Bach In Reykjavik

It has long been acknowledged that Bach’s DNA is deeply embedded in Jazz practice. While Bill Evans surprised some fans when he named Bach as a primary influence, the Baroque composers influence is actually widespread in all of western improvised music. Over the years there have been numerous Bach crossover albums and while the best were marvellous, others sounded slightly awkward. The more recent Bach referencing albums have moved beyond the swing approach and in doing so they have reached deep inside the essence of the music. Like a good Jazz head-arrangement, Bach’s music provides an exquisite architecture for improvisers to explore. I am enthusiastic about a number of these modern explorations.

A few days ago a review copy of ‘On Goldberg Variations’ (Backlash Music) arrived. I was immediately intrigued, as the album was recorded in Reykjavik. The musicians are classical improvising pianist, Mathias Halvorsen and Jazz percussionist, Jan Martin Gismervik. Both are Norwegian although Halvorsen is at present living in Iceland. I am an enthusiast for Nordic and Icelandic artistry and I wondered if those spacious northern landscapes would influence their approach. After listening, my answer is yes. Halvorsen pointed out that the two are more closely aligned with the Norwegian scene, but it is no stretch to imagine how recording in Iceland can add a layer of influence. 

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While the album is directly informed by the notation of the Goldberg Variations, it is also referred to as new music. Here, the musical ideas have been examined with care, extracted and then reduced to their essence. In the track titled ‘other voices’ a sub-minimalist approach is evident; with the musicians utilising fragments; and the results are both familiar and unfamiliar. To quote Halvorsen:

(It) can best be compared to looking at a familiar world through a continuously changing kaleidoscope’.

Stripped of ornament, and elided, the silence between the notes becomes essential in the decoding. We sense what lies between and it is visceral. We follow and are surprised as the motifs and rhythms fall into place. Those familiar with the Goldberg Variations will find themselves attempting mental reconstructions as fragments of rhythm or melody, appear and then vanish. Humans are hard-wired to look for patterns, and in searching for them here, we are drawn inside a spacious pristine world. We compare what we know, or what we think we know and out of that comes the new.

Halvorsen & Gismervik

The pieces reveal a filmic soundscape of stark beauty. ‘Numbers’ beguiles us with long ostinato passages and again the minimalist approach allows us to explore the sonic subtleties. ‘Running’ takes us closer to a known form but then injects long bars of silence between the phrases. ‘Together’ comes closer to Jazz sensibilities with its resonant voicings, which dance. Everything merits a deeper listening here as the journey is in part, subliminal; it will stretch some listeners toleration as avant-garde music frequently does. It worked for me and took me back to the extraordinary Bley/Giuffre/Swallow albums such as ‘Freefall’ (ECM). 

For those keen to hear some other contemporary approaches to improvised Bach, I recommend Brad Mehldau’s ‘After Bach’ (Nonesuch). This album achieved tremendous cut through and juxtaposes Mehldau’s own compositions with Bach’s. That album references ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’. It is closer to the original Bach charts. A sumptuous delight from start to finish. 

For another unusual look at the ‘Goldberg Variations’, people could check out Uri Caine’s ‘Goldberg Variations’ album. This was released by ‘Winter & Winter’ and is gorgeously packaged. Like Mehldau, Caine plays some of the variations as written, but the rest appear as blues, electronica, gamba quartet and in many unusual ensemble configurations. There is also humour and joy.

If you’re afraid of iconoclasm, these will not be for you; but if you are up for sonic adventures, dive in and go with it.

Pianist Mathias Halvorsen

 

 

Percussionist Jan Martin Gismervik

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

Adventurous Spirits

The Following albums are all adventurous in their own way. All reach beyond the strict confines of genre and while each approaches from a unique vantage point, they offer a cross-section of trans-Tasman pandemic era music. The music may or may not have been influenced by the lockdown itself, but the association resonates. We are on a long journey. Moving from isolation towards an unfamiliar landscape. We will inevitably cling to yesterday, but we will hopefully also take the braver step of jettisoning what has become superfluous. We do not need bankers and snake oil merchants to guide us, but we do need adventurous musicians. 

Dark Energy: Paul Williamson Quartet

A few years ago a visit to Melbourne coincided with the launch of Paul Williamson’s ‘Finding The Balance’ album at JazzLab. There was a lot to like about the album and I wrote a review after I had returned to New Zealand.  Now in the midst of the pandemic, Williamson has released a new album titled ‘Dark Energy’. This time he invokes different spirits and in doing so he taps into new and exciting realities.  

This is an edgy and forward-looking album and although it offers glimpses of the familiar, it quickly strikes out for freer air. Popular music seldom strays beyond the angst of loves lost, but Australasian improvisers increasingly move beyond the confines of gravity. In fact, astrophysics is often an inspirational touchstone for our down-under improvisers. In the early seventies, these themes were convincingly referenced by the likes of Bennie Maupin and Eddie Henderson. Dark Energy picks up the batten, combining galactic revelations with the discovery of wondrous interior worlds.

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On certain tracks, Williamson’s trumpet playing contains hints of Tomasz Stanko or perhaps the quieter moments of Kenny Wheeler. A wistful moody quality is evident and especially on tracks like Al-egance; his tone is especially gorgeous in these settings. On the more ethereal tracks, he utilises extended technique and skilfully embeds the instrument into the spectrum of the bands sound. In all of these explorations, his band is in lock-step. Letting the compositions speak with clarity, and understanding, that close confinement is unnecessary in space. 

On guitar, Theo Carbo displays a deft touch, clean and appropriate to the task in hand. Again there is a gentle moodiness and one which owes much to improvised Americana. The bass and drums also strike the right balance, never overreaching, and yet every voice and flurry is heard perfectly. 

Paul Williamson (trumpet, compositions), Theo Carbo (guitar), Hiroki Hoshino (double bass), Miles Henry (drums)

paulwilliamson.bandcamp.com

 

Wind & Wire: Alan Brown solo piano

‘Wind and Wire’ is a third of a set of solo albums that Alan Brown has released. His first two albums teased out the subtitles of an acoustic piano, and they did so in a setting which allowed the acoustics of the room to inform the improvisations. This album compliments the earlier albums while expanding the sonic possibilities. With keyboards and digital enhancements come fresh choices, and this is a logical progression for which Brown is well-fitted. He is an acknowledged master of the digital and analogue keyboard, and he understands how to judiciously apply enhancements. 

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The album is a set of 10 improvised pieces and the titles set up the mood for each. ‘Mood’ is an important ingredient in any ambient composition for it is the mood and not melody or rhythm which invites us inside a piece. Brown is always careful to establish this. His improvisational development follows a logic evolved from the preceding phrases. It is more than sound shaping as it flows like a river from start to finish, and this in spite of being unconfined by written charts or cycles of scales. 

In Wind and Wire, there are varying moods and not all are quiet or reflective. Where you start is not always where you expect to finish. There are surprises embedded within. While these are essentially interior landscapes they are no less real for that. They invoke vistas and engage with our ever-changing realities. Something we have hopefully learned to value in these days of inner reflection.

alanbrown.bandcamp.com

 

Trouble Spots: Ivan Zagni/Steve Garden)

A few days ago ‘Trouble Spots’ appeared in the Rattle Records Bandcamp catalogue. I listened and was captivated. Because humans are hard-wired to categorise I looked for descriptors. Among the tags were: acoustic instrumental, experimental, atmospheric, improvised. I listened to the rest of the album and then once through again. Wow, I thought, this is engaging but it studiously evades categorisation. How can something so enjoyable and so strangely familiar remain so elusive?  

The cover art was also mesmerising. So much so, that for a while I failed to register, that the album was the result of a long collaboration between Steve Garden and Ivan Zagni. Garden, the local Manfred Eicher, the presiding spirit of Rattle Records (and what is often overlooked, a fine drummer and percussionist). Zagni is the co-leader and a significant figure in the music world, long acknowledged as a gifted multi-genre experimentalist. Born in London and moving to New Zealand many years ago where he soon became a significant presence on the local scene. The Rattle label grew out of Garden’s early work with Zagni and Don McGlashan. 

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Keen to get the low-down I contacted Garden and during our conversation, he suggested some additional tags for the album: absurdist, filmic, musical jokes, sonic circus, accidental improvisation, sonic collages and experimental music. Most musical disciplines have a vocabulary and the listener is therefore accustomed to locating fixed reference points; seeking out the elements that indicate genre. If a style is too rigid however, then that implies stasis and the improvising arts are the antitheses of stylistic inertia.

So this is an album that tells wonderful stories and the stories are best constructed (or deconstructed) in our heads. The music here facilitates that with its evocative but elusive cover image, it’s glimpses of Beirut or Nicaragua, of Punch & Judy, Cat & Mouse. Think of it as musical Dada or a Zen Koan. There is serious intent and good musicianship here, but that should not prevent us from laughing in pure delight. 

rattle-records.bandcamp.com

 

 

Elsen Price (Aust)

Elsen Price (5)Two bass, two drummer gigs while not unknown usually occur in service of a chordal instrument or of a horn line, and when a solo bass concert occurs, an audience is frequently shown ‘cleverness’. On this occasion, the bass of Elsen Price freed the instrument from the narrow confines of the standard rhythm section or the conventional solo bass repartee; instead, exposing the beautiful resonances and the reach of the instrument. This was sublime music and complete unto itself. It celebrated a gifted musician and a wonderful instrument but without displays of egocentricity. The feat was achieved by inviting us inside the music, and into a sonic cornucopia. We listened and we were captivated.

Life is full of unexpected sonorities and if we believe ourselves to be familiar with them all we are deluded. It is a paradox of modern life that popular music, while prolific, is cursed by formula-driven compositions. On Wednesday, Price and his ensemble teased the new from the familiar. Each instrument adding colour-tones and texture. Hands, fingers, ‘broom’ sticks, standard sticks, mallets, all deployed to good effect. Clicks, taps, scrapes on parchment, rim shots, gongs, bells and balloons under cymbals. And Price leading the way; a conduction answered by each musician and often in unison; acts of collective intuition. 

It is rare to hear Jazz arco bass played so well, it filled the room and swelled, but during the pizzicato passages Price was equally stunning. He is clearly a master technician but this was not about chops. He oversaw the ensemble as a true democrat, giving space and responding to the others. The first set was solo bass. Here Price showed us the breadth of his vision. He employed a looper peddle and would set up a drone or a motif. He would play counterpoint, either arco or plucked, sometimes creating a second loop over the first. He did not rely overly on the live samples, but harnessed them for discrete passages and always under his precise control. 

What we experienced in the second set were energised permanences by Price and his ensemble. Each revealing in their own way what lay deep within the music. That particular set ran a full hour and without interruption. It was a composition for improvisation but with no music on display and as far as I’m aware, no prior rehearsal. Price guided them with gestures or by changing pace. For these types of gigs to work well, the combined energies must feed a room. Music like this leans heavily on interplay, an intuitive reading of cues and deep listening by the musicians. Such high wire acts can easily falter, but this didn’t. That the terrain was navigated so effectively is because the right people were in place on the bandstand. 

Besides Price, on the second bass, was Eamon Edmundson Wells. Although the youngest member of the ensemble he is well versed in playing avant-garde situations. He would be among the first you go to for anything adventurous and he always delivers. On drum kit was Ron Samsom and it was pleasing to have him on this gig. Nothing daunts him and he has few stylistic limitations. He clearly relished the opportunity to play in the ensemble and to interact with another drummer. As he initiated cymbal scrapes, tapped with mallets and scuffed the ‘broom’ sticks the textures richened. This was colourist drumming of the best kind; extending the kit beyond the role of mere timekeeping. On hand drums and percussion was Chris O’Connor; the drummer most often seen in line ups like this. His ability to move seamlessly between genres is legendary; in these situations, he adds inestimable value. With O’Connor you get an ‘Art Ensemble of Chicago’ experience; all the tiny bells and gongs and with each one appearing exactly where it should for best effect.

Gigs like this can sometimes be difficult for audiences, especially those unfamiliar with a freer type of music. In this case, the audience showed enthusiasm, obviously enjoying the experience.

Elsen Price (upright bass, looper), Eamon Edmundson Wells (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums), Chris O’Connor (drums, percussion) @ Anthology, CJC Creative Jazz Club, Auckland 14 August 2019

The Oblivious Eight

JeffJeff Henderson is a freedom warrior from outside of the perimeter fence.  On the 9th of May, 2018, he marched barefooted into the Backbeat Bar with a ragtag army of irregulars. The audience had come well prepared and a pregnant air of anticipation hung over the bandstand during setup.  Unusually, there were no lower ranks in this army, all were battle-hardened veterans (or anti-heroes depending on your viewpoint). All had impressive service records, an advance guard who took no prisoners. Jonathan Crayford is arguably the most famous of the troop, a decorated hero who swiftly commandeered a C3 organ (an ancient analogue machine decorated by psychedelic art and reminiscent of a Haight Asbury weed shop). Beside him sat machine gunner Steve Cournane, a rat-tat-tat freedom fighter recently returned from Peru. The remaining soldier, battle scared and bleeding, was Eamon Edmundson-Wells (his Viking surname tells it’s own story).  Jeff (1)

The first set was a powerhouse of inventiveness. An outburst of raw energy cradled cunningly in a cocoon of warm grooves. This one step closer-than-usual to Jazz approach may have surprised some, but certainly not me.  I have witnessed Henderson doing this time and again. He can pick over the bones of anything from heavy metal to folk music. He is fearless in his appropriations and he always transforms base metals without fear or favour. This was pure alt music alchemy. Henderson is the real deal, a musician with a calculated irreverence, a sound jocky with an inside-outside approach. A man who dives so deep inside his artform that few dare to follow. As he traversed the various moods and tempos, you could hear his trademark multiphonics; nothing lingering too long. There were too many fresh ideas ahead and no time for a tea break.  Jeff (2)

The compositions were wonderful and each in a different way. It was inspired that Henderson surrounded himself with such a warm groove. Drum beats that either dove into a 70’s groove or even took a Buddy Rich turn. A warm as toast Crayford tinged B3 sound and a solid blood dripping bass line. That sort of surrounding could have been a straight jacket for an avant-garde player but in Henderson’s hands, it was a liberating vehicle.  He worked off the others constantly and they, in turn, gave him clear air without deviating from their given roles. This was one of those special nights where every musician shone a light, cutting through the mundane and dispelling all hints of mediocrity.  They were so deep in the music that they were doubtless ‘oblivious’ to the rows of open-mouthed listeners. I must, however, raise an eyebrow at the name, there were clearly more than eight band members on that bandstand.

