In the early 1970s, I recall picking up Rolling Stone magazine and seeing the end of year headline, ‘What A Long Weird Trip It’s Been. I thought of that headline yesterday because it felt relevant. It referred to many things, to the psychedelic music which had fuelled a movement, Miles’ fusion band or The Jefferson Airplane, to the out-prose of Hunter S Thompson and Alan Ginsberg, but mostly it referred to the seismic upheavals of a troubled interregnum when the old order cracked open. A time when the planet was searching for a different axis.
It was a time of collision between an old-world order and a hyper-energised counter-culture movement. The combatants on both sides had grown weary as the pitch battles grew uglier. Bullets flew at Kent State U and the Vietnam War stumbled on pointlessly as the death count rose; and back on the west coast of the USA, Manson drove a dagger through the summers of love and hope. In turbulent times tidy resolutions are evasive, and so it’s been these past few years.
Then, as now, the arts flourished and improvised-music especially so; interpreting the sounds and moods of the times instinctively. Improvisers will always find fresh ways to examine the world about them because change is what drives them; to succeed they must be open to the endless possibilities of the moment. They will guide us to havens, to secret Islands on the margins if we listen with care.
I spent much of the recent lockdown listening to music from the wider Jazz diaspora. Initially, the musicians fell silent, then, as they came to terms with their new reality most reached out, connecting digitally with the like-minded, or with those they didn’t know at all.
Language barriers and visa issues quickly faded into irrelevance as cultural connections were navigated between living rooms. The independent recording labels also stepped up and digital review copies of lockdown albums hit my inbox daily; arriving from Iceland, Poland, Ethiopia, Russia, Belarus, Czechoslovakia and many other countries. Most of them were from well outside of my usual orbit. Cultures were colliding and assimilating new ideas at speed.
Around that time I was contacted by a Jazz Studies pupil who asked if New Zealand had a recognisable Jazz voice. That is a hard one to answer. I hear individual players with distinctive voices, but that is not the same thing. It is inarguable that Jazz arose as an American art form over 100 years ago and that it arose out of oppression, slavery, and a collision of cultures. But as it spread adaption was inevitable and in each country, cross-fertilisation occurs. In this age of hyper-connectivity, that process is accelerating at warp speed.
As I listened to the many albums from elsewhere there was a jazz sensibility, but I also fancied that heard elements of indigeneity, of improvisers referencing their folk music, native anthems and landscapes. This gave me pause for thought. What constitutes an original voice in the modern Jazz world? We hear it or think we do but how is it defined? And isn’t musical nationalism a contentious topic? I am inclined to Dave Hollands point of view in this regard, that musical nationalism should be acknowledged but not over analysed. The negative consequences of nationalism are everywhere about us and the extreme forms are seldom healthy. Jazz is a humanistic, hybridised and multi-lateral entity.
Aotearoa is a colonised land filled with a great many cultures. In the past, Polynesian voices were sidelined by dominant European cultures, but the indigenous voices grow stronger every day. I only have my ears to guide me, but if I was asked to highlight an authentic Kiwi Jazz voice, it would most likely come from our ever-growing underground free-jazz movement and it would probably reference indigenous music in some form. Musicians like Jeff Henderson and Jim Langabeer come immediately to mind, but there are others as well.
I have included a few clips which invite people to form their own opinions. Included is a track from Secret Islands, Jim Langabeer’s extraordinary album, a telling of Kiwi stories. Also, a beautiful Ethiopian clip, a French genre-busting improvising band that could hardly have come from anywhere else, an extraordinary offering of Spiritual Jazz from Lahore, and some current Nordic folk-Jazz.
The journey through the pandemic feels interminable right now, but the music will guide us through, and if we listen well enough, the time will not have been wasted. Search Bandcamp or wherever for something unknown, let the music paint pictures as you study new landscapes through your ears. Is this the new travel? We will hopefully emerge better informed, and what a long weird trip it will have been.
You can purchase many of these albums on Bandcamp; the place where interesting music lands.
JazzLocal32.com is rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association, poet & writer.Some of these posts appear on related sites.
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.
In September 2014, the Scottish guitarist Simon Thacker brought Ritmata to Auckland. I recall that night clearly, as his innovative genre-defying music and entertaining banter enchanted the CJC audience. Since that time, I have followed his endeavors with interest and there has been much to marvel at. As one reviewer put it “(Thacker) is one of the most important musicians of his generation”. He has toured widely, is classical guitar tutor in a number of prestigious universities and has appeared as a soloist with leading orchestras.
Along the way, he has formed various ensembles as he reimagines cultural musical traditions. He is a master of the unexpected and each performance arises from his pan-cultural journeys. At first his music sounds familiar, but upon further listening, you realise that you were mistaken. What you are hearing is something new.
This is a musician with boundless imagination and although his music may be fed by diverse streams and is respectful, it is not confined by the past. The last time we communicated he made that point beautifully. “At no point in history is music more exciting than what we will hear tomorrow”.
His latest project Pashyanti began as a solo project in 2019 and he toured it through the Indian subcontinent, appearing at two of the biggest Indian Jazz festivals along the way. That was to be followed by an appearance at last year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe (cancelled due to covid), but as with all of Thacker’s projects there is constant evolution underway. This year he has invited contemporary dancer Aishwarya Raut (from the Rambert dance school) to collaborate with him. Together, aided by skillful camerawork and gorgeous lighting, they have conjured up a sonic and visual feast.
There are four segments to the show: MunaSata, Omanjana, Ekla Chalo Re and Nirjanavana. I loved them all, but perhaps because I lived through the sixties, I found Nirjanavana the most compelling. The musicianship and dancing and effects were astounding, as was the otherworldly lighting. Throughout, you will experience the vibe of flamenco or the displaced time of latin music, some Jazz harmonies, slick references to a multitude of eastern traditions and above all, high wire artistry.
The concert is on until 29 August. Pashyanti appears as the Made in Scotland Showcase, an Edinburgh Festival Fringe event. And best of all, it is available online to viewers worldwide via the ticketing Fringe Player app (follow the link). I urge anyone with a love of acoustic guitar, dance or astonishing musicianship to grab a ticket immediately.
JazzLocal32.com is rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association, poet & writer.Some of these posts appear on related sites.
It’s impossible to over-estimate the influence that the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) has had on the Auckland and wider New Zealand Jazz scene. For those unfamiliar with its history, the club was set up over a decade ago, as a place to bring original improvised music to discriminating listening audiences. A secondary function was to ensure that emerging artists were given a shot on select gig nights. Last week brought two bands, the Ben Frater Band and the Rachel Clarke band.
Frater is an undergraduate at the UoA Jazz School and for an emerging performer, his drum-work shows surprising maturity. In common with many up-and-coming performers, his approach is not confined to any particular style and this openness has informed his approach. The gig was billed as swing influenced, but leaning towards fusion, and the descriptor was accurate. Frater is a compelling drummer and he will further enrich the local scene.
The leader enrolled former and current students for this gig and in consequence, a shared vision was evident. CJC audiences are by now quite familiar with guitarist Michael Gianan and with keyboard wiz Joe Kaptein; both have featured often during the last year. The other band members were Jimmy Olsen on electric bass, Andrew Isdale on tenor saxophone and Jack Thirtle on trumpet.
Olson was a powerhouse with those urgent pumping bass-lines; the sounds of Jazz-fusion deserve slippery grooves like that. And Kaptein impressed as he always does, his calm demeanour belying what was flowing from his fingertips. He backed into the pieces like a pro and established grooves on top of grooves; then he reached underneath the bonnet and messed with the sound in a good way.
The groove tunes took a bold step in the direction of improvised Jazz electronica; the direction of Eivind Aaset in particular. I hope that Frater takes us further down that road. It has until now been a Nordic sound and it is extremely popular in the northern regions. This band gave it a Kiwi flavour, and I for one am ready for more. I have posted a clip titled ‘Montgomery’ (Frater).
The second set brought us, vocalist, Rachel Clarke’s band. Clarke had assembled some formidable firepower. Ben Frater and Jimmy Olsen were present again, Gretel Donnelly and Chelsea Prastiti as backing vocalists, Nathan Haines on flute, Alex Pies on guitar and Ron Samsom on percussion. Clarke is a recent graduate from the UoA Jazz Programme and I first heard her when she was called on at short notice to replace Caitlin Smith at a live gig, just days before the first lockdown.
All of the tunes in Clarke’s set had a Latin flavour and more specifically, a Portuguese flavour. Many of the tunes were sung in Portuguese. Again, it is a credit to the Auckland University Jazz School that they nurture such diversity within their programme structure. Out of this diversity, an Auckland sound is being forged.
It can be daunting to find yourself in front of a large discriminating Jazz audience, but Clarke demonstrated her ability to win an audience over. She has a fine voice and she mastered the rhythmic complexities of her Latin tunes with ease. Alex Pipes also nailed the rhythms, with Olsen, Samsom and Frater adding counter pulse and texture. Nathan Haines provided perfect fills and a gorgeous solo or two. His Latin Flute chops are legendary.
JazzLocal32.com was rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association.
Any jazz club gig involving Nathan Haines, Jonathan Crayford and Manjit Singh is bound to catch the attention. It was programmed to occur months ago and unsurprisingly tickets sold out so quickly that many missed out. Then, out of the blue, the virus crept back among us and we found ourselves back in lockdown. There was a new date suggested, but for safety reasons that did not transpire, and we waited. October brought us warm weather, freedom of movement, and above all, it gave us our gigs back. This time the Haines/Crayford/Singh gig actually happened and more tickets were released as restrictions no longer applied.
The gig was a fusion of Jazz and the Indian musical traditions and in particular the northern styles. Accompanying them on harmonium and with vocals as a guest artist was Daljeet Kaur, the wife of Tabla player Manjit Singh. Chelsea Prastiti also appeared as a guest artist on one number. To pull off this type of fusion and yet do so respectfully, requires careful programming and good musicianship. The three co-leaders were particularly suited to this task.
Singh was a respected Tabla player and teacher long before he travelled from the Punjab region to New Zealand. He has since completed a musicology degree at Auckland University and his involvement with the UoA Jazz School brought him into frequent contact with local jazz musicians. Haines and Crayford are internationally renowned and together they are a versatile dream-team. Bringing Singh into their orbit made perfect sense as both can comfortably play outside of the strictures of genre.
There are particular subtleties to Indian music and perhaps most formidably the rhythms. The scales, although model, and thus familiar to Jazz practitioners also have aspects of difference. The northern Indian scale has twelve notes and is moveable. When western harmonies are added, unusual challenges crop up. Jazz, however, is the art form of flexibility and its practitioners thrive on playing over drones and exploring harmonies. I believe that is why this worked so well.
As soon as I heard the harmonium and tabla together I was transported back in time; back to a night in the Himalayan foothills where I once heard a wandering troupe play. Two youths who we had befriended in Katmandu, called by late one night and led us up into the mountains. We walked in the moonlight and eventually arrived at a rustic farmhouse; cattle on the ground floor, a farmer ushering us up a ladder to the first level. A troupe of wandering musicians who crossed borders secretly at night and played in private homes by invitation only. A four-piece unit of sitar, tambura, flute, harmonium and vocals. They were brilliant. Not the sort of thing anyone could forget.
I had always assumed that that the harmonium was a traditional Indian instrument, but I have since learned, that it came from the West around 250 years ago. Once adopted by Indian musicians, it was modified, and it entered the repertoire of the northern part of the sub-continent. Its entry was not without controversy. Because it sits at the juncture between east and west, it feels an appropriate instrument to bring to an Indian, Jazz fusion gig.
There were a number of original tunes, a classical piece, a Beatles tune and an old Pakistani folk tune. The arrangement of Norwegian Wood was well adapted. The Beatles had been exploring modal Indian music at the time. When Chelsea Prastiti joined them, she and Daljeet Kaur sang a New Zealand composition, Olympic Girl. That number received wild applause, but my favourite segment was when the trio played Heitor Villa-Lobos Bachianas Brasileiras No 5. This gorgeous tune with its sensual Latin rhythms and Spanish tinge has been played and adapted by Jazz musicians before – notably by Wayne Shorter. The trio’s version paid it homage in the very best way.
Nathan Haines|flutes, soprano saxophone – Jonathan Crayford | piano & keys – Manjit Sigh | Tabla, tala & percussion – Daljeet Kaur | harmonium & vocals – Chelsea Prastiti | vocals
The gig took place at Anthology K’Road for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, October 21, 2020
JazzLocal32.com was rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association.Many of these posts also appear on Radio13.co.nz – check it out.
Music is the highest form of communication. It is universal. It reveals truths, tells stories, entertains, and in Mark de Clive-Lowe’s case, it evokes other realities. This was a masterclass in storytelling; an unfolding kaleidoscope where the contradictions and sublime realisations about the human condition were brought into focus. ‘Heritage 1 + 2’ the albums reflect his personal story, a journey of reconnection, an exploration of culture and of family history. He revealed it through moments of spoken narrative, but above all through his reverential musical examination of Japanese art forms. This was a musical journey where the highly personal overlapped the philosophical. It was a journey back to his Jazz roots and undertaken entirely on his own terms.
At least twenty years have passed since I last heard MdCL perform in Auckland. Back then he was regarded as a youthful Jazz prodigy and people flocked to hear him.Accompanying such acclaim comes expectations and that can be a straight jacket. It was the era of the media-hyped ‘young lions’, when up and coming Jazz musicians were expected to showcase standards and reclaim a glorious past. While the die-hards repeated their time-worn mantras, something else bubbled beneath the surface; musicians like MdCL shucked off others expectations; in his case moving a world away to engage with the hybrid music/dance scene in London. From there he moved on to LA where he built a solid and enduring reputation. These days Auckland has a flourishing improvised music scene and audiences value innovation. In this space, Jazz and other genres merge effortlessly. Because of that, it was exactly the right moment for MdCL to bring this project home. Auckland heard the call and the concerts reached capacity club audiences.
