‘Where Rivers Meet’ is a celebration of adventurous improvised music and it offers us a fresh window into the works of three departed titans (one still among us). The composers examined are Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Dewey Redman and Anthony Braxton, and while the spirit of these extraordinary musicians is evoked, this should not be regarded as a retrospective. What the SNJO have achieved is an in-the-moment exaltation of free spirits. The charts and performances are living breathing entities, rooted in the now.
This is another waypoint on the open-ended journey that Coleman, Ayler, Redman and Braxton embarked upon. A journey that had no final destination in mind and the SNJO has approached these suites in that same enquiring spirit. Improvised music is at its best when it is not time-locked.
Were lesser hands involved, it could be risky to combine arranged orchestral music with compositions that are famously organic, but here, it works well. The orchestration is never overdone and it adds contrast and unexpected texture to these vibrant open tunes. The charts were orchestrated by four arrangers, Tommy Smith, Geoffrey Keezer, Paul Towndrow and Paul Harrison. Each suite is made up of three tunes by the composers and there are four soloing saxophonists involved, each tackling a different suite.
The SNJO was established by Smith in 1995 and it is regarded as one of the pre-eminent jazz orchestras in Europe. It is also one of the most innovative. No matter what your taste in improvised music, you will find much to enjoy in this album. Ornette Coleman’s “Peace’ is a familiar and much-loved standard and the rendition by Towndrow is fabulous (on alto). The same applies to Dewey Redman’s lovely ‘Joie De Livre’ (Konrad Wiszniewski on tenor), or Ayler’s ‘Going Home’ (Tommy Smith on tenor).
The meatier out-material is there also, Martin Kershaw is outstanding on the Braxton suite. I love this and ‘Composition 245’ especially. This is pure exaltation and Kershaw is killing. Here the spirit of Braxton shines brightest: minimalism, keening reeds, discordant joyfulness, space, tantalisingly distant vocalisations, swooping descents into quiet. Smiths sensitive, gorgeous rendition of Ayler’s ‘Ghosts’ is in a similar spirit.
The performance took place in St Giles Cathedral Edinburgh while the gifted Russian expressionist, Maria Rud painted the cover artworks in real time (and in the presence of the orchestra). Spontaneous conversations between open art forms is the new realty and executed perfectly here. While there were no audience members present due to COVID, the artists have somehow magicked us into this hallowed space.
It also is nice to see some younger players alongside the veterans. I have been following James Copus rise with considerable interest. A wonderful player with an abundance of interesting ideas to communicate.
Anyone who follows JazzLocal32.com will know that I endeavour to keep a focus on local improvised music, or that of Aotearoa in general. In this case, there is a strong local connection between the SNJO, Smith, and Wellington drummer John Rae. Smith and Rae formed their first band in Edinburgh when Rae was 14 and later they recorded together. Between 2000 and 2003, Rae was the SNJO drummer.
The album was recorded in Edinburgh but it crosses a multitude of borders. Reminding me that local is about more than mere geography. Local can be a community of interest, a connectedness – beyond borders. The degree of separation is minimal in the Jazz world anyhow. Perhaps, Dave Holland put it best when he pled, ‘let’s not over-analyse the nationalist tendencies in Jazz’. No matter where we are from, it’s how well, and how authentically we tell our story. This is truly great music, universal music, full stop.
JazzLocal32.com is rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association, poet & writer.Some of these posts appear on related sites.
As Aotearoa’s Jazz musicians become increasingly confident of their place in the world, it is timely to acknowledge those who paved the way. A significant figure in this journey is saxophonist and winds player Brian Smith. I had been meaning to interview him for some time and the recent lockdown provided the ideal opportunity. I have long been aware of just how innovative London Jazz was during the 60s and 70s. The output was considerable, different from what was happening elsewhere and it stands up well to this day and there is an increasing interest among jazz fans and Jazz historians in pouring over this material. Over a lengthy Zoom call, we discussed his musical career and in particular his involvement in the UK Jazz scene. What follows is extracted from that wide-ranging discussion.
Where Smith grew up and how he first engaged with music was the obvious place to start, but then as we proceeded I was struck by how modest Smith was, quietly brushing aside his considerable achievements in true Kiwi fashion. And the more we talked, the more I realised that a colourful piece of Jazz history was unravelling.
JL32: Hi Brian, thanks for agreeing to the interview.
Smith: Greetings John, where would you like to start?
JL32: Where were you born?
Smith: I was born in Wellington but I grew up in Stratford, Taranaki. It was there that I learned piano and later switched to the saxophone.
JL32: Did you start gigging in the Naki?
Smith: Yes as a schoolboy I was part of a band that played for local dances. It was so much fun that I stayed at school an extra year; beyond when I’d intended to leave.
JL32: what were your musical interests at that time?
Smith: It was then that my friends and I encountered 78s by the likes of Humphrey Littleton, Bennie Goodman, Louis Armstong, Lionel Hampton. I still have those under my bed (laughs and points). So, my first jazz interest was more Eddie Condon and I particularly liked the clarinet player Edmund Hall. It was his ‘feel’. It was hard to get records here then. But also among those recordings, I soon discovered Joe Newman, Wardall Grey, and early Miles.
JL32: Did Wardall Grey lead you to discover Dexter?
Smith: No, I discovered Dexter later, also Miles album ‘Around Midnight’ a little later again, those was significant albums for me.
After playing in a few small bands, Smith moved to Auckland (1958) and it was there, that he joined the Bob Paris dance band, later moving to Australia with them. During his time in Auckland, he became increasingly active on the jazz scene, playing at places like Trades Hall. When the Bob Paris band moved across the ditch, he went with them, joining the exodus of Kiwi musicians like Mike Nock who had left for Australia a few years earlier.
JL32: When we were discussing the Auckland clubs and musicians, you mentioned trumpeter Dave Ironside. I knew Dave well and I often wonder what became of him as I went to Sydney with him in 1967.
Smith: Yeah, Dave was a great bloke, he had a really good sense of humour, very funny.
JL32: And when was your move to Australia?
Smith: It was in 1960, I went on the Wanganella with Rick Laird, Barry Woods, Neddy Sullivan and Mike Walker, I was sick for two or three days as I recall (laughs). The trip cost us £30 each, a fortune in those days.
JL32: Did you get much work across the ditch?.
Smith: Well, after moving to Australia with the band, I met up with lots of musicians, such as Kiwi pianist Dave McCrae and our association was to continue later in London. (reaches into a box and produces a few Bob Paris recordings – one with vocalist Ricky May ). Later I obtained a residency on the Gold Coast through Bob Paris. That was where I met my wife. We were given accommodation and a percentage of the door. My wife was a receptionist at that hotel, she made sure that I was fed.
JL32: You connected with a lot of interesting Jazz musicians while in Sydney, notable Aussies, Kiwis such as Mike Nock, and others from much further afield.
JL32: Did you by any chance meet up with a blind multi-instrumentalist Claude Papesch while you were there?
Smith: Yes, I was driven around Kings Cross by him. (much laughter as we reminisced about this as we had both been nervous passengers while Papesch drove). Bob Gillett, Andy Brown, and I lived near Claude, and once after he’d painted his flat, he asked us to check the bits he’d missed and tap the wall to show him. He was such a character, a nice guy, he would call around and knock, and we would sit there quietly, then he would enter and find us one by one, feeling our ears and faces and naming us. I heard that he eventually became mayor of the Blue Mountains. Anyhow, after two years of gigging around Australia I moved back to Auckland. Once back home I played regularly with the likes of Tony Hopkins.
JL32: Lachie Jamieson was around then, did you know him?
Smith: Oh yes, a great drummer and vibes player. I played with him a bit too, and another drummer back from the USA, Ray Edmundson. Lochie was a big deal in Auckland as he’d played with Sonny Rollins, Ira Sullivan, and bands around Chicago. And apart from Tony Hopkins, I played regularly with Mike Walker, Marlene Tong, different people. Some tours happening around then.