Auckland is the richer for Henderson’s presence. We should count our lucky stars that he jumps the perimeter wire from time to time. This was an eight out of eight performance. Jeff Henderson (baritone & alto sax, compositions), Jonathan Crayford (C3 organ), Eamon Edmundson-Wells (upright bass), Steve Cournane (drums) – June 9, 2018, Backbeat Bar, CJC Creative Jazz Club, K’Road, Auckland. Jeff (3)

Steve Barry Quartet (with Martin Kay)

barry-2016-120

It felt good to back at the CJC after nine weeks away and all the more so when I discovered that the Steve Barry Quartet was playing. Since attending my last CJC gig I had travelled 40,173 kilometres (as the crow flies), journeyed through ten very different countries, confused innumerable people along the way with my slender grasp of their deliciously exotic languages (including American English); I visited six Jazz clubs and numerous jazz bars, experienced hundreds of poetry encounters – travelled on more ships, trains and planes than I can remember and wore out a brand new pair of shoes. In spite of feeling befuddled and seeing at least two of everything, I decided that a dose of improvised music might impose a semblance of order on my disordered senses. Still jet lagged I drove expectantly into the city, surprised to find that dozens of large buildings had been sneakily removed in my absence. The Albion stood precariously on a precipice – all nearby buildings gone without a trace; giving the block the appearance of a toothless grin; apart from one well-worn molar.

No one is ever going to be disappointed by a Steve Barry  gig, an adventurous and constantly evolving pianist and composer. I was also delighted that he was featuring Martin Kay, a gifted and adventurous saxophonist. As the lights went down and the music washed over me, order returned. My neurones settled into familiar grooves as I felt myself exploring the sound and it’s endless possibilities. I closed my eyes for a moment, but on opening them saw the strangest apparition. The jet lag was far worse than I thought because a young woman appeared to be gyrating dangerously across my vision – her long hair flying in all directions. She lurched one way and then another, at times bent double, her movements so erratic that I decided that it was probably a mirage brought on by crossing too many time zones.barry-2016-121

She rushed here and there, dancing (well sort of), a look of strained intensity on her face, eventually deciding to up the ante by falling heavily onto the tables and sending my equipment and drinks flying. A guiding hand came out of the darkness and led her away to a corner where she sat forlorn and motionless – at least for a few minutes. As a finale and before anyone could restrain her, she sprinted toward the band, launching herself free of gravity. This weightless state lasted mere seconds, then an untidy crash followed as she fell heavily into the centre of the bandstand – a slow motion train wreck in an odd time signature.

What impressed me enormously was the composure of the band. Grinning from ear to ear they played on, never missing a beat – true improvisers, reacting to and utilising the moment. Barry has accumulated many accolades and awards over recent years but he is never one to rest on his laurels; spending the last year composing – finding new ways to express his evolving musical ideas. The music was superb, ranging from open and free to adventurous standards, beguiling, labyrinthine. The gig guide had accurately described Barry’s compositions as modernism, melodicism and minimalism combined. As themes were probed and developed, new soundscapes opened up. The addition of the gifted Martin Kay an asset, enabling a fuller realisation of Barry’s vision.barry-2016-122

Kay was on alto for this gig, bringing every ounce of his considerable talent to bear as we experienced his full-throated sound. His solos took us deep inside the music and at times he utilised extended technique. His use of multi-phonics was impressive but never gratuitous, adding colour and fresh dimensions to the innovative compositions. A piano does not have the freedom of a saxophone in this regard, but Barry played off the others with increasing intensity during his solos. The contrast was extremely pleasing. On bass was Cameron McArthur and on drums Andy Keegan, both performing like the veterans they are. McArthur is a regular and popular at the CJC (deservedly so). Keegan we see less, but on the basis of Wednesday nights performance I would hope to see him more often. This was complex though accessible music and well rendered. Barry’s year of hibernation has been a fruitful one.

A seldom played standard Juju (Wayne Shorter) was marvelous. The angularity and endlessly unexpected turns paying Shorter deep respect. This gig showcased musicality at the highest level (and with the added benefit of some impromptu free fall performance art thrown in).  I was glad to be back home for this.

I heard quite a bit of music while travelling and I also heard the varying cadences of the spoken word along the way (especially in poetry). In Vienna I heard a the cross-pollination of Americana and European folk rhythms (Chico Freeman), in the Bimhuis Amsterdam I heard Euro Free Jazz (Frank von Bimmel and Han Bennink) – in Gdansk I heard improvised music that was Polka infused. Improvised music is a universal phenomena but it has regional dialects. I like our Australasian dialect very much.

Steve Barry Quartet: Steve Barry (piano, compositions), Martin Kay (alto saxophone, compositions), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Andy Keegan (drums). The gig took place on 26th October 2016 at the Albion Hotel basement – CJC (Creative Jazz Club).

Wayne Shorter Quartet – beyond the time/space continuum

Shorter 099When we talk about Wayne Shorter’s music we immediately run into obstacles. Wayne is like a Zen Master, deliberately confounding our every expectation. To begin such a journey our rational minds need emptying. As the journey unfolds we move beyond comforting reference points; this requires a letting go, real courage. The 2016 Wayne Shorter band is a musical ‘Voyager’, a spacecraft assembled out of earthly components, but sending encrypted sonic messages from an unknown place. What is on offer is a shared journey – but only if we are brave enough. Once you commit there is no looking back.

To attempt a detailed description of a concert like this is utterly pointless. Only the ears, eyes, spiritual mind, can evaluate this experience. That is the point – you have to be there – really be there – engaged – then let go. All I can say is how lucky I feel to have seen this band twice in my life. Once in a Roman amphitheatre in Verona Italy during the ‘Standards Live’ 2002 tour. Now 14 years later almost to the day, at the Wellington 2016 Jazz festival. The same band, Wayne Shorter, Danilo Perez, John Patitucci and Brian Blade. Immortals all. Back in 2002, the band unbundled tunes from Wayne’s long career – a career always advancing beyond the edge. It sounded brave and edgy back then. On this tour, he transcended those earlier reference points. Yes, there was form, even charts; just as a spacecraft has a shell. Inside the craft, the band moved freely in the weightless air.

This tends to confound some critics, people who need firm ground beneath their feet. A few have even puzzled over the constant adjustment of saxophone mouthpiece and neck. The perpetual adjustment phenomenon is common to all great saxophonists – it is a manifestation of the never-ending journey deep into sound. In the marvelously written Cook & Morton Penguin Jazz Guide, the word elided appears when describing Wayne’s sound. He often puts the saxophone to his mouth, then pauses and takes it out again – interpreting this or his frequent adjustments as uncertainty is missing the point entirely. The dictionary definition of Elision is; deliberately omitting components of speech or sound. When taken to its logical conclusion the remaining sounds (or letters) become a code. A code we must decipher unaided.

I think it was Lee Konitz who said. ‘Old men should play like old men. When I hear them trying to play like their young selves it sounds wrong’. Old men have important things to say from the viewpoint of life experience. Wayne played like his older self, wiser, braver and unafraid to show vulnerability. I am glad that he did.

After the gig, I spoke to a number of musicians. Almost all were in a deeply reflective mood, basking in the experience. Dixon Nacey a prominent New Zealand Jazz guitarist said to me. Man, I was thinking of you in there and wondering how you could find adequate words to review that? Of course, I can’t.

Dixon and I decided to walk a while, needing to clarify our thoughts. We walked the back streets, weighing it all up, sometimes discussing a particular facet, seeking to understand the importance of what we had seen and heard. Dixon said at one point, “I found that I needed to abandon my trained musician’s brain, the brain that looks for fixed rhythmic, melodic or harmonic structures. A profound lesson I learned from this was, if you decide not to come in, to lay out in unexpected places, that is OK. Trusting another band member to pick up the thread”. There were probably mistakes and this also created deep connections. This music is humanism personified. That vulnerable sound that Wayne emits from his horns is his Bodhisattva voice – it can confront precisely because it is so human.

All worthwhile journeys lead back to the start point, a place where art, imaginings, and life merge. We already understand this music, we just need reminding. Shorter 099 (2)Wellington Jazz Festival 2016, Opera House, Manners Street, Wellington

Jim Langabeer – ‘Sketches of Aotearoa’

Jim Langaber 087 (2)A seasoned New York veteran when asked to comment on the quality of playing by young artists emerging from the Jazz Schools said, “Man they’re such great players. Many of them have chops to burn, but what is lacking is ‘character’. That is not taught in Jazz schools, you gain it inch by inch out of life experience”. To paraphrase Lester Young who put it best, ‘I hear the notes, but what is your story’. The character of a musician (or the lack of it), shows up in the music. Jim Langabeer has ‘character’ to burn. He tells wonderfully human musical stories and they are utterly beguiling.Jim Langaber 090Langabeer is hugely respected on the scene and deservedly so. He has worked with greats like Gary Peacock and Jaco Pastorius and in spite of absorbing the essence of North American Jazz, his ideas and sound possess a Kiwi authenticity. When he plays his tenor there is often a street-raw raspy intonation. The sound is at times reminiscent of Archie Shepp, but the story and flow of ideas are entirely his own. His flute playing is soulful and as soft as silk in the breeze. Because he is so comfortable in his own space he can incorporate everything from the avant-garde to indigenous music without it sounding contrived. These seamless references work beautifully in his hands. We talked of this after the gig and agreed that many of the earliest attempts at blending middle eastern, far eastern or ethnic music were less successful than now. Jim Langaber 089As the boundaries between cultures blur in a globalised world, the mutual respect between improvising traditions grows. I have posted an example of this effortless genre-blending in a clip from the CJC gig titled ‘Ananda’s Midnight Blues’. Those who are familiar with Buddhism will grasp the meaning immediately. Ananda was Gautama Buddha’s childhood friend and later his disciple. Beloved, worldly and yet never afraid to challenge his enlightened teacher. There is a feeling of deep questing spirituality in the piece – reaching beyond mere form.Jim Langaber 088 (1)Whether Langabeer plays flutes or reeds, everything serves the composition. His spare lines (which are devoid of undue ornamentation) establish a theme and then vanish like a will-o-the-wisp, giving a nudge to the imagination and enriching the piece as a whole. There are no wild flurries of notes on the saxophone or flute because the story resides elsewhere. His writing creates an over-arching logic and the ensemble has the freedom to move in and around tonality. In some pieces ostinato patterns create a drone effect, becoming a single note over which to restate the melody. This freedom allows for an organic interaction, free or inside and with a deep gut-felt pulse.Jim Langaber 088When putting a band like this together the choice of musicians is supremely important. Not every musician could handle such freedom. Needless to say, Langabeer chose well. The ensemble was rich in contrasting colour, rich in character. It was our good fortune that Jim Langabeer’s daughter Rosie Langabeer was back in town. I can’t imagine a better-qualified pianist for this role. A leading avant-gardist and experimental musician who crafts compelling filigree and rich beauty into her music. Rosie Langabeer can play outside one minute and the next you hear a deep subtle swing, a rare kind of pulse that you can feel in your bones. A gifted composer and leader in her own right, an extraordinary sides-women when required. Moving from percussive, richly dissonant voicings to heart-stopping arpeggiated runs – somewhat reminiscent of Alice Coltrane’s later piano offerings. Her iconoclastic playing delighted the audience.Jim Langaber 093On alto was Roger Manins. Although the alto is not his main horn he is extraordinarily fluent on the instrument. Langabeer has been focussing on multiphonics and microtonality of late and he and Manins showcased some atmospheric numbers utilising various blowing techniques. Manins has long impressed by playing in a variety of styles with equal facility. On guitar and pedal steel guitar was Neil Watson, bringing his mix of blues, Jazz punk, and avant-garde to the fore. Another iconoclast and one we love hearing. The pedal steel guitar has been in his possession for a year now and his rapid mastery of the instrument is impressive. A difficult beast tamed beautifully. On Bass was Eamon Edmundson-Wells. A versatile young bass player most often found in the company of experimental musicians. His performance on this gig was right on the money.Jim Langaber 091On drums and percussion was Chris O’Connor. Perhaps more than anyone else O’Connor personifies this free-ranging music. Of all the New Zealand drummers, his are the widest-ranging skills. Colourist, minimalist, indie rocker, straight-ahead jazz, avant-garde, experimental percussion and film work. There is nothing he won’t tackle and everything he touches benefits from his musicianship. When a piece titled ‘Tapu’ was played O’Connor stole the show. While Langabeer played the difficult and wonderfully atmospheric Putorino (a traditional Maori flute of the Taonga Puoro family), O’Connor simulated the Tawhirimatea (A traditional whirring instrument dedicated to the god of winds). The effect was eerie and electrical. Later in the piece he blew through the stem of his snare stand – recreating the effects of the Pututara (a conch trumpet). Only O,Conner could have pulled this off so well. Like Langabeer, he has a deep awareness of multicultural issues.Jim Langaber 092The one standard was Strobe Road (Sonny Rollins). A lesser known standard and played with enthusiasm. The remainder was a selection of Langabeer tunes, many referencing Maori of Kiwi themes. His tune Rata Flower was a stunner – it deserves to become a local standard. He has obtained funding from Creative New Zealand for this project and we might see a ‘Sketches of Aotearoa’ album soon. I truly hope this occurs and I will be the first to purchase one.