When MdCL introduced the sets he talked about his childhood and of cultural disconnection. Experiences like this although disquieting feed the creative spirit. The recent album and the tour follow a time spent in Japan where he immersed himself in his mother’s culture. The album opens with ‘The Offering’ an apt and beguiling introduction piece. Like a ritual washing of hands before a tea ceremony, a moment to sweep away preconceptions. Another standout honoured his mother by evoking her family name. ‘Mizugaki’ is perhaps the most reflective and personal tune of the sets. This cross-cultural feel is evident from the opener to the tunes which follow. While the scales and moods speak of Japan, the interpretations belong to an improviser. Throughout, MdCL maintains this fine balancing act. Evoking the unique moods of the haiku or ink wash. Illusory moods that are best described in the Japanese as no English phrase is adequate. And to all of this, he brings his lived experience. A kiwi-born musician with a foot in many camps.
With the exception of two traditional folk tunes, the compositions (and arrangements) are his own, other elements of his musical journey are also evident: tasteful electronics, drum & bass, Jazz. For copies of the two albums and MdCL’s other recordings go to Bandcamp (links below). Perhaps we can lure him back more often as he certainly has a following here. On the New Zealand leg of his tour, he was joined by Marika Hodgson on electric bass, Myele Manzanza on drums (and in Auckland by Lewis McCallum on flute and alto). The Kiwi contingent sounded good alongside MdCL and for a return-home tour, there was a rightness to utilising Kiwi musicians. I have posted a tune from the Auckland gig titled ‘Silk Road’. The Silk Road carried music, ideas, goods and culture, travelling by any means and from Japan to Spain; and now New Zealand.
Again, the CJC Creative Jazz Club has made good on its promise to deliver diverse and interesting projects.Last week saw a collaboration between the Bengali born sitar maestro Purbayan Chatterjee and the Auckland based World-Jazz fusion group Takadimi.What at first glance may appear to be an improbable collaboration – a famous Indian classical master and a Jazz fusion group was, in fact, a perfect alignment.Having Alan Brown on keys with Cam McArthur on bass and with the nimble, talented Daniel Waterson on drum kit, plus leader Manjit Singh on tabla – we expected and heard excellent music.
These two great improvising traditions, one ancient, the other emerging just over 100 years ago, are able to comprehend each other’s basic forms. Both traditions produce talented and versatile musicians who are thoroughly trained in song cycles, scales, and rhythms. A perfect illustration of this occurred last Wednesday when Maestro Chatterjee and Takadimi decided to create a spontaneous improvisation. With nothing prearranged, it began with an audience member asking about an ancient Greek scale called the Lydian Mode. All of the musicians were familiar with this mode and Maestro Chatterjee said that it was practically identical to the fundamentals of a particular Raga mode. He fingered the scale briefly on his sitar and then asked Alan Brown to form a motif using that scale. Thus began a cross-discipline, cross-cultural musical conversation like few I have heard.
Purbayan Chatterjee is a Bengali born musician residing in Mumbai. He has an international reputation and has performed in concert halls all over the world. The recipient of prestigious awards including the President of India award and with a discography which includes best selling albums. He was trained from a young age in the Northern or Hindustani School of Indian classical music. Like the famous tabla player Ustad Zakir Hussain (who he has performed with), he has frequently ventured into the Jazz/World fusion space. Auckland’s Takadimi, under the able leadership of the highly respected tabla player Manjit Singh, has for some years been exploring that same fusion space. Putting Maestro Chatterjee together with Takadimi was inspired. Together, they brought transcendent joy to our club and in a troubled world, this is a precious commodity.
The tone of the evening was set by the first offering which was a beautiful meditative raga performed in a classical style on sitar and tabla. I have been listening to Indian classical music since age 14, but I am certainly no authority. To the best of my knowledge, the basics are as follows. There are two main branches, the northern Hindustani and the southern or Carnatic branch. These, in turn, have many sub-genres and sub-styles, especially in the North. Both schools use the raga (usually a 7 note scale) performed over a drone. The structure begins with the Alap (in 3 sections) which is performed without the tabla and is a preparation or gradual development towards a climax. In this first phase, melodic ornaments and shapes are formed.The second major segment is the Gat (and Dhrupad) which is where the tabla joins in. The tabla introduces the complex meters that characterise Indian classical music and these are called tala (a cycle of weak and strong beats). Improvisation and interplay occur mainly in this second stage. Although the music is referred to as classical it does not refer to a fixed point in time. It is a constantly evolving music and new styles are still being developed within the classical framework.
I have posted an excerpt from the raga and also the spontaneous improvisation piece. This intensely beautiful music brought fitting closure to our tenure at Backbeat. We will miss the staff and the small club vibe, but it’s time to move to our new home, Anthology. The audiences have followed the club to new venues 5 times over the last 11 years. With such great music on offer, I am sure that this will continue. Purbayan Chatterjee summed up the vibe perfectly when he praised the audience. He plays in the worlds great concert halls but he told us that intimate clubs like this, with engaged cheerful audiences, are the best of places. His gift of the raga – perhaps an evening raga, felt like it was performed just for such an occasion. Thank you musicians – see you at Anthology for the All-Star, 3 Saxophone opening night. Click through to the CJC Creative Jazz Club web site.
Karangahape Road and the precincts around it are a natural home for adventurous and alternative music. If you walk the length, you are assailed by sights and sounds at variance to each other. Taken in their entirety they are oddly compatible. The jumble of colour and the bursts of noise as you pass a Karaoke bar or an uber cool eatery is counterbalanced by the languid notes from Shanghai Lils or the soft chatter emanating from Hookah smoking Kebab shop doorways. Woven into this oddness of streetwalkers and urban cool, are the alternative music joints. Down in basements, under the street or up narrow stairways. Thirsty Dog, Anthology, Audio Foundation, Wine Cellar. And at the top end of the strip, next to the old Jewish graveyard is the Backbeat Bar. High-quality alternative improvised music resides here on Wednesdays.
Takadimi is the brainchild of the gifted tabla player Manjit Singh and the CJC featured his band last Wednesday. This is a fusion band in the very best sense of the word as it fuses styles and complex rhythms with apparent ease. The music’s origins are clear but the tunes are not unduly anchored to them. We are living in an age when classical forms are not nailed down and in the west, the whole notion of musical purity is frequently overstated. The higher purpose of music is to connect on a human level and not to impress by showing off technical prowess. Takadimi connected deeply and spoke directly to our senses. They played improvised music but worked into the complex structures of Indian Talas. It felt as if both forms were respected.
The tunes were all introduced by the leader Manjit Singh, who would establish the rhythm by chanting a tala (or taal); then he would guide the ensemble into the open and freer air of jazz harmonies where collective (or solo) improvisation occurred. I have seen this band before and this felt like a step up. The soloists, in particular, showed a readiness to work with and enjoy the challenges presented by the complex polyrhythms. All of the musicians held the line and made it appear easy – it certainly was not.
Underpinning everything were the rhythms and colours provided on the Tabla – an instrument long embedded into the Jazz repertoire. Anyone who has heard John McLoughlin, Jean Luc Ponty and Zakir Hussain together will understand how profound the association can be. It is therefore great to have such a fine tabla player in our midst and it our good luck that he is up for cross-genre collaborations.
The last time I heard Takadimi was at the Thirsty Dog; way down the other end of K’ Road. On that gig the lineup was different, this time the band had no guitar and the pianist Alan Brown had joined them. Singh could not have chosen better. Brown is well versed in the output of East European wunderkind Tigran Hamasyan. Hamasyan often counts in with talas and his beautiful Armenian styled rhythms are at times, very close to Indian forms. Brown is a master of complex rhythmic structures and capable of executing them without ever losing the groove. There were many fine performances but a standout was from Lukas Fritsch. His alto danced expertly through the tunes and for a young musician, he handled the complexities like a veteran.
The clip that I have posted is a beautiful composition by the guru Ustad Fazal Qureshi and arranged by Manjit Singh. The Taal is Mishra Jaati – rendered as a polyrhythmic 7 over 4/4 time. On this track, Brown plays a synth instead of piano.
Takadimi: Manjit Singh (leader, tabla, arrangements), Alan Brown (piano, keyboards), Lukas Fritsch (alto saxophone), Denholm Orr (bass), Daniel Waterson (drums). The gig was at the Backbeat Bar, K’ Road, Auckland, CJC Creative Jazz Club, July 11, 2018.
There is an inescapable charm surrounding any Besser performance and Wednesday’s Zestniks gig at the Backbeat bar was no exception. While his music has many strands feeding it and although it can be hard to categorise, it is never the less rooted in the Jewish musical traditions. Besser is somewhat of an icon in Arts circles and deservedly so. The arc of his work has a momentum that few could emulate. As it alights on various styles or genres it borrows their raiment, and seemingly without compromising what lies at the music’s heart; gathering what is necessary and no more. Over the years he has collaborated with leading conceptual artists, filmmakers, symphony orchestras, electronic adventurers and Jazz musicians. The Zestnics performance reflected much of this fascinating journey.
I am always drawn to performers who leaven their gigs with an appropriate portion of banter and Besser’s comments and asides were delightful. They were delivered with a deadpan expression and consequently were nicely understated. As with music, timing and delivery are everything. Many of the tunes were from his ‘Gimel Suite’ and a quick investigation of the word leads you to a cornucopia of meanings. It is the third letter of the Hebrew alphabet, it is a letter imbued with special qualities and it this case it is a footing or foundation for composition. This is an ancient to modern music and I suspect that those listening will have conjured their own associations. Because I have recently travelled through eastern Europe, I heard the warp and weft of Polish or Czech street music.
The other ensemble members came from a variety of disciplines and this was fitting. Caro Manins on vocals with her deep knowledge of ancient Sephardic Ladino music; Nigel Gavin, an adventurous ‘World music’ musician who ignores artificial boundaries; John Bell, a Vibes player from the free to groove or ‘World’ end of town; Eamon Edmundson-Wells on bass, a versatile bass player and also frequently seen in avant-garde settings; Alistair Deverick on drums, navigating those exhilarating rhythms. Lastly were two from the expanded Black Quartet; Peau Halapua on violin and Sophie Buxton on viola – popular classical musicians and sometimes seen with Jazz or ‘World’ ensembles. Besser, of course, was on piano.
Some of the tunes were nostalgic or even mournful, some were brimming with joy – all were enjoyable. The tunes never strayed too far from the notation, but there were some brief improvised sections which balanced things up nicely. I have posted the last number of the gig and while I am not sure of the title, I know that it brought the house down.
The gig took place on the 4th of July, 2018 at the Backbeat Bar, K’Road, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club.
I have listened to John Bell over a number of years and I have always marvelled at his inventiveness. Bell (along with Jeff Henderson), is widely acknowledged as the experimental music guy, the free improvisation guy. He is a musician who takes risks as he aims for clear skies; a musician who involves himself in interesting cross-cultural collaborations, a vibraharp player who doubles on brass instruments. He is an artist who you always associate with innovation – consequently, other musicians look up to him.
In spite of his wide-ranging credentials, I had never seen him perform this type of material and I anticipated it keenly. His latest project, the Aldebaran Quartet, dove into the explorations of a specific era. The warm modal music of the late sixties and seventies. A time in Jazz when the behemoth of Rock dominated the airwaves and filled record shelves – eclipsing everything else in view. It is unfortunate that audiences looked away just then because out of that era came a heady brew of fresh ideas. Hidden in plain sight were improvising trailblazers; laying down wonderful music, incorporating new freedoms, and embracing a quasi-secular space age spirituality. This was the era when Bobby Hutcherson and Herbie Hancock took a new direction with ‘Oblique’ – when Chick Corea cut ‘Tones for Jones Bones’; both albums featuring the scandalously underrated drummer (and vibes player) Joe Chambers: an era when Eddie Henderson released ‘Sunburst’, Bernie Maupin ‘The Jewel in the Lotus’, and when Alice Coltrane and Don Pullen broke new ground. And all the while looking toward some distant star system or an inner world; all bringing a new flavour to the improvised music scene.
This was a gig filled with mesmerizing soulfulness, but underneath the shimmering sound lay some very clever compositions and great musicianship; referencing a time when modal music stepped free from the formulaic. An era ripe for further exploration. This was complex music made to sound simple; a visceral music that took you to its heart without the need for pointy-headed insider knowledge. The track I have posted is a good example, the lessons of eastern and western music, absorbed, expanded and all without a hint of contrivance. Melodic patterns over a crisp undulating drum pulse, piano and bass picking up the pattern, in unison or in response, freeing the vibraharp to explore the possibilities as they opened up space. The tune in question ‘Atagato’ (Bell) is a wonderful composition. It resonates deeply, the complexity artfully hidden behind simple themes, throwing up a melody line that is merely implied. The clever musical devices employed were endless but for the listeners, that was not important – it was the immediacy, the resonance which touched us. Bell is a true tintinnabulist and we are lucky to have him home.
When Vibes and piano play together they often take a different tack from that of guitar and piano. Occupying the same tonal range is avoided in the latter case but with piano and vibes, a unison approach is frequently employed. When either piano or vibes are comping the chords can become mirrors – reflecting each other but varying fractionally to add texture; completing each other through the harmonics arising from their different timbres. In this respect and others, the pianist Phil Broadhurst was superb. Again, I am very familiar with his output, but I had never heard him in this context. His solos were in the pocket and his sensitive comping concise, supportive.
Bass player Eamon Edmundson-Wells was just right for this gig. Like Bell, Edmundson-Wells has a firm foothold in the avant-garde scene. The more I hear him the higher my regard for his musicality. He is an extraordinary young bass player and capable in any given situation. The remaining quartet member was drummer Steve Cournane. From the first few beats, he stamped his authority. His rhythmic feel interesting and a little different from other drummers about town. He lived in South America for some time and it’s really good to see him back on the scene. There is something of the classic Jazz fusion drummer about him but more besides (he sometimes reminds me of Peter Erskine or perhaps Lenny White). Together they form a great unit. I hope that they record this material and perhaps exchange the keyboards for an acoustic piano when they do. These compositions and this unit are far too enjoyable to disappear from earshot.
John Bell: Aldebaran Quartet – Bell (vibraharp, compositions), Phil Broadhurst (keyboards, compositions), Eamon Edmundson-Wells (upright bass), Steve Cournane (drums). The gig took place at the CJC Creative Jazz Club, Backbeat Bar, K’Road, Auckland March 2018.
