only appear on YouTube. The clip below is from a year later than the ‘Great San Francisco Music Hall’ recording. 

The best source for small-label, rare, and previously unreleased recordings is Bandcamp. There are some great Dewey Redman recordings there for example. For Dewey, check out Barney McAll’s ExtraCelestial Arts page (a never before heard Dewey release) and also check out the great Canadian free Jazz unit, Jon Ballantine Trio with Dewey. I would like to acknowledge Welly Choy and John Good, who started many on this journey for the overlooked.

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

The River Tethys ~ Ben Wilcock Interview

It had been quite a while since the pianist and composer Ben Wilcock and I last caught up, so when I heard about his new album, I set up a ZOOM interview. It was a wide ranging discussion, more like a hang really, and because we were both relaxed we found a lot to talk about. The most obvious place to start was with Greek Mythology, a topic that we both had an interest in. Exploring this topic backgrounded the album nicely and the consequent intertextuality enhanced my appreciation of the project.    

So, Tethys was a Titan and the daughter of Uranus and Gaia (Sky and Earth). She was associated with bathing spots and rivers. Among her siblings were Hyperion and Oceanus (the latter her brother and husband). Tethys later gave birth to the numerous water gods and nymphs who appear throughout Greek literature (Oceanids). 

My assumption that the album directly referenced this mythology was only partly true. In fact, the prime inspiration was a series of SciFi novels titled ‘The Hyperion Cantos’ by Dan Simmons. I had no knowledge of his works, as my basic reference for Hyperion was John Keats’ aborted poem. My bad. The Hyperion Cantos is now on my reading list.

Aenea

The project topic was an immediate hook, but the way that Wilcock tackled it makes it extremely interesting. In the novels, the river Tethys flows between different worlds and in order to capture the mood of those worlds, he assigned each tune to a different world or place. He also decided that the pieces should not be programmatic and with that in mind he allocated each tune to a world after they were recorded. 

The artistry of the musicians and the arrangements lead you to think that the work is through-composed, but in reality it is ninety percent improvisation and much of that free. Therefore, I was not surprised to learn that the tunes were mostly captured in one-take. Each of them sparkles with a spontaneity which arises from that in-the-moment approach. The tunes are mostly Wilcock originals but with three standards interposed, the juxtaposition works very well.  

The blistering rendition of Gillespie’s ‘Groovin High’ is a roller coaster ride, pulling at the very fabric of the tune, and much like the hot music of the Mos Eisley Cantina in Star Wars, you wish that you could hang there. As Wilcock put it, ‘melody over chaos time’. Another standard is a take on de Paul/Rayes ‘Star Eyes’, a tune made famous by Tommy Dorsey. The remaining standard is ‘La Rosita’ (brought into the Jazz lexicon by Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins). All of the above are assigned a different mood (e.g La Rosita has an old movie vibe, later settling into a delicious Ahmed Jamal groove with its easy loping swing). 

As interesting as the standards are, it is the originals that truly reel you in. Right from the opening number you know that you are in for a treat as a succession of expansive tunes entice you phrase by phrase. This is an album that rewards repeat listening. Some are slow burners while others are edgy, and in spite of the oblique references to familiar music, this is a forward looking and original album. 

First Gate

One of the things Wilcock and I spoke of was how improvising artists hate to be confined or pigeon-holed. This album firmly establishes Wilcock as a capable modern stylist. Yes, he is adept at creating a Peterson, Monk or Garner vibe, but he is so much more than that.  There is free improvisation on this album and he is very much at home in this space. I can’t wait to hear more. This must surely be his direction of travel from here out. 

When you check out the album, listen to the slow burning and bluesy ‘Sol Draconi Septum’. A tune where the form is implied and liberated. Or check out the extraordinary ‘The Secret Life of Music’, which opens with a scuffling dissonant urgency (think Paul Bley), then unexpectedly merges into a delightfully syncopated Willie the Lion stride romp. Then there is ‘Aenea’ with its otherworldly violin soaring over the trio like a circling eagle; and that subtle elegant progression in the middle which briefly reminds you of Evans playing The Peacocks. 