Then a few years later, I packed up and decided to move to the UK as my wife came from Lancashire. On the way, I had a one-night stopover in New York, and during that night, I attended three gigs. I heard John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, and Herbie Hancock. Clifford Jorden was the tenor player with Mingus which was at the Half Note.
JL32: What was your first destination in the UK?
Smith: I went to Manchester and met a few people on the scene. One of them was a bloke called Ernie Garside, who managed a Jazz Club there. I would sit in from time to time and my wife’s brother would come with me. He eventually became Maynard Ferguson’s manager. At that time Maynard was playing in Manchester. This was not long before his London concerts. Ernie Garside asked if I wanted to play in Maynard’s band and I did. It got busy as I was juggling three bands.
JL32: If it’s 69/70 you would have been playing with Nucleus, Tubby Hayes Big Band, and Maynard Ferguson.
Smith: Yes, and one or two other things were happening. I was playing with Alan Price as well.
JL32: I have listened to recordings of Tubby Hayes from that period. Nice band.
Smith: There was a TV Show and bits that were recorded. I had no solos but I was in the saxophone section with Alan Skidmore and Peter King. Peter King was great, I played with him quite a bit, a real nice guy.
JL32: I have jotted down a list of the significant UK bandleaders of that era you’ve played and recorded with: Graham Collier (70), Maynard Ferguson (65-75), Michael Gibbs (63-70), Keith Tippett (78), Mike Westbrook (69), Humphrey Littleton, Tubby Hayes, and particularly the Scottish horn player and composer Ian Carr (69-82). You have regularly played alongside UK-based Jazz greats like Kenny Wheeler, Stan Sulzman, John Marshall, Alan Holdsworth, Peter King, Tony Oxley, Stan Tracey Barre Philips, Jack Bruce, John Surman, and many more. And course Alexis Korner, the proto blues unit that influenced John Mayal, the Stones, etc. That’s some list.
Smith: It was a busy time.
JL32: I want to spend a bit of time on ‘Nucleus’, but before I do, I see you played regularly with Kenny Wheeler.
Smith: Yes and he was such a humble guy. He would come away from a concert or recording session after playing well, look concerned and ask us if he played alright.
JL32: At around that time was Kenny working with John Taylor and Norma Winstone, right?
Smith: Yes Norma Winstone and John Taylor were actually in Nucleus at one point, during my time the only other vocalist was Joy Yates (a Kiwi). But back when I first arrived, there were other people important to me. Rick Laird was in London by then and he was working at Ronnie Scotts. He introduced me to a drummer, percussionist called John Stephens who ran the Spontaneous Music Ensemble.
JL32: He was a notable early free player. Tell me more?
Smith: He was good to me. He had a caretaker flat off Harley Street. He let me stay there and I played with him at the ‘Little Theatre Club’, with Trevor Watts. I played with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble a bit at that time. Dave Holland would come up, Kenny Wheeler, Jeff Klien, Evan Parker. One night Chick Corea turned up and sat in and I didn’t know who he was at the time. We were playing a lot of free stuff and he was stomping and slapping the piano sides.
JL32: Anyone else?
Smith: Oh yes I was with Alexis Korner between 1965-66).
JL32: Did you ever encounter the legendary Phil Seaman?
Smith: yes, once I recall we were on the same gig.
Note: Alexis Korner Blues Incorporated was a very important band at the time and the great British blues bands like the Stones and John Mayal were all heavily influenced by it. Musicians like Jack Bruce, Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Ginger Baker, and Graham Bond were all in the band at some point. The Alexis Korner band moved freely between jazz and blues venues and included Jazz standards in the repertoire.
JL32: Was the 1970 album ‘Elastic Rock’ the first Nucleus album you were on? I think that you were a founding member of that band.
Smith: I was. The band was formed by the Scottish trumpeter and arranger Ian Carr and multi-instrumentalist (Sir) Karl Jenkins, I was with them right up to when I left the UK and on many of the albums between 1970-82, except when I was touring with Maynard Ferguson.
JL32: It was very successful. I arrived in London in 1985 and it was still popular then. Don’t you think the term Jazz-Rock Fusion was a bit of a marketing exercise? To my ears, you were a jazz unit edging at times into free territory. Not nearly as rock-sounding as in the guitar-heavy fusion bands. Listening again I find stronger synergies between Nucleus and the late 70’s output by Bennie Maupin or Eddie Henderson etc. And it sounded like a true collective with no egos dominating.
Smith: Yes we were a collective and you could argue that there was a synergy between our music and the era you mention. Nucleus did do well and there were a few other Kiwis who joined the band after I did. Billy Kristian, Dave McCrae, Roger Sellers, Joy Yates.
JL32: Overall, 45 members are listed as passing through the band, and there were 21 albums by my count. You are credited on many of those albums. And some well-known figures from the London Jazz scene came and went; Kenny Wheeler, Tim Whitehead, Tony Coe, Gordon Beck, John Taylor, Norma Winstone, Allan Holdsworth, Neil Ardley and so many more. And of course, you were in the core group. I notice that your playing attracted favourable mentions from reviewers.
Smith: Oh well (downplaying it), I got along with Ian and it worked out for me. There were quite a few of us (Kiwis) in London during the 70s, Frank Gibson and Bruce Lynch for example. We were all doing different things. Anyhow, the last tour I did with Maynard was March 75, and I went back to Nucleus and played with them right up until when I returned home. Bob Bertles the Australian saxophonist filled in while I was touring with Maynard.
During his time in London, Smith was often in brass sections accompanying well-known popular musicians or visiting artists. These included: Gladys Night And The Pips, Donavan, Dusty Springfield, Nancy Wilson, T Bone Walker, Georgie Fame, Alan Price.
JL32: You played tenor, soprano, and alto flute. Your soprano sounded great and the arrangements were interesting. Did you write any of the tunes?
Smith: Yes I wrote a few.
JL32: I’m guessing that the tune Taranaki would be you, there’s a clue there.
Smith: Yes that’s me (laughs).
JL32: What about arranging?
Smith: The arranging was basically whoever wrote the tune and then everyone had input.
JL32: And so not long after, Nucleus won the Best European Band competition at Montreux.
Smith: Yes that was 1970 around the time we released Elastic Rock, our first album. The big radio stations used to sponsor bands, all of the big European stations, and our sponsors were the BBC and we won (laughs). So because we won at the Montreux Jazz Festival, as best European band, the prize was an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival.
JL32: How was that?
Smith: Fantastic, yeah, so after Montreux, we travelled to Newport. It was in the afternoon, I can’t remember which day, but it was funny actually, because Dave McCrae and Rick Laird were there also with the Buddy Rich band. And Mike Nock with Fourth Way on the same weekend as well.
JL32: So you got together for a hang?
Smith: Yeah, because we hadn’t seen each other for quite a while. And then we played one night in New York at the Village Gate. It was amazing.
JL32: Did this lead to more work for Nucleus?
Smith: After we returned, we toured a lot, Italy and Germany in particular, Festivals and clubs. It became a regular thing.
Nucleus gained a significant following and after Elastic Rock, many successful albums followed. They reflected the times and the restlessness of 70s youth culture, complete with psychedelic cover art and cross-genre appeal, but they were firmly grounded in the Jazz tradition. The albums following: We’ll Talk About it Later, Solar Plexis, Belladonna, Roots, Labyrinth, Under The Sun, Snakehips Etcetera, Alleycat, In Flagranti Delicto, Out of The Long Dark, Awakening (and more after Brian Smith left). The labels during the 70s were Vertigo, Capitol, Mood. Some are still on issue and most will be available on streaming sites (one Nucleus album is also available on Bandcamp featuring Smith)
JL32: You played with Kieth Tippett’s Frames around then? You are credited on ‘Music for Imaginary Films. With Stan Tracey.