Sketches of Aotearoa: Jim Langabeer (flutes, Taonga Puoro, tenor saxophone, compositions), Rosie Langabeer (piano, keys), Roger Manins (alto saxophone), Neil Watson (Fender guitar, steel guitar), Eamon Edmundson-Wells (bass), Chris O’Connor (drums, percussion). Performed at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Albion Hotel, Auckland, New Zealand – 20th April 2016.Jim Langaber 094

The Circling Sun – midsummer heat

Circling Sun 096As a group of the worlds leading astrophysicists excitedly ran one last check. At the precise moment that the astonishing mathematical proofs confirmed Einstein’s theory of ‘gravitational waves’, the Circling Sun hit the CJC. This rare cosmic event released fresh gravitational waves which pulsed throughout central Auckland; altering the molecular structure of any ear within radius. It was an appropriate evening for the Sun to manifest this ‘climatic singularity’, preceded as it was by a dog-day as hot as any on record.

There are five musicians in the Sun – four human and one android. On tenor saxophone, doogan & keyboards was Cameron Allen, on drums & electronics was Julien Dyne, on pedal steel guitar & electric guitar was Neil Watson and on electric & acoustic bass was Rui Inaba. When fine musicians like this play out-crazy music, influenced by sources as diverse as Yusef Lateef, Alice Coltrane, Mulato Astatke and Tom Waits, you know you are in for a wild and danceable ride. The doogan is a cunningly contrived android, assembled from antique parts and loosely controlled by Allen. It is an independent minded machine often exceeding the prime directive; a mechanical and musical ‘singularity’.Circling Sun 086The Circling Sun is more a phenomena than a group. They defy musical form and yet exist convincingly in their own orbit; circling an altered reality. As with all wonders there is much to appreciate. The intricacy of their many machines, the indelible sonic footprint and the sheer joy they bring. I took some guests down to the club that night. Flamenco artists Isabel Cuenca and Ian Sinclair (and Ian’s wife Zarina). I wondered how they would react to this wild unconstrained mix of free improvisation and world beat psychedelic Jazz. Isabel the Flamenco dancer was quick to respond. ‘This is amazing, it has deep passion’. Passion is the heart of many musics and like authenticity it is a vital component. Long live the avant-garde – long live passionate music – whatever the genre.Circling Sun 093In his seminal work “This is Your Brain on Music’ neuroscientist Daniel Levitin reveals the following. ‘A liking for dissonance is a development arising from deeper listening and on attaining musical maturity. A very young child prefers consonance over dissonance, the mature listener increasingly values contrast and enjoys having expectations confounded. After spending time listening to deeper or more complex music, lightweight consonant passionless music becomes boring. There is a neural basis for this’.

Instinctively, the Circling Sun understands this and they feed audiences a healthy diet of dissonance. At one point Watson called down thundering chordal dissonance (as the drum beats rained like Thor’s hammer and the keyboards created strangely intricate figures while the bass overlaid danceable grooves) . As Watson repeated the two chords over and over he varied them ever so slightly. It was recidivist mayhem, but there was a logic, a cosmic logic and a deep raw beauty in the onslaught. I loved every moment of it as I reeled from the sonic blows. Adding to the excitement was a strong kinetic effect, Watson dropping lower each time he struck the strings. Dyne dancing all over the kit. This was Ceramic Dog territory and done to great effect. Levitin talks of this also. ‘Experienced listeners often get more out of live music than recorded, because they read the musicians body language in micro detail. The body language of the musicians sharpens the listeners expectations’.Circling Sun 090The Montreal born Dyne was just the drummer for a band like this. His musical credentials are impeccable. His expertise extends well beyond the kit to that of producer and forward-looking experimentalist; electronic future beats, hip hop, house, afro beats, boogie funk and instrumental jazz. His work with Ladi6 has brought him to wider attention, but his own Lord Julien recordings and his deeply funky ‘Down in the Basement’ (Vol 2) cuts are well worth checking out. This band has few constraints and it gives him ample room to stretch.

Allen plays saxophone and a variety of other instruments. He has long been known for his hybrid mechanical/electronic creations. His tenor is a Buescher (a brassy beast of ancient lineage) and its earthy tone is always pleasing in Allen’s hands. In recent years he has given equal time to his android doogan and an assortment of strange keyboards. He flies in the face of the prevailing fad for tracking down quality analogue instruments. Instead he plunders the throw away machines from the early digital age. This is an interesting development, as the reason these instruments were often abandoned, was because they didn’t sound like the acoustic instruments they sought to emulate. They sounded like new instruments and fed through a variety of pedals they are reborn. This is a recurring theme of the new millennium, reoccupying old spaces in new ways. Recycling, conservation and ultra modernism in one package.Circling Sun 088I have long been a Watson fan. The man is fearless and his musical ideas cross territory few others dare to traverse. His increasing mastery of the pedal steel already sets him apart, but his ventures into the experimental avant-garde with the instrument are unique in the New Zealand context. While an accomplished studio musician his preferred gigs are those without boundaries. With Watson you get Americana, blues, Jazz psychedelia or wild forays referencing Marc Ribot & Sonny Sharrock. The Sun suits his wild eclecticism.Circling Sun 092

The remaining band member is Rui Inaba on bass. I have seen him play a number of times and most often with Watson. This is the first time I have seen him on electric bass and the instrument counterbalanced the free ranging explorations of the other three nicely. There was also a guest artist performing on Wednesday – the ever popular J Y Lee on Baritone saxophone. During one number Lee, Watson, Inaba, Dyne and Allen took the tune ‘outside’. It was mayhem and madness of the best kind. This is a very loud band and the enjoyment rang in my ears like summer locusts for days after the event.

Footnote: The doogan improves with age, but its strangest feature is an ability to time travel. As each improvement appears a proportionate regression in time occurs. When it first appeared it had wheels, an alarm clock and many more modern parts. The recent assemblage is altogether older – a regression to the beginning of the digital era. A small yellowed-plastic Cassio keyboard routed through various pedals and midi boxes, sitting opposite a mysterious plywood box. The box bristling with nobs, toggles and sporting an impressive amount of gaffer tape. Beside the pedals a Moog like instrument with an early AM transistor radio plugged into it. Below that an ancient weather-beaten Korg. The small wooden box is most intriguing and although it resembles the two-valve home made radios of my youth, I suspect that it is something like Orac (Google ‘Blake’s Seven’ for more information on Orac).

The Cycling Sun played at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 10th February 2016, They are Julien Dyne (drums, electronics), Cameron Allen (saxophone, doogan), Neil Watson (pedal and electric guitar), Rui Inaba (electric and acoustic bass)

merging streams – deep rivers

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This week my copy of John McLoughlin’s ‘Black Light’ arrived (ARI X 050). A vibrant stream of groove fused with ancient oriental sources. All transformed utterly. Talas sounding like rap, deep groove and the reflective fusing with virtuosic Jazz bravura. In McLoughlin’s hands stylistic purity is a will of the wisp. Every note is fresh; past, present and future rolled into one. I feel the same way about ‘Dream Logic’ by Eivind Aaset and ‘Cartography’ by Arve Henriksen (both on ECM). Superficially the Mcloughlin album is a lot busier than the Aaset or the Henriksen but there are strong threads of commonality. Both draw on deep wells of music, shaping sounds derived from primal and untapped sources in equal parts.

All musical styles originate from another place. If music stands still it risks becoming a museum piece and whether it’s Mozart, Lennon, Bartok, Ayler or Miles Davis the influences are there. Forward looking musicians comprehend this instinctively and explore the vastness of sonic possibilities; knowing that musical innovation comes from open-minded exploration. Innovation never emerges from stasis. When people confine an improvised music like Jazz to a particular style or era they miss the point. Jazz like Latin music or Flamenco is a spicy fusion of rich influences. As older familiar tributaries recede to a trickle, new ones flow; filling the space. It is an immutable law of nature and of improvised music.

In the improvisers hands, nothing should survive unscathed because improvisers are shape shifters. They pirate, parody, transmute, transcend and remake. From older forms come newer forms; sometimes as illusive as silence. This artistic alchemy does not imply a lack of reverence for the past, it is the reverse. Finding new ways of interpreting the world is the highest calling of any artist and no matter what the change the DNA is never lost.

Four years ago happenstance led me to the Nordic improvising minimalists and the fascinating influences that inspired them. There are threads connecting these artists and these run in interesting and often unexpected ways. The ‘Eastern influence’ is an obvious source but there are so many more. Following the 1950’s recordings of Miles and Coltrane either playing over a drone or utilising other scales (like the Phrygian mode), new grooves entered the mainstream Jazz lexicon.

The musicians influenced by Kind of Blue are legion, but the connections are not always obvious. The Byrds, Beatles, Animals, Stones and the Who all made use of modal scales post Kind of Blue. I was surprised to read that U2 claimed that album as a prime influence. Terry Riley is an important figure in the minimalist school and he makes no bones about the effect of Coltrane and Kind of Blue on his thinking. Riley’s ‘In C’ was composed before the term minimalism and his stunning ‘A Rainbow in Curved Air’ took improvised minimalism to a new place. In the late 60’s the serialist trumpeter Jon Hassell met Riley and soon after they studied under the Indian master singer Pundit Pran Nath. Their increased awareness of what is now referred to as World Music became an added factor in their musical development. Along with Riley, Hassell experimented with electronics. 

Later both Riley and Hassell worked with Brian Eno and David Sylvian (ECM’s Manfred Eicher was paying attention). Eno credits Hassell with shifting his perspective considerably. Both coming out of experimental traditions and both unafraid of fusing lesser known ‘world’ musics with electronic music. Out of these discussions arose the concept of ‘Fourth World Music’ and ‘Coffee Coloured Music’ (World Music was not a common term at that time). Eno is a major figure in experimental Rock and World Music having collaborated extensively with David Bowie, Roxy Music and others.

The Nordic Improvisers are the most interesting development for Jazz audiences. Perhaps due to the influence of Jon Hassell, an incredibly strong Ambient trumpet tradition has developed in countries like Norway. Arve Henriksen, Nils Petter Molvaer and Matthias Eik. Eik is less associated with the Ambient improvisers, but his soft rich and at times flute-like sound places him in their ambit. The leading Experimental/Jazz/Electronica ambient improvisers are Eivind Aaset (guitars, programming), Jan Bang (live sampling, Beats, programming, bass), Erik Honore (synthesiser, Live field recording, samples), Arve Henriksen (Trumpets, field recording, voice) Lars Danielson (bass), Sidsel Endresen, (voice), Nils Petter Molvaer (trumpet) and Bugge Wesseltoft (piano, keyboards, electronics). Into this mix add a number of leading European, American and especially British Jazz and avant-garde experimenters like David Sylvian (voice, Programming,samples).

New Zealand Jazz has a foot in this camp with the fine work by Alan Brown on ‘Silent Observer’. Also Browns work with Kingsley Melhuish (‘Alargo’). To that I would add the experimental work of the Korean based kiwi improvising musician John Bell. The local offerings are as good as anything on offer elsewhere. We should trust ourselves to listen rather than struggle with genres. Too much time is spent worrying about definitions. This is ambient but it is not elevator music. It is a music of profound subtlety and if you relax into it, the grooves and pulses will take you deep inside. This is profound music that understands space and utilises silence. In Eno’s words, “an emphasis on atmosphere and tone replaces that of rhythm and melody”. This is a music that rewards careful listening and it goes where it wants without being time bound. Above all it engages the senses in new ways – it is utterly filmic in quality. I highly recommend Eivind Aaset’s Dream Logic on ECM as a starting point. I will keep you posted on New Zealand developments.

The Clips: Terry Riley, ‘A Rainbow in Curved Air 1969’ – Arve Henriksen, ‘Recording Angel’ from ‘Dream Logic’ (ECM) – Jan Bang, ‘Passport Control’ from ‘And Poppies from Kandahar’ (Samadhi Music) – ‘Alargo’ live are Alan Brown/Kingsley Melhuish – Gaya Day is by John Bell.

Sources: (Eno interview) The debt I owe to Jon Hassell – The Guardian. The Blue Moment – Richard Williams (Faber & Faber). 

 

 

 

Susan Alcorn talks Pedal Steel

Alcorn (2)Lately I have attended a number of music workshops. Although not a musician I gain a lot. They offer fascinating insights into the artists creative process and if your lucky, insights into a particular instrument. With music, the more you listen, learn, observe and delve, the more you gain. My reason for attending Susan Alcorn’s workshop was probably different from most attendees. The majority were guitarists anxious to glean practical information or wanting to be convinced that this complex instrument was for them. A handful of others sought knowledge for knowledges sake – dipping another toe in the water of sonic learning. Alcorn (1)

I like the warmth of the Pedal Steel guitar and I appreciate its hard won place in the landscape of modern improvised music. Learning something of its history and its quirks from an acknowledged master took me a step closer to the mystique of that quivering sound. Alcorn is very much at home in the world of experimental improvised music, but that was not always the case. After 30 years of playing country in places like Nashville and performing in the more orthodox styles she jumped ship.

She mentioned the influence of later Coltrane as one of the forces pulling her towards unfettered experimentation. She also spoke of a desire to explore composers like Messiaen and this required specialist tunings. She played us some Monk (as well as original compositions). Her take on Monk compositions was that they were architectural. “He starts with a well constructed base and as he builds up from the ground he plays with the form. He moves sideways creating an overhanging room but it is always balanced elsewhere”.

When younger she committed her self to a related instrument, (the Dobro) and eventually to the Pedal Steel – mastering the Pedal Steel did not come easily. There are many pedals and four knee levels to control. then there are the multiple tunings, a variable number of strings and a plethora of picking styles (also complex slide techniques to master). Few beginners get an easy ride and many don’t stay the course. Some tunings (e.g.Hawaiian) do not work for the blues and so double necked instruments are common – thus allowing for style changes from alternate tunings. Adding extra strings (or pedals) while increasing the options, also increases the complexities. It can take two to four years of practice before new tunings become ‘muscle memory’. Once down you have a world of sounds and possibilities at your fingertips.

In the 30’s and 40’s the instrument was universally popular and pedal steel orchestras proliferated across America. At that time Hawaiian music was particularly popular. Soon after the instrument found its was into Western Swing bands and Rockabilly bands (this is when pedals and stands were added – ‘console steels’). It found its way to mainstream Country music a little later, but it is less popular in that genre these days.

She gave us some insights into the origins of the instrument but pointed out that many of the popular theories are verging on the fanciful.