With the colourist drumming and interactive bass, the openness of the offering is reinforced. That the music could be simultaneously inside and outside, is a tribute to the musicians. And Wilcock’s piano is superb throughout, a joy from start to finish and worth the album price alone. Accompanying Wilcock are his frequent collaborators, John Rae (drums) and Dan Yeabsley (bass). On a number of tracks they are joined by the interesting violinist Tristan Carter. No one put a foot wrong here. 

I have always been a fan of John Rae’s drumming and partly because it is always totally appropriate to each situation. Therefore, I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear those spare, Motian-like, colourist pulses emanating from his well tuned drum heads.  I love minimalism and there is plenty of it to enjoy on this album. The best example can be found in ‘First Gate’. Here, the quartet speaks as one and they capture the very essence of minimalist Jazz, something rare, sparse and beautiful. The opening bar begins with three chords, then the sound decays as the seconds tick (how wonderful), gradually that tap, tap, tap and the arco bass or snatches of violin. Five stars for this tune. 

The last number on the album is Star Eyes and as the trio settles into a warm groove, we are eased back to the familiar.  Having experienced this journey. I know that I will return often; these are worlds that beg a deeper exploration. To purchase the album visit Thick Records (follow the link). It is also available on streaming services, but it is best to purchase and support these artists – this one you will want to own in any case. 

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

Simon Thacker ~ Pashyanti

In September 2014, the Scottish guitarist Simon Thacker brought Ritmata to Auckland. I recall that night clearly, as his innovative genre-defying music and entertaining banter enchanted the CJC audience. Since that time, I have followed his endeavors with interest and there has been much to marvel at. As one reviewer put it “(Thacker) is one of the most important musicians of his generation”. He has toured widely, is classical guitar tutor in a number of prestigious universities and has appeared as a soloist with leading orchestras. 

Along the way, he has formed various ensembles as he reimagines cultural musical traditions. He is a master of the unexpected and each performance arises from his pan-cultural journeys. At first his music sounds familiar, but upon further listening, you realise that you were mistaken. What you are hearing is something new. 

This is a musician with boundless imagination and although his music may be fed by diverse streams and is respectful, it is not confined by the past. The last time we communicated he made that point beautifully. “At no point in history is music more exciting than what we will hear tomorrow”.      

His latest project Pashyanti began as a solo project in 2019 and he toured it through the Indian subcontinent, appearing at two of the biggest Indian Jazz festivals along the way. That was to be followed by an appearance at last year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe (cancelled due to covid), but as with all of Thacker’s projects there is constant evolution underway. This year he has invited contemporary dancer Aishwarya Raut (from the Rambert dance school) to collaborate with him. Together, aided by skillful camerawork and gorgeous lighting, they have conjured up a sonic and visual feast. 

There are four segments to the show: MunaSata, Omanjana, Ekla Chalo Re and Nirjanavana. I loved them all, but perhaps because I lived through the sixties, I found Nirjanavana the most compelling. The musicianship and dancing and effects were astounding, as was the otherworldly lighting. Throughout, you will experience the vibe of flamenco or the displaced time of latin music, some Jazz harmonies, slick references to a multitude of eastern traditions and above all, high wire artistry.  

The concert is on until 29 August. Pashyanti appears as the Made in Scotland Showcase, an Edinburgh Festival Fringe event. And best of all, it is available online to viewers worldwide via the ticketing Fringe Player app (follow the link). I urge anyone with a love of acoustic guitar, dance or astonishing musicianship to grab a ticket immediately.  

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

Jon Hassell ~ the dream catcher

The avant-garde trumpeter, composer and innovator Jon Hassell died this week. He was not as well known as he should have been. He blazed his trail largely out of sight of the mainstream and along the way he created marvellous worlds. His early influences were minimalism, serialism, Indian vocal traditions and Miles Davis. He was a softly spoken trumpeter, a world music innovator, a change agent in rock and a Jazz influencer. On one website sub-genre descriptors call his styles; ethnic fusion, experimental jazz, techno-tribal, ambient improvisation. While associated with many genres, he had moved beyond them to forge a new type of music. 