Smith: Yes I played with Stan a few times, but there was a trombonist named Malcolm Griffiths. He and I got a quintet together for just a little while in 1977, and we did a couple of gigs and a broadcast and Stan Tracey was on that with Brian Spring and Dave Green. And another one I did some playing with was a great piano player, Gordon Beck. I was in a band with him called Gyroscope right at the beginning. At around that time I started touring America with Maynard and Gyroscope hired Stan Sulzmann.
JL32: I associate him most strongly with Kenny Wheeler’s ‘Music for Small and Large Ensembles’. (we agree that this double album is an essential desert island disk)
Smith: yeah Stan and I were pretty good friends and still keep in touch. Oh, and in the late 70s, Dave McCrae put a band together called ‘Pacific Eardrum’. That band did two or three albums, one before I joined, and several later, including one after I returned which we all did back here in New Zealand.
JL32: So looking back over that period, what gave you the most satisfaction?
Smith: Well playing Nucleus, but playing with Maynard especially so. I’d always had this thing about the big band era, the bands that toured America constantly, and (having) the chance to do that in 1974. I spent a whole year in America and I was touring around the whole time. It was just that whole road thing, being on the bus with a bunch of guys and having a good time, playing some good music. Once upon a time, it was like going to school, that’s where musicians made a name for themselves. I learned a lot playing with that band. Sometimes it was the incidental things, like playing at the Bulls Head in Barnes, playing with small units, like the Tony Lee Trio as a guest, or with Martin Drew. And Paz, that was a Latin Band run by Dick Crouch and we recorded a few things. That was a great band and I enjoyed that.
JL32: Do you think that it gives you an edge playing with big bands?
Smith: Well it depends on the person, but it is a good training ground, and for young players, they must play with lots of different people, whether in small ensembles or large. Learning to read but also learning to blend in, hearing the phrasing, and knowing how to react.
JL32: When you returned to New, Zealand I guess people wanted to take lessons. I heard somewhere that you taught Roger Manins for a while.
Smith: He used to come to my place in Glenfield when I lived there, maybe for a year or so. I like Roger, we get along fine.
JL32: And in the years after you returned I recall the Brian Smith Band and an album ‘Southern Excursions’.
Smith: Yes that was with Frank (Gibson) and Billy (Kristian), and my friend Jeff Castle, a pianist from England. He came out here and lived with us for a year in 1984. And then there was the collective ‘Space Case’. We did three or four albums with that band. There was Kim Paterson on trumpet, Murray McNabb on piano and Bruce Lynch on bass (and later on, Andy Brown) and George Chisholm did some trumpet things as well, that was around 84-86. I also did an album with Jacqui Fitzgerald in the 80s. Then there was the time when Roger Fox brought Anita O’Day out and Louis Bellson and we did a brief tour. Lastly my album Taupo (Ode), with Billy Kristian, Kevin Field, Kim Paterson, Lance Sua, Kevin Haines, Alain Koetsier. The two Moonlight Sax albums did pretty well also.
JL32: Have you done much teaching?
Smith: Yes I’ve done a lot. I taught at Northcote College for 20 years and other schools, Papakura, Rosehill College, Kings College. The last school I worked at was Whangaparaoa College.
JL32: I don’t suppose musicians ever retire because I’ve seen you doing gigs about town over recent years.
Smith: Yes there have been a few, and I had a regular gig at a local bar called the Paroa Bar until this lockdown. With Frank, Dean Kerr, and Neville Grenfell on trumpet. Then we had a band with Dean and his brother and a Sunday spot at Muldoon’s in Orewa for a time. Again that was with Frank and Dean, and an occasional gig at Downbeat as well. We don’t know what will happen at present, but I’m hoping the Paroa Bar opens up soon. They’ve got a nice big stage.
JL32: We’ve covered a bit of ground.
Smith: Yes that’s about all I can recall at the moment but there may be a few holes in it.
JL32: Thanks for giving me so much of your time Brian.
Smith: Well, I’m off to play a few notes.
The interview covered a lot of ground, but I knew that there would be much more to uncover. I have always had an interest in British Jazz and so when a new Bandcamp label, Jazz in Britain Archival Project was launched, I took note. Going through it this morning I have located four albums featuring Brian Smith. Some of these contain never-before-released material. Smith expressed a particular fondness for Paz and there is a Paz recording among the Ron Mathewson archival tapes. There is an unreleased Live Nucleus session titled Solar, and best of all Neil Ardley’s ‘Kaleidoscope’ and Alan Cohen’s band Oracle. Here is the lineup on the Oracle Album: Kenny Wheeler, Henry Lowther, Mike Osborne, Alan Skidmore, Brian Smith, John Surman, Chris Pine, Mike Gibbs, Martin Fry, Ron Mathewson, Trever Tomkins. I will watch this space with keen interest.
I can’t help but wonder if the kids’ Smith taught, realised, that he’d once played a part in the wild and heady days of London’s music scene.
Additional sources: The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, The Rough Guide to Jazz, The British Jazz Project, ephemera such as posters and pamphlets. Acknowledgments British Jazz Archives.
JazzLocal32.com is rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association, poet & writer.Some of these posts appear on related sites.
There are a number of things that should be on every music lovers bucket list. Experiencing a Basie Orchestra gig live is one of them. This band has the history of modern music in its DNA and after 83 years on the road, they are in their prime. Goodman was always referred to as the ‘king of swing’ but in my view Basie was a better contender for that title. His brand of swing had it’s nascent stirrings in 1927 when Basie joined Bennie Moten. When that band folded he took many of the musicians with him to form the Basie Band in 1935. The Basie band possessed a unique sound, fueled by a nine-piece line up featuring legendary greats like Lester Young, ‘Papa’ Jo Jones and Walter Page. Johnny Hammond heard them in 1936 and invited them to New York where at his suggestion they expanded to become a thirteen piece jazz Orchestra. At this time they were joined by Freddie Green and others. Skillfully, they incorporated the nimbleness of the Kansas City small ensemble swing-feel into a new sound.
When we listened to the Orchestra in Auckland a few nights ago, every iteration of their 83 years was touched upon. Early and contemporary charts, the gorgeous highly arranged charts from Neil Hefti, Frank Foster and Quincey Jones ‘second testament’ era, some newly arranged material, plus a fabulous tribute to the Basie/Amstrong/Fitzgerald collaborations. Giving added weight to that celebration was the inclusion of vocalist Carmen Bradford. Bradford was originally hired by Basie himself and so she has a long association with the orchestra. Hers is a big voice and an instrument perfectly suited to Ella’s songbook. She is a Jazz vocalist in the traditional sense and it is no wonder that Basie gave her a shot. At times she sang duets with various of the band members, but it was when she and Scotty Barnhart got together that the sparks really flew.
Barnhart, a two times Grammy winner is the musical director of the Basie orchestra and a featured soloist. His Louis Armstrong tribute captured not just ‘Pops’ but the great man’s contemporaries, an often overlooked cohort who deserve to be examined more often than they are. Modern trumpet styles are a long way removed from the street rich dirty growls and blues-infused storytelling of those times. A sound which always communicated a world of raw emotion and deep humanity. As the tribute tunes moved through the era, we heard everything from the lighter-hearted ‘A Tisket a Tasket’ (a traditional nursery rhyme), to Gershwin classics like ‘A Foggy Day in London Town’ or ‘Summertime’. Some of the numbers predated the Basie bands like ‘Struttin With Some Barbecue’ (Armstrong 1927) while others were more contemporary like the gorgeous arrangement of Stevie Wonders ‘Ma Cherie Amour’.
Among the most enjoyable moments were the sensitive trio rendition of ‘Hello Dolly’ (Herman) and the ever wonderful and always compelling Hefti arrangement of ‘April in Paris’ (Duke/Harburg). Doug Lawrence the tenor soloist astounded as always (I was sitting next to a young tenor player and his jaw dropped in amazement during Lawrence’s solos). These musicians are so tight that an atomic blast couldn’t separate them and they swing like crazy. I guess 84 years on the road will do that. I have seen this orchestra before and with any luck, I will see it again and again. There is only one thing you can say in summing up a Basie Orchestra performance; “ONE MORE TIME – please”.
