Big Band, Concerts - visiting Musicians, Swing, USA and Beyond

Basie Orchestra’s Auckland gig 2018

Basie (1)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. Basie (3).jpg

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

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Australian and Oceania based bands, Big Band, Post Millenium, Review, Small ensemble

Viata (Dilworth) + Zephyrix (McAll)

IMG_0434Viata: 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.

IMG_0435Zephyrix: 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.

Big Band, Review, Straight ahead

Alan Broadbent ​& Georgia Mancio – ‘Songbook’ – Broadbent ‘Developing Story’ at Abbey Road

Songbook Qrt LIVE by Carl Hyde 2016.IMG_8193Since ‘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. Unknown-1This 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. UnknownWe 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?  

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Big Band, Large Ensembles, Review

‘Firefly’ – Glen Wagstaff & the Symposium Jazz orchestra

FireflyThe 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.

Sound clip: Maylie (featuring guest vocalist Elen Barry)

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.

Buy the album from www.glenwagstaff.comFirefly (1)

Big Band, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Straight ahead

Wellington Mingus Ensemble visits Auckland

 

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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.  IMG_3664 - Version 2  

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.  IMG_3680 - Version 2

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.

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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.  IMG_3634 - Version 2

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: Adrian Laird,  Drums: Jacob Randall

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand 26th November 2014

 

Big Band, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Straight ahead

Glen Wagstaff + AJO (Auckland Jazz Orchestra)

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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.  IMG_3620 - Version 2

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.  IMG_3602 - Version 2

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.  IMG_3617 - Version 2

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.  IMG_3603 - Version 2

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).

More of this please Glen Wagstaff.  IMG_3600 - Version 2  

What: Glen Wagstaff + AJO (Auckland Jazz Orchestra)

Where: The CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand 19th November 2014

 

Big Band, Post Bop, Review

Alan Broadbent – review of two new releases

 

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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.  5231736-4x3-340x255

“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)

Where: ‘Chillie Bin Records‘ and ‘Jan Matthies Records