His creations have always been deeply respectful of the older musical traditions. You will find beautifully crafted fragments of microtonal Indian classical music or textural Balinese Gamalon music. At no point does this feel like appropriation. And all layered lovingly over a deep pulse of electronic effects, a funk bassline and none of it rushed. If you watch videos of him playing you will notice that he points the trumpet bell downwards. Sampling and shaping the sound, on wondrous machines like the Eventide Harmoniser; ever shapeshifting as he moves tangentially between harmony and melody. His trumpet sound is unusual, developed out of early experiments with electronic effects as he sought to approximate Kiranic vocal techniques. 

As a student, he was attracted to serialism and after graduating he studied under Karlheinz Stockhausen in Europe. On returning to the US he met Terry Riley and performed on the first recording of ‘In C’, a work regarded as a seminal moment in modern music. During the early seventies, he discovered Kiranic singing and along with Riley, La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, studied under Pandit Pran Nath (Nath was a pupil of the Sufi vocal master Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan). They were later joined by Jazz Musicians and among them Lee Konitz and Don Cherry. Hassell was a Miles Davis fan and several of his albums highlight that influence. His best-known mainstream collaborations were with Brian Eno, Talking Heads, David Sylvian, Ry Cooder and Tears for Fears. 

Less well known was his enormous influence on the Norwegian jazz scene. During the last few decades, he would perform with or influence various Norwegian Jazz musicians. Members of the underground techno-Jazz fraternity. Eivind Aaset, Jan Bang, Erik Honore, Bugge Wesseltoft, Nils Petter Molvaer, Arve Hendrikson, Sidsel Endreson and others. A sub-genre that is increasingly accepted by Nordic jazz audiences. (The top video features guitarist Eivind Aaset and electronics mastermind Jan Bang).

Hassell’s innovations and collaborations have produced some extraordinary recordings. My personnel favourite is his ECM recording ‘Last night the moon came, dropping its clothes on the street’ (the title is from a Rumi poem). On this album from 2009, he plays alongside like-minded Norwegian improvising musicians. He always used evocative album titles and his album covers and videos magnify the effect. Album titles like ‘Vernal Equinox’, ‘Dream Theory Malaysia’, ‘The Surgeon of the Night Sky Restores Dead Things by the Power of Sound’, ‘Mareefa Street, Magic Realism’,’ Listening to Pictures’, ‘Seeing through Sound – Pentimento’ (pentimento: where a painting reveals fragments of an older painting hidden underneath). He painted in the softest of pastels, dabbing sound onto a universal canvas, elevating mood to the position of supremacy and infusing everything with a rare beauty.

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.

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.

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. 

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.  

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

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.

Caitlin Smith ~ You have reached your destination

This has been a season of upheavals and delays, and Caitlin Smith’s album, ‘You Have Reached Your Destination’ was no exception’. The gig sold out long ago, but then it was delayed twice. It finally went ahead last Wednesday and there was a rush to get a good seat. In typical kiwi fashion, what passes for a queue had formed; a ragged line, reordering itself in illogical surges as it snaked across the footpath of K’ Road. Smith is popular and like many vocalists, she has followers from across the music spectrum. 

She brought a medium-sized ensemble with her, including backing vocalists, piano, keyboards, two guitars, drums, basses and a pedal-steel/slide-guitarist. I am used to hearing Smith with her trio, but this was new to me. 

The band had a warm and enveloping sound, with Smith, clearly relishing the energy surrounding her. She has a strong voice, and it cut through. The first number was pure Americana, not just because of the pedal steel guitar, but the organ and backing vocals, and above all the lyrics. On several of the later numbers, they were joined by the gifted Nigel Gavin, and if anyone can channel authentic Americana he can. 

The setlist followed the album order (minus a few tunes). There were few introductions, and this was intentional. The night was about letting the music speak and to achieve that best it needed an uninterrupted flow.  I enjoyed the gig and couldn’t wait to hear the recorded album. 