The concert took place at the Aotea Centre, Auckland City, New Zealand, July 30, 2018
Viata: When the Eamon Dilworth album ‘Viata’ was delivered, I was just about to head off to a gig. As I pulled out, I fed the CD into the car sound system and was immediately captivated. Some albums grab you like that, cutting through the dross of everyday life and commanding your fullest attention. The next day, freed from distraction I played it again, and as I listened, the power of the music was evident; a private world where carefully layered soundscapes revealed themselves in an unhurried fashion. I have heard Dilworth live and listened to his recordings, but this is ‘one out of the bag’. Over the years I have learned to expect great things from Australian improvisers and this certainly reinforces that well-earned reputation. ‘Arrow’ was a great album but ‘Viata’ is quite exceptional.
Arrow and Alluvium, were broader canvases – more eclectic; but these compositions are pastoral rather than urban landscapes. Revealed are breathtaking aural vistas of the kind you would expect from ECM artists; pristine spacious northern European landscapes. One of the tunes is titled ‘Eich’, a clear homage to Norway’s Matias Eich and it is beautifully realised, but as you work through the album the unmistakable dreamy warmth and gentle slurring of Tomasz Stanko is evident. Jon Hassel helped shape the direction of Scandinavian trumpeters and perhaps via the Nordics, Australian trumpet players also. These are not the only influences evident here and the vast Australian landscapes cannot be overlooked. In spite of its influences, the album stands strongly on its own merits. The quintet utilises the skills of notable Australian musicians; Alistair Spence (piano), Carl Morgan (guitar), Jonathan Zwartz (bass) and Paul Derricott (drums). With these heavyweights accompanying Dilworth, he couldn’t lose. This is an album I really enjoyed. If you listen carefully it is possible to hear a distant Bell beckoning.
Zephyrix: There is nothing that piques my interest more than receiving news of an impending Barney McAll project. His projects are seldom announced in conventional ways but they creep into your consciousness like portents. You see an image or hear a rumour and know that something is unfolding. A few months ago I noticed a mysterious image appearing below a McAll tweet. There was no explanation, just the word Zephyrix and an image of a man-bird. Because he paints on a vast canvas and because he is a master of subliminal, the image was the message; leaving you with the sense that something extraordinary was about to appear. This how McAll works his magic. By communicating on many levels at once. You always get great music, but embedded in that music and in the related media are archetypes. This album exemplifies his approach to creating art and it touches on his philosophy.
A few weeks after I spotted the image I received an email from Melbourne’s Monash University, inviting me to attend the launch of McAll’s Zephyrix album as a guest. The work was commissioned for the prestigious Monash Art Ensemble, a fifteen-piece Jazz orchestra. The work had six parts and was conducted by the well respected Paul Grabowsky. A few years earlier I had interviewed McAll during his Peggy Glanville-Hicks composers residency in Sydney. The work was composed at around that time.
Although unable to attend the launch I received a copy of the album and as I played it that familiar question arose. How can one artist have such a diverse body of work and yet achieve such excellence in everything that he creates? The answer lies partly in McAll’s work ethic, but above all, it lies in the way he views life and the creative process. The integrity of his vision is never subordinated to the commercial imperatives which often grind artists down. In spite of that (or because of it), he has a large following and wins award after award (he just collected three further Bell Awards for ‘Hearing the Blood’).
As you listen to Zephyrix you enter a world of textural richness with surprises at every turn. Mythical and exotic creatures populate the imagination, only to disappear as another, takes its place. McAll’s work is always strongly allegorical and in this case, the allusions touch on the fundamental struggles of existence. Beginning with the Greek God Zephyr (God of the west wind ) and followed by the voices of Black Crow, White Swan, Peacock, Pelican, Zephyrix and Phoenix. The odd creature out is the most interesting, one of McAll’s creations, the Zephyrix. This is a fusing of the Phoenix and Man – the man wearing business attire, the phoenix perhaps his better self.
As you listen to the album you detect the spirit of Stravinsky, but the touchstones go beyond orchestral Jazz or modern classical music. Even though the references to the past are there, this work sits comfortably among the best of forward-looking orchestral works. It is a journey well worth taking and I am eagerly awaiting McAll’s next project.
Since ‘Songbook’ was released three months ago the accolades have come pouring in and it’s no wonder. This is a superb album and destined to remain forever embedded in the Jazz songbook lexicon. The worldwide release was timed to coincide with Broadbent’s seventieth birthday; opening to an enthusiastic audience at Ronnie Scotts; then touring the major clubs and festivals throughout Europe and New York. Much about ‘Songbook’ is classic Broadbent; warm, lyrical, and intimate; not to take anything away from the co-credited Georgia Mancio, a highly acclaimed UK-based vocalist. This pairing of voice and harmony, lyrics and melody could hardly be improved upon: it is therefore unsurprising that comparisons are made with the classic songbook era. Here, Broadbent has found the ideal foil for his engaging brand of lyrical Jazz, and as a first, every one of his tunes has accompanying lyrics crafted by Mancio. In Songbook, Broadbent’s Quartet West classic, ‘The Long Goodbye’ has become ‘The Last Goodbye’; a moving reference to the passing of Mancio’s father. Tunes like that have long begged such lyrics and it’s nice to see them penned so beautifully. Back in New Zealand, we watch Broadbent’s ever unfolding story with wonder. We are proud of him here in his hometown, understanding that his many projects keep him busy; so busy that so we seldom see him these days. As long as we have his albums it is enough, they all have a generous portion of New Zealand buried deep within them. Last month he recorded a new album in the Abbey Road studios, an album with former Woody Herman band mate, drummer Peter Erskine and the amazing bassist Harvie S – plus the London Metropolitan Orchestra. These arrangements could only be Broadbent’s – lush and achingly beautiful. Could there be more Grammy’s on the way?
The postie brings more music to our house than he does bills and so I always welcome the sound of the small motorbike pausing outside. This time she delivered a wafer thin parcel with the sender identified as Glen Wagstaff; Firefly had arrived. Looking back over my blog posts revealed that I first encountered the Glen Wagstaff Project in October 2013. At that time we heard several compositions now on the album and in particular to the title track ‘Firefly’. The first Auckland lineup was an eight piece ensemble, all Christchurch musicians. I was only familiar with two of them, Tamara Smith and Andy Keegan. The ensemble impressed and especially notable were the compositions; well constructed charts which magically exceeded the limits of eight piece instrumentation.
The other memory of that visit was the evocation of Kenny Wheeler. Few other New Zealand ensembles worked in that space. A year later in November 2014 Wagstaff appeared again. This time engaging the seventeen piece Auckland Jazz Orchestra. Bigger charts, more complexity and additional compositions, this was a precursor to the album. ‘Firefly’ was a Kickstarter project and many of us around the country were keen to pitch in. When a project has strong enough bones Kickstarter is a reasonable way to proceed. Wagstaff had sewn the seeds well The ease in which he reached his target was ample proof that he had found a solid support base. As we reach for new workable distribution models, this tool is worth considering; if like Wagstaff you can deliver the goods. Road testing and winning over a solid core of contributors is essential.