The Australian saxophonist Paul Van Ross is a regular visitor to New Zealand, but there was a four-year gap between his recent Auckland gigs. He is a talented improviser, an interesting composer and an artist brimming with ideas, so his gigs are always worth catching when he passes through. As he did last time, he toured with drummer Mark Lockett, a friend and longtime collaborator. They were joined in Auckland by the in-demand bass player Cameron McArthur. Van Ross’s last visit featured Alan Brown on organ; this trip, however, was pianoless, providing him with clear skies and lots of space to stretch out in. All three grabbed at the opportunity enthusiastically and the audience benefited from the subsequent aerobatics.
While the tour focussed on his trio chops there was a secondary purpose; to showcase his Cuban Album “Mi Alma Cubana’. The trio played mostly originals and a number of tunes from the album. As much as I enjoyed the trio (and I did), it was the Cuban septet which really floored me. I have put up a video excerpt from the chordless trio gig, and I can’t resist adding two sound clips from the album. What an album this is – what unbounded joy and groove. It was almost impossible to choose which track to put up as they are all so great – ‘Break a Tune’ (an earlier composition), La Negra Tomasa (G. Rodriguez) the only non-original, the ballad ‘Melody for Mum? In the end I opted for ‘Swami in the house’ and ‘Hacienda de la Salsa’ (the latter containing hints of tango under infectious Cuban rhythms – a truly spicy salsa.
‘Mi Alama Cubana’ was recorded in Cuba during a visit in 2013. All of the musicians were hired in Cuba and the recording took place over two days in the EGREM studios Havana. In between tunes, Van Ross regaled us with stories of the recording session. No wonder the album turned out so well. The picture he painted was compelling; tales of wonderfully colourful musicians; the epitome good humour and remembered with real fondness. The pianist who didn’t need charts. the scantily clad percussionist, the innate professionalism.
It is our good fortune that these talented people came together at this time and that they injected such joyful enthusiasm into the Van Ross Australian/Cubano project. I highly recommend the album – it will make you smile and cause your feet to move unbidden. The weave of the clave will work its magic on body and soul. making summer that little bit brighter. It is important to support such endeavours right now; each time we embrace this extraordinary music we give a one finger salute to the bigotry that keeps such projects away from our ears.
Trio: Paul Van Ross (saxophones, compositions), Mark Lockett (drums), Cameron McArthur (bass). CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, Auckland, 13 Dember 2017
Mi Alma Cubana: Paul Van Ross (saxophones, flute), Alejandro Falcon (piano), Jorje Aragon (piano 3-5), Gaston Joya Perellada (bass), Oliver Valdes (drums), Jose Luis Quintana (timbales), Yoraldy Abreu Robles (conga, shekere, shaker, guiro)
The album was crowd-funded and released by the artists. Purchase from iTunes or from the Paul Van Ross website.
With emerging artists gigs you modify your expectations, but in this case, it was completely unnecessary. Both sets showcased great musicianship and originality. The first set was Manjit Singh and Takadimi; an Indian music/Jazz fusion project. Manjit Singh is not an emerging artist in the strictest sense, he is a highly experienced tabla player, composer and teacher in the two main traditional schools of Indian music (Northern and Carnatic). He has recently been doing a Jazz studies course at the UoA and this project arises from that. The traditional music he teaches is not that dissimilar to Jazz, as it has improvisation aspects and complex interwoven rhythms at its core. Singh also gave us an insight into another tradition, the ecstatic Sufi-influenced music of northwest India, Pakistan and central Asia – Again, a tradition that has fed the rich streams of Indian music and more recently, Jazz.
His first number was a Dhafer Youssef composition ‘Odd Elegy’, to my ears the ultimate expression of Jazz, middle eastern fusion. When Singh opened with a Konnakol to establish the metre, the tune took on a more Indian feel and it worked well. This verbal method of laying down rhythmic patterns at the start of a piece has often been adopted by Jazz musicians; notably John McLoughlin and Tigran Hamasyan. The inclusion of a drum kit added to the complexity of the rhythmic structure, but the two percussionists navigated these potentially perilous waters with aplomb (Singh setting the patterns and Ron Samsom working colour and counter rhythms around that).
The rest of Takadimi were younger musicians, but they handled the charts and the improvisational opportunities well. With bass player Denholm Orr anchoring them, the two chordal instruments and saxophone (Markus Fritsch) handled the melodic lines; mostly playing in unison, and in keeping with the music style – relying more on melodic interaction than on harmonic complexity. Michael Howell used his pedals judiciously, winding the reverb and sustain right back, his guitar sounding closer to an Oud. The pianist Nick Dow was a pleasant surprise to me. He had an intuitive feel for this complex music. After ‘Odd Elegy’ we heard an original composition of Singh’s, then a wonderful Trilok Gurtu composition. This project is worthy of continuance – I hope that the talented Manjit Singh builds on what he has begun here.
The second set was guitarist Michael Gianan’s first CJC gigs as a leader. Again you’d hardly have known it. He looked comfortable on the bandstand and this confidence manifested in his playing. He had the finest of Auckland musicians backing him and while this can enhance a performance it can also expose a less experienced player. He fitted into the unit perfectly and the band obviously enjoyed playing his material. His set was nicely paced and offered contrast, but he favoured the stronger numbers – those with bite.
Gianan is clearly a modernist in his approach, but the history is there also. His compositions providing plenty of ideas for the more experienced musicians to work with. You could see Olivier Hollands enthusiasm as he expanded on the themes and responded to phrases. I am a long time fan of Jazz guitar and I anticipate good things ahead for Gianan. His bandmates: Kevin Field (piano & Rhodes), Olivier Holland (upright bass) and Ron Samsom (drums).
Takadimi: Manjit Singh (Tabla, Konnakol), Michael Howell (guitar), Nick Dow (piano), Marcus Fritsch (saxophone), Denholm Orr (bass), Ron Samsom (drums)
Michael Gianan Quartet: Micael Gianan (guitar), Kevin Field (piano, Rhodes), Olivier Holland (bass), Ron Samsom (drums).
During the apartheid era in South Africa, a heady brew of danceable Jazz bubbled up from the townships. The all white National Party hated it and a game of ‘whack-a-mole’ followed. As soon as one venue was shut down by the police, another would spring up. The music was resilient and hopeful. No racist or repressive regime likes Jazz because it has rebellion, hope and joyous defiance in its DNA. The Zimbabwean born Thabani Gapara imbibed South African Jazz from his earliest days, eventually taking up the saxophone, that most anti establishment of instruments. Since then, he has performed in Zimbabwean, South African and New Zealand projects.
The powerful influence of Cape Town Jazz is especially evident – the cradle of South African improvised music. Since coming to live in New Zealand he has collaborated with many well-known musicians; The Hipstamatics, Batucada Sound Machine, Stan Walker and others. He has recently completed a B. Mus. in Jazz at the New Zealand School of Music and after graduating, he formed this group. Unbelievably, this was their first gig.
There were a few ballads during the night but the music was mainly of a danceable, high-octane, delightfully groove based type. The key to the vibe was leader Thabani Gapara. What a great stage presence he has; the ready smile that he flashes when someone mines a groove. It is also his tone on all three horns, the marvellous compositions and tight arrangements. His compositions all reference his life’s journey and they strike a nice balance between groove hooks and flights into melodic ecstasy. I am always drawn to musicians who dance while they play. This is not an easy thing to pull off; it can affect concentration and in a reeds or winds player, it can affect the embouchure. Gapara skillfully utilises body movements to enhance the groove and he does so without a hint of contrivance. He wowed them and the audience gave back, and during that interaction, the spirit of live improvised music glowed like a fire.
There is no doubt that the band was well rehearsed. No group can generate that sort of energy or negotiate changes or tricky rhythms without being comfortable with each other. I have heard guitarist Nathan James once before; on this gig he was wonderful. The interplay between he and Gapara was conversational, the sort of conversation that friends might have on good night out. When his solo’s intensified they never strayed far from the groove. The other chordal instruments were played by Peter Leupolu, nice effects and in the pocket; subtly pushing the others; urging them on. Lastly, we come to electric bass player Issac Etimeni and drummer Elijah White. The audience was wildly enthusiastic about both. The punchy post-Jaco electric bass; the groove-based drumming bravura.
They played a number of Gapara’s compositions; ‘The Journey’ (which I have posted), ‘Places and Faces’, ‘Tears’, ‘Family’, and ‘On The Beach’. All of these strongly referenced Southern African Jazz. To my delight, they also played Roy Hargrove’s fabulous ‘Strasbourg St Denis’ – a great tune and executed with such verve and Joy. The remaining numbers were, ‘Spanish Joint’ (D’Angelo), ‘Time Will Tell’ (Bobby Watson), ‘I Can’t Help It’ (Stevie Wonder), and ‘I Want You Back’ (Jackson Five). I still have a 45rpm of that at home (the Jacksons first’ break-through Motown recording).
After the gig, I talked to Gapara about his music. I told him that I had experienced this style in Paris where it thrives in clubs like the New Dawn: played by the likes of Etienne Mbappe, Hugh Masekela etc. He agreed, saying that Paris is the new centre for experiencing these Jazz blended, bass heavy, African influenced styles. Now, as migration increases, the styles are evolving again; evolving as they move around the planet. Influences are never static; they bounce back and forth endlessly.
If you see this group playing anywhere, grab a ticket and experience the fun. They truly deserve to do well and I hope they stay together for the long haul. Another great night, in an already wonderful CJC, Thirsty Dog season. Get down there on a Wednesday folks.
Thabani Gapara Project: Thabani Gapara (alto, tenor, soprano saxophones), Issac Etimeni (electric bass), Peter Leupolu (keyboard & piano), Nathan James (guitar), Elijah White (drums) – CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, K’Rd Auckland, 13 September 2017.
This was trippy stuff. A band that gnawed at the bones of form while the music swept us along; taking us ever deeper, forcing us to loosen our grip, as the waterfalls of sound consumed us. This was most definitely filmic music; throwing up subliminal specters like a Burroughs cut-up montage: an indie soundtrack, Voodoo but with four Papa Docs urging us toward trance.Attempts to confine improvised music within historic boundaries is plain foolishness. Never has this been more obvious to me than at last week’s ‘Monsters of The Deep’ gig. Superficially it sounded like, looked like classic fusion; but it was and it wasn’t. The keyboard instruments were classic analog, the lighting otherworldly; various delays, distortions or effects echoed across the room. While the overall vibe nodded in the direction of Jazz/Rock, the musical language was that of deep improvisation. The accessibility hiding worlds of complexity and there’s the wonder of it. Few local musicians could pull this off as well as Crayford and Haines did.The collaboration between Crayford and Haines is certainly not their first; that took place in New York a long time ago. Since then they have both gained international reputations, recording in the UK or in New York. Both have separately won the Best New Zealand Jazz album of the year during the last decade, both attract sizable audiences. These artists are generally offshore but we caught a break this year – they are domiciled in Auckland at the moment. While the project draws on various inspirational sources like Alice Coltrane and Igor Stravinsky it is also brimming with originality. This is ‘spiritual music’ of the highest order and it uses the devices of the Shaman: long intensifying vamps and hypnotic beats which slip deftly into the consciousness. Throughout the night, it was Haines who took the melodic path while Crayford provided magnificent architectural structures. If even one element was removed, the edifice could fail; this was a music built from layers, each balancing delicately on the one beneath; only exposed incrementally, like a nested Russian doll. Marika Hodgson was the perfect choice for running those long ostinato bass lines. Her time feel is impeccable and she creates a gut punch while blending seamlessly into the mix. Not many know it, but Crayford is also a gifted bass player – he knows exactly what is needed and he trusts Hodgson to deliver. The one musician that I had not seen before was Mickey Ututaonga. He has a long history with Haines and again he was a good choice. Because the music was so carefully balanced, the last thing it needed was a busy splashy drummer. Ututaonga synced with the others, his every beat enhancing the overall hypnotic effect. The other stars of the show were the instruments and pedals. For Crayford a Fender Rhodes and an equally vintage Clavinet; for Haines, his beautiful horns fed through a vintage SM7 Shure Microphone, then into a preamp and guitar FX board.
I have put up a clip titled ‘Stravinsky Thing‘ (Crayford). The piece is inspired by Igor Stravinsky; first an intro, then building slowly over a vamp, ratcheting up the tension on keyboards as an ostinato theme builds – the insistent bass line, the hypnotic drums, these freeing up the horns – soprano and tenor saxophones exploring; weaving in threads of vibrant colour. If only Stravinsky had been there – he was never afraid of modernity. These musicians are real monsters and their music is deep. I hope that they hang around in Auckland long enough to do it again.
Monsters of the Deep: Jonathan Crayford/Nathan Haines. Crayford (Clavinet, Rhodes, effects, compositions), Haines (tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, flute, effects, compositions), Marika Hodgson (electric bass), Mickey Ututaonga (drums). CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, K’Road, Auckland, June 21, 2017.
Two years have passed since Mukhlisa was last in Auckland and locals jumped at the chance to see them again. They are not your usual improvising group, fusing an exotic blend of middle eastern music, folk, and Jazz in a way that sounds totally authentic. While far from being mere novelty entertainment, the music is still fun, and because of its integrity and musicianship, other musicians flock to hear them play. It is rare to see such complex music communicated so convincingly and that is the key to their longevity and success.
With rhythmically complex music like this, it is easy to misstep. With Mukhlisa there is no evidence of that; years of playing together has allowed them to play as if one entity. While faithful to the old melodies and rhythms, a newer genre resides here. This is hopeful music for the new millennium; in these times of willful ignorance and political tomfoolery, the best way to understand our fellow humans is through the universality of art. When political systems fail us, the arts always come to our rescue.
Tim Sellars is the group’s leader and he has kept Mukhlisa together for many years. That the music at this gig sounded so fresh, is a tribute to him. Sellars is a master of middle eastern percussion instruments, and on Wednesday he had four hand drums with him; a frame drum, Darabuka, Riq, and Cajon. The Riq while the smallest of his percussion instruments, is the most fascinating. In the right hands, it is astonishingly versatile and Sellars takes full advantage of its possibilities. The soundscape created, often polyrhythmic, is impressive enough, but when Sellars plays his hands dance as if choreographed.