In the 1950’s you could buy the instruments in most US cities. Now only specialists carry them. Many like Alcorn go directly to a luthier for customised versions. Her 12 string tuning is unusual being C D F A C D E G A C E D. Having 7 pedals and knee levers give you more combinations. Unusually her instrument comes from an Australian luthier and is made of indigenous wood. She said that she wanted that deeply resonant bottom string so that she could play Messiaen (improvising musicians often customise their instruments). Here is a cut of her composition ‘Three Rivers’

The Nordic experimental Jazz trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer uses Pedal Steel as a dominant part of his soundscape in’Switch’.

Fact file: In the 50’s a Pedal Steel guitar track hit number one in the Billboard pop charts with ‘Sleep Walk’.

A big thank you to Jeff Henderson and cohorts for their tireless efforts to bring us wonderful experimental music. Sounds we would not otherwise hear. If you want to hear superb and often experimental Pedal Steel guitar you should seek out cuts involving Auckland guitarist Neil Watson. There are some located on this blogAlcorn.jpg

Mark Lockett Quartet @ CJC

Mark Lockett #1 2015 086Mark Lockett is a New York based drummer who visits Australasia once a year. Each time he returns he brings with him a piece of his adopted city. He is an original  drummer comfortable in diverse situations; a benign but strong presence in any lineup. His artistic approach under-pinned by an easy confidence and this enables him to interact well and to read every nuance. His wide open ears, communicating the pulse and possibilities of the life he lives as a working musician in a big metropolis. There is also a humour he radiates, which peppers his comments and drumming like aromatic seasoning. A Mark Lockett gig is always original and always enjoyable.

It is less than a month since Ornette Coleman’s passing and if ever there was an appropriate night to celebrate his life, this was it. While not an exclusively Ornette Coleman night, his compositions were well represented; every number played had Ornette’s fingerprints on it. The band came together at short notice and as is often the case in improvised music, happenstance served us well. Roger Manins, Callum Passells and Mostyn Cole are no strangers to the freer musical styles. With Locket propelling them they soared. We heard tunes by Coleman, Ellington, Monk, Foster & Lockett.Mark Lockett 2015 087 The music of Ornette Coleman while not without constraints frees the artists from many of the hard-wired rules. It doesn’t sound at all out-of-place now but I can remember the storm that surrounded its arrival. A treat for me was the groups rendition of ‘Congeniality’ from the seminal ‘The Shape of Jazz to Come’ album. The controversy surrounding this material is long behind us and every improvising musician has a little of Ornette in them whether they acknowledge it or not.Mark Lockett 2015 088Lockett often forms trios or ensembles that have no chordal instruments. While the musicians played ‘inside’ and ‘out’ they also attempted something we seldom hear in New Zealand. The opening number of the first set was Shiny Stockings (Frank Foster) and they played this in the style of the Mulligan piano-less quartets. Bass, Alto and Tenor in counterpoint and working within the changes. This was nice hear. I have an appetite for more of this.

The band was great and they reacted to each other as if they had been playing as an entity for many years. There was a lot of Charlie Haden in Mostyn Cole’s bass lines and in his warm fat sound. He is an engaging bass player and perfectly fitted for this freer approach. Rogers Manins and Callum Passells are always in lockstep and above all they are open to adventurous explorations. Both are superbly intelligent free-players. Watching Lockett I was again drawn to his precision. I have discussed this with him before and his control of the sticks is especially fascinating. After the gig I teased this theme out further, his hand positions and the intense locomotive propulsion that he generates. At times musical and at times like a freight train rolling over you.Mark Lockett 2015 089“Playing like that (fast and furious) is meat and potatoes in New York”, he said. He was once told that he could get better control if he held his sticks further down than usual. Because of that and because of his melodic approach, he is very interesting to watch. Somehow the sound is cleaner and with musical drumming like this who needs a chordal instrument. I can’t wait until his next visit.

Mark Locket CJC Quartet: Mark Locket (drums, leader), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Callum Passells (alto saxophone), Mostyn Cole (upright bass).

CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland,  New Zealand, 16th July 2015.

Spammerz, Silent Observer and Ambient Adventures

Spammerz 076Spammerz is a fascinating group and there is an interesting conceptual approach underlying their ethos. The quartets approach to improvisation is organic; more than might than might be supposed at first encounter. What they play is familiar but at the same time intangible. Constant organic shifts occur underneath the momentum and these apparent contradictions are not accidental. The music while eminently danceable is remarkably free of constraints; there is form, but it is not always fixed. The music has groove but it is cleverly purged of the familiar licks and hooks that usually inform groove music. There are interesting dynamics but these are not based upon loudness or showy pyrotechnic displays. It is ambient, but not in the accepted sense. It is enjoyable.

The leader of the quartet Dan Sperber once described his compositions as ‘unterhaltungsmusik’ (easy listening). This tongue-in-cheek description belies the reality and it hints at his quirky approach to writing charts. Background music was certainly not what the CJC or Golden Dawn audiences heard. They either danced happily or sat mesmerised as the friendly grooves filled the room. Perhaps ‘trance music’ comes closer?  Spammerz 074This opens up an interesting conversation about the many forms of ‘ambient’ music being explored at present. These forays are mainly by musicians on the improvised and experimental music scenes. Along the way the term ‘ambient’ is garnering new meanings and it can no longer be confined to the vernacular definition. It implies subtly, depth and a strong sense of being coupled to wider sensory experiences. The difference being that the senses catch on silken threads and not on steel shackles. There is also an illusive quality to this music and to understand the genre better, a good starting place would be Miles Davis ‘In a Silent Way’ or Brian Eno and Jon Hassell (‘Fourth world volume one, possible musics’). For an up to the minute vantage point go to YouTube and locate Elvind Aaset and Jan Bang’s ‘And Poppies from Kandahar’. Spammerz 071Unlike ‘easy listening’ there are deep emotions engaged by this type of music. Like all trance music cunning voodoo tricks draw you in and as you relax into the mesmerising grooves, you fall deeper into the web. This is music evoking mental pictures and imaginary worlds. This is music that is often served up with dissolving visual images accompanying a clip. The filmic qualities are inescapable.

The Spammerz band is Dan Sperber (guitar), Alan Brown (Crumar keyboard), Ben McNicoll (saxophones) and Jason Orme (drums). Because the musicians have been experimenting and playing with the grooves, the music is constantly evolving. The CJC gig was great, but the Golden Dawn gig just a few nights later was even better.  Spammerz 073Alan Brown is an asset to any unit and especially so when you consider that this is a crossroads between ambient and groove (both specialties of Browns). Ben McNicoll is a strong presence and his reading of these shifting grooves is always apposite. It is nice to hear such bluesyness purged of cliche. Jason Orme is a veteran of the groove scene but he sounds great in any situation. Spammers music calls for a tight groove but there is also a need for subtlety. Orme is more than up to the task. The leader Dan

The leader, Dan Sperber is best known for his role in ‘New Loungehead’ and the ‘Relaxomatic Project’. In spite of having such strong band mates on this project he is centre stage. His disarmingly quiet persona belies a strength of purpose.  A nice guitarist with interesting things to say.  Spammerz 077In the same week that Spammerz appeared at the CJC Alan Brown released his ambient album ‘Silent Observer‘. This album has long been anticipated. Anyone who knows Brown will be aware of his longtime interest in the works of the new Scandinavian ambient improvisers. Trumpeters like Arve Hendriksen, Nils Petter Molvaer, Guitarists like Arvin Aaset, vocal innovators like David Sylvian or Sidsel Endresen and electronics wizards like Jan Bang. This is a new frontier open for wider exploration. These artists draw huge audiences in Europe and increasingly audiences from beyond that continent.

While Brown has laid down more soul-filled grooves than most, he is also capable of thinking outside of the square. The concept of this project was clear when he sat down at the lovely Steinway D piano in the Town Hall Concert Chamber. Creating gentle music that is unconfined. This is spontaneous composition informed by place, by the moment, the artists vision and the instrument. With ambient music the spaces between the notes are where much of the music lies. These are like shared dreamscapes and a stream of mental images flows through the mind as we participate.

There is an oversupply of unsubtle loud incessant music cluttering up cyberspace and it is all too easy to forget the importance of silence and subtlety. This music is best enjoyed through headphones or at night in a quiet room. Ambient music is not background music, but the sounds we have forgotten to hear.  A child’s heartbeat or the rustle of a tree are the most ancient of ambient sonic archetypes. This album reminds us that hearing is selective and when we enable it as deep as the ocean.

While the piano paints gorgeous motifs there are often subtle synth textures underpinning the pieces. The judicious use of synth adds to the sense of wistfulness while not detracting from the piano. There are also samples folded into certain tracks and these are perfectly chosen. The Robert Graves poem (read by Dylan Thomas) and the whisper-quiet polyglot prayers in 40 languages serve the the project well.

Headland Glow: Alan Brown/Silent Observer – 

Spammerz – Dan Sperber (guitar), Alan Brown (Crumar Mojo keyboards), Ben McNicoll (tenor saxophone), Jason Orme (drums). Gigs at CJC (Creative Jazz Club) & Golden Dawn 6th & 10th May 2015

Silent Observer – Alan Brown (Steinway D Piano, Synth) – purchase the album from Alan Brown.co.nz

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The Troubles @ CJC 2014

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‘Troubles’ come in many forms and what a proliferation of ‘Troubles’ we have seen in Auckland. In mid 2012 we saw a nonet replete with a sizeable string section (and clarinet). Earlier this year at the Auckland Jazz Festival we saw a septet (strings, no clarinet and with Roger Manins on tenor saxophone as guest artist).  By Wednesday December 10th 2014 all trace of rosin was purged and the sweet sounds and fresh faces of the front line string section replaced by three tall bearded men clutching saxophones (and a shorter clean-shaven trumpeter).  This was a bold and brassy line up; a weightier manifestation, delivering anarchic messages from darker corners.  IMG_3877 - Version 2This was too good an opportunity not to record and Rattle did just that.  Capturing chordal instruments in a space like the CJC is challenging as the sound has a number of hard edges to bounce off.  Recording a live performance of this particular brand of ‘Troubles’ might work well.  IMG_3883 - Version 2Guiding the proceedings with his well-known brand of anti-establishment megaphone diplomacy was ring master John Rae, ‘Troubles’ co-founder.  He shepherded the ensemble through a constantly shifting landscape. His effervescent flow of joyous and often irreverent cries only stemmed by Patrick Bleakley’s timely interjections.  Rae is the supercharged engine room, but Bleakley is clearly the anchor.  Like Rae he’s an original member.  IMG_3872 - Version 2With this Auckland horn section in place, a new front had opened and the tweaked charts took maximum advantage of that. On baritone was Ben McNicoll and his presence gave the sound added bottom. Roger Manins, who had stunned us with his wild death-defying solo’s at the Troubles Portland Public House gig was on tenor again.  Jeff Henderson took the alto spot and that was a significant addition. His ultra powerful unblinking delivery was the x-factor.  Unafraid of repeated motifs but able to negotiate the music without ever resorting to the familiar. That is the Henderson brand, original clear-cut and uncompromising.  In no way diminished by the powerful reed instruments surrounding him was Kingsley Melhuish on trumpet. Melhuish has a rich burnished sound and like the others, he is no stranger to musical risk taking.  IMG_3869 - Version 2Together they evoked a spirit close to the earlier manifestations of the Liberation Jazz Orchestra. Not just the rich and at times delightfully ragged sound, but the cheerful defiance of convention and discarding of political niceties.  Rae’s introductions were gems and I hope some of them survive in the recording.  He told the audience that it had been a difficult year for him. “It was tough experiencing two elections in as many months and in both cases the got it woefully wrong” (referring to the Scottish referendum and the recent New Zealand Parliamentary elections). “there are winners and losers in politics and there are many assholes”.  IMG_3890 - Version 2It wouldn’t be the ‘Troubles’ if there wasn’t a distinct nod to some of the worlds trouble spots or to political events that confound us.  I have chosen a clip ‘Arab Spring Roll’ (John Rae), a title which speaks for itself.  Following the establishment of a compelling ostinato bass line, the musicians build a convincing modal bridge to the freedom which follows.  Chaotic freedom is the perfect metaphor for the ‘Arab Spring’ uprising. The last number performed was the ANC National anthem and as it concluded, fists rose in remembrance of the anti-apartheid struggle.  It is right that we should celebrate the struggles for equality, but sobering to reflect on how far we have to go. The Troubles keep our feet to the flame, while gifting us the best in musical enjoyment.

What: ‘The Troubles‘ – John Rae (drums, compositions, exaltation), Patrick Bleakley (bass, vocal responses), with Roger Manins (tenor sax), Jeff Henderson (alto sax), Ben McNicholl (baritone sax), Kingsley Melhuish (trumpet, Trombone).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland New Zealand, 10th December 2014

Dreamville @ CJC

 

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The Dreamville gig was aptly named for a number of reasons but not least because there were no defined sets, no breaks between numbers.  Like a dream the gig moved forward under its own internal momentum.  Surreal themes constantly dissolving until exhausted, forms shifting without seeming to.  What made this journey so evanescent, but so compelling, was that certain motifs remained deep in our consciousness throughout; totems of sound embedding themselves.  Like the images in a dreamscape the music stroked the chords of memory; familiar yet ungraspable.  As each new realty claimed the preceding one, you realised that a musical osmosis was at work.  A band filtering its own ideas until only the essence remained.  This was especially evident with the recurring melodic themes.  It was best to let these themes be, to let them wash over you without over analysing.

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For nearly 2 hours we sat transfixed, subsumed by a musical force quite unlike any other.   At times the sounds were primal, even brutal, then as sweet as a summer breeze.  I have put up a clip which encompasses two segments from the gig.  In the clip a theme developed by Henderson on C Melody Saxophone (the instrument and the melodic theme takes us straight back to Ellington, perhaps even further back to Trumbaur who played with Bix Biederbeck).   The C melody Saxophone, a none transposing instrument, is a rare beast and in the right hands it quickly reveals its earthy warm tones.  The vibraphone and guitar lay down simple repeating patterns, while the saxophone weaves its melodic way through the soundscape, expressing a deep soulful longing.  Even here all is not what it seems.  A surreal quality still pervades this section, a sixth sense as you edge towards the chaos that is to follow.  There is a Mingus ensemble like quality at first, then the bass solo unravels the theme, drawing you into a less certain world; you are suddenly in Zorn territory.  IMG_2972 - Version 2e

At this point Henderson moved into the light, his C Melody horn put aside, a throaty baritone in its place.   Tah-tah ta ta, tah-tah ta ta, tah-tah ta ta–taa taa states the baritone and the volume and the intensity was swiftly increased.  The music had turned on a dime and everyone reeled back, momentarily overpowered by the mood shift.  Henderson sensing this, advanced toward the audience honking and squealing, carving up the room, not letting the moment pass.   This was musical theatre at its best and it served the purpose well.  One thing I have learned over the years; avant-garde music is always best experienced live.