Sound Clip: Escape Artist (featuring guest saxophonist Manins)
The tracks have a number of moods but the album flows beautifully. The cohesion comes from the writing and the sense of vision imparted. As good as the various artists are, it is the writing that grabs you. The rich orchestral voicings in ‘Maylie’ reach deep and send shivers down the spine. There is a sense of nostalgia evoked, a longing for what is just of out of reach; even of pleasurable melancholia (The melancholic voice is often invoked by poets and it is nice to see it explored in this context. In earlier centuries this mood included pleasurable feelings ‘Pleasing myself with phantasms sweet, methinks that time runs very fleet, all my joys to this are folly, naught so sweet as melancholy’). In the title track ‘Firefly’ the mood is light and airy. Once again Wagstaff has found the right voice; a dusky sense of joy prevails. The tune Sakura based on a traditional Japanese melody follows a well trodden path among improvising musicians; again well done and showcasing Wagstaff on guitar. He is soft toned and his sound lovely. In this piece subdued orchestration allows the melodic aspects of the piece to unfold without clutter.
The Symposium Orchestra is a nineteen piece Jazz orchestra and with guest artists and doubling it swells to twenty-three instruments. Wagstaff utilises this rich palette well; avoiding the pitfall of over-orchestration. No mean feat with that firepower behind you. Roger Manins guested on tenor saxophone and Elen Barry added wordless vocal lines.
Writing orchestral charts is a monumental task and when you consider that this is a young musician’s first album, the respect for what he achieved deepens. In the USA there is much angst over the dearth of support for Jazz. In New Zealand we have never had that support and so artists create for the joy of it. When albums like this emerge, the New Zealand Jazz scene grows in stature. Wagstaff has put an important marker in the ground, his future now assured.
Mingus was the Rabelais of Jazz. An eccentric humanist who used his musical vocabulary to portray the realities of life as he knew it. A world filled with great sorrows, blunt speech and joyous abandon; excessive emotions measured in equal portions. Often troubled, frequently combative, but always inspiring. He brought something unique to improvised music. An ability to impart that Rabelaisian quality, and this was the genius of the man.
When the Wellington Mingus Ensemble came to town the essence of Mingus came with them. In showcasing his music they demonstrated that they understood the most important thing: the spirit underlying his music. The cries of delight when at particular phrases and the shouts of exaltation echoing through the sets, a collective sense of engagement, each exhorting the other on. This unerring wild enthusiasm gave the music a power that took it free of the charts. Mingus pieces are invariably greater than the sum of their parts.
The set list took us on a high-octane Mingus fuelled journey, with the familiar politically charged ‘Fables of Faubus’ and ‘The shoes of the fisherman’s wife are some jiveassed slippers’, bookended by his lessor known tunes. There are no poor compositions in the Charles Mingus’s songbook. The Ensemble (a sixteen piece band) is punchy, ebullient and confident. This sense of shared enterprise fed into the solos, as the support was always there. The bass work was particularly noteworthy as Mingus styled bass lines are quite unlike any others. Big ups to the baritone player as well, for making a unwieldily beast sing so heartily.
Charles Mingus occupies a unique place in the Jazz Pantheon and in Mingus bands like this, he has left us with a legacy which thankfully shows no sign of abating. His legacy is an interesting one and different to that of most Jazz musicians. While a Miles or a Bird tribute band will often be at pains to put distance between themselves and the original for fear of comparison, a Mingus tribute band will unashamedly embrace that Mingus feel. There is a rightness about this approach to Mingus, because what at first appears tangible has hidden corners. There is always a mysterious looseness which leaves you thinking. I’ve listened to this piece a hundred times before, but it always sounds different.
This is a great legacy for musicians and fans alike. He leaves behind so much more than his recorded output; it is as if these Mingus charts are inexhaustible. The music is full of contradictions; profoundly gospel-referencing passages, dripping with soul are suddenly overtaken by a brassy cacophony on the edge of free. Anyone who has listened to his Magnum Opus ‘The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady’ or ‘The complete Town Hall concert’ (with Dolphy, Collette, Mariano, Sims and many others) will get this immediately. For Mingus-loving musicians, the desire to grab a piece of this quirky magic is overwhelming. The Wellington Mingus Ensemble has achieved that in spades.
What: The Wellington Mingus Ensemble
Saxes: Bryn van Vliet, Eilish Wilson, Jake Baxendale, Garam Jung, Oscar Laven Trumpets: Ben Hunt, Michael Costeloe, James Wisnesky, Daniel Windsor Trombones: Kaito Walley, Cameron Kidby, Julian Kirgan, Patrick Di Somma Piano: Ayrton Foote, Double Bass: AdrianLaird, Drums: Jacob Randall
Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand 26th November 2014
Christchurch resonates strongly with Kiwi’s from elsewhere, but the images we bring to mind are fused realities. The best of colonial Victorian architecture, a fading Englishness; blurring into an empty post-quake wasteland or an alpine framed Hiroshima. Behind the rubble the city’s creative life has continued unabated. This is not about ‘defiant resilience’ or any of those other overused phrases. Creative artists create no matter what the circumstances and no errant fault line can dislodge that force. It is about being human and it is about the inner life of a city. Improvising artists are among the best placed to tap into this wellspring.
With that rich southern burr in his speech, Glen Wagstaff is clearly from the mid to lower South Island. Like other Jazz musicians from Christchurch he has impressive skills. The Christchurch Jazz School has done well by us, especially evidenced in the fine musicians emerging. I first heard Wagstaff in 2013 when he came to Auckland with his Christchurch octet. I was impressed then; even more so now.
The number of New Zealand musicians who write or arrange big band charts is relatively small and there are good reasons for this. It is time-consuming and very hard work. To have a younger musician writing so well and to be so adventurous is unusual. There are two clear influences on Wagstaff’s writing and these are the late Kenny Wheeler and the Brian Blade Fellowship band. I am a big fan of both and these musicians are evoked in the charts. Similar in style maybe, but with a strong Kiwi focus. While the above influences are detectable, Wagstaff is developing a unique voice. A voice that imparts a strong sense of place. Mountains, clear skies, wide-vistas and textured landscapes.
His small ensemble work puts you in mind of a larger ensemble, while his orchestral work has sufficient space to imply the opposite. The style (like Wheeler’s) is airy and textured with strong melodic hooks. In spite of the dark tinged corners, the pieces impart warmth.
The other part to Wagstaff is his solid guitar work. This was especially evident during this gig. The ringing clean tone and the strong well paced lines could blend with the orchestra when appropriate. At other times the guitar led strongly. Whether as composer or guitarist, Wagstaff was in command. I have rendered a clip of his composition ‘Firefly’ and the music speaks for itself. Nothing further I could write could add or detract from this extraordinary piece of music.
The AJO was a good choice as they are a capable Jazz orchestra. What they need most are more challenges like this. These charts were not the easiest and the rehearsal time was brief. What they managed in this narrow window was entirely creditable. It would be nice to see them record something like this and I believe that they have just such a project coming up with Tim Atkinson’s suite (to be recorded shortly). Conducting the AJO was Tim Atkinson while Mike Booth (trumpet) and Andrew Hall (alto, soprano) took the main solos. Matt Steele’s piano worked beautifully with Wagstaff during the guitar dominant passages.
In the octet were: Glen Wagstaff (guitar), Matt Steele (piano), Richie Pickard (bass), Ron Samsom (drums), Andrew Hall (reeds), Mike Booth (trumpet), Ben McNicholl (tenor saxophone), Glen Bartlett (trombone), The rest of the AJO were; Jo Spiers (trumpet), Oliver Furneaux (trumpet), Mathew Verrill (trumpet), Mike Young (trombone), Darrell Farnley (trombone),Michael Tidbury (trombone) David Edmundson (tenor) Andrew Baker (baritone) Trudy Lile (Flute), Callum Passells (alto, soprano).