The physical album comes in exceptionally beautiful packaging, and importantly, the front cover has a brail title. In doing so, the senses are immediately directed within, or as Smith puts it, ‘let your ears guide you through this experience without other sensual distractions’. It was an invitation to a deep listening experience. The first tune, Grand Companion, was the perfect start point and from that point on you are guided between tracks by footsteps.

Much as Joni Mitchel or Rickie Lee Jones did, Smith uses predominantly Jazz Musicians in her bands. Musicians who can respond to nuance and work with her (not just back her). On the album’s opening track, Grand Companion, you hear John Bell on vibes, and what an inspired choice. His silken fills adding textural contrast: and Keven Field on Rhodes and piano. The live gig featured 10 musicians, but the album has a bigger cast (for example, pedal steel guitarist Janek Croydon, other backing vocalists and drummers). Paul Symons picked up this role on Wednesday and he doubled on slide guitar and vocals. The well known Aaron Coddel on bass(s).

On both the album and at the gig, the interaction between the chordal instruments was central. What a delight to hear Alan Brown and Kevin Field finishing each other’s musical sentences or trading fills. And Dixon Nacey, a guitarist who can accompany a vocalist with incredible sensitivity and a first-choice musician for a gig like this. 

Track two ‘The Story so Far’ has a southern soul feel and the backing singers are the icing on a beautiful cake. ‘No Mans Land’ picks up the overarching theme of the album which is self-realisation on a sometimes difficult journey. Prayer for a miracle reminds me of Patrice Rushen’s disco-funk, ‘Tug of War’ closer to a straight-ahead Jazz number. 

This is an honest album that touches on loves lost, inner struggles and sobriety. Smith is sight impaired, but she never complains. It is part of who she is, and she occasionally jokes about it. In between numbers, a few band members slipped off stage to grab a drink and when it was time to call them back, she said, ‘I can see what you’re doing’. ‘What can you see’ yelled someone in the front row, ‘Very little actually’ she replied, grinning. 

When I looked at the album liner notes, I was surprised to see when it was recorded. This album is a gem. It was worth the wait and I hope it puts Smith where she deserves to be; a widely acknowledged vocalist among our greatest. It has been over 10 years in gestation and now it has arrived. It is a credit to Smith and to all involved, and it also underscores just what magnificent work Roundhead Studios do. As I played it through, a tug of emotion brought a lump to my throat. The mahi paid off royally and the wait was worth it, we have our own Joni.

Album: Caitlin Smith (vocals, Wurlitzer, and compositions), Kevin Field (piano, Rhodes), Alan Brown (keys, B3), John Bell (vibes), Janek Croydon (pedal steel), Dixon Nacey (guitar), Aaron Coddel (bass), Nick Gaffaney (drums), Chris OConnor (drums), Jeremy Hoenig (tabla loop), Finn Scholes (trumpet), Oliver Emmitt (trombone), vocal backing: Mate Ngaropo, Rebecca Le Harle, Callie Blood. 

Gig: Caitlin Smith (vocals, piano), Kevin Field (piano), Alan Brown (keys), Dixon Nacey (guitar), Nigel Gavin (guitar), Aaron Coddel (bass), Paul Symons (pedal steel, slide guitar, vocals), Jono Sawyer drums, Callie Blood + Chelsea Prastiti (backing vocals).

 The gig took place at Anthology K’Road for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, Nov 4, 2020. Order the album from stores or Caitlin Smith.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. Many of these posts also appear on Radio13.co.nz – check it out.

Clo Chaperon ~ Chapters

The usual fare of the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) is the instrumental gig, but over the last fortnight, the club has featured two vocalists. Vocalists have a broad appeal and can bring different audiences to a Jazz club. This is a good thing and it helps with the club outreach and kaupapa. Last week brought Clo Chaperon to the bandstand and although she has been performing around town for several years, this was her first solo gig at the club. On two previous occasions, she has appeared in bands led by the popular pianist, Kevin Field. 