On amplified acoustic guitar was Glen Wagstaff, a leader in his own right, his softer acoustic sound enhancing the ensemble. His unison lines and counterpoint, adding just the right touch – balancing out the brighter sound of the flute, augmenting the bass and percussion. Few local bass players could pull this music off as well as Michael Story, his lines requiring the utmost precision. Lastly, there was Tamara Smith on flute. What a joy to see her back in town. A wonderful musician who breathes fire and magic into her instrument and who delivers tight ensemble playing and marvelous solos. I wish we saw her more often.
The set list drew on three Sellars originals (all terrific tunes – especially his ‘Strategic Point’), a number of middle eastern tunes, a Bulgarian and a Korean tune. Mukhlisa has an album out titled ‘The Puzzle’.
Last Wednesday saw the Venezuelan-born vocalist Jennifer Zea performing at the CJC. Her appearance was long overdue, the audience enthusiastic in anticipation of spicy South American Rhythms and the warm tones of the Spanish language in song form. When you look at where Venezuela sits on the map, you learn a lot about its music. Located in the northeast of South America, bordered by the Caribbean and by Brazil, positioned on a unique musical axis. Music blithely ignores the artificial barriers imposed by cartographers and politicians. Even Trump’s insulting wall could never be built high enough to stem musical cross-pollination. Music goes where people go, and remains as an echo long after they have moved on. Jennifer Zea is an embodiment of her country’s music; folk traditions, newer forms (Jaropo), Jazz, Soul, Bossa influences from Brazil and a pinch of Mambo, Salsa or Merengue.The Caribbean region is the prime example of musical cross-pollination; rhythms and melodies, vocal forms and hybrid harmonization, a constant evolution into new and vibrant forms while updating and preserving the discrete pockets of older folk music styles. A weighty tome titled ‘Music and the Latin American Culture – Regional Traditions’ makes two observations; the music of the Venezuelan region is mostly hot or vibrant (see the definition of Salsa) and there is a strong underlying tradition of shamanism (manifest in musical form). The hypnotic rhythms and chants remain largely intact according to Schecter. With percussionist, Miguel Fuentes backing her, Zea conveyed the compellingly hypnotic soulful quality of her traditional music to good effect. Fuentes was born in the USA but grew up in Puerto Rico. These days like Zea, he lives in Auckland. Music like this demands high-quality authentic latin percussion and that’s exactly what happened. Traps drums were not needed here. Regular Zea accompanist, Jazz Pianist Kevin Field was also in the lineup. Field plays in many contexts and his accompanist credentials are second to none. He has regularly worked with Zea and (like Fuentes) most notably on her lovely 2012 release ‘The Latin Soul’. If you have a love of Cubano or Caribean style music, grab a copy of this album. Even on straight-ahead gigs, I have heard Field sneak in tasty clave rhythms. If you want to hear cross-rhythms at their best – skillfully woven by Field and Fuentes, it is on this album. An added incentive are the compositions, mostly by Field and Zea (and Jonathan Crayford). On upright bass for this gig was Mostyn Cole, an experienced bassist now residing in the Auckland region.The gig featured some Zea compositions, three standards and to my delight some authentic Bossa. The Bossa tunes were mostly by the Brazilian genius Tom Jobim and sung in Portuguese (which is not her native language). Although Portuguese is the most commonly spoken language in Latin America, it is only the main spoken language of one country, Brazil. To learn Bossa she spent time with a teacher in order to understand the nuances and deep meanings. While respecting the Bossa song form she had the confidence to bring the music closer to her own Venezuelan musical traditions. Even her intonation was redolent of her region, unmistakably Hispanic South American.
While hearing strong elements of Cuban or Brazilian music, North American standards (or a spicy salsa of the above) you also felt that each influence was deftly filtered through a Venezuelan cloth. Her rendering of ‘Fever’ (Cooley/Davenport) and ‘Georgia on my Mind’ (Carmichael) exemplified this. There was even a little Kiwi influence in there. I would like to think so because we all need happy music like this in our lives.
Jennifer Zea; (Vocals), Kevin Field (piano), Miguel Fuentes (percussion), Mostyn Cole (bass). CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Albion Hotel Basement, Wednesday 3rd August 2016.
A seasoned New York veteran when asked to comment on the quality of playing by young artists emerging from the Jazz Schools said, “Man they’re such great players. Many of them have chops to burn, but what is lacking is ‘character’. That is not taught in Jazz schools, you gain it inch by inch out of life experience”. To paraphrase Lester Young who put it best, ‘I hear the notes, but what is your story’. The character of a musician (or the lack of it), shows up in the music. Jim Langabeer has ‘character’ to burn. He tells wonderfully human musical stories and they are utterly beguiling.Langabeer is hugely respected on the scene and deservedly so. He has worked with greats like Gary Peacock and Jaco Pastorius and in spite of absorbing the essence of North American Jazz, his ideas and sound possess a Kiwi authenticity. When he plays his tenor there is often a street-raw raspy intonation. The sound is at times reminiscent of Archie Shepp, but the story and flow of ideas are entirely his own. His flute playing is soulful and as soft as silk in the breeze. Because he is so comfortable in his own space he can incorporate everything from the avant-garde to indigenous music without it sounding contrived. These seamless references work beautifully in his hands. We talked of this after the gig and agreed that many of the earliest attempts at blending middle eastern, far eastern or ethnic music were less successful than now. As the boundaries between cultures blur in a globalised world, the mutual respect between improvising traditions grows. I have posted an example of this effortless genre-blending in a clip from the CJC gig titled ‘Ananda’s Midnight Blues’. Those who are familiar with Buddhism will grasp the meaning immediately. Ananda was Gautama Buddha’s childhood friend and later his disciple. Beloved, worldly and yet never afraid to challenge his enlightened teacher. There is a feeling of deep questing spirituality in the piece – reaching beyond mere form.Whether Langabeer plays flutes or reeds, everything serves the composition. His spare lines (which are devoid of undue ornamentation) establish a theme and then vanish like a will-o-the-wisp, giving a nudge to the imagination and enriching the piece as a whole. There are no wild flurries of notes on the saxophone or flute because the story resides elsewhere. His writing creates an over-arching logic and the ensemble has the freedom to move in and around tonality. In some pieces ostinato patterns create a drone effect, becoming a single note over which to restate the melody. This freedom allows for an organic interaction, free or inside and with a deep gut-felt pulse.When putting a band like this together the choice of musicians is supremely important. Not every musician could handle such freedom. Needless to say, Langabeer chose well. The ensemble was rich in contrasting colour, rich in character. It was our good fortune that Jim Langabeer’s daughter Rosie Langabeer was back in town. I can’t imagine a better-qualified pianist for this role. A leading avant-gardist and experimental musician who crafts compelling filigree and rich beauty into her music. Rosie Langabeer can play outside one minute and the next you hear a deep subtle swing, a rare kind of pulse that you can feel in your bones. A gifted composer and leader in her own right, an extraordinary sides-women when required. Moving from percussive, richly dissonant voicings to heart-stopping arpeggiated runs – somewhat reminiscent of Alice Coltrane’s later piano offerings. Her iconoclastic playing delighted the audience.On alto was Roger Manins. Although the alto is not his main horn he is extraordinarily fluent on the instrument. Langabeer has been focussing on multiphonics and microtonality of late and he and Manins showcased some atmospheric numbers utilising various blowing techniques. Manins has long impressed by playing in a variety of styles with equal facility. On guitar and pedal steel guitar was Neil Watson, bringing his mix of blues, Jazz punk, and avant-garde to the fore. Another iconoclast and one we love hearing. The pedal steel guitar has been in his possession for a year now and his rapid mastery of the instrument is impressive. A difficult beast tamed beautifully. On Bass was Eamon Edmundson-Wells. A versatile young bass player most often found in the company of experimental musicians. His performance on this gig was right on the money.On drums and percussion was Chris O’Connor. Perhaps more than anyone else O’Connor personifies this free-ranging music. Of all the New Zealand drummers, his are the widest-ranging skills. Colourist, minimalist, indie rocker, straight-ahead jazz, avant-garde, experimental percussion and film work. There is nothing he won’t tackle and everything he touches benefits from his musicianship. When a piece titled ‘Tapu’ was played O’Connor stole the show. While Langabeer played the difficult and wonderfully atmospheric Putorino (a traditional Maori flute of the Taonga Puoro family), O’Connor simulated the Tawhirimatea (A traditional whirring instrument dedicated to the god of winds). The effect was eerie and electrical. Later in the piece he blew through the stem of his snare stand – recreating the effects of the Pututara (a conch trumpet). Only O,Conner could have pulled this off so well. Like Langabeer, he has a deep awareness of multicultural issues.The one standard was Strobe Road (Sonny Rollins). A lesser known standard and played with enthusiasm. The remainder was a selection of Langabeer tunes, many referencing Maori of Kiwi themes. His tune Rata Flower was a stunner – it deserves to become a local standard. He has obtained funding from Creative New Zealand for this project and we might see a ‘Sketches of Aotearoa’ album soon. I truly hope this occurs and I will be the first to purchase one.
Sketches of Aotearoa: Jim Langabeer (flutes, Taonga Puoro, tenor saxophone, compositions), Rosie Langabeer (piano, keys), Roger Manins (alto saxophone), Neil Watson (Fender guitar, steel guitar), Eamon Edmundson-Wells (bass), Chris O’Connor (drums, percussion). Performed at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Albion Hotel, Auckland, New Zealand – 20th April 2016.
When I recently interviewed visiting Flamenco dancer Isabel Rivera Cuenca she told me that she had met some wonderful New Zealand improvising musicians and, in particular, she mentioned Jonathan Crayford. They met at a party and briefly discussed doing a project together. As they had not been able to make contact since I supplied email addresses and the project quickly took shape. A talented sensuous Flamenco dancer from Barcelona and a gifted Kiwi improviser; irresistible.Jonathan Crayford has long been one of my favourite musicians and any project of his I will follow with enthusiasm. The thought of him doing a Jazz/Flamenco project filled me with joy. It takes a particular type of musician to reach across genres, and to do so with authenticity is a challenge. If anyone could pull this together at short notice it was Crayford; with his open ears and extraordinary musicality, he ticked all of the boxes. In recent years, he has performed in Spain, but only on Jazz projects. When I spoke to him two weeks before the gig he told me how pleased he was to work on this project, but that he knew little of Spanish music; I had no doubts that he would locate a pure essence and work with it and Isabel Cuenca was the perfect foil. As soon as they appeared on the bandstand the chemistry was obvious. There is a real synergy between Jazz and Flamenco; they are musical cousins. Both musical forms fuse North African Rhythms with unique harmonic approaches, both created out of harsh repression. Underlining the driving rhythms of Flamenco is pure passion, contrasting a sad but beautiful dissonance. The musicians and dancers frequently call to each other in encouragement and this is not so different from the call and response in jazz. That they are similar in essence is hardly surprising – when the chants, dance and polyrhythms of Congo Square met with Creole melody, fed by a multitude of European influences (including Spanish music), Jazz was born.
Early in the first set, Crayford played a variant of his composition ‘Galois Candle’. This appears on his ‘Dark Light’ album nominated for a Jazz Tui award last year. This memorable tune although rhythmic is not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of danceability. The synergy between dancer and pianist soon located a sweet-spot in the heart of the tune. I recall Cuenca telling me that everything else in Flamenco was subordinate to honest deeply felt emotion. That is where the Duende resides. A little later we heard an innovative and compelling version of ‘Will o’ the Wisp’ (from El Amor Brujo) by Manuel De Falla. Not the brooding version that Gil Evans used on Sketches in Spain but a paired down version. Stripped to the barest essentials of melody and rhythm. Crayford dampened the strings with one hand and created a simple clipped strumming effect, while Cuenca sang gently over this, softly clapping all the while. It could not have been more effective. After that came a tune by Fredrica Garcia Lorca, the poet who died at the hands of Franco’s Nationalists. This tune ‘Los Cuatro Muleres’ sounds pretty, even jaunty, but it hides a deep sadness as with all Lorca poems and tunes. Again done movingly, and both Crayford and Cuenca sang verses.During the second set we heard tunes which moved closer to the Flamenco idiom. In these free-ranging highly improvised tunes Crayford has few peers. Towards the end of the evening, the two were in absolute lock-step; Cuenca reacting to every nuance of the music and bringing her fluid kinetic brilliance to bear, dancing her way into the hearts of everyone there. The communication was simply electric.
I have posted a video clip from the first set (Galois Candle [Crayford]) and an audio clip from near the end of the second set. I hope that Crayford records some of these tunes as they were magical. Cuenca has many fans in new Zealand and she says that she will return here soon. I hope so because more of this project would please us.
This week my copy of John McLoughlin’s ‘Black Light’ arrived (ARI X 050). A vibrant stream of groove fused with ancient oriental sources. All transformed utterly. Talas sounding like rap, deep groove and the reflective fusing with virtuosic Jazz bravura. In McLoughlin’s hands stylistic purity is a will of the wisp. Every note is fresh; past, present and future rolled into one. I feel the same way about ‘Dream Logic’ by Eivind Aaset and ‘Cartography’ by Arve Henriksen (both on ECM). Superficially the Mcloughlin album is a lot busier than the Aaset or the Henriksen but there are strong threads of commonality. Both draw on deep wells of music, shaping sounds derived from primal and untapped sources in equal parts.
All musical styles originate from another place. If music stands still it risks becoming a museum piece and whether it’s Mozart, Lennon, Bartok, Ayler or Miles Davis the influences are there. Forward looking musicians comprehend this instinctively and explore the vastness of sonic possibilities; knowing that musical innovation comes from open-minded exploration. Innovation never emerges from stasis. When people confine an improvised music like Jazz to a particular style or era they miss the point. Jazz like Latin music or Flamenco is a spicy fusion of rich influences. As older familiar tributaries recede to a trickle, new ones flow; filling the space. It is an immutable law of nature and of improvised music.