Alan Broadbent is rightly revered by New Zealand Jazz musicians, but I am not sure that the rest of New Zealand is aware of just how well respected he is overseas. During the enthusiastic publicity about New Zealand’s high achieving young musician ‘Lorde’, the media generally overlooked the fact that we already have a two times Grammy winner in Alan Broadbent. Not only has he won two Grammy’s, but he has also been nominated seven times. Add to that his repeated poll winning status and his arranging work for many of the worlds most successful artists and you begin to grasp his importance in the music world. His arrangements, compositions and piano playing with Woody Hermans Herd and Charlie Haden’s Quartet West are what he is best known for in the the Jazz world. You can also add a long list of important collaborations (Charlie Haden, Diana Krall, Natalie Cole, Bud Shank, Chet Baker, Warne Marsh, Johnny Mandel, Quincey Jones, Henry Mancini, Sir Paul McCartney, Barbara Streisand and so on). The LA Times named him as ‘one of the major keyboard figures of the day’ and a recent Downbeat critics poll awarded his latest album an extremely rare ‘five star masterpiece status’.
While his arrangements for singers may bring him the most attention, it is when you delve into his lessor known albums that a cornucopia of hidden treasures emerge. An early example of just how strong his compositional and arranging skills are can be found on the all but forgotten Woody Herman recording ‘Children of Lima’ (especially ‘Far in’ – Broadbent). To get right to the heart of Alan’s music though, you must strip away the orchestra and discover him alone with his piano in a sympathetic setting. I refer here to the 1991 Concord album ‘Live at Maybeck Hall, Volume 14’. This is one of the finest albums out of a series noted for its exceptional solo piano performances. His interpretation of ‘Lennie’s Pennies’ (by Tristano who he studied with as a young musician) and ‘Woody ‘n’ I’ (a tune written by Broadbent during his time with Woody Herman ) have to be heard to be believed. It has puzzled many a critic that such an exceptional solo album did not have a sequel.
“It is as if he has found a way to condense the essence of all of those orchestral arrangements into his hands”
Puzzle no more because the drought’s finally over. Last year Alan Broadbent recorded his second solo album ‘Heart to heart’ and amazingly it is even better than his Maybeck album. While there are hints of his signature style he pays less attention to the romanticism of Quartet West; a sound that many who have not heard his trio albums like ‘Pacific time’ might have come to regard as the norm. There is a naked truthfulness about this music, and although it is solo piano, it somehow evokes a bigger vista. It is as if he has found a way to condense the essence of all of those orchestral arrangements into his hands. On Charlie Haden’s ‘Hullo my lovely’ his left hand walks a bass line against probing introspective right hand lines. As someone rightly observed this is truly ‘a conversation between two hands’. As well as recording four of his own finest compositions; ‘Heart to heart’, ‘Now and then’, ‘Journey home’ and ‘Love is the thing’ he also puts his spotlight on tunes as varied as ‘Lonely woman’ (Ornette Coleman) and ‘Alone together’ (Arthur Schwartz). Alan selects his standards carefully and those lucky enough to have seen him performing live will know that he also tells wonderful pithy stories about them. It is the raconteur that informs his playing on these albums.
His most recent album has just been released and this time he’s back with a Jazz orchestra. There is an interview with him in the publicity material and it is interesting to learn that as a pianist he did not find working with Woody Hermans Herd or any big band enjoyable. He explains that the piano generally gets lost in big arrangements and that was not where he wanted to be. Now years later he is guesting with the NDR Big band and obviously enjoying the process. This album really works for him and it does so because he is in charge and can vary the dynamics to suit his tastes, There is ample space for piano solos and his love of improvising is given free reign.
April is Jazz Appreciation Month (or in Jazz Journalists Association speak #jazzapril ) and we are fast approaching International Jazz day. Besides attending local gigs you could purchase these albums. Celebrating Jazz is what it’s all about and there are few better places to start than here.
What: Alan Broadbent (solo on ‘Heart to Heart’ and with the NDR Big Band)
We get a lot of interesting overseas acts passing through these days but seldom do we see Cuban musicians. This is not about what they have to offer or even about the tyranny of distance, but more about politics. When this band was booked it was a bigger lineup, but getting short-term visas to enter Australia and New Zealand proved an insurmountable barrier for some of their number. In my view this is an arcane and ludicrous legacy of the cold war. In spite of an easing of sanctions by the EU and others, those old suspicions remain. These talented musicians are the very best of ambassadors for their country and their indigenous music. Its time to get real Australasian immigration. The few that were allowed into the country gave us a great nights entertainment and not one sought asylum from John Key.
The tour was organised by Australian band leader Gai Bryant and she arrived here with barely enough time to hold a few brief rehearsals with the AJO (Auckland Jazz Orchestra). I am a fan of the AJO as they always tackle interesting projects. They are a Jazz Orchestra with great dynamics and under the direction of Tim Atkinson, Mike booth and others they continue to produce the goods. The personnel had changed a bit since I last saw them and especially the front horn line. Even though it was dark and crowded I could make out a number of the long-term AJO regulars such Jo Spiers, Callum Passells, Cameron Sangster, Mike Booth, Jono Tan, Cameron McArthur and Matt Steele. This band is scandalously under utilised and the city fathers and corporates should be engaging them for important occasions.
I am picking that this music would have been testing for them, as very few Auckland musicians have had a chance to work in authentic Cuban styles before. It is one thing to play a Rumba or Bolero in a looser jazz idiom but quite another to follow charts like these. At the heart of Cuban music is a set of complex mesmerising counter rhythms and the clave. This is a delicious fusion music and the most influential of all of the ‘world musics’. It reaches deep into the shameful slave past of Cuba. West African musicians had retained knowledge of the ancient percussion instruments, chants and melodies which had travelled with them. Along the way a plethora of other influences enriched and extended their music. There is a strong Spanish influence and a French influence among others. These influences were absorbed into the polyrhythmic music of West Africa. At the very heart is often the clave rhythms and central to that is the five beat pattern so much emulated in popular music and Jazz. These days the forms are codified and so jumping into this as a novice is a big ask. I don’t know enough about Cuban music to judge this performance against others, but suffice to say I enjoyed it immensely.
I was deeply impressed by the percussionists but also by Cameron Sangster (drums), who took his cues so well from the Cubans. Other notable moments were delivered by Callum Passells (alto), Cameron McArthur (bass) and Matt Steele (piano).
With the percussion instruments playing and the orchestra and soloists weaving around the beat it was easy to see how those old stories of voodoo and trance music took hold. These beats defied all attempts to rationalise the sound. The rhythms entered every pore, almost like body blows, driving me out of self and into the arms of some universal force. An ancient joyful celestial dance from which there was mercifully no escape.
Who: Gai Bryant’s Cubanos (the photos on this gig were all taken by Ben McNicoll)
Travelling with an 18 piece jazz orchestra is an exercise in logistics that would confound military experts. Luckily this herculean task was assigned to Jazz musicians who have no idea about what is possible and impossible. As they have done for the past 10 years the Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra (JMO) set out on tour, but this time, as if to tempt the fates, they decided to cross an ocean. The trip across the Tasman was certainly not without mishap, as one of the orchestra members had become ill at the airport and an urgent replacement was required. The first New Zealand concert was to begin in a matter of hours. I am unsure of just how much panic ensued, but the bands Director David Theak was tasked with locating a trumpeter. They required an excellent reader who could play some of the most difficult charts ever devised and with little or no rehearsal time.
It was guest conductor, ‘ringleader’ and composer Darcy James Argue (who is evidently also a magician) who proposed the solution. He quickly conjured up the brilliant New York based trumpet player Nadje Noordhuis who just happened to be attending a wedding in Australia. She had worked with Darcy for many years and was familiar with his work. Nadja changed her plans and flew to join the JMO in Auckland. I can only surmise that various music gods received generous offerings that day.
The ‘Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra‘ is one of the most valuable creative assets that Australia has on offer and since its inception 10 years ago it has picked up many scholarships and prizes. It is regarded as the best Jazz Orchestra in Australia and it has gained a solid international reputation. Because of the respect the orchestra garners it is now able to attract the best soloists, conductors, arrangers and composers. World acclaimed Jazz masters like John Hollenbeck and Maria Schneider are just two examples of guest arrangers invited to work with the JMO. While drawing upon a myriad of inspirational sources from offshore, the orchestra still maintains a strong focus on showcasing the best of Australian Artists. Recent programs have featured the works of Mike Nock and the New York based Australian born pianist Sean Wayland.