Wednesday was the release of her ‘Chapters’ EP, featuring five of her own compositions and it was her first release. She kept the EP numbers for the second set and during the first set, we heard a selection of tunes that had influenced her musical journey. The list was an eclectic offering of Jazz standards and all of them interesting.

There were surprises like Something Cool, a tune written by Bill Barnes in 1954, first released by the wonderful June Christy where she was accompanied by the Pete Rugolo Orchestra. Christy wrote the lyrics (check out the 1959 video from the Playboy Penthouse).  Material like this gets lost in time and big ups to Chaperon for including it. There were modern Jazz standards like Butterfly (Hancock – Gretchen Parlato version) and some soulful numbers like ‘Jazz is Nothing but Soul’. The perennial favourite ‘Dat Dere’ by Bobby Timmons also went down a treat. You can’t miss with that particular number as it conveys such a sense of joy.  

Her own compositions leaned toward modern soul-jazz or ballads and they were an indication of her future direction. I liked the arrangements (possibly by Nacey), and the tune that I have posted is titled ‘Holding On’. It has a funky propulsive groove and a nice vibe. This is reminiscent of her vocals on the Field Album. 

Chaperon has a presence on stage, and she is down with a pleasing line of banter. This is an essential accoutrement for a vocalist as people respond instantly to warm human interactions. Expressive vocalists know that they are selling the lyrics and that a stone-faced look is a turn-off. 

Having Dixon Nacey on the bandstand was of unmistakable benefit. He is a strong player with a distinctive style, but on this occasion, his job was one of support. He kept his solos short and his comping was nicely understated: he was not showy, but every note counted. This is the hallmark mark of professional, making others sound good. 

Peter Leupolu, Mostyn Cole, Percy Watson and Stephen Thomas rounded off the group and it was nice to see the percussionist in the lineup. Adding percussion was especially appropriate, given Chaperons French Mauritian, Sega heritage. Perhaps we will hear some of those traditional songs interpreted sometime soon. I hope so. If you wish to purchase her album, she is contactable through her website clochaperon.com

The gig took place at Anthology K’Road for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, October 28, 2020. Clo Chaperon (Vocals) Peter Leupolu (piano & keys), Mostyn Cole (bass), Percy Watson (percussion) and Stephen Thomas (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. Many of these posts also appear on Radio13.co.nz – check it out.

Haines/Crayford/Singh

Any jazz club gig involving Nathan Haines, Jonathan Crayford and Manjit Singh is bound to catch the attention. It was programmed to occur months ago and unsurprisingly tickets sold out so quickly that many missed out. Then, out of the blue, the virus crept back among us and we found ourselves back in lockdown. There was a new date suggested, but for safety reasons that did not transpire, and we waited. October brought us warm weather, freedom of movement, and above all, it gave us our gigs back. This time the Haines/Crayford/Singh gig actually happened and more tickets were released as restrictions no longer applied. 

The gig was a fusion of Jazz and the Indian musical traditions and in particular the northern styles. Accompanying them on harmonium and with vocals as a guest artist was Daljeet Kaur, the wife of Tabla player Manjit Singh. Chelsea Prastiti also appeared as a guest artist on one number. To pull off this type of fusion and yet do so respectfully, requires careful programming and good musicianship. The three co-leaders were particularly suited to this task. 

Singh was a respected Tabla player and teacher long before he travelled from the Punjab region to New Zealand. He has since completed a musicology degree at Auckland University and his involvement with the UoA Jazz School brought him into frequent contact with local jazz musicians. Haines and Crayford are internationally renowned and together they are a versatile dream-team. Bringing Singh into their orbit made perfect sense as both can comfortably play outside of the strictures of genre. 

There are particular subtleties to Indian music and perhaps most formidably the rhythms. The scales, although model, and thus familiar to Jazz practitioners also have aspects of difference. The northern Indian scale has twelve notes and is moveable. When western harmonies are added, unusual challenges crop up. Jazz, however, is the art form of flexibility and its practitioners thrive on playing over drones and exploring harmonies. I believe that is why this worked so well. 