IMG_4740 - Version 2There is a rawness and a primal quality to it, a strong sense of performance.  Who would prefer a recording of an Arkestra or an Art Ensemble of Chicago performance over a live show?  This was all jazz and all music decoded, not for the cocktail party.  The next day I was watching the 1956 Jean Bach film ‘Great Day in Harlem’ and there was Roy ‘Little Jazz’ Eldridge squealing out high note after high note on his trumpet.   Again and again he pushed out a flurry of wild free multi-phonic sounds.  Even in the swing era this had great effect.

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I am always impressed by John Bell and he was superb in this quintet.  His approach to vibes is percussive and he avoids clichés.  He leaves plenty of space between his lightening runs and the accents and his improvisations have their own compelling logic.  The guitarist was quite a revelation.  I had not heard Phil Dryson before and he impressed me deeply.  Never once did he overplay (a failing of some guitarists), letting his unmistakable chops serve the collective purpose.   Once again the solid body guitar earned its stripes in an improvised music setting.  It felt like he incorporated a fusion era approach with Marc Ribot’s .  Zorn favours edgy, open-eared guitarists like this; he would love this guy.  IMG_2989 - Version 2

On drums was Chris O’Conner (a favourite drummer of mine).  His kit was highly unusual but perfectly suited to the gig.  At times we heard him as percussionist, extending the possibilities, clicks, bell-like sounds and a multitude of edgy beats from the various toms.  Ethnic polyrhythmic effects arose, especially when Henderson beat an oversized bass drum.   The bass player Eamon Edmundson Wells was great.  He fitted into this setting perfectly and it surprising how quickly he has assimilated the vocabulary of diverse musical styles.  In Cameron McArthur’s absence he has stepped up without equivocation.  Hard work and the Auckland University Jazz program have obviously set him up well.  IMG_2955 - Version 2 (1)

This was a sound super-nova created by dangerous visionaries.  There were no leaders identified in the blurb and the band acted as one entity.  All played to the peak of their ability and with unity of purpose  That said the powerhouse presence of Jeff Henderson and John Bell were quite unmistakable.  I could especially feel Henderson’s guiding hand throughout.  This is the space he occupies musically and he is the titan of this realm.  Although my ears rang for days afterwards I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

What: ‘Dreamville’ – Jeff Henderson (Baritone, C Melody, Alto saxophones), John Bell (Metalophone), Phil Dryson (solidbody guitar), Eamon Edmundson Wells (upright bass), Chris O’Connor (traps drums, percussion).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand, 24th September 2014.

Blair Latham trio @ CJC

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There are musicians who have the ability to create vibrant pictures out of sound, deftly carving shapes, daubing them with colour, texture, leaving images suspended in the air, as tantalising spectres. Blair Latham is one of these.  He brings to the bandstand a tropical exoticism, redolent of the central Americas, but somehow still Kiwi.

I first saw Latham at the Rogue & Vagabond during the Wellington Jazz Festival.  The project was to re-create the vibe of the Headhunters album and it certainly did.  In the hands of Hayles, Latham and others a wild, hyper-energised brew of sounds radiated among us.  They took the brief to its outer limits and for the audience (who were undoubtedly Hancock enthusiasts), it was an immensely satisfying experience.  As Latham’s tenor wailed, the milling crowd urged him on, each phase wilder than the last.   IMG_2694 - Version 2

The Rogue & Vagabond channeled North American funk grooves, this gig took us a long way south of that, to central Mexico.  A Mexico seen through Kiwi eyes, a musicians eyes, the eyes and ears of a careful observer.  The energies had shifted as well.   A more thoughtful approach was evident.  Latham was telling stories that came from the heart, from experience and reflecting the altered light and filtered sounds of that populous country.

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As the band started playing there were powerful overwhelming images created.  I reached for my note pad and wrote the word Fellini.  This is how I heard it, the sounds of a happy and slightly chaotic Mexican circus, peopled by tumblers, clowns on stilts, parading animals and long lazy hours fuelled by Mezcal.  A rich mesmerising spectacle that took your breath away.  There were no high energy excursions, no roof blasting squalls of sound.  This was a journey of measured steps, full of subtleties.  At times the trio sounded like a bigger unit and as Latham switched between his rich woody bass clarinet and classic Selmer tenor saxophone, the effect amplified.  Each phrase, each line, hung in air long after the breath that created it had subsided.  There were a number of Latham’s compositions and some beautiful, haunting Mexican ballads.  Emotion and sentimentality are bound up in that world.  There is nothing buttoned-up about Mexican music.

Latham is unusual in New Zealand as his principal horns are bass clarinet and tenor saxophone. A handful of musicians double on bass clarinet, few are as proficient as he is.

It often happens that the best laid plans unravel unexpectedly.  The trio was initially advertised as Latham, David Ward & Chris O,Connor.  The trio we saw was Latham (bass clarinet, tenor saxophone, leader), Neil Watson (guitar, lap slide guitar), Stephen Thomas (drums).  I rate both Ward and O’Connor highly but this lineup worked extraordinarily well.  It was hard to believe that these musicians had not played together often.  The challenge of playing this music, reading these often complex charts, brought out the best in Watson and Thomas.   Both gifted musicians. both good readers.  Together they merged perfectly and we could see Latham’s pleasure at this.

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The drum charts called for a colourist approach, an oblique subtle rendering of  rhythms that were as much rooted in Mexican folk music as in avant guard jazz.  Thomas was exceptional as he tapped, scraped or made the kit whisper; even his solos were original and entirely appropriate.  This guy can tackle anything it seems.  Watson is a veteran of the unusual and a superb reader.  It was a joy to see him working counterpoint or even unison lines with Latham.  He is perfect for gigs like this as his unbridled imagination is not tethered to norms.  He moved between lap guitar and Fender solid body, enabling him to move closer to the Frissel like Americana sounds that so clearly influence him.   IMG_2663 - Version 2

The word Mexico brings to mind a jumble of exotic but occasionally troubling images.   For me the source is literature, films, art, photography and music.  The nearest that I got to Mexico was in books like ‘Under the Volcano'(Lowry), ‘On The Road’ (Kerouac) or ‘The Teachings of Don Yuan’ (Castaneda); in films like ‘The Night of the Iguana’, numerous cowboy movies; in crazy photographic images from the ‘night of the dead’ festival of Santa Muerte, in articles about the loathsome human traffickers or murderous drug cartels.  I have travelled extensively in Spain and down the Californian Coast, places where this beguiling country felt almost within reach.  This gig took me one step closer.  IMG_2654 - Version 2

“How’s the mezcal” he said. “Like ten yards of a barbed wire fence.  It nearly took the top of my head off.  I had a Tequila outside with the guitar hombre” – ‘Under the Volcano’ -Malcolm Lowry

Who: Blair Latham (bass clarinet, tenor saxophone), Neil Watson (guitars), Stephen Thomas (drums)

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 1885 Britomart, Auckland, New Zealand, 3rd September 2014   –   www.creativejazzclub.co.nz

Chelsea Prastiti 2014

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Chelsea Prastiti could be said to represent an intergenerational change in the direction Jazz Vocals are headed.  I have watched her grow in confidence since her time at the Auckland University Jazz School and she is always ready to try brave new experiments.   Because her default is the use of wordless vocal lines, she has better been able to explore the relationship between voice and the other instruments.   This integrated approach is possible for two main reasons.  Her keen awareness of what is happening around her and above all her compositional skills.

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Chelsea Prastiti is writing good material.  At times it feels brave and edgy, but it is always interesting.  Perhaps another factor is the musical familiarity with her band mates.   Her bands generally feature Matt Steele (piano), Callum Passells (alto saxophone), Liz Stokes (trumpet), Eamon Edmunson-Wells (bass) and Tristam deck (drums).   Because they were students together and because she has played with them often, I have gained the impression that she may even write material with them in mind.   One of her best recent performances was as guest artist on Callum Passells last CJC gig.   These two always work well together, but hearing them moving in lockstep as they traversed standards and amazingly innovative free numbers was a joy.

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There were a few newer compositions and some re-arranged takes on earlier compositions.  Everything in the sets was composed by Prastiti.   I like ‘Bells’ which begins with a simple peal of bells, but quickly evolves into an altogether more complex piece.  Steele was standout on this, never over-playing but making every note count.   His comping was at times minimalist but he conveyed a certain strength.  The rhythmic feel that he laid down was further enhanced by Deck and Edmunson-Wells.   This allowed Passells and Prastiti to explore the tune in a methodical manner.  Steles solo is worth a particular mention on ‘Bells’, as it underscores his growing maturity as a pianist.

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Prastiti is involved in a number of local projects including an ethnically influenced a capella group.  It is however her ability to edge toward the avant-garde that always interests me the most.

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What: Chelsea Prastiti (vocals, compositions), Matt Steele (piano), Cameron Passells (alto saxophone), Eamon Edmuson-Wells (bass), Tristan Deck (drums) – Guests; Liz Stokes (trumpet),   Cristal Choi (vocals)

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand.  9th July 2014. http://www.creativejazzclub.co.nz

 

‘Encounters’ – Mark Isaacs – Dave Holland – Roy Haynes

Mark Issacs Encounters

Mark Isaacs’ ground breaking ‘Encounters’ album has just been re-released for the third time and no wonder.  This is an important musical statement by any measure and it sits comfortably beside similar works by Jarrett and Corea.   I don’t say that lightly, as the aforementioned artists explorations into free improvisation set lofty benchmarks.

Mark Isaacs is somewhat of a prodigy as he works across all genres of Jazz, is a gifted composer and has a well established classical career.  His Jazz charts are particularly impressive as he often voices his pieces in modern and compelling ways.  As if that were not enough he has composed a symphony (recently performed by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra – I have heard this impressive work).  Because Mark is such a multi faceted artist it is harder to buttonhole him and perhaps that is the point.  Great musicians shouldn’t be pinned down.   It is the nature of improvised music that it constantly shifts like the coloured grains of sand in a great Mandala; elusive and yet leaving an indelible image behind.  When it’s done well the impressions that remain will outdo the notation.  This album achieves that.

Because the album has not been available since 1995 I hadn’t heard it before.  When I did it truly surprised me.  I was expecting a good album as the triumvirate of Isaacs, Holland and Haynes creates high expectations.  What I was unprepared for was just how deeply it affected me.   To explain this better a back-story is required .  An indication of how this album came to be.

The recording dates from 1988.  This was a time when the mainstream music world had become mired in techno-commercialism and to the credit of the Jazz community it chose to delve deeper into experimental music; pushing harder against musical boundaries.   This was the time of Jarrett’s ‘Changeless’ and ‘Dark Intervals’ albums and discriminating listeners were up for it.  Dave Holland was no stranger to this type of project as he had participated in and initiated many avant-garde projects since the sixties.   Mark Isaacs (an Australian) was in New York at the time having just heard some of his chamber works performed by the Australian Ensemble in Carnegie Hall.   He felt ready to record something challenging so he contacted Dave Holland who immediately agreed to participate.  I am not sure how Roy Haynes came to the project but the choice was fortuitous.  A bop-pioneer drummer who had played with Lester Young and Charlie Parker plus a cutting edge experimentalist bass player were on board.  Both had played in Miles Davis bands (but not at the same time).  Both had an interest in the avant-garde.

No rehearsals were held, no charts used and none of these artists had ever played together before.  What you have here is a tight rope act undertaken by an Australian, an ex-pat Englishman and a New Yorker.  The result could have fallen flat but what happened was truly amazing.  Deep intuitive communication and an interplay which sounded more like a trio that had been together for years, not minutes.  In this recording there is a profound sense of space and limitless vistas seem to unfold before you.  The album is just over thirty minutes long and packed within that thirty minutes is a world of diversity.   At certain points one or other of the musicians is leading the conversation, while at other points they appear to seize upon an idea at the same time.  This is artistry of the highest order and I urge anyone reading this to purchase a copy while stocks last.

It is available on iTunes but as an audiophile I recommend that you purchase the CD.  The recording quality is superb and the sound so immediate that you gain a real sense of the studio it was recorded in.  A lot of recordings could have been recorded anywhere, but this one conveys a sense of location.  Many of the ECM recordings have that feel and the Rainbow Studios in Oslo immediately come to mind.  The album was recorded at the Power Station studios in New York, which incidentally is where Jarrett’s ‘Changless’ was recorded at about the same time.

Twenty five years on, the album still sounds fresh and engaging.

The Album is available from Mark Isaacs Website: http://markisaacs.com/9-latest-news/13-encounters-with-dave-holland-roy-haynes-available-now

NOiCE @ CJC

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The North Island Creative Ensemble is a project dear to Rosie Langabeer’s heart and one of many projects that she has on the go.   Rosie has been out of New Zealand for some time although NOiCE did perform at the CJC over a year ago.  Her musical journey most recently took her to the USA where she worked for three years with leading experimental improvisers and artists.   Her compositions and playing have won various awards and so I made certain that I there as I missed the last NOiSE gig.

This is music that is hard to pin down, as it deliberately defies conventions while somehow flirting with them.   There is a sense of structure which provides a touch stone, but don’t grasp too firmly as the forms will dissolve as quickly as they appeared.  This is music which carries you forward if you let it, holding you in the eternal moment.

