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