Our own Roger Manins plays tenor saxophone for the current JMO tour and he will appear as guest artist with them at the Melbourne Festival (with the incomparable and frequent poll winning Maria Schneider conducting). Roger is a typical self-effacing Kiwi male who seldom talks up his own achievements (I will happily take on that job). This is big news and he is to be congratulated. Better yet fly to Melbourne and enjoy the JMO with Roger and Maria.
The first concert was at the Kenneth Meyers Centre and I watched with interest as the various musicians about town tweeted words like ‘freaking amazing’ and ‘wow’. The main Auckland gig was on the next night at the Auckland Jazz & Blues Club located in the Point Chevalier Returned Services Association. This large rectangular space has acoustics that are often challenging for smaller bands but not so for the sonic blast of an 18 piece orchestra. By the time I turned up the venue was packed. Everyone there looked expectant, understanding that a rare treat was in store.
The gig was split into two distinct halves with the first set featuring Sean Wayland’s music. I have long heard praise of Sean and to my shame I had not previously checked him out as thoroughly as I should have. He’s a revered figure on the Australian Jazz scene and with good reason. He often plays with the cream of New York musicians and his discography is jaw-droppingly impressive. Sean’s compositions have a particular ebb and flow that works well with an orchestra like this. For all that, he is a friendly approachable guy and this easygoing manner communicates itself well to an audience. Sean has worked with the JMO before and it is not surprising that they invited him back as guest pianist, composer and arranger.
The second set featured the works of guest conductor Darcy James Argue who like Sean Wayland lives in Brooklyn. He has steadily been amassing tributes over recent years, first for his ‘Infernal Machines’ album and more recently for ‘Brooklyn Babylon’. Darcy James Argue describes himself variously as ringmaster, composer, arranger and head of a ‘Secret Society’. Dan Brown can’t hold candle to this guy, as he tells better stories and navigates the social media like a latter-day Machiavelli.
When Darcy was ushered onto the bandstand he emerged in true Secret Society fashion. Swirling out the shadows and giving the appearance of being 7 feet tall. My only disappointment was that he didn’t have a cape. According to rumours the Secret Society first aired their music in a small punk bar in Brooklyn, violating fire and safety regulations in the process. As with all the best secrets word soon leaked out and as time went by they performed at the Lincoln Centre and many other key venues. It must be troubling for a secret society to become so famous, but that is exactly what has happened. They are five-time winners of the DownBeat Critics Poll, a JJA best-of award, appearing in innumerable best-of-the-year lists, and being nominated for both GRAMMY and JUNO awards.
This is a composer who understands musical alchemy. Under his pen and baton a new form of magic has emerged. The textures, orchestral voicings and raw energy carry the listener to places unimagined. It feels fresh and exciting, but somehow (and perhaps this is the essence of the magic) the past is still evident in ways that are never hackneyed. Warmth and vibrancy vie with starkness, gentle and raucous coexist. These are the sounds of a big city in the twenty-first century, but a big city constantly examining its roots. It is hard to adequately describe the impact of this, but a careful listener will discern hints of Copeland, Rock music, Thad Jones and even Cage. More importantly they are drawn forever into the strangely accessible but deceptively complex world of Darcy James Argue and his co-conspirators.
Darcy James Argue has woven us a convincing narrative and his multi media smarts are an integral part of this journey. His websites lead listeners inexorably to the music in pied piper fashion, where they are held fast. He is positioned exactly where he should be, at the cutting edge of new orchestral Jazz.
I sat down with Sean Wayland after to gig and watched with interest as he ordered a schooner. “We don’t have those in New Zealand love” said the barmaid.”What do you call a big glass of beer then?” asked Sean. “A glass” she said. Aussies abbreviate everything (a barbecue is a ‘barbi’ and Melbourne is ‘Melbs’) but this is the only time that I have seen an Australian out-abbreviated by a Kiwi. Sean is an easy guy to talk to and from him I gained a number of interesting insights into the performance. “Was Darcy’s material difficult to play”, I asked him. “Yes” he said, “Almost impossible. To do it real justice it needs to be played a lot and then memorised”. Sean’s piano parts sounded just fine to my ears, he is after all well-known for his work with unique harmony and rhythm.
Where: Point Chevalier RSA, Auckland New Zealand – brought to you by the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), The Auckland Jazz and Blues Club and Pete McGregor Entertainment on the 28th May 2013
Who: The Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra with Sean Wayland and Darcy James Argue
I love Jazz big bands and couldn’t have been more pleased when Roger engaged the AJO to play on awards night. It is more than possible that I had dropped a hint. Nothing underscores an occasion like a Jazz orchestra and having a 17 piece band in an intimate space is the best of listening experiences. Those surges of raw power always please, but it is something else that I look for. It is their collective agility , the tension and release and the quality of their ensemble playing. This is quickly revealed if the charts are well written, and they were.
People like to compare big bands and as a spectator sport it has some currency. I can’t help wondering however if eggs are always being compared with eggs. There are rehearsal bands like the Village Vanguard Orchestra (Thad Jones Big Band) who meet once a week (but with ever-changing personnel). Less common are the professional or semi professional units who get regular work and whose core personnel are less likely change (The WDR, Mingus Big Band, Roger Fox Big Band). Lastly there are all-star bands which come together for a recording, a gig, a concept or just for fun (Bob Beldens ‘Miles Espanol’ Jazz Orchestra, The Kenny Wheeler Big Band).
The AJO falls mostly into the first group but there is another dimension to what they do: they are a writing band and part of their reason for existence is to write charts and/or to create original arrangements. Quite a few in the band write and that gives the band an Auckland flavour. The compositions tell our city’s story. As a city we need to value them more and ensure that they get the work and the recognition they deserve. The City Council needs to have them on their radar and call on them for appropriate official functions? Knowing Jazz musicians pay packets, the public purse would be left largely intact if they did.
The AJO is a mix of seasoned players and new talent and this gives them a certain flavour. With their unfamiliar charts they perform a high wire act and because of that there is a hint of risk; to pull this off and at the same time entertain, requires a deftness of touch. The AJO has this as the co-founders Tim Atkinson and Mike Booth manage to inspire and guide without stifling creativity.
During the night we heard tight ensemble playing, a number of nice solos (particularly from Mike Booth, Theo Clearwater, Steve Sherriff, Andrew Hall, Callum Passells, Jono Tan and Matt Steele). Vanessa McGowen was terrific on bass and her presence was felt in just the right way. Andrea Groenewald on guitar demonstrated her soloing and comping skills. The latter added just the right Freddie Green touch to the overall mix. Swinging a big band is not always easy but this band swung.
There were two sets and thirteen numbers – among them were ‘It doesn’t Snow There’ – Atkinson, ‘On the Water’ – Booth, ‘All the things you are‘ – Kern/Hammerstein, ‘Those Nights’ – Hall. I have included a You Tube clip of there AJO performing Tim Atkinson’s composition and arrangement of ‘It Doesn’t Snow There’ – see below.
The AJO’s personnel are: Mike Booth (lead trumpet, arranger, composer, co-founder), Tim Atkinson (conductor, arranger, composer, co-founder)
Altos; Steve Sheriff, Callum Passells – Tenors; Andrew Hall, Teo Clearwater – Baritone; Andrew Baker – Trumpets; Matthew Verrill, Mike Booth, Jo Spiers, Oliver Furneaux – Trombones; Mike Young, Mike Ashton, Jono Tan, Darrell Farley – Guitar; Andrea Groenewald – Piano; Matt Steele – Bass; Vanessa McGowen – Drums; Cameron Sangster
I may have become addicted to Jazz big-bands and so when the opportunity presented itself recently to sit in the fourth row at the Roger Fox – Alan Broadbent concert, I took it. I survived that proximity with surprising ease and it was inevitable that I would need a bigger dose next time. The sonic blast had not even wiped the smile from my face.