As soon as I heard the harmonium and tabla together I was transported back in time; back to a night in the Himalayan foothills where I once heard a wandering troupe play. Two youths who we had befriended in Katmandu, called by late one night and led us up into the mountains. We walked in the moonlight and eventually arrived at a rustic farmhouse; cattle on the ground floor, a farmer ushering us up a ladder to the first level. A troupe of wandering musicians who crossed borders secretly at night and played in private homes by invitation only. A four-piece unit of sitar, tambura, flute, harmonium and vocals. They were brilliant. Not the sort of thing anyone could forget.   

I had always assumed that that the harmonium was a traditional Indian instrument, but I have since learned, that it came from the West around 250 years ago. Once adopted by Indian musicians, it was modified, and it entered the repertoire of the northern part of the sub-continent. Its entry was not without controversy. Because it sits at the juncture between east and west, it feels an appropriate instrument to bring to an Indian, Jazz fusion gig. 

There were a number of original tunes, a classical piece, a Beatles tune and an old Pakistani folk tune. The arrangement of Norwegian Wood was well adapted. The Beatles had been exploring modal Indian music at the time. When Chelsea Prastiti joined them, she and Daljeet Kaur sang a New Zealand composition, Olympic Girl. That number received wild applause, but my favourite segment was when the trio played Heitor Villa-Lobos Bachianas Brasileiras No 5. This gorgeous tune with its sensual Latin rhythms and Spanish tinge has been played and adapted by Jazz musicians before – notably by Wayne Shorter. The trio’s version paid it homage in the very best way. 

 Nathan Haines|flutes, soprano saxophone – Jonathan Crayford | piano & keys – Manjit Sigh | Tabla, tala & percussion – Daljeet Kaur | harmonium & vocals – Chelsea Prastiti | vocals

The gig took place at Anthology K’Road for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, October 21, 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.

Kang / Rainey ~ Christchurch

Last weeks CJC/Anthology gig brought the Christchurch Brad Kang/ Jimmy Rainey duo to Auckland. While I have heard both artists before, this gig was a step up for them. Both looked comfortable on the bandstand and their confidence was justified. It is always a pleasure to witness early promise being realised and while neither could be considered veterans, both have received a measure of favourable attention. Both are well travelled and tested in the wider Jazz world.

I am more familiar with guitarist Kang as he has gigged in Auckland several times. The last time he played here he was just about to depart for the USA and that and his other trips have yielded dividends. He was always a competent player but a noticeable change has occurred. He is now playing fewer notes and the way he phrases resonates. I know that he has studied with Mike Moreno and it showed. The virtuosity is still there, but never at the expense of the music itself. 

The last time I heard Rainey was at a CJC emerging artists gig but much has happened since then. He has benefited from overseas experience and his exposure to new ideas; particularly in his writing. This is a duo that writes to their strengths and because they understand that, they can play up a storm in consequence. At one point Rainey studied in Amsterdam, a Jazz loving genre-diverse proving ground. Anyone who has attended ‘Bim’ gigs will know what I mean. There’s a lot of freedom and innovation happening in that city.

From the first to the last tune they held us. The tunes while of varying tempos and alternating between the two composers, all spoke of the now. This is the type of music that is owned by younger players. It was unselfconsciously forward-looking and immediately brought ‘James Farm’ to mind. It did not lean heavily on harmony but the harmonic development was implied; there were clean unison lines and above all, the melody dominated. It was evident on the tune Spiral, where the cascade of lines emerged in sonic waves, while behind them piano, bass and drums carved up the rhythms. 

And this was made possible by the skilled anchoring of Tom Botting’s bass lines and by the steady pulse from drummer Adam Tobeck. With Field, comping minimally the effect was enhanced. Wise heads and good players always adjust to accommodate. If he was alive today, it is tempting to think that Tristano might have embraced this direction?

The first tune Herfst was a majestic and evocative composition by Rainey. Herfst is a Dutch word meaning August (majestic and the season). This was a good warm-up tune as it gave us an idea of what would follow and the course once set, remained steady.  Other tunes that Rainey penned were ‘Daze’ and ‘jubilate’. As well as the piece that I have posted on YouTube (Spiral), Kang composed ‘Passing Thoughts’ ‘A Quiet Place’ and ’Five Five Four’. 