In the improvisers hands, nothing should survive unscathed because improvisers are shape shifters. They pirate, parody, transmute, transcend and remake. From older forms come newer forms; sometimes as illusive as silence. This artistic alchemy does not imply a lack of reverence for the past, it is the reverse. Finding new ways of interpreting the world is the highest calling of any artist and no matter what the change the DNA is never lost.
Four years ago happenstance led me to the Nordic improvising minimalists and the fascinating influences that inspired them. There are threads connecting these artists and these run in interesting and often unexpected ways. The ‘Eastern influence’ is an obvious source but there are so many more. Following the 1950’s recordings of Miles and Coltrane either playing over a drone or utilising other scales (like the Phrygian mode), new grooves entered the mainstream Jazz lexicon.
The musicians influenced by Kind of Blue are legion, but the connections are not always obvious. The Byrds, Beatles, Animals, Stones and the Who all made use of modal scales post Kind of Blue. I was surprised to read that U2 claimed that album as a prime influence. Terry Riley is an important figure in the minimalist school and he makes no bones about the effect of Coltrane and Kind of Blue on his thinking. Riley’s ‘In C’ was composed before the term minimalism and his stunning ‘A Rainbow in Curved Air’ took improvised minimalism to a new place. In the late 60’s the serialist trumpeter Jon Hassell met Riley and soon after they studied under the Indian master singer Pundit Pran Nath. Their increased awareness of what is now referred to as World Music became an added factor in their musical development. Along with Riley, Hassell experimented with electronics.
Later both Riley and Hassell worked with Brian Eno and David Sylvian (ECM’s Manfred Eicher was paying attention). Eno credits Hassell with shifting his perspective considerably. Both coming out of experimental traditions and both unafraid of fusing lesser known ‘world’ musics with electronic music. Out of these discussions arose the concept of ‘Fourth World Music’ and ‘Coffee Coloured Music’ (World Music was not a common term at that time). Eno is a major figure in experimental Rock and World Music having collaborated extensively with David Bowie, Roxy Music and others.
The Nordic Improvisers are the most interesting development for Jazz audiences. Perhaps due to the influence of Jon Hassell, an incredibly strong Ambient trumpet tradition has developed in countries like Norway. Arve Henriksen, Nils Petter Molvaer and Matthias Eik. Eik is less associated with the Ambient improvisers, but his soft rich and at times flute-like sound places him in their ambit. The leading Experimental/Jazz/Electronica ambient improvisers are Eivind Aaset (guitars, programming), Jan Bang (live sampling, Beats, programming, bass), Erik Honore (synthesiser, Live field recording, samples), Arve Henriksen (Trumpets, field recording, voice) Lars Danielson (bass), Sidsel Endresen, (voice), Nils Petter Molvaer (trumpet) and Bugge Wesseltoft (piano, keyboards, electronics). Into this mix add a number of leading European, American and especially British Jazz and avant-garde experimenters like David Sylvian (voice, Programming,samples).
New Zealand Jazz has a foot in this camp with the fine work by Alan Brown on ‘Silent Observer’. Also Browns work with Kingsley Melhuish (‘Alargo’). To that I would add the experimental work of the Korean based kiwi improvising musician John Bell. The local offerings are as good as anything on offer elsewhere. We should trust ourselves to listen rather than struggle with genres. Too much time is spent worrying about definitions. This is ambient but it is not elevator music. It is a music of profound subtlety and if you relax into it, the grooves and pulses will take you deep inside. This is profound music that understands space and utilises silence. In Eno’s words, “an emphasis on atmosphere and tone replaces that of rhythm and melody”. This is a music that rewards careful listening and it goes where it wants without being time bound. Above all it engages the senses in new ways – it is utterly filmic in quality. I highly recommend Eivind Aaset’s Dream Logic on ECM as a starting point. I will keep you posted on New Zealand developments.
The Clips: Terry Riley, ‘A Rainbow in Curved Air 1969’ – Arve Henriksen, ‘Recording Angel’ from ‘Dream Logic’ (ECM) – Jan Bang, ‘Passport Control’ from ‘And Poppies from Kandahar’ (Samadhi Music) – ‘Alargo’ live are Alan Brown/Kingsley Melhuish – Gaya Day is by John Bell.
Sources: (Eno interview) The debt I owe to Jon Hassell – The Guardian. The Blue Moment – Richard Williams (Faber & Faber).
Any astronomer worth their salt will tell you that it is paradoxical for a sun to embark on a circular orbit. The last time this happened was during the Spanish Inquisition. On Wednesday the paradox increased when the Circling Sun departed their orbit to play at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club). This gig had been a long time coming and we welcomed it. Hearing them away from the babble of the hard-drinking Ponsonby Road crowd was a treat for us. The Circling Sun always give of their best, but this time we could hear the quirks and subtleties unfiltered. This is a band with a vast soundscape and the Jazz club echoed to the sounds of doogan, Tuba, analogue keyboards, digital keyboards, piano, trumpet, flugel horn, flute, tenor saxophone, upright bass, drums and electronics. This is the type of music that sits well with me.
In spite of the name, the Circling Sun is not solipsistic. Not locked into an inwards gazing spiral. A dictionary definition tells us that Solipsism is a spiralling madness that no-one else can enter. Theirs is an inclusive madness of serendipitous happenstance. A band where personnel changes are as seamless as flowing water and where the only truly unchanging thing is the name. A band that can appropriate sounds and recreate them into new musical forms and all achieved without fear or favour. Another-world to experience.
The group cited influences as far-flung as Alice Coltrane, Yusef Lateef, Randy Western and Tom Waits. Although the link is possibly fanciful on my part, perhaps the influence Cosmic Jazz/Funk is present, an obscure genre close to my heart. They are chaotic, loose and free at times; then out of nowhere come tasty arranged melodic heads. Deftly extracted from the frequent mesmerising groove laden vamps.
Cameron Allen should be heard more often in settings like this. He is a gifted saxophonist and winds player with great musical ideas, often imparting a raw energy. He is also drawn to home-assembled electronic wizardry as many in this band are. Finn Scholes on horns is another who doubles atypically (including tuba, keys and piano). He has recently been overseas and since returning I have seen him perform on a number of occasions. His articulation is always interesting and he has a rich sound. Tinged with the vibrato of the mariachi trumpet. A sound which he owns and one that fits the bands vibe perfectly.
Neil Watson like Cameron Allen is a mainstay of this band. His classic fender, augmented lately by pedal steel guitar. The latter adding colour and texture and above all adding that warm embracing feel of country. Anyone who has followed Frisell’s journeys, fusing Jazz with country americana will get this. Rui Inaba on bass is often encountered with Watson and frequently in this lineup. Here he sits solidly at the heart of the storm, maintaining the rhythmic groove unfazed. The most powerful presence is drummer Julien Dyne. A versatile gifted artist who has travelled and recorded widely. His beats while often referencing his multi genre background, urge the band to greater heights. It is a privilege to see drummers of this calibre and I hope that he continues with open-ended Jazz projects like this. I have heard him on numerous occasions and I like what I hear. As a unit, this combination takes no prisoners and the audience were glad of it. The first guest to join them was J Y Lee who quickly settled in on baritone saxophone. He often plays with the Circling Sun and is a popular addition.During the second set a great gig got even better. Jonathan Crayford arrived and without too much persuading, sat in on piano. This was met with obvious delight by the audience, as Crayford is extremely popular. He knew none of the tunes as they were mostly originals and there was virtually no sheet music to guide him. It didn’t matter. Someone would announce the key and then a few chords in he would locate the heart of the tune. A musician of his experience and gifts is no stranger to situations like this. The audience, clearly wild about the gig, were by now whooping with enthusiasm between numbers. When Crayford sat in they felt like they’d won the lottery. He doesn’t get home often, but improvised music fans are eager to soak up what ever they can get of him.
Who: Circling Sun – Cameron Allen (tenor sax, flute, keys, doogan), Finn Scholes (Trumpet, Flugel, tuba, Piano, Keys), Neil Watson (Fender guitar, pedal steel guitar), Rui Inaba (upright bass), Julien Dyne (drums, electronics) – guests: Jonathan Crayford (piano, keys), J Y Lee (alto sax, baritone sax).
The more I listen to Alan Brown bands, the more I realise just how original his music is. The gig promised to be a reprise of ‘Between the Spaces’ and that was a drawcard which pulled in a good audience. We soon realised however that we were getting a lot more. As well as the familiar there were new compositions and a few that had not made the cut for the album. Brown is an extraordinarily gifted musician and in settings like this he always sounds fresh. The familiar numbers sounded as exciting as when we first heard them and the unfamiliar held the attention with siren like allure. This is music to gladden the heart.
There is a definite Alan Brown sound and it is quite unique. Yes there are small nods to familiar groove bands, to prog bands and perhaps even EST, but the sound is unmistakably his. Browns intros often favour the ostinato, with bass and drums working tirelessly across his insistent rhythmic patterns. These woven threads of sound create a layering effect. You are seldom aware of the underlying complexity, the odd time signatures and the oblique shifting grooves. Like many a well composed, well executed jazz tune, an implied centre holds the attention and this is where the ear goes. This is complex music made accessible. As the tunes unfold you fall into them, feeling that you are on a journey of logical progression; the enveloping arms of groove guiding you inexorably towards some beating voodoo heart.
The musicians Brown uses are always chosen with care. With arranged music and exacting charts, the having the right line up is important. It was great to see Andy Smith back at the CJC. Like Jono Sawyer he was on the 2011 ‘Between The Spaces’ album. Smith has something of the rock god about him and as his solo’s soar he often leans back, as if giving the notes more room to fly free. He is technically proficient and an interesting soloist; often putting me in mind of Mike Moreno as the sound is similar. His approach is modern but the history of jazz guitar still speaks behind his solo lines. Jono Sawyer is a member of various Alan Brown units and he is very much at home in this configuration. His time feel in these groove based settings is immaculate. The relative newcomer is electric bass player David Hodkinson. He is no stranger to Brown’s bands but he was not on the album. it would be daunting to step into Marika Hodgson’s shoes but Hodkinson held the groove and punched out a mesmerising pulse.
Alan Brown makes no apologies for referencing the fusion prog Rock/Jazz era. On Wednesday he mentioned the innovative and almost forgotten ‘Focus’ (an admired instrumental group of the 70’s who often featured Jazz guitarist Philip Catherine). Among a selection of great tunes, my hands down favourite was a prog tribute to ‘King Crimson’ named ‘Crim Kingson’.
The photographs are by Ben McNicoll of the CJC management and the audio clip is ‘Do not track’ from the ‘Between the spaces album’.
Who: The Alan Brown Quartet – Alan Brown (piano), Andy Smith (guitar), David Hodkinson (bass), Jono Sawyer (drums).
I have long been drawn to middle eastern music, having commented on it in earlier blog posts. There are many reasons to like this rich musical stream, but what draws me are the interactions that occur when eastern and western improvised traditions meet in mutual respect. This is often labeled as World/Jazz, but implying that it is new hybrid is somewhat problematic. Both improvised traditions have deep roots and a successful meeting acknowledges this. The blend of Jazz and middle eastern music is mainstream in the Mediterranean regions but not as well-known elsewhere. Adventurous artists like Dhafer Youssef, Rabih Abou-Khalil and Anouar Brahem have gained prominence in the west through collaborations with the likes of Kenny Wheeler, Charlie Mariano, Steve Swallow, Tigran Hamasyan, Marcin Wasilewski and others. Jazz lovers in New Zealand and Australia have already experienced the ancient Sephardic music of Spain through Caroline Manins ‘Mother Tongue’ projects. Also through Kiwi Jazz harpist Natalia Mann’s Turkish projects. Much of this music derives from the Sufi tradition but Sicilian and Flamenco Jazz fusions should not be overlooked either; both having rich Islamic and Jewish sources feeding them. The Moors ruled Sicily for 400 years and southern Spain for 500 years. Under the various Caliphates there was great religious tolerance and a spirit of scientific curiosity. The arts and musical traditions merged and flourished in that benign space.
Tim Sellars is a drummer/percussionist who graduated from Canterbury University Jazz School with honours. His studies led him to examine the rhythms and tunes of middle eastern music and he put together ‘Mukhlisa’ to further these explorations. The Auckland line up features two artists who we are very familiar with, Glen Wagstaff on acoustic guitar and Tamara Smith on flutes. For leader Tim Sellars, and for bassist Michael Story this was a first visit to the CJC. Of the tunes chosen many were traditional but the largest number were by a modern writer of Middle Eastern music Joseph Tawadros. His compositions fuse the traditional with Jazz and allow ample room for improvisation. Watching Tim Sellars on percussion is eye-opening as he coaxes so many complex rhythms and sounds from his array of percussion instruments, that it beggars belief. At times he used the Cajon (of African/Peruvian origin) but mostly he played frame drums (middle eastern). I love to hear the frame drum as it is the oldest instrument known to man. The genre includes the Riq (tambourine) which Tim played to perfection. Being an amplified acoustic ensemble the sound worked well in the club space. The guitar perhaps needed turning up a touch, to give it more bite. Tamara was her usual impressive self and her control and mastery of the instrument was evident throughout. She alternated between bass flute and alto flute; the tonal richness of both horns blending perfectly with the upright bass. Bass player Michael Story understood the cues and worked with Tamara; resisting any impulse to overplay. Acoustic ensembles like this require discipline and subtlety; overly showy solos can dominate and obscure the filigree of woven sound. Mukhlisa got that right and the solo work although appealing, was rightly subordinate to the overall integrity of the music. Glen Wagstaff is popular in Auckland and his charts for large ensembles have impressed club goers. It was good to see him in a different context and many of us eagerly await his album, which is due out in a month or so.
There is ample scope for a larger ensemble to grow out of this; perhaps one including arco Cello and Oud.
I am happy to see this music finding a home in New Zealand as it is a metaphor for a wider truth. We are living through a troubled era when many western peoples are recoiling from Islamic images. If they are only aware of conflict images or brutality then perhaps they are looking in the wrong places. In this music resides harmony peace and humanity.
the composition is Phoenix by Joseph Tawadros.