Now a month later I was attending a gig where the (AJO) ‘Auckland Jazz Orchestra‘ was playing and so I decided to test my limits. Knowing that I could tolerate the maximum levels of exposure I sat in the front row. So close in fact that the bell of Andrew Hall’s Tenor Saxophone was only half a meter away. This proved to be an excellent concert and to be that close was to feel part of the band by proxy.
The ‘Auckland Jazz Orchestra‘ is a collective; drawing on local talent who meet monthly to explore the Jazz big- band sound. While clearly in the tradition of the great rehearsal bands like the Thad Jones band, they also appear to have striven to create an authentic Auckland vibe. If this was their aim, then they have certainly succeeded.
Founding member Mike Booth (trumpet) is a Jazz veteran. He has recently returned from overseas and his presence is strongly felt. The other guiding presence is current conductor Tim Atkinson. Both have written and arranged charts (as have other members of the band). The ethos of this band is in fact to put a local stamp on the music and that excites me. The territory bands of the pre-60’s American scene were legendary and they grew in stature by creating unique geographical identities. Basie was identifiably KC, Goodman a Chicagoan etc. This territorial competition acted as a real stimulus to the bands. Originality and greatness grew directly out of that as they scrambled to make their mark .
The other vital factor was the schooling that the newer band members got from playing with the more experienced musicians. Bill Crow, famous bassist, tells of being gently chided (or alternately encouraged) between numbers and this hot-house learning on-the-hoof communicated what his band mates expected of him. He also recalls being schooled by members of the band between gigs. Amazingly he had only just picked up the bass months before. He soon attained iconic status and the big bands he worked in were part of his university. This on-the-road education system for Jazz musicians has been an essential part of the mix in developing good reading and tight ensemble playing skills. When the players solo, there is a cushion of warm sound embracing them and smaller groups seldom give that opportunity.
The band is: Alto saxes – Steve Sherriff, Theo Clearwater, Tenor saxes – Jimmy Garden , Andrew Hall; Bari Alex Churchill; Trombones – Merv Thomas, Mike Ashton, Mike Young, Steve Taylor; Trumpets – Mike Booth, Rowan Bolley, Jo Spiers, Pete Barwick; Drums – Cameron Sangster; Bass – Thomas Botting; Guitar – Andrea Groenewald; Piano – Adam Fuhr.
The opening number ‘Green Dolphin Street‘ was brilliantly arranged by conductor Tim Atkinson. The band quickly coalesced into a smooth unit as they moved into this and showed the skill of the band as a whole. The other tune that leapt out and grabbed me was ‘All things in 5 & 3’ (composed & arranged by Mike Booth). This was a wonderful number and it became evident that it had been written around the changes of ‘All the things you are’ – but in 5/4 & 3/4. With Auckland-referencing tunes like ‘Rangitoto‘ and ‘On the water‘ (Mike Booth – part of the Auckland Harbour suite) a picture was being painted note by note. Among the original tunes was the swinging bossa sounding ‘Lucky charms‘ (Tim Atkinson) and ‘Reservations‘ Andrew Hall. We heard great solos by (new friend) Andrea Groeneveld (g), Steve Sherriff (as), Mike Booth(t) and Andrew Hall (ts). It was also good to see the well-known Merv Thomas(tb) in the band among these considerably younger musicians.
The ‘Creative Jazz Club‘ is an intimate space and having a 17 piece band in that room made it all the more so. A famous precedent would be the even smaller ‘Village Vanguard‘ in NY, which hosts the Thad Jones rehearsal band each Monday night. The club was full and in Tardis fashion every new comer was able to find a space. More of that please; my tolerance is far from reaching its limit.
The Roger Fox Wellington Big Band is an in-the-pocket unit and sitting in front of that band is to experience a blast from the Jazz slip stream. Listening to their hard swinging and tightly focused delivery it was difficult to believe that this was a home-grown band and that they had only been together for around 18 months. There were of course some veterans in the line up (Colin Hemmingsen – tenor) and above all there was Roger Fox, the man in firm control. Like all good leaders he teased the very best out of his band.
First up was San Francisco based Denise Perrier who was a very pleasant surprise. It was as if Carmen McCrae had been conjured into our midst. Denise is very talented and a real crowd pleaser in the best possible way. Her powerful smokey bluesy voice and sassy manner were the perfect foils for well executed tunes; enhanced by a killer band. Starting with ‘easy street’ she moved on to a lovely version of Tom Jobims ‘Wave‘ (it is impossible to praise this tune highly enough). Her version of ‘stormy weather’ was original and tasteful, followed by ‘every day (I have the blues)‘ which was so evocative of Count Basie that I kept expecting Sweets Edison and Pres to do walk-ons. The other stand-out tracks were Harold Arlens ‘Oh what a beautiful morning‘ – (a brave but good choice) and ‘God Bless the Child‘ – Billie Holiday/Arthur Herzog.
Wellington Jazz pianist Anita Schwabe appeared undaunted by the presence of Alan Broadbent standing a mere few feet away and this does her credit. Anita showed her skill that night and to say that her parents (who sat just in front of us) were proud would be a gross understatement. Nick Tipping (Charmaine Ford trio) was on upright bass and Lance Philip drums. This is a band which works hard to keep a tight sound and the payoff was the magic that we all experienced. The nuances of colour that the band members were able to elicit was down to three things; the perfect charts, the leader and the fact that the band members all doubled on other instruments. This created a wonderfully rich sound-palette to draw from.
While great credit should go to Roger and his band the night also belonged to Alan’s unbelievably well crafted charts. As Alan said when he addressed the capacity crowd at the start of the second half, “tonight covers a 40 year journey in music – thank you for sharing it with me’. Roger had been trying to get together with Alan for many years and had often suggested that they work together. A while ago, out of the blue, he started receiving ‘charts’ from Alan and he quipped, “I became worried about what it would cost me because there is a lot of money to be made in Jazz and especially big-band Jazz”. Woody Herman and Basie may have been the sub-text but Alan Broadbent was the heart and soul of the evening.
Kiwi jazz fans love Alan’s work and we boast about his Kiwi beginnings at every opportunity. Alan has written some of the nicest tunes in jazz, but hearing his arrangements played by gifted Kiwi musicians added a new dimension. Alan, played a few trio numbers and ‘alone together‘ by Schwartz/Dietz was one of the few standards played. Among Alan’s compositions we heard ‘Bebop & Roses’ ,’Journey Home’, ‘Don’t ask why’, ‘The long white cloud’, ‘Sugar Loaf mountain’, ‘Far in (74)’, and more.
The second half had opened with ‘Journey Home‘, which is the tile track on the new Roger Fox Big Band CD featuring this nights music. I urge you to grab a copy now; not only because you will enjoy it, but because you will be supporting the best of Kiwi Music. Better yet, go and see this band as well and tell your friends to come with you. See ‘event-finder‘ for gigs.
This Saturday we get to hear the amazing Jack deJohnette – colourist and straight ahead master of the ‘traps’- probably the greatest drummer alive. Jack’s band is performing an update on the ‘Miles Davis‘ fusion classic ‘Jack Johnson‘. Next month Herbie Hancock is returning to Auckland (Tuesday 26th March) and his new ‘Imagine Project’ band will include talented Benin Guitarist Lionel Loueke. I was in touch with old friend Larry Koonse last week (gifted West Coast Jazz guitarist) and he told me that he will likely be here again in a few months with the Roger Fox Big Band. He may even return with Joe La Barbera like last time.
Lastly saxophone colossus Sonny Rollins is going to be playing in Wellington this winter (July). As grumpy as I am with Wellington for canceling the International Jazz Festival because of the World Cup I will attend. Swapping Jazz for rugby is a cardinal sin (or it bloody well should be).