Brad Kang|guitar, Jimmy Rainey|tenor saxophone, Kevin Field|piano, Tom Botting|bass, Adam Tobeck|drums. The gig took place at Anthology K’Road for the CJC Creative Jazz Club October14, 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.

Frank Gibson Jr ~ New Bop Quintet

Frank Gibson Jr is a legendary figure on the New Zealand Jazz scene. A drummer like his father before him and a Jazz touchstone throughout much of my life. He and I attended the same Grammar school and although he and Murray McNab were two years ahead of me, they were known even then as being cool Jazz- guys. Gibson’s love of Monk and of the Hard Bop era has always been his thing, and it is evidenced in his gigs. No one about town does it better. 

With the New Bop Quintet, we get a fresh Gibson line up this time; within minutes of hitting the stage, they’d recaptured the joy of that era. The setlist was broad and included a few tunes that we seldom hear; it also included a nicely penned original by bass player Cameron McArthur titled ‘Three Up, Three Down’. There was only one Monk tune (Straight no Chaser), and the applause after that was thunderous. Everyone loves Monk. 

As an opener, the band gave a crackling rendition of a favourite Shorter tune ’Speak No Evil’ and there is no better way to commence a standards gig. Gibson is a strong drummer and his style exemplifies this era; his bop-influenced grooves being unmistakable. In this unit, he has changed things up by including some different musicians. This gave the gig an interesting edge and it worked a treat.  Keven Field could fit into any line-up, but he is seldom in a Hard Bop unit. His distinctive harmonic approach edged the sets into new territory, and everyone stepped up to meet the challenge. 

You could not have a Hard Bop gig without featuring Benny Golson tunes; there were two of them, ‘Along Came Betty’ and ‘Stablemates’. These are essential Hard Bop classics, and no one ever tires of them. The tune which really stood out though was a seldom played composition by Dexter Gordon, ’Soy Califa’. This was the opening track on his ‘A Swingin’Affair’ album and once heard, loved forever. To do justice to a tune like this requires chops and bravery and the evidence of both was very much on display last Wednesday.  

On ‘Soy Califa’, the opening drum beats and the tightly executed head arrangement hooked us, then Pete France took it to a different level entirely. He and Mike Booth gave memorable solos. It is a common complaint that we see too little of France (a Scottish born saxophonist). He is highly regarded about town and when his tenor-saxophone sings, it is wonderful to behold.  I have posted a clip of New Bop’s ‘Soy Califa’.

Soy Califa (Gordon)

There were also flawless performances from Mike Booth, as this is the style and era where we hear the best of him. He and France were very well matched and as the band played on, you could feel their enjoyment and their deep love for this music. Field and McArthur while hidden in darkness, were the essential ingredients that rounded off a heady brew.

Whether it’s playing with locals or with Jazz greats, travelling or teaching, Gibson has achieved much in his life; to top that off he has recently gained a doctorate.  This was the first CJC gig as we emerged from the second lockdown and it attracted a capacity audience. It was great to have the music back and nice to have it ushered in by a quality Hard Bop unit like this. 

New Bop Quintet: Frank Gibson (drums), Mike Booth (trumpet), Pete France (tenor saxophone), Kevin Field (piano), Cameron McArthur (upright bass). The gig took place at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Anthology, K’Road, Auckland. September 30, 2020. 

Life is Brut[if]al ~ Andrea Keller

By any measure, Andrea Keller is an extraordinary musician and her latest release, ‘Life is Brut[if]al’ is the proof of the pudding.  This is music for our times, and it reflects her well-documented and highly original creative journey. Keller is Melbourne based and like most musicians in recent months, her activities have been severely curtailed. The insidious grip of the virus is causing ever tighter lockdown restrictions, but creatives are used to working in challenging conditions, and happily, her prodigious output continues. This artist has a work ethic that few can equal, and we are the beneficiaries. 