NOiCE is an assembly of highly creative musicians; coming from a variety of North Island towns and cities.  The music is experimental in nature and it is definitely adventurous.  Most of these musicians are well-known and leaders in the field of New Zealand experimental music.   Jim Langabeer (Rosie’s father) is a stalwart of the Auckland Jazz scene, but he has also worked with international musicians like Gary Peacock, Sammy Davis Jr and even the Bee Gees.   He is a multi reeds and winds player and because of his proficiency on a variety of instruments he has been in demand over the years.  I recently saw his name come up in the music credits of the New Zealand film ‘Mr Pip’.   His innovative flute work is probably what he best known for.

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Jeff Henderson is also a multi reeds player and he is at the very heart of Auckland’s experimental music scene.   He can often be seen at ‘Vitamin S’, a small club dedicated to experimental music located just off Karangahape Road, Auckland.   Jeff has worked with a large number of cutting edge musicians over the years, William Parker, Steve Lacey, Mike Nock and many others.   He delights in pushing against the boundaries and when he performs he seldom holds back.  While his scalding solos often reach beyond mere form, his ability to integrate seamlessly into an ensemble creates a filigree of contrasts and textures.   A delicious aura of inventive unpredictability hangs over him.  IMG_8613 - Version 2

Chris O’Connor (drums) is a firm favourite with CJC audiences.  A recipient of the Chapman Tripp Award for original music, he has also worked with the soprano saxophonist Steve Lacey, avant-garde pianist Marilyn Cryspel, Don McGlashan and numerous other well-known groups or individuals.   Chris is one of those drummers that other drummers revere and the last time we saw him at the CJC was with vibist John Bell.

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Ben McNicoll (reeds and winds), Joe Callwood (guitar), Gerard Crewdson (brass) and Kingsley Melhuish (brass), Nicky Wuts (vibes) and Patrick Bleakley (bass) round out the ensemble.   They are all experienced musicians and most of them have worked with NOiCE for some time.  Ben McNicolls is the best known to CJC audiences as both the technical director of the club and a frequent performer.  A good reader with a nice sound he, is happy to take on any project, from standards gigs to out-ensembles.   Gerard Crewdson and Kingsley Melhuish are versatile and sought after brass players and both have played the CJC before.   The musicians that I was less familiar with were Patrick Bleakley (bass), Joe Callwood (guitar) and Nikky Wuts (Vibraphone).

I’m relieved to see another mallets player on the scene as New Zealand has very few of them.   John Bells departure earlier in the year left a yawning chasm.

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All contributed something unique as this is a truly democratic ensemble.  One where individual voices rise and then subside; emerging seamlessly into the collective consciousness of the group

 

Song FWAA@CJC – A Jazz April Event

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The Auckland Jazz gigs during Jazz April have been high quality (see last four posts).  Above all they have encompassed the breadth of improvised music.  Song FWAA from Australia was therefore a perfect choice to round off a smorgasbord of tasty events.  They (Song FWAA) are quite possibly the illegitimate love children of ‘Sun Ra‘ and while no DNA evidence has validated that theory the lineage is manifest in their music.

As a scene matures listening ears get tweaked through exposure to new sounds.  The demand for a wider range of musical experiences follows that.   This doesn’t happen by accident.  It begins with musicians stepping into uncharted territory and ends with the listener reacting.  The mere mention of ‘adventurous music’ can cause cold sweats from venue management and all the more so if an ‘out’ gig is proposed.  Happily for us Roger Manins of the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) takes some risks  and as the club audiences continue to grow that policy is vindicated.  It is the job of artists to confront or challenge and listeners should welcome this.  Settling for bland entertainment leads to musical confection, not jazz, not art.  Some people are perfectly happy leading the lush life in some small piano bar, but that is not where the music develops.  Improvised music is as much about audience engagement as about performing and without the feedback loop a musical project would become an unheard conversation between band members.  Those who heard Song FWAA, heard edge, originality and musical humour so cunning that no weasel could better it.  IMG_6812 - Version 2

The band has garnered rave revues around Australia and their 2011 album ‘Ligeti’s Goat’ is highly recommended.  If you listen to the album you feel that you are listening to a much bigger unit.  At first this seems attributable to the rhythm instrument, which is of the guitar family but quite different in timbre.  This is a specially made 8 string ‘Frame’ played by David Reaston.  The voicings, pickups and pedals used (i.e Moog pedal) give it distinct and very different sound.  Not loud but other-worldly; a strangely subtle sound that can impart real richness.

Martin Kay plays alto saxophone and although this is a standard instrument he also manages to coax a range of different sounds from it.  Martins multi-phonics and extended techniques give depth to the performance, just as drummer Jamie Cameron’s colourist approach and extended drum technique added depth.  At the end of the evening I felt that the musicianship more than the instrumentation created this special groove.

The gig (and the album) was replete with compositional parables about animals and their epic adventures.   Martin is adept at telling these tales; which have a ‘Hunter S Thompson’ quality about them.   ‘Ligeti’s Goat‘ the title track for instance explores the eating-cycle of a goat.   “Tonight” said Martin, “we will only be playing the second section – ‘digesting carrots’ “.   Another number was a moving tribute to a peripatetic Polar Bear.  To quote from the liner notes regarding the tune ‘Olefeig’ (AKA that which should not be shot): ‘Documents the transformation of scenery through the eyes of a Polar Bear, drifting on a shard of ice from Greenland to Iceland, where his destiny finds a bullet’.   IMG_6811 - Version 2 

A number titled ‘Mugwump‘ was most enjoyable.  The gist of the introduction by Martin was that Aliens had come to earth to seek Moroccan desert fuel and somehow this referenced William Burroughs and the Dogon people of neighbouring Mali.  He had me hooked as soon as he mentioned Morocco and Burroughs.

Song FWAA’s  music is at times ‘free’ and at other times working long ostinato grooves.   This moving ‘outside’ one minute and then playing ‘inside’ or following a melodic hook to its conclusion works.  The group has something to say and they say it with genuine originality.  I hope that they come back soon and share more animal sagas with us.

Their promo material describes them as the ‘wrong band for the right people’.  I love that descriptor, but the one sour note struck was their failure to paint their faces ‘Art Ensemble of Chicago Style’ for the gig.   This is how their webpage profile shows them and we are mature enough in NZ to handle that.  As Roger Manins says, ‘truth in advertising is at the heart of jazz’.  I have no idea what that means but we do love face paint.

What & Who: ‘Song FWAA‘ – Martin Kay (alto sax), David Reaston (frame guitar), Jamie Cameron (drums). Buy the album from www.songfwaa.com

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 1885 Building, Brittomart Auckland 24th April 2013

This was a CJC Jazz April gig

K’Party Spoilers of Utopia Album@Vitamin ‘S’

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I am writing this on International Jazz Day and reflecting on the diversity of improvised music occurring in my city of Auckland, New Zealand.  We have straight ahead Jazz, free improvised music and everything in between.  For me a livable community is better defined by its relationship to the arts than by any other measure.  Having venues like ‘The Wine Cellar’ and the ‘CJC (Creative Jazz Club)’ is at the heart of this relationship, for that is where artistic experimentation and community interactions occur.

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There is a tendency to compartmentalise music and it is the way humans like to view the world.  These subdivisions are sometimes unhelpful but in the end the meanings we invest in the descriptors are largely subjective.  I agree with the premise of semiotician, writer (and experimental Jazz liner notes author) Umberto Ecco.  His viewpoint is that humans feel compelled make endless lists in order to plot their way through a chaotic world.  It is a way of remembering ancient pathways, while embarking upon new and often scary ones.  In the world of improvised music the riskier path is always taken and the charts are abandoned at some point.  This music embraces the chaos and seeks out new patterns and motifs, however fleeting.  Using charts (whether Braxton like or traditional notation) the form is merely the starting point.  In this way both ancient & future are embraced.

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The K’Party Spoilers of Utopia (formerly T’Party Spoilers of Utopia) is a nonet led by vibist, tenor horn player and musical explorer John Bell.   His vision has been the guiding force for this extraordinary grouping of musicians and it is respect for him that spurs them on.  I have known John for less than a year and I find him an immensely likeable and down to earth person.  Beneath that matter of fact exterior lurks a keen mind, teaming with profound musical insights.  I have read and re-read his exegesis on the Albert Ayler legacy and his views on alternative music are well-developed and worthy of examination.   Like all musicians he has many facets to his character.   When I asked him recently how long he had been a musician he casually replied, “quite a long while, but at one point I abandoned music for motorcycle racing”.   “Do you still race motorbikes” I asked incredulously.  “Definitely not he said”.  I wanted to probe him further on this fascinating topic but the conversation turned back to music.   On reflection I cannot think of a better career path for an avant-garde musician than motor cycle racing.  Both are high-wire acts.   I am wondering now if I imagined the whole exchange. Time will tell.  IMG_6744 - Version 2

I’ve been aware of the ‘Spoilers’ for a year or more and have seen them play on a number of occasions.  The collective began as a vehicle to explore Albert Ayler’s legacy and for a while you could hear brassy interpretations of the ‘The Truth Goes Marching In’ or other compositions by Ayler.  There is however no such thing as a cover band of free Jazz offerings and band was always centred around John’s own compositions or his interpretations of Salvation Army and various evangelical hymns.  In more recent times the repertoire has evolved to include compositions by band members.  With John on hand to arrange, contribute his own charts and encourage, the project has finally been shaped into the ‘Spoilers of Utopia’  album.  There are so many good compositions and vignettes in this music that singling out the individual musicians for praise would be a Herculean task.  I can only congratulate them all and hope that there is more to come.

I have seen the band described as the purveyors of ‘apocalyptic’ sounds or ‘tongue in cheek’.  I am not so sure about that, as there is is both structure and chaos in their music.  The familiar sits comfortably with the unruly and the sweet with the sour.  That sounds more like modern life than doom and gloom.   Out of the completely free you will hear snatches of raw beauty and just as quickly the beauty dissolves into dissonance.   I would call that a Zen koan – Life is a deadly serious stupidly happy joke.

There is no crying  declamatory saxophone voice on this album (as there would be with an Ayler recording).   This is a brassy sound closer to the military bands and to the street bands of the church militant.  Any analysis of New Zealand’s colonial history will reveal a proliferation of such bands.  Add in a Moog, squeeze horns and a skittering electric guitar and you have arrived at the Spoilers doorstep, Jazz April 2013.  This is a manifestation of avant-garde New Zealand.

The Wine Cellar (Vitamin ‘S’) is a place for experimental and improvised music and under the watchful eye of out-guru Jeff Henderson it flourishes against all commercial odds.   It is like the CJC located in a basement and in this case, deep in the bowels of Karangahape Road.   Visit the website and call by some night.   The music is can be utterly ‘free’ or follow a more structured pathway.   It is always experimental though and improvisation is at its core.

John Bell left New Zealand for Korea two days after the album release gig, our loss.  He will be sorely missed in New Zealand but the music goes marching on.  We have a lot to hear from his band mates yet and I am already picking up whispers of new projects.

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What: ‘Spoilers of Utopia’ Album release gig.  To purchase a copy visit iii xv or the ‘Spoilers of Utopia‘ FB site

Where: The Wine Cellar – Vitamin ‘S’ St Kevin’s Arcade off K’Road

Who: K’Party Spoilers of Utopia – led by John Bell (vibes, tenor horn, misc sounds), Finn Scholes (trumpet, flugal horn), Ben Zilber (trombone), Don McGlashan (euphonium), Neil Watson (guitar), Owen Melhuish (tuba), Darren Hannah (double bass), Chris O’Connor (drums), Kingsley Melhuish (trumpet, flugal horn, trombone, tuba) + Cameron Allen (Moog), Gerard Crewdson (trombones), Jacob Unuia (pau), L J Unuia (pate), Tua Meti (pati)

This has been a Jazz April gig

Salon Kingsadore @ CJC

Murray McNabb

It had been a very busy week for me and I had not paid too much attention to the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) website.   All I could recall about the gig was that it would be something different.   The instruments came into view as I descended the stairs and as my eyes accustomed to the gloom I saw Murray McNabb.   Murray is a veteran of the New Zealand Jazz scene and ‘different’ is exactly what he does best.  There was a bank of keyboards, numerous pedals, leads everywhere, a drum kit and two guitars barely visible in the back ground.  I quickly learned that this was the release gig for the second album by Salon Kingsadore – ‘Anti Borneo Magic’.  Yes the title gave more than a hint of what we were in for.  An exotic improvised trance like dreamscape.   After a hectic week that was exactly what I needed and from the first vamp I relaxed into the music.

Salon Kingsadore was formed in 2004 to write a soundtrack for a play and their works are styled – spontaneous cinematic compositions.  Not long after that first album they were invited to perform at a film release in Italy.  These projects appear to be under the creative guidance of Murray McNabb (keyboards) and Gianmarco Liguori (guitars).  The other band members are Hayden Sinclair (bass) and Steven Tait (drums).  Murray McNabb is a successful film score composer having written for films like ‘Once were Warriors’.  Steven Tait

I have seen Murray perform many times and his own compositions are notable for the way in which he mines simple themes in subtle and deceptively complex ways.  He is the master of ostinato.  There are often references to modal music in his compositions (Turkish Like) but tonight the fare was more tightly focused.  At first listen there was an impression that the drums, bass and guitar were playing the same motif over and again while Murray developed the themes and added fills and colour.   This was not the case as subtle variants and accented changes could be determined if you listened properly.  Continuous and spontaneous improvisation over a vamp requires certain disciplines and foremost among these is a keen awareness of space and dynamics.  This interactive process requires everyone to participate actively and when that happens the repetitive transforms itself into something profound.

This is music that takes some right out their comfort zone as it references such diverse sources as John Zorn, film music, African music, psychedelic fusion and even surf music.   Someone asked me if it was Jazz.  I would certainly place it within the spectrum of jazz, but as an outlier with strong filmic qualities.  I have listened to a lot of John Zorn, Manfred Schoof and psychedelic Jazz Fusion over the years and so this was never going to scare me.

After a long week I quickly relaxed into the aural dreamscape unfolding.  This is music that you can dive into, swim away from shore and float free in.

WHAT: Salon Kingsadore – ‘Anti-Borneo Music’. Album release.