Who: ‘Mukhlisa’ – Tim Sellars, Glen Wagstaff, Tamara Smith, Michael Story
If you patrol the margins of the music world you will find inestimable treasures. Beyond the notice of mainstream media and mainstream audiences there is a joyous revolution underway. Not an austere revolution but one peopled by astonishing musicians, colourful characters and sonic explorers. Like a good street protest, it is often bubbling with noise, insistent beats and a multiplicity of messages. Last Wednesdays gig epitomised that. The alternative music scene is often denigrated for its imagined ‘high brow’ complacency or its snobbish rigidity. In this regard the Jazz police and lazy uninformed commentators have done improvised music a grave disservice. Improvised music has been with us since the beginnings of art and the whole point of it is to shift the focus away from the mundane or the obvious. The appropriation and assimilation of traditional forms is only a staring point. Sandhya Sanjana and her gifted ensemble took the shamans path here; conjuring shapes and colours from the ether, re-harmonising, daring us to look at the familiar and the exotic from an entirely different vantage point. This night cut right to the heart of improvised music. Different worlds merged and they did so without compromising the integrity of the traditions they came from.
This was World/Jazz singer Sandhya Sanjana’s night but we have Auckland’s Ben Fernandez to thank for organising the gig. I had not heard Fernandez play before this, but had long been aware of his reputation as a gifted, successful and multifaceted pianist. Some months ago he invited me to his ‘Raag time’ fusion gig, but sadly I was unable to attend as I was heading out-of-town. Later he messaged me to say that he would teaming up with Ms Sanjana in November. Gigs like this are irresistible to me as I am enthusiastic about all of the great improvised music traditions. The merging of these traditions has risks, but done well it’s marvellous. The successful assimilation of middle eastern rhythms and the idioms into Jazz has long been achieved in Europe. Fusions of traditional Indian music and Jazz are now emerging across the globe and those with an open mind and the right ears are the happy beneficiaries.
The band members were; Sandhya Sanjana (vocals, leader), Ben Fernandez (piano), Jim Langabeer (flute, reeds), Manjit Singh (tabla & vocals), Jo Shum (bass), Jason Orme (traps drums). Anyone familiar with the Auckland Jazz scene and the Indian music scenes will know what a great lineup this is.
Sandhya Sanjana is from Bombay, but based in Holland these days (Ben Fernandez is a Kiwi but he also hails from Bombay). She has performed with the greats in the World/Jazz field like Alice Coltrane and Trilok Gurtu. She has an easy confidence about her that informs her performance and under her guidance a seamless fusion of styles occurs. With Fernandez you get another strong influence as he imparts a distinctly Latin feel. This classical and Jazz trained musician has chops to burn. Out of this melange of rich influences a vibrant new music emerges. It is compelling and exciting to hear. There is a constant visual and sonic interplay between singer, tabla, traps drums, piano, bass and reeds (winds). The shifting rhythms creating intricate cycles that pulse and swing.
Manjit Singh, originally from the Punjab is another Auckland resident and he is an acknowledged master of the Tabla and of Indian music. I am often reminded of what a rich and diverse drum landscape we have in Auckland. A world that I am still coming to grips with. This man is a major talent and it is our good fortune that he is making forays into the Jazz/fusion music scene. On traps was the veteran drummer Jason Orme and he was well-chosen. The gig required a drummer who could play quietly but strongly and one who had the subtlety to interact with Singh. On bass was Jo Shum who has not played at the CJC for some time. She is an aware bass player and acquitted herself well. Lastly was the reeds and winds player Jim Langabeer. Langabeer is well-respected on the New Zealand scene and is one of a select group of doubling reeds musicians who are equally strong on flute (and he swings like a well oiled gate). This gig had an embarrassment of riches and once again Roger Manins gets a big tick for his innovative programming.
In the You Tube clip that I have put up, the breadth of Sanjana’s influences are immediately evident. After a few bars of latin feel on piano we hear a Tala. I know very little about the technical aspects of traditional Indian music but the rhythmic patterns (or Tala) are generally established early on. This can also include a vocalised manifestation of the Tala rhythms. Manjit Singh the Tabla player counted in the Tala and Sanjana responded with Mudras, claps and vocals . The traps drummer and others responded to the patterns and so the piece built upon itself. If done well, cross fertilised music is like water; it will soon find its own level. This did.
Who: Sandhya Sanjana (vocals, compositions, leader), Ben Fernandez (piano, arrangements), Jim Langabeer (winds & reeds), Jo Shum (bass), Manjit Singh (Tabla & vocals), Jason Orme (traps drums).
Guitar Jazz is a surprisingly diverse sub-genre of improvised music. So many barriers are broken down that almost all current (and past) musical genres are embedded in the improvising guitarists lexicon (including Punk). At first listening it might be surmised that gifted guitarist Joel Haines sits somewhere closer to the rock spectrum than to Jazz but his roots are much broader than that. As his gigs unfold you can hear Americana, modern Jazz guitar, country and a plethora of other influences. There is also the unmistakable influence of film, as his themes invoke pictures. This is what improvised music is about; appropriation and transformation. Nothing ruled in or out, nothing too free, too exploratory, too dissonant or melodic.
When you’ve been around New Zealand Jazz awhile you learn that Haines is one of the musicians that other musicians respect deeply. Guitarists especially come to hear him and I spotted a few in the audience on this night. The two sets kicked off as Haines sets always do; with Haines hunching into his semi-hollowbody guitar and playing with deep absorption. There are never introductions or tune titles, just waves of compelling music. Because he constructs his improvisations around soulful, bluesy and deeply melodic ideas, perhaps more so than other guitarists, there is a radiating warmth that emanates from the band stand. Black Tee-shirt, nut-brown wood-grained guitar, skin tones reddened by the club lights and rays of warm enveloping music.
To my ears there is always a tangible hint of Jimi Hendrix in his voicings. Few improvising guitarists could occupy this space so convincingly. It is the place that Hendrix was heading for in his last days, only thwarted by his demons. A place begging for further exploration by anyone brave enough. For all that, Haines is a modern guitarist, as much in the Scofield camp as he is Rock inflected. A feeling of familiarity guides us through his explorations, a sense of something familiar that you can’t quite place. This is gift that only the best musicians bring to a gig. His improvising journeys appear anchored by the vignettes he creates at the beginning of a piece, often worked over short loops, ostinato bass, or a tight driving pulse from the drummer. Themes stated, constantly expanded then contracted again.
For trio partners he had Oli Holland on upright bass and Ron Samsom on drums. Being multi faceted and highly experienced musicians they quickly found the heart of the music. Samsom in particular found his way deftly to where he added the most value. He has considerable experience in lineups like this, music which edges closer to Frisell than to Pass. Near the end of the first set Roger Manins sat in for a number (a composition by Joel’s brother Nathan from a recent award-winning album). The number added breadth to the gig as it gave us a different perspective; Roger played like a demon as always. This was another good night at the CJC and they just keep coming.
With the Auckland Jazz Festival shortly underway and a wealth of quality music on offer, I must echo what my friend Stu said, “This will surely be remembered as the golden age of Auckland Jazz and improvised music”.
Who: The Joel Haines Trio – Joel Haines (guitar), Oli Holland (bass), Ron Samsom (drums).
There are musicians who have the ability to create vibrant pictures out of sound, deftly carving shapes, daubing them with colour, texture, leaving images suspended in the air, as tantalising spectres. Blair Latham is one of these. He brings to the bandstand a tropical exoticism, redolent of the central Americas, but somehow still Kiwi.
I first saw Latham at the Rogue & Vagabond during the Wellington Jazz Festival. The project was to re-create the vibe of the Headhunters album and it certainly did. In the hands of Hayles, Latham and others a wild, hyper-energised brew of sounds radiated among us. They took the brief to its outer limits and for the audience (who were undoubtedly Hancock enthusiasts), it was an immensely satisfying experience. As Latham’s tenor wailed, the milling crowd urged him on, each phase wilder than the last.
The Rogue & Vagabond channeled North American funk grooves, this gig took us a long way south of that, to central Mexico. A Mexico seen through Kiwi eyes, a musicians eyes, the eyes and ears of a careful observer. The energies had shifted as well. A more thoughtful approach was evident. Latham was telling stories that came from the heart, from experience and reflecting the altered light and filtered sounds of that populous country.
As the band started playing there were powerful overwhelming images created. I reached for my note pad and wrote the word Fellini. This is how I heard it, the sounds of a happy and slightly chaotic Mexican circus, peopled by tumblers, clowns on stilts, parading animals and long lazy hours fuelled by Mezcal. A rich mesmerising spectacle that took your breath away. There were no high energy excursions, no roof blasting squalls of sound. This was a journey of measured steps, full of subtleties. At times the trio sounded like a bigger unit and as Latham switched between his rich woody bass clarinet and classic Selmer tenor saxophone, the effect amplified. Each phrase, each line, hung in air long after the breath that created it had subsided. There were a number of Latham’s compositions and some beautiful, haunting Mexican ballads. Emotion and sentimentality are bound up in that world. There is nothing buttoned-up about Mexican music.
Latham is unusual in New Zealand as his principal horns are bass clarinet and tenor saxophone. A handful of musicians double on bass clarinet, few are as proficient as he is.
It often happens that the best laid plans unravel unexpectedly. The trio was initially advertised as Latham, David Ward & Chris O,Connor. The trio we saw was Latham (bass clarinet, tenor saxophone, leader), Neil Watson (guitar, lap slide guitar), Stephen Thomas (drums). I rate both Ward and O’Connor highly but this lineup worked extraordinarily well. It was hard to believe that these musicians had not played together often. The challenge of playing this music, reading these often complex charts, brought out the best in Watson and Thomas. Both gifted musicians. both good readers. Together they merged perfectly and we could see Latham’s pleasure at this.
The drum charts called for a colourist approach, an oblique subtle rendering of rhythms that were as much rooted in Mexican folk music as in avant guard jazz. Thomas was exceptional as he tapped, scraped or made the kit whisper; even his solos were original and entirely appropriate. This guy can tackle anything it seems. Watson is a veteran of the unusual and a superb reader. It was a joy to see him working counterpoint or even unison lines with Latham. He is perfect for gigs like this as his unbridled imagination is not tethered to norms. He moved between lap guitar and Fender solid body, enabling him to move closer to the Frissel like Americana sounds that so clearly influence him.
The word Mexico brings to mind a jumble of exotic but occasionally troubling images. For me the source is literature, films, art, photography and music. The nearest that I got to Mexico was in books like ‘Under the Volcano'(Lowry), ‘On The Road’ (Kerouac) or ‘The Teachings of Don Yuan’ (Castaneda); in films like ‘The Night of the Iguana’, numerous cowboy movies; in crazy photographic images from the ‘night of the dead’ festival of Santa Muerte, in articles about the loathsome human traffickers or murderous drug cartels. I have travelled extensively in Spain and down the Californian Coast, places where this beguiling country felt almost within reach. This gig took me one step closer.
“How’s the mezcal” he said. “Like ten yards of a barbed wire fence. It nearly took the top of my head off. I had a Tequila outside with the guitar hombre” – ‘Under the Volcano’ -Malcolm Lowry
Who: Blair Latham (bass clarinet, tenor saxophone), Neil Watson (guitars), Stephen Thomas (drums)
One of the strengths of the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) is its varied program. Sixty years ago improvised music meant only one thing to the western world. Mainstream Jazz. From the late fifties onwards the music drew from an ever-widening array of influences, experiments with unusual and exotic instruments occurred, not always successful as the attempts were often self-conscious. At worst they felt like a size twelve-foot being jammed into a size six shoe, at best they tantalised, leaving us wanting more. Among the best of these explorations were Jimmy Giuffre’s. A Texas tenor man with open ears and an innate ability to double on reeds and winds. By the sixties his folk tinged Jazz with Jim Hall and Bill Crow (Train and the River) was considered mainstream. By then Giuffre had moved on to explore open skies atonal explorations with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow and to dabble in the ‘third stream’. The third stream referenced modern classical music as it sought to make a hybrid of the two forms. Attempts to bring in the exotic sounds of the Mediterranean, in spite of Django, were slower coming. The exotic of the sixties was more likely Cuban influenced Jazz or the music of Tom Jobim. Both wonderful, but unmistakably music rooted in the Americas, in spite of their ancient African influences.
Post millennium, there are interesting and innovative Jazz Projects proliferating across the globe. ECM in particular has long been adept at broadening Jazz tastes and over the last two decades it is repeatedly voted as the best-loved Jazz Label. Not once has it compromised its mission. Not once has it tried to travel down the populist route. It survives in a space where the iconic Jazz labels disappear, engulfed by amoral corporate machines or buried in an increasingly harsh market place. One ECM album in particular comes to mind, a wonderful collaboration between premier Italian Jazz trumpeter Paulo Fresu and a traditional Corsican mens choir, ‘Mystico Mediterraneo’. This acapella song form is combined with improvisation much like Caroline’s and Tui’s projects. Improvising around ancient forms and bringing back deeply evocative all but forgotten songs. This feels natural in 2014 and this brings me to the original point. Jazz now coexists comfortably around a variety of genres, from deep Americana (Bill Frisell), to Middle Eastern music (Dhafer Youssef). The self-consciousness is gone and the younger audiences in particular are more open. This feels right in a globalised world and from an ethnomusicological view-point, it helps catalogue musics that are fast fading from thecollective memory.
The ‘Acapollination’ project illustrates the above points perfectly. This acapella group, four women (two established Jazz vocalists), explore the harmonies and rhythms of Bulgarian folk music. I knew little of Bulgarian music but was keen to learn. What I now know is that there is an ancient tradition of folk singing and that the style is quite distinct. Differing markedly from other European or Slavonic music. When Bulgaria became communist the authorities appropriated these folk songs and under their guiding hand they morphed in propaganda tools. Complex meters became the norm, no longer left in the sole hands of peasants who had preserved them by oral tradition. In some cases purged of unwelcome minority ethnic influences. It is to the credit of Ron Samsom and the Auckland University Jazz School that this project was accepted. There are many improvising traditions in the world, some new, some ancient. When they meet new horizons open before us.
The second set was Carolina Moons Mother Tongue. This project has been around for a few years and has travelled extensively. There have been a few changes to the original line-up but the core performers remain. Wherever the Mother Tongue project has appeared it’s received to wide acclaim. Once again this is an ancient music, a hybrid form emerging from multiple sources in medieval Sephardic Spain. Not only are the melodies of the Jewish Diaspora heard, but the songs of the Moors and the other races surrounding them. This truly exotic and rich music just begs for modern interpretation and Carolina Moon has achieved that exceptionally well. Her voice is wonderful and her arrangements perfect. I have heard this group many times, but at each listening I gain new insights, fresh enjoyments. They are evolving with time and different facets emerge or fade as they progress. Nigel Gavin is always extraordinary but Roger Manins intense short modal improvisations on Bass Clarinet, Flute or Soprano saxophone make this special. Carolina Moon, Roger Manins, Kevin Field, Ron Samsom and Nigel Gavin are the original members. Cameron McArthur is a newer addition. This is a cohesive working group and long may they remain so.
Whenever Neil Watson and Cameron Allen appear one thing is certain. The boundaries between realty and the surreal will be seriously blurred. Their attempts to kick down the barriers between musical genres arises from a genuinely subversive urge. This has nothing to do with academic posturing, as the music comes from raw passion. People sometimes ask me why I listen to Zorn, Sun Ra, Ribot and others. It is because those people understand something very important, ‘Art should disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed’. Neil and Cameron understand this and their collaborators do also.
The unsettling rumours started circulating a few months ago. Evidently there was an improvising band around town called the ‘Doughboys’. Musical blackguards. Few knew where they played and most dared not enquire further lest the blackest rumours were true. They fitted no particular niche and worse, they could veer dangerously across genres without signalling a warning. What might scare some, only served to tantalise me. Any band that plays foul piratical sea shanties, Hawaiian music, Americana, ancient country ballads, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash in a Jazz voice is going to interest me.
As with all vagabonds they eventually washed into the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) one blustery night. Roger Manins, a steadfast soul, well able to withstand the vicissitudes of public opinion booked them. On the night they stood brazenly arrayed, defiant as piratical adventurers can be. Ready to sing and to wildly improvise, often using the voicings and tropes of psychedelic jazz. Either that or they played a song dead straight just to confound. The instruments were as left-field as the bands dress sense. Neil Watson had an array of stringed instruments and some pedals mounted on a plank. He used a Mexican Fender ‘Stratocaster’, a ‘Hobner’ Guitar (this is a top-of-the-range knock off of a Hofner which he purchased in an Indian street stall) and lastly a Chinese made ‘special’ steel guitar. Cameron Allen played an old melodeon squeeze box, a tenor saxophone and a ‘virtual’ Doogan (it was not visible to the audience). Alex Freer and Rui Inaba lulled us into a false sense of security by playing relatively ordinary looking instruments, but when you looked closely there were frightening pirate fetishes tied to the them.
I thought that they were terrific and Neil Watson’s hint of Neil Young (subverted by Bill Frisell voicings) worked for me. At times they played the tunes dead straight and this only added to the surrealism of the evening. Once they sung a hearty ditty but I was not fooled. As I suspected, this softening up was precursor to a king hit. In this case a punked out rendering of the ancient sea shanty ‘Spanish Ladies‘ which I will post as a video. This is the sort of music that the downtown avant-garde cuts its teeth on. Where else would you hear an authentic version of ‘Pearly Shells‘ followed by something Pink Floyd might have done if they’d studied under Marc Ribot. Bless their black pirate hearts.
Disclaimer: No cats were harmed in the photoshopping of the above picture – the pirate cat is named Zirky
I interviewed Natalia Mann after the release of her very successful Rattle album ‘Pacif’ist’ and since then we have kept in touch . Improvising harp players are a rare commodity, but things are slowly changing. This year the Columbian harpist Edmar Castaneda won a major Jazz poll. Natalia is simply killing at whatever she undertakes but her new trio brings her squarely into the jazz orbit. Having gained a considerable reputation playing with various symphony orchestras and after undertaking a number experimental music projects, she is more than ready to enhance her improvisational credentials. She has recently been playing to critical acclaim at Mediterranean Jazz festivals and this video clip was made for the AKBANK Jazz festival in Istanbul. Her compositions are beguiling and exotic, while retaining an elusive mysterious quality. This is music that leaves you wanting more.
Natalia is of Samoan Kiwi extraction but for some years she has lived in Istanbul. She’s married to the Turkish percussionist Izzet Kizil who appears in the clip below. She was most recently the recipient of the ‘ARts Pacifica’ award in her hometown of Wellington. Having recently studied Jazz at Skopje University she is now engaging frequently with the improvising world. This stunningly beautiful piece swings to its own pulses and rhythms; aided by solid bass work from Dine Donneff (Greece) and the perfectly executed percussion of husband Izzet Kitil (Turkey).
I have promised to take her to the CJC next time she is in Auckland and just maybe if we are lucky, we could talk her into performing?
Natalia is in Marseilles at present and she sent me this clip of her new Jazz trio a few days ago. Kiwi musicians certainly do well in the world.
I love any music that can be termed ‘Space Jazz’ or ‘Space Funk’. I have no idea if this is a real genre but I follow it anyhow. Living through the era of Sputnik and being caught up in the excitement that followed I was nudged in that direction by the events of the day. After that I zeroed in on space themed music. Some of it was corny (Telstar) and some was grandiose (Gustav Holst’s ‘The Planets’). Not long after this I stumbled across Jazz and the sonic explorations perfectly fitted my longing for a music that evoked the wonders of space while encompassing the quirks of our humanity. Music performed by artists who stood in awe at the edge of the universe and then stepped free of its limits.
The Neil Watson Four is a recently formed Auckland band who have no fear of galactic explorations. With the aid of a doogon (explained later), tenor saxophone, drum kit, upright bass and four overly fertile imaginations, they bent and pulled at the fabric of the universe. This is a band that defies the norms and swallows genres whole. There is no sense of deliberate eclecticism here and no self-conscious navel gazing. It is original and you get the sense that what happens sometimes surprises the musicians.
The feeling is often that of organised chaos, a loose organic vibe that works well because they have entered into a collective state of being. While Neil Watson pilots the ship there is no heavy controlling hand but his benign presence presides. He has gifted his vision and let the possibilities unravel as they may.
Neil Watson is not only a great guitarist but his sense of humour is original. A sort of postmodern Zen; dropping casual asides into the banter in ways that confound. The You Tube clip that I will post is ‘Renamed’. When Neil announced that tune he casually added, “I hated the original name”. This sort of humour leaves you momentarily confused and then laughing out loud. They also played a lot of tunes named after children, girlfriends or spouses. The tunes were all great and particularly ‘Renamed’ (Watson), ‘Eleanor’ (Dennison), ‘Rosie My Dear’ (Gibson) and ‘Theo’ (Allen). There were ballads and country fare as well. their rendition of ‘Danny Boy’ was so poignant that any Scots in the audience would have been fumbling in their sporrans for a tartan hanky.
Neil Watson is an original guitarist and he is at his best when a leader. He brings a rag-tag of interesting sounds and ideas to the bandstand and then knits them together. There is also something akin to Zorn in much of this material. Once the skeletal structure and the overall concept is in place the music is liberated. The interactions between men and machines are fluid and what the audience sees will never be repeated. For this to work well he needs the right collaborators and he has certainly struck gold this time.
Cam Allen usually plays alto but he is also a fine tenor player. I have also seen him manipulate a Moog to great effect. On Wednesday night he played a Buescher ‘Big B’ Aristocrat and it gave out an earthy, and slightly raspy sound. Word has it that it is a tricky beast to play but it sounded just right for this gig. I risk committing heresy here but a Selmer would have been too clean for this music. His interesting modal explorations and his flow of ideas mark him out as a gifted player. This is hardly surprising as he honed his craft on the highly competitive American Jazz scene. In this band he doubled on ‘doogon’. This is very much a ‘Kiwi’ thing and it is best described as an array of electronic and acoustic sound enhancements strapped to a hardware-store hand truck. Resembling a cross between a Dalek and an IED with its glowing blue lights, digital clock console and multiple knobs (many strapped on with duct tape); it can envelop the audience with shrieks that resemble a Banshee at a rocket launch.
All of the instruments including the drums feed into this machine and the effects are astounding. On upright bass was the respected Tom Dennison who used his arco technique to very good effect. This bowing worked well with the Doogon, which under Allen’s guidance resonated in ways that would have astounded the instruments makers. Dennison has a lovely rich tone and we heard plenty of that. What can never be overlooked are his compositional skills (See an earlier post on his ‘Zoo’ album). For this gig he contributed the lovely ‘Eleanor’ which he dedicated to his girlfriend. He seldom appears at the CJC these days and it was a pleasure to see him there again.
Perhaps the biggest masterstroke was adding Frank Gibson Jr into the mix. This inclusion of a drummer most known for his Post Bop chops may have raised a few eyebrows at first, but Gibson is no stranger to fusion. He demonstrated just how perfectly he can execute this material and he showed us all what free and imaginative drumming looks like. I heard a band member saying later that having Frank behind them, lifted the whole performance.
I am an unreformed devotee of music like this and whether you call it Space Funk, Space Jazz, Eclectic Fusion or just wild music I will be its cheer leader. This is an itch that just begged to be scratched and I am glad that Neil gave us a taste of it. Besides the wilder numbers there were one or two ballads to balance out the program. Overall it was a very satisfying experience.
It was somehow fitting that the band performed on the day that NASA verified that Voyager One had left our solar system and entered interstellar space.
Who: The Neil Watson Four. Neil Watson (guitar), Cam Allen (tenor, doogon), Tom Dennison (bass), Frank Gibson Jr (drums).
Murray McNabb left us on the 9th June 2013, just missing his scheduled gig at the Auckland Jazz & Blues Club. His keyboards may have fallen silent but not so the band who played on out of respect. Mike Walker an old friend, was approached by Murray just days before he died, to stand in if he didn’t make the gig. The gig may have invoked a plethora of memories and been tinged with sadness, but it was clear that Murray would live on through his musical legacy. This was a musician who fearlessly patrolled the outer reaches of the sonic universe and I like to think that his ‘Astral Surfers’ album will be poured over by intergalactic cosmonaut’s as they look for clues or perhaps navigation hints from ‘Ancient Flight Texts’.
Frank Gibson Jr
I was at Mt Albert Grammar at the same time as Murray and Frank Gibson, but they were more than a year ahead of me and both were prefects. I was deeply into Jazz as a school boy and I knew that they were as well, but the gap between a fifth and a seventh former is sadly too far to bridge. Fifth formers just didn’t hang with prefects and I regret that now. I have followed Murray’s (and Franks’s) career ever since.
Murray McNabb was at the heart of the Auckland Jazz Scene and everyone respected his prodigious musical output. The key to his music lies with the man, as music made him happy and improvised music even more so. He was a man perpetually on the edge of a great adventure, navigating only by his innate sense of groove and an inner vision of the boundless vista’s that lay ahead. Like Mike Nock he never settled for the ordinary, always pushing hard against the boundaries. As much as I like his straight ahead records such as the lovely ‘Song for the Dream Weaver’, it is to his ‘out’ offerings that I return to again and again.
A largely self-taught keyboardist, he continued to explore the possibilities of Synths (and his beloved Fender Rhodes) during a period when others weren’t so keen. In many ways improvised music has now come full cycle, as a younger generation continue the explorations, aided by clever machines and astonishing pedals. Murray can take much credit for enabling a younger generation of local musicians to pick up on that. His collaborations with Gianmarco Liguori in particular come to mind. I regard ‘Ancient Flight Text’, a Liguori directed collaboration between him, Murray and Kim Paterson as a masterpiece. If released by ECM, wide acclaim would follow.
Murray is known to all New Zealanders whether they realise it or not, as his collaborations with Murray Grindly produced film scores (e.g. Once were Warriors, Greenstone) and countless well-known TV adverts. He never spoke ill of this work as it allowed him to simultaneously pursue his Jazz career.
The gig at the Auckland Jazz & Blues club was part wake (as old friends came up one by one to perform or to read eulogies) and part concert. In my view it was Murray’s closest collaborators who stole the show and spoke for him best. Frank Gibson Jr (drums), Kim Paterson (valve trombone), Neil Watson (guitar), Denny Boreham (bass) and Stephen Morton-Jones (sax). In Murray’s place was Mike Walker on piano. During the second set the band played a Jazz fusion number composed by Murray years earlier. Frank Gibson started the pulse with an insistent clipped beat similar to that used in Pharaohs Dance (Bitches Brew). One-two, one-two, one-two, one-two. The others moved in and out of the mix, weaving short phrases around the beat and creating layers of haunting sound. No complex melody, harmonies that shimmered, as illusive as a mirage. Out of this tribute I formed the strongest view of Murray’s output. He seldom relied upon complex changes to achieve his ends. Many of his compositions had no bridge or recognisable head. He could say more by improvising against a drone or by working a simple vamp than almost anyone else on the scene.
Kim Paterson – Stephen Morton-Jones
Murray was a joyful explorer and he worked best when there was little chance of rescue. His music was wonderful and he took that last step as bravely as he embarked upon all of his journeys.
This band shakes all conceptions in the known musical universe and they do it by pillaging pieces of reality and cunningly re-assembling them into new and abstract forms. They are as brilliant as they are disarming. Getting under your skin with outrageous banter and constantly evolving story lines. Perhaps this is the future, laughing back at us, as we live in our bubbles of musical complacency?
It’s a little hard to define ‘The Grid’ by using existing musical terminology, so I will do so by drawing upon disparate references. If you were to add a pinch of Marc Ribot, Dvorak, R2D2, Kraftwork, Radiohead, Andre 3000, Willie Nelson and John Zorn into a crucible, you might create something approximating this band. In spite of the bands modernity, they have embarked upon a musical odyssey of classical proportions. Like Odysseus they’re building strange narratives as they navigate Siren’s and Cyclopes. Ever drifting into uncharted waters.
The first number up was ‘Commodore 64’ from their first album. Since its inception this story has evolved into a saga (see video clip). The setting is somewhere in the future at a time when humans are replaced by robotic machines. The cyber children of these evolving machines have become bored with life and in order to alleviate that boredom they start copying human pop culture. A hipster culture develops and the young male machines start attending nightclubs in order to pick up cool hipster machine chicks. The goal is locating their ideal, a female robot dressed as a ‘Commodore 64’. I don’t think that Phillip K Dick could have bettered that storyline and the music is machine referencing, freaked out cyber nostalgia.
Some other outrageous story-lines were as follows: Ben Vanderwal; “Don’t you just hate it when people make pretentious statements like – If Bach were alive today he would be an improviser” or “If Charlie Parker were alive today he would be in a ‘metal’ band“. He proceeded to say how distasteful and silly this sort statement was and then with a straight face announced his next tune as Dvorak’s third Symphony, the scherzo movement. Pausing before launching into their digitally enhanced heavy-metal tinged phantasy he added, “Of course if Dvorak were alive today he would be playing in this band”. Another tune intro was; “I am proud to relate that UNESCO has just voted this the tune most likely to bring about world peace”. They also told us that they would be playing a number from Ellington’s occult period ‘Satan’s doll’. It took a minute to sink in but when we heard the opening chords of Satin Doll we fell about laughing.
There is much more to this band than outrageous humour, there is also outrageous music. They can slip between Willie Nelson and thrash-punk hardcore in ways that defy logic and in spite of the yawning stylistic chasms it all makes perfect sense at the time. It is later when the enormity of what you have just witnessed sinks in and you find yourself sitting in a confused state on the edge of your bed that you mutter WTF.
There is electronic wizardry aplenty at their disposal but that is not what stays with you. It is their musicality, their ability to connect and their cleverness. This band really can play and they impart strangely apposite history lessons as they go. The music can also turn on a dime, moving from the outer reaches of sanity to a gentle jazz ballad played over clever loops. I am absolutely certain that this sub genre of guitar trio will soon become more mainstream. Marc Ribot (Ceramic Dog) and Australia’s Song FWAA tread similar paths.
This is intelligent music and it requires mastery of the instruments plus mastery of a bewildering array of pedals, rattly things and clips. Making drums imitate machines or making guitars imitate an angel or a banshee is not a job for amateurs. All three band members are highly regarded on the world scene where they have gathered a multitude of accolades, awards and scholarships. Individually they have accompanied the cream of American artists such as Terrance Blanchard, Chris Potter, Chic Corea, Victor Wooten, Joe Lovano and others.
The Grid is primarily known as a Perth Band, but the USA could also claim them. In reality the band members now live in three cities and two countries. Ben Vanderwal (drums) is originally from Perth and so is Dane Alderson (electric bass) but Tim Jago (guitar) is from the USA where he lives and works at present. He has recently been working on a doctorate and teaching in Miami. Ben Vanderwal (who told the stories at the CJC) regularly plays with top US musicians and our own Frank Gibson Jr is credited as being his original teacher. Dane Alderson is the son of a jazz drummer and the winner of various prestigious awards. He plays an Aryel 5 string bass and like Tim Jago conjures up a world of wonderful sounds. My final comment on The Grid is; I hope that they comeback….soon.
Both of these clips are from earlier gigs – the stories and the instruments have evolved since then. The music is great as always.
The 13th of March was a night of surprises. I had been urging Roger Manins to lure Dr Stephen Small down to the CJC (Creative Jazz Club ) for months and here he was. I told a friend that we would be in for an interesting and varied program. How prescient I was. Considering that he is such a well-rounded and accomplished pianist (and keyboardist) it often surprises me that knowledge of him in Jazz circles is not as great as it should be. Stephen Small has a number of irons in the fire and his work across many musical genres can sometimes eclipse his accomplishments in specific areas. No one however should disregard his straight ahead or experimental Jazz playing abilities.
His quartet set up their equipment, completed a brief sound check and then faded back into the darkness of the club while Stephen made last-minute adjustments to his keyboards. Having set up his two keyboards he moved to the grand piano and picked up the microphone. Some artists impart scant information about their set lists (even omitting to tell you what they have played). Stephen is generous with information and his expansive discourse set up the evening nicely.
He played solo piano for three or four numbers and the tunes came mainly from the Great American Songbook. The focus for these pieces was the earlier half of the twentieth century. During his introduction he talked about the interface between jazz, classical and popular music and to illustrate this melting pot he began with two standards. First up was the perennial favourite, ‘Spring Can Really Hang You up the Most’. The beautiful version he settled on was Oscar Peterson’s. The second tune ‘Angel Eyes’ (Matt Dennis) has a bluesy feel and the lush right hand voicings accented the subtle hints of stride in the lower register. I love this standard and it was a delight to hear, as it is seldom played by instrumentalists these days. More’s the pity. The last piece in his solo set was an extract from George Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ (see video clip). All three were beautifully executed and they illustrated his point perfectly that Jazz is in a continuous process of renewal and will happily absorb the sounds of the day. What is sometimes under-appreciated is that Jazz also influences and enriches other genres. Modern pop or rock without its Jazz roots would arguably be a chirpy wasteland devoid of back beats. Classical music is certainly not exempt either (e.g. Stravinsky and Ravel).
His next set shifted our focus to experimental music. Stephen Small on two keyboards & piano, Johnny Fleury on Chapman Stick 12 string guitar, MC Chinga Style voice and Stephan Thomas drums. I am particularly interested in such electronic explorations when they’re done well and these were. The chordal instruments fed into an array of pedals and the whole set up was something that Bob Moog would have gone into orgasmic ecstasies over. The Chapman Stick looks daunting to play as the fret board is double the width of most guitars. It is largely tapped and not picked; giving rich voicings and strong resonant bass lines. MC Chinga Style added an unusual dimension to the mix and his inclusion was spot on. He was a benign presence, never dominating. His contributions were occasional but extremely interesting. A combination of scatting, boom box, subtle pops and clicks and always reinforcing what was occurring around him. I have long thought that the human voice as an instrument, playing lines in an ensemble, is terribly under-utilised in Jazz. ECM gets this right and we need more Norma Winstone’s in our line ups.
Somewhere in the middle of this set Caroline Manins went up to Stephen and whispered in his ear. Stephen looked startled for a few seconds and then proceeded with his electronic wizardry. Caroline then whispered in my ear, “there is someone I think you should meet”. Leaning against the bar was Hugh Masekela, anti apartheid hero, Jazz icon, Afro Beat star. In the subdued lighting with its soft red overtones it all seemed surreal. The short 74 year old man stuck his hand out and smiled widely. Then before I knew it he had enveloped me in a hug. The great man hugged quite a few strangers that night and I suspect that all were enriched by the experience. This was Hugh Masekela’s way of telling us that in a diverse and complex world, music can remove any barriers between us. To paraphrase Herbie Hancock, “Music is what I do but finding a common cause with humanity is my real work”. He has just been honoured by President Obama for his life’s work.
After the last of Stephen’s numbers Hugh Masekela asked Stephen to sit in while he, his guitarist and drummer played three numbers. The crowd stood open-mouthed and a little star struck as the band began playing. A guitar player from South Africa , a groove drummer from America and a Kiwi pianist – working with a Jazz hero. Hugh placed the flugal horn to his lips and showed us that simple melody can say as much as complex harmony. He never strayed too far from the melody but somehow his solo’s were all the more profound for that.
He ended the set with Herbie Hancock’s ‘Cantaloupe Island’ and thanked us. We slipped out into the warm night, feeling very pleased with ourselves for being in that place at the right time.
Q.”There was one occasion when the apartheid government tried to invite you back as an ‘honorary white’. How did that feel?
It was not only insulting, but it was like the height of comedy, right out of the fucking Marx Brothers. The apartheid people were actors and they had to act out their part in their beliefs every day. That’s why we always saw them as being comedic.”
It had been a very busy week for me and I had not paid too much attention to the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) website. All I could recall about the gig was that it would be something different. The instruments came into view as I descended the stairs and as my eyes accustomed to the gloom I saw Murray McNabb. Murray is a veteran of the New Zealand Jazz scene and ‘different’ is exactly what he does best. There was a bank of keyboards, numerous pedals, leads everywhere, a drum kit and two guitars barely visible in the back ground. I quickly learned that this was the release gig for the second album by Salon Kingsadore – ‘Anti Borneo Magic’. Yes the title gave more than a hint of what we were in for. An exotic improvised trance like dreamscape. After a hectic week that was exactly what I needed and from the first vamp I relaxed into the music.
Salon Kingsadore was formed in 2004 to write a soundtrack for a play and their works are styled – spontaneous cinematic compositions. Not long after that first album they were invited to perform at a film release in Italy. These projects appear to be under the creative guidance of Murray McNabb (keyboards) and Gianmarco Liguori (guitars). The other band members are Hayden Sinclair (bass) and Steven Tait (drums). Murray McNabb is a successful film score composer having written for films like ‘Once were Warriors’.
I have seen Murray perform many times and his own compositions are notable for the way in which he mines simple themes in subtle and deceptively complex ways. He is the master of ostinato. There are often references to modal music in his compositions (Turkish Like) but tonight the fare was more tightly focused. At first listen there was an impression that the drums, bass and guitar were playing the same motif over and again while Murray developed the themes and added fills and colour. This was not the case as subtle variants and accented changes could be determined if you listened properly. Continuous and spontaneous improvisation over a vamp requires certain disciplines and foremost among these is a keen awareness of space and dynamics. This interactive process requires everyone to participate actively and when that happens the repetitive transforms itself into something profound.
This is music that takes some right out their comfort zone as it references such diverse sources as John Zorn, film music, African music, psychedelic fusion and even surf music. Someone asked me if it was Jazz. I would certainly place it within the spectrum of jazz, but as an outlier with strong filmic qualities. I have listened to a lot of John Zorn, Manfred Schoof and psychedelic Jazz Fusion over the years and so this was never going to scare me.
After a long week I quickly relaxed into the aural dreamscape unfolding. This is music that you can dive into, swim away from shore and float free in.
WHAT: Salon Kingsadore – ‘Anti-Borneo Music’. Album release.
WHERE: CJC Creative Jazz Club – 1885 Brittomart
WHO: Murray McNabb (keys), Gianmarco Liguori (guitars), Hayden Sinclair (bass), Steven Tait (drums). Sarang Bang Records www.sarangbang.co.nz
James Wylie is a respected saxophonist, clarinetist and composer who has played, studied and taught all over the world. He initially studied in Wellington where he attended the New Zealand School of Music. One and a half years ago he moved to Berlin and soon after that to Thessaloniki in Greece.
Those reading the CJC webpageseagerly look out for returning expats, as they very often bring new ideas back with them while still retaining a core of that ‘New Zealand sound’. James played alto saxophone on this gig and he demonstrated why the alto is rapidly becoming a popular instrument again. For years the popularity of the alto waned but happily that is no longer the case. Improvised music often gives the impression of being a ‘blue skies’ horizon where no boundaries exist. All freedom comes from discipline and it is the knowledge of what works best in a given situation that marks players apart. Chops count but musical taste counts too. James showed an intuitive understanding of this.
Tonal and textural contrasts add considerable depth to a performance and in this we were well served. We not only heard the multiple facets of James Wylie’s tasteful alto playing, but we benefited from the addition of Roger Manins tenor. This was a double dose of saxophone magic. The quartet was completed by two Christchurch expats, Richie Pickard on upright bass and Andrew Keegan on drums.
While their first number ‘The Mooche’ (Ellington) got our attention, the second number ‘Just in Time Contrafact’ (Wylie) simply demanded it. It was an outright cooker. Roger Manins particularly shines in these situations and as he and James worked the changes and stretched out, there were enthusiastic cheers from the audience. The sets contained a couple of originals, some well-known standards and seldom played tunes by Jazz greats like Monk. Best of all were the tunes we have never heard in a Jazz setting. ‘Wichita Lineman’ (Campbell-Webb) – [It is a little known fact but Glenn Campbell was one of the original Beach Boys], ‘I can’t help falling in Love With You’ (Elvis) , and a memorable version of the standard ‘For All We Know’.
Nat Cole and Billie Holliday sung this so memorably (and hauntingly) that post 50’s bands often shied away from it. That is a pity because it can still evoke all of the emotions that made it a popular classic. The band approached it in the way that the late 50’s piano-less quartets did. Playing contrapuntally while extracting the maximum beauty from the melody. In this style of playing the bass is pivotal and Richie Pickard was perfect.
While the horns naturally took centre stage I never-the-less had my attention drawn to drummer Andrew Keegan again and again. The quality of New Zealand drummers often amaze and Andrew is a traps player I will keep an eye on. He is not overly busy but he has an in-the-pocket propulsive style. He listens carefully to what the others are doing and reacts in kind.
The last portion of the second set featured James interpretations of traditional Greek songs. My love of Mediterranean infused Jazz is constant and hearing Greek music was a treat. James interpreted the lovely melodic tunes (in crazy time signatures) with an ease that can only signify his deep interest in this music. In this portion he accompanied Greek singer Egli Katsiki. Her voice while a little soft at times resonated perfectly with the keening alto and between them they reached deep into the hearts of the spellbound listeners.
It was nice to have James here and I am keen to see where his musical journey takes him next (back here soon I hope).
Some die-hard Jazz fans complain that the modern jazz scene doesn’t produce enough music that sounds like that of the ‘classic era’. This mythical era that they remember so fondly didn’t exist in the way they thought. They forget that Louis Armstrong accused Dizzy Gillespie of playing ‘Chinese music’ and that Bill Evans was accused of not swinging.
The Jazz in any defined era has always sounded surprisingly different from the music that preceded it. Jim Hall circa 2012 sounds nothing like the Jim Hall of the early ‘Pacific Jazz’ Era and why should he. This is not a music to be set in aspic or to be kept in a hermetically sealed container to protect it from impurities. Jazz is not a fragile dying art form but a vibrant improvised restless music that lives perpetually in the now. As Whitney Balliett so famously said it is ‘the sound of surprise’.