The term tune is wholly inadequate to describe how the pieces unfold and although the substitute term journey is somewhat cliched, it is accurate.  As we listen, we find ourselves in a world located far from the mundane, a world full of intricacy and wonder, but revealed via the medium of minimalism and kaleidoscopic shifting patterns. This is Keller’s preferred space as her various influences have led her here.  She is an extraordinary pianist with a deft touch, but her compositional skills are very much to the forefront in this work.  

As one would expect, Keller has gathered some of Melbourne’s finest musicians about her for this project. Her ensemble writing is always about collaboration: Scott McConnachie (soprano and alto saxophone), Julien Wilson (tenor, saxophone and bass clarinet) and Jim Keller (voice), alongside Five Below band members Stephen Magnusson (guitar), Sam Anning (double bass), Mick Meagher (electric bass), James McLean (drums). Andrea Keller plays piano throughout. 

The first piece ‘Meditations on Light’ is the longest and it is the perfect opener as it invites a reflective mood before diving deeper.  It opens with a soft pulse, followed by guitar; the latter evoking the sound of a wine-soaked finger rubbed on crystal. Then you hear Keller, moving slowly and purposefully; a T. E. Lawrence riding out of the distant desert haze. By this point, anyone with open ears and a receptive heart will be fully engaged. You listen and the realities and cares outside the door fade into obscurity.  The soprano, when it enters, soars ecstatically above the drums and bass. It has the feel of a Fellini movie and the album is worth buying for this track alone.  

The second track ‘Dear John/Joan’ is more somber and mysterious. It reminded me of church bells and mourners in an Italian village, and again it is eerily filmic. Perhaps it reflects the loss of connection that the world is currently experiencing. Bley and Burton achieved a similar effect with ‘A Very Tang Funeral’.  That is followed by the title track ‘Life is Brut[if]al’; a powerful track which takes a freer path over a long earthy vamp. I love this track, especially, as the freedom seeking soprano dances so unbound. This track best sums up that happy place where freer music talks to its growing audience. An intersection for the adventurous and a place where the finest of improvised music is headed. 

After that comes ‘Suicidal Snails’ and ‘Blip ‘the former featuring reeds in unison and the latter, a short but sweet segment featuring tenor saxophone. The penultimate, ‘Youth Unleashed’ finds us exploring the free again.  

The final track incorporates portions of Rainer Maria Rilke’s profound prose, from ‘Letters to a young poet’. The track is ‘Love in Solitude (disassembled)’. This intertextuality is the icing on the cake and perhaps the point where the album makes its strongest claim to greatness. This is art music and it is timeless. 

Uptown Jazz Cafe – photograph J Fenton

Born of Czech parents and growing up in the ethnically and musically diverse city of Melbourne, Keller has been gifted an ecumenical viewpoint. Her album speaks to the world and beyond, and due to its originality, depth and fluid interplay it is a five-star achievement.  This album and its predecessor ‘The Composers Circle’ are part of her ‘Monday Nights at Jazzlab’ series. ‘Five Bellow Live’ won the 2019 Jazz Bell Award for the best Jazz Ensemble. 

Keller is a multi-award winner, renowned educator and mentor. She was contemplating a visit to New Zealand in the New Year, but travel restrictions will likely prevent that. Until then, I will remember Keller performing at the Uptown Jazz Cafe (and the night before at Jazzlab). They were wonderful performances, and my photographs and these albums, reinforce that memory. 

During the writing of this post, an email arrived in my inbox, informing me that Keller is about to release yet another album; this time of solo piano titled ‘Journey Home’. There is also a related film to be released on DVD. The latter, a collaboration with filmmaker Hayley Miro Browne; a tale of their fathers, fleshed out with graphics and Erik Keller’s photographs of the 70’s Czech Republic. Again, this speaks to the work ethic and the creativity of this gifted artist. I have my order in. To purchase the above or any of Keller’s self-released albums, visit her Bandcamp site. It is a treasure trove. There is also merchandise available, and who could resist that gorgeous artwork by Luke Fraser.  AndreaKeller.Bandcamp.com