WHERE: CJC Creative Jazz Club – 1885 Brittomart

WHO: Murray McNabb (keys), Gianmarco Liguori (guitars), Hayden Sinclair (bass), Steven Tait (drums). Sarang Bang Records www.sarangbang.co.nz

WHEN: December 5th 2012

Spoilers of Utopia / Ruckus@CJC

The way that music is interpreted by the human brain is understood up to a point, but there are many mysteries remaining. The topic interests neuroscientists, fans and musicians alike. While pattern recognition is one the of the main hooks drawing us deeper into a piece of music, we also become bored if the pattern remains relentlessly familiar. That doesn’t rule out repeated notes or a vamp as the points of variance are incredibly subtle; groove music or John Cage compositions bear this out. Whether subtle or overt, educated Jazz audiences prefer music that challenges, delights, reveals or amazes.

Good Jazz and improvised music does this despite the few fans who slavishly confine themselves to a single era or style. Live gigs will drag you out of your comfort zone and here’s the thing. Music is a language and we learn by hearing the unfamiliar and comparing it with what we know. Learning language is an innate skill possessed by all humans. As we listen to what we are unsure of, our tastes grow proportionally. These days Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Carla Bley and Zorn have a solid foothold in our consciousness; just as Jackson Pollack makes overwhelming sense when seen on a gallery wall. Jazz listeners should always want more than sonic wallpaper.

In keeping with Roger Manins enlightened approach as program director of the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), he had booked two very interesting groups to play on the 17th October 2012. First up was ‘Ruckus’, a quartet that was anything but run of the mill. The second was the out-brass ensemble (+ four), ‘Spoilers of Utopia’. What we got was joyful, challenging and outrageously humorous music. Music that was fiendishly clever without once resorting to introspective navel gazing.

‘Ruckus’ led by David Ward, a fine guitarist who has assimilated a dozen guitar styles and then stepped free of them. He composed the tunes Ruckus played and they were a metaphor for the inventiveness and vibrancy of the New Zealand Jazz scene. The set list was interesting and the group showed real guts in their interpretations. No one cruised through this material and consequently the collective pulse was quickly amped to a point of high intensity. Some of this material was reminiscent of a Fellini soundtrack, while still managing to evoke real-time global references. It was modern in the best possible way while hinting at its musical origins. I like musical surprises and this music surprised me.

Club goers recognised two well-known locals in ‘Ruckus’, Chris O’Connor (d) and John Bell (vibes). I do not recall seeing the bass player Rui Inaba before but this unit really did come together. Chris and John had double duties this night as they were not only in ‘Ruckus’ but in the ‘Spoilers of Utopia’ as well.

Chris is a drummer that I am very familiar with as his multifaceted approach to traps and percussion makes him a favourite on a number of scenes. He is one of the most talented, open and interesting drummers in New Zealand and it is always fascinating to watch how other drummers flock to hear him. Chris never rushes to fill any void as he understands how complete an implied or missed beat is. He has such a well honed sense of time that he can push at the fabric of reason without losing momentum . He also knows how to remain relaxed at the kit and how to say more with less. The fact that he is one of the nicest cats on the music scene is an added bonus.

John Bell is an extraordinary vibes player and he generally favours the free over the straight ahead. In Ruckus he showed that he is comfortable moving between both worlds. He can swing like ‘Hamp’ then merge that groove seamlessly into an irregular pulse. The one thing that stands out however is his musical courage. John shows an integrity that few vibists do. While a lovely ringing vibrato is what we most often associate with the vibes (early Gary Burton or Bags), the instrument is capable of more besides. He is recapturing the history of the vibraphone while showing us a possible future path. The vibraphone is a percussion instrument and that can easily be forgotten.

The Spoilers of Utopia (also ‘Tparty Spoilers of Utopia’) are a brass heavy ensemble and they are marching resolutely into new territory. While the charts are initially familiar they are never quite what you think. The genius of this music is its kaleidoscopic quality, as it reflects a thousand fractured images while somehow keeping the whole intact. We feel that we can almost grasp the essence; only to find the familiar deconstructed. A pack of travelling Jesters has skilfully woven a new cloth from the old and what was once orderly descends into a pleasant chaos. We follow the twists and turns and just as we fear we are lost…. a disciplined brass band marches out of the haze. This is a new take on tension and release and it really works for me.

The ‘Spoilers of Utopia’ are usually a nonet and as anyone who knows me will verify, I just love a nonet. They are big enough to create to create the illusion of a larger unit but small enough to leave a sense of airiness. To balance out the five brass instruments there was Vibraphonist (John Bell), guitarist (Neil Watson), bass player(Darren Hannah) and drummer (Chris O’Connor). The Brass section were Kingsley Melhuish, Ben Ziber, Finn Scholes, Owen Melhuish, (Don McGlashan absent that night).

I know Finn Scholes having been wowed by his facility on the trumpet (or flugal horn) before. Neil Watson is also a familiar figure at the CJC and I noted how well his solid-body guitar sound fitted the brass dominant ensemble. I liked his contributions enormously and knowing his quirky offbeat take on life and music, it must have been a no-brainer to include him in the mix. There was also a degree of unison playing and with the unusual instrumental configurations, the timbre of the instruments merged to create a richer sound. George Shearing and Tristano grasped this long ago. Having Piano, vibes and/or guitar playing unison lines changed the sound. Putting vibes and guitar with brass was to produce a wonderful contrast. As the ensemble moved from order to chaos and back again I could feel the guiding spirit of John Bell at work: the demented dance instructor shimmering in darkness.

The track that I have selected from the ‘Spoilers of Utopia’ set is so good that I have watched it over and over. The tune is a hymn beloved of the Salvation Army bands, ‘We’re Marching to Zion’ (Sankey). Someone decided on the spot that a drum solo should occur in the middle. As the band proceeded the overall effect of this anarchic but strangely reverential wizardry brought us to our feet? The audience showed wild enthusiasm (and if you peered into the darkness and listened carefully, I swear you could hear Sankey laughing).

This comes from where Jazz began; brass marching bands and random instruments merging to form a new and riskier sound.

Thank you to Jen Sol for providing the video material (as I stupidly forgot my camera bag on that night)

‘Troubles’ hit the CJC

John Rae exhorting everyone; call & response

It has always been said that troubles arrive in pairs.   In this case the old adage was woefully awry as ‘The Troubles’ arrived in nonet form.  Their arrival may have ‘Rattled’ us somewhat, but we are built of stern stuff in Auckland.   We fortified our ourselves with strong liquor and pep talks, adjusted our parental lockout settings to allow for some serious swearing and settled in for the realpolitik of John Rae’s and Lucien Johnson’s crazy-happy Jazz.     ‘Oh Yeah’, we told ourselves, ‘We are ready to handle anything a Wellington band can throw our way’.

The Troubles-  call & response

There are bands that I like, bands that I respect and bands which drive me wild with pleasure.   ‘The Troubles’ are of the latter kind.   I’m besotted with this band and their deliberately ragged, madly political, quasi-serious satire.    This band digs deep into the well-springs of life and what bubbles up is a joyous lake of barely controlled madness.   The anarchic overtones are deliberate, but there is a scream-in-your-face humour that overshadows all else.   This is about chiaroscuro; a bunch of opposites vying with each other for attention.

This band is about plunging us without warning into the troubled spots of the world and then showing us humour where we thought none existed.  The overt political messages were a joy to me as I have never quite understood why this space is not filled more often.   The history of Jazz is intensely political and to describe ‘The Troubles’ music as a continuation of the work done by Carla Bley, Charlie Haden and especially Charles Mingus (even Benny Goodman) is not too far-fetched.    This band is a talented group of clowns shaking us by the scruff and saying; laugh or cry but for god’s sake look at the world about you.   There is no solace for Lehman Bros, Merrill Lynch, Barclay’s or John Key here.  For Jazz lovers with big ears there is joy aplenty.

This band is about call & response; not just between instrumentalists, but by the band vocally responding to John Rae’s trade mark exhortations.  Although he leads from the drum kit, that doesn’t prevent him standing up and shouting at the band (or the audience) to elicit stronger reactions.  During one of the middle Eastern sounding numbers (which appeared to lay the Wests hypocrisy bare), he shouted in what I can only assume was faux Arabic.  A flow of equally Arabic sounding responses flowed back .   It was the string section verbally responding as they wove their melodies around the theme.

On another occasion John Rae announced that we would be celebrating an often ignored trouble spot.   “I will now express solidarity with the North Americans”, he announced.  “The Sioux, Cherokee, Iroquois, Apache, Mohave etc”.   He began with a corny war dance drum beat which quickly morphed into a tune from ‘Annie Get Your Gun’.   As the melodic structure unwound into free-Jazz chaos we all understood the history lesson and laughed at the outrageousness of the portrayal.

Another Tango melody written by Lucien gradually reached a joyous fever pitch.  During the out-chorus the instruments dropped out one by one and as each instrument stopped playing the musicians raised a closed fist in a revolutionary salute.   Although it was quite dark in the club we had all picked up the cues.  This was a musical night beyond glib definition.

Like life, the music gave us lighter and then more thoughtful moments.  Musically it was amazing fun and after a difficult week I was suddenly glad I was alive.

Mission accomplished I think John and Lucien – keep shaking us up please.

John Rae (drums, co-leader, co-writer, co-arranger).  Lucien Johnson (sax, co-leader, co-arranger, co-writer).  Patrick Bleakley (double bass).  Daniel Yeabsley (Clarinet). Jake Baxendale (saxes). Hanna Fraser (violin). Charley Davenport (cello), Tristan Carter (violin). Andrew Filmer (viola).   Buy a copy of ‘The Troubles’ today at Rattle Records Ltd.  Venue – CJC Jazz Club Auckland.

Motif – (Norway)

Motif

We get a number international acts breezing through Auckland and a few of them play at the CJC.  On Wednesday 6th June we were lucky enough to have the Norwegian ensemble Motif at the club and they lived up to their considerable international reputation.   This is a band which plays highly original but accessible improvised/composed avant-garde music .   They are a killing band and above all they are highly entertaining.

Motif played in America a few years ago where they received excellent reviews in the New York Times (Nate Chinen), Jazzwise and in All About Jazz.  They have been around since 1999 in one form or another and were founded by the seriously out-cat Ole Morten Vagan.

Ole & Atle

It is obvious that this group has big ears as their compositions contain the distant echoes of American and Euro-centric Jazz while still sounding fresh and original.   This is as far from a covers band as you could get, because they gather in the myriad of sounds about them and fashion these into a fresh and exciting soundscapes.  The band may have achieved critical acclaim but they are certainly not above poking fun at themselves.  Ole Mortan Vagan joked several times about their earning potential.   This is a group of musicians who do what they do well and primarily perform for the love of the music.

Havard Wiik

The music was often rambunctious, but the band always drew you back to a collaborative theme after their stratospheric flights of fancy.   The magic woven by individual performers during solos was never at the expense of the ensemble.  It was organised chaos in the best possible way.

I was also delighted to discover that Norwegian humor translates perfectly for a New Zealand audience.  The music was leavened with countless jokes which had us in fits of laughter.   Ole Morten Vagan said that his father had recently accused him of being a bohemian.  When he asked his father to explain he was told, “A bohemian is someone who regards the rent as an unforeseen event”.

The band members were all incredible musicians whether playing as an ensemble or exploring the edge of reason.

The band was: Ole Morten Vagan (bass, jokes), Atle Nymo (saxophone), Eivind Lonning (Trumpet), Harvard Wiik (piano), Hakon Johansen (drums).

At the end of the second set they filed off the band-stand to the sounds of loud enthusiastic applause.  The clapping eventually subsided, but a few determined souls carried on until the band reappeared for a last number.    “That was strange”‘ said Ole.   “At first we heard clapping followed by what sounded like half a dozen potatoes rolling down the stairs – then clapping again.

Roger Manins summed it up perfectly in a recent Face Book post: “Just a heads up for those in Sydney Tomorrow.  MOTIF will be at SIMA– and seriously worth checking out. They were at CJC in Auckland last week and were great– very funny guys too”.    I concur.

The ‘Troubles’ – John Rae & Lucien Johnson interview

The Troubles Nonet

This e-interview was conducted over the 7th and 8th May 2012 – interviewer John Fenton for Jazz Local 32.    Those interviewed were John Rae (drummer, composer, arranger) and Lucien Johnson (alto & soprano saxophones, flute, composer, arranger).  ‘The Troubles’ is out on ‘Rattle Records‘ and was supported by Creative New Zealand.

Question: Time and place are important to both artists and audience and the interplay between them. I know that Wellington’s ‘Happy Bar’ has been a place to hear free improvised and experimental music for some time. The location and the vibe seem to be connected in this recording?

Lucien: I would say that Happy has been a largely supportive place and it’s nice to play on a stage, which is quite rare for jazz gigs in Wellington. Other than that though, since Happy stopped being a musician run place and turned into a business the vibe wasn’t quite the same – except for our Sunday nights! John may see things differently as he didn’t know it before, but I would say that any place that we have the capacity to virtually take over for the night we would see the same result. (A regular crowd of 50-80 enthusiastic and attentive listeners).

John Rae: All the above are true. Time and place are important. I’d been playing at Happy since I arrived in Wellington three years ago as the composer in residence at Victoria University and The Troubles are a part of a lineage. If there had been no Happy, Lucian wouldn’t have sat in with the group I was playing with, I may not have met Patrick, Dan or any of the other musicians who now make up The Troubles. But things move on. We now have another regular gig at Meow in Wellington and it’s going fantastically well. On a wider note, in Scotland we had a similar gig called Henry’s that ended up being an art’s council funded venue for jazz. We all know the financial difficulties of running a jazz gig and it is shameful that we have no problem funding classical venues to the tune of millions of dollars but can’t find what would be relative peanuts in comparison to support a jazz venue!

Question: While comparisons can be odious I was put in mind of an iconic and (at the time) controversial album that came out in 1969 “The Music Liberation Orchestra” Charlie Haden. Is that a fair comparison?

Lucien: I’m a big fan of the Liberation Music Orchestra, and the latter-day “Dream Keeper” is a personal favourite. I don’t know how aware John is of it though.

John Rae: It’s a wonderful comparison but purely accidental….

Question: You have no Carla Bley or Sam Browne on chordal instruments. Was that deliberate or happenstance?

Lucien: It was definitely a conscious decision. For a start there are no pianos at any venues in Wellington and we didn’t feel that there was anyone on piano or guitar who quite fit the bill anyway. We thought it would be more fun to have the strings acting as harmony players and/or have more open improvisations. I have avoided chordal instruments in my acoustic jazz groups except when I play with Jonathan Crayford.

John Rae: Yes it is. We like the freedom of not having a fixed harmonic instrument like guitar or piano.

Question: With a Nonet the sound palette and textures can have a big band feel. I sense that there has been serious writing and arranging done here. Is that my imagination or are there some well-arranged charts involved?

Lucien: There is very precise notation going on most of the time. The illusion of anarchy is due to familiarity and comfort with the material and the group.

John Rae: Lucian and I put a lot of thought into the writing. Personally I like my music to have a life of its own after my initial bit. So it’s important to write music that has an opportunity to breath and grow the more the musicians understand it. Or in other words, to treat the music with the contempt it deserves!

Question: How much of what we hear is free or changes based improvisation?

Lucien: A mixture, although when it’s free there is usually a tonal center present.

John Rae: A bit of both. I like musicians to dictate their own harmonic structures whilst soloing. Not always though and I have written tunes with changes but I hope that the improvisational aspects of my music allow the soloist to expand the harmonic possibilities as far or as simple as they want.

Question: I loved the way the band hinted at serious political topics but then appeared to instill humour and even an element is piss taking. Can you comment on that?

Lucien: John is quite political in this sense and contributes much of the humour (although musically Anthony’s percussion also adds this element). I prefer to leave both these things alone in music, without being extremely serious about it either. That’s just the way the group went with John’s personality present and I’m up for a laugh.

John Rae: I am a political animal but it’s important for me that people enjoy themselves whilst hearing my music. I’ve been around and played with ‘serious’ musicians most of my life and to be honest they now bore the pants of me. That’s not to say what I’m doing isn’t serious. It’s just that I’m over all the bullshit and let’s face it, in the current political climate if you didn’t laugh you’d cry.

Question: Is there anything you want to add?

John Rae: I love the jazz community here in New Zealand. It has some wonderful musicians and a lot going for it. On the other hand though it is really shit. No one seems to be asking the big questions. There is a lack of co-ordination, organization and vision. I look at what’s going on in Scotland and can’t help but compare it to here. No national jazz orchestra, no national jazz federation, jazz touring schemes, international profile etc and yet you can’t move for degree courses! As Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen the Danish jazz bassist said many years ago with regard to the Danish jazz scene, ‘it won’t improve until we stop making excuses’. The life of a jazz musician in NZ is incredibly hard. I believe it needn’t be soooo hard. It’s never going to be easy but through vision and togetherness we could make the living condition for jazz musicians a lot better. Ask any of the salaried brothers playing in any of the state funded orchestras if it’s possible!!!! I plan to have a gathering later this year of jazz musicians and people with an interest in the music to discuss some of the above and come out of it with a strategy on how to move the New Zealand Jazz scene forward. All together for the good fight….

Thanks guys that was an incredibly worthwhile exercise.

John Fenton – Jazz Local 32

‘The Troubles’ – Review

This is part one of two posts on ‘The Troubles’; An interview with John Rae and Lucien Johnson to follow in a day.

When I received a brief email from Steve at Rattle Records informing me that he was sending me two very interesting disks I sensed that he was excited about what was on offer.  When the tightly wrapped package arrived I wrestled ‘The Troubles’ from its box.  Putting it straight on, I was stunned by what I heard and I played it through twice, letting the sound wash over me.  Steve was right; this was special.

Jazz is supposed to be fresh and to convey the ‘sound of surprise’ and this was bloody surprising.  It immediately put me in mind of ‘The Liberation Music Orchestra’ or even Charles Mingus in the various incarnations of those bands.  Having said that this is very much a New Zealand sound.

The Troubles is performed by a Nonet with the instrumentation hinting at the albums context.  Adding a texture to the music; its wild but perfectly placed brush strokes marking it apart.

There is a string section of violin, cello and viola (Tristan Carter, Andrew Filmer, Charley Davenport) which contrasts nicely with the winds and reeds.  Lucien Johnson plays tenor sax, soprano and flute – Nick Van Dijk doubles on trumpet and trombone while Daniel Yeabsley plays alto, baritone and clarinet.   Add to the above the insistent drumming and shouts of John Rae, the bass of Patrick Bleakley and especially the percussion of Anthony Donaldson and you have a band that is capable of much.

The band had been playing at ‘Happy’ (a Wellington Bar renowned for experimental music) for some time and for a number of reasons this proved to be serendipitous.  What came together during those months is perfectly captured here.  This was recorded on one particular night and due to the exceptional musicianship of the band, the skillful writing and connectedness of everyone involved (including the loyal audience) we have a very special album.

Against the odds New Zealand Jazz is rapidly becoming identifiable as a separate and interesting entity.  Perhaps a subset of the Australasian-Pacific Jazz sound.  On the best Kiwi albums and in the clubs I hear this certain something and I want to confront the musical establishment and say, “Are you freakin deaf…can’t you hear this”?    This thing is ours, it can be wonderful and it is certainly worthy of proper attention.  New Zealand music is very diverse and this is a healthy thing.   Original and exciting bands are continually being formed, but in order for this vibrancy and originality to flourish the music must be better supported.     Here is an album that exemplifies this diversity and it says something unique about us and our place in a sometimes troubled world .

Support the band, buy the album but above all relax and enjoy it.  I defy anyone to dislike this roller-coaster ride through the worlds troubled spots.  It is a journey undertaken with deep humanity but also with a liberal helping of humour throughout.   A warm echo derived from the cacophony about us and filtered through an anarchic but sharply focussed Kiwi lens.

Purchase from Marbecks, JB HiFi, Real Groovy, or leading record stores – otherwise purchase directly from Rattle Records.

‘Seven’ – Tim Hopkins Trio

Interaction - Tim & Dixon

I purchased a copy of ‘Seven’ from Rattle Records not long after it was completed.   The cover art portrayed black sand, which is strange to those unfamiliar with it.   For those who have not encountered it before, black sand can also be surprising.  Subtle light-shifts can throw up a myriad of purple and blue hues, and the textures revealed by the drift patterns are in constant flux.   ‘Seven’ reflects Tim Hopkins’ music in much the same way.

Tim Hopkins is well-known to those us who have followed the New Zealand Jazz diaspora.   He has recorded extensively as a sideman with the likes of Mike Nock (and many others) and he has recorded a significant number of albums as leader.  Tim lived in Sydney for many years but he eventually returned to New Zealand where he is now based.  He teaches and performs in the capital city.  His long experience as a tenor player has taught him to throw caution to the wind.   He is adept at developing free-flowing Post Bop lines, but he is not limited by that.  While quite capable of playing sweet and low he does not invite complacency, as he can just as suddenly deliver a scalding declamation.   His style is to conduct an honest conversation with the audience and few punches are pulled.  This is not to say that he is too serious for he has a highly developed sense of humour which he uses to advantage.

Tim started the gig by explaining some of the concepts behind the ‘Seven’ band.   “Someone is missing from this band” he said gesturing behind him and I initially thought that he was referring to Richard Nunns (who had appeared on a few tracks of the album).  Tim meanwhile continued to explain, “He wasn’t invited, (pausing) it is the bass player”.   A bass player is the compass and when a band plays adventurous and complex music the lack of a bass places a heavier burden on the remaining musicians.  These guys were fully aware of the job in hand.   It is often the case that an experienced leader will develop an uncanny knack for selecting just the right sidemen and this was evident here.

Dixon Nacey is not only a versatile and superb guitarist but he is a musical free spirit.   His eyes light up when he is thrown a challenge and he soon throws a challenge back.    This guy is one of our finest musicians and the younger guitarists watch his every move.    I suspect that a lot of the weight fell to Dixon in this gig, but you wouldn’t have known it to see him smiling as he dared Tim or John to answer his challenges.    This was call and response at its best.

Dixon Nacey

The drummer was also perfect for the role.  It was the first time that I had seen John Rae on traps and I hope that it will not be the last.  He is unlike many of the drummers we see, as his approach is loose and organic.  If he wants to up the ante he will suddenly shout at the others; exhorting them to give even more.  He is also far from a locked-in drummer as he will punctuate and change the groove at will.  I really liked this approach as it was the ideal foil to Tim and Dixon.

I also sensed that the band was unafraid of being overt and about confronting the political realities of our times.  This flowed through the music and I loved that about them.

At the beginning of the second set Tim was about to introduce the number when he looked into the audience and said, “Can someone bring a bouncer and throw out that old man talking in the front row”. The talking continued and Tim said in a slightly menacing northern Irish accent, “old man – go home to your wife – go home to your children”.   A short silence followed and then “Dad shut up”.   The smiling offender was Tony Hopkins his father.   Tony is much-loved on the Auckland scene for his skillful drumming.    I saw him when I was young and I would like to acknowledge his influence on my generation and beyond.

Another good example of Tim not taking himself too seriously was the introduction to ‘23rd century love song‘.   He explained that this was the result of endless navel gazing and that the market he was aiming for was probably chemistry professors.

While aspects of the gig were challenging, the night has left me with a lot to think about.   Music should occasionally challenge us and it should make us think.   I find myself going back to the album to re-examine a track or a phrase and this is a good thing. The communication is still happening.  John Rae

The numbers that have stuck with me are ‘Road From Perdition’, ‘All Blacks & Blues’ and the lovely ‘The Sleeping Giants’.   for a copy of this go directly to Rattle Records at http://www.rattle.co.nz – failing that try ‘Real Groovy’ ‘JB HiFi’ or ‘Marbecks’.

The Jam: After the gig there was a jam session and it quickly morphed into a mammoth affair.    Drummers, saxophonists, guitarists and singers crowded the band stand while fours and honks were traded to the delight of the audience.  I don’t think that I could name everyone who played but I will try: Roger Manins(ts), Tim Hopkins(ts), Noel Clayton(g), Aron Ottignon(p), Matt Steele(p) Tyson Smith(g), Dan Kennedy(d), Tony Hopkins(d), Tim ?(d), a young drummer (?), Dixon Nacey(g), Callum Passells(as), Holly Smith(v).    Roger played a lovely breathy Ben Webster sounding ‘Sunny Side if The Street’, Holly sung a fabulous bluesy ‘Summertime’ while Tony played just like he always does.  Sitting just a fraction behind the beat and in perfect time.

‘Melancholy Babes’ + Eric Boeren – out cats@CJC

Any club that was attempting to present a wide spectrum of Jazz styles would commit a sin of omission if they failed to include some of the more experimental Jazz on offer.    The CJC management have open ears and so on Wednesday they offered up the well-respected Wellington based new-jazz ensemble the ‘Melancholy Babes’ (plus guests).  The Melancholy Babes are: Jeff Henderson (alto sax), Anthony Donaldson (drums), Tom Callwood (bass) – [replaced by Gerard Crewdson (tuba)]. – special guest Eric Boerens (trumpet), John Bell (vibraphone).

The ‘Melancholy Babes’ appeared with guest trumpeter Eric Boeren of Amsterdam, who has long been touring the world and setting audiences on fire with his free ranging improvisation.    Eric has a long history in avant-garde music having played with titans like ‘Malachi Favors and  Roscoe Mitchel (of Art Ensemble of Chicago & AACM fame).   The usual Bass player (Tom Callwood) had been replaced for this gig by Gerard Crewdson on Tuba and a vibraphone was added for the last number (which occupied the entire second set). In Auckland we seldom get the chance to hear such groups, as Wellington is the New Zealand home of the experimental music scene.

In experimental music you are seldom going to get a gentle melodic swinging introduction to a tune and this is perhaps the point of the music.    It will find its own rhythms and develop an organic logic as the pieces progress.   The band opened with an explosion of sound and the force of it was initially startling.  The quick runs on the horns rose and fell, often ascending into squalls of sound or multi-phonic effects.  The insistent propulsive drum beats and the steady pulse of the tuba sent them even further out.     While the music was often wild, it took the sometimes incredulous audience along with it and as the journey progressed we felt ourselves to be part of what was unfolding.

At times the band would mysteriously coalesce into a gentler incarnation of its wilder self and in this reflective space, miniatures or tiny motifs would be crafted.  Perfect creations that stood apart, but somehow augmented the whole.  I was surprised at just how drawn into the process I had become and others felt the same.    We were hearing hints of something vaguely recognisable and intriguing, but for a number or two, just what, remained elusive .    Then it hit me; this felt like the history of Jazz and improvised music unfolding.    Rambunctious would be Buddy Bolden‘s swaggering up an ancient New Orleans street as the crowd egged them on.   1930’s Harlem bands, Hoe-downs & Jigs, raggedy defiant funeral marches.   They were all in the mix and our collective Jazz memory was being teased and refreshed.     I was not alone in arriving at this realisation as my friends Jason and Catherine and Sarah heard similar echoes arising from the music.

Having the Tuba was inspired as it gave the music a depth and a foothold in history that it would otherwise have lacked.   The Tuba nearly always took up the bass line in early Jazz as the bass would not have been heard above the brass dominant bands.   It was not until the advent of better recording techniques and amplification that double bass replaced it.   Tuba player Gerard Crewdson has solid credentials on the experimental scene and he understood exactly what was required.   There was also an element of word Jazz when Gerard intoned the story of the Melancholy Babe, while turning the pages of what looked like a very large comic book.  Like the music this was anarchic and humorous.  Many sacred cows were savaged on this night and if any cobwebs had been hiding in corners of the club they would have been blown away by the night’s performance.

Both Anthony and Jeff are well-known on the experimental music scene and I will hunt them out in Wellington one day soon.    Afterwards I talked to the band for some time and I was surprised to learn just how active the experimental Jazz scene is.   Anthony and I talked about Annette Peacock, the Black Saint label, Hat Art, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Free Jazz music in general.    This sub-genre is certainly very well-respected around Europe, but in the USA it has a stronger following in some cities than in others.    Wellington it appears is solidly in the mix.

The night was fun and it was challenging.   I am glad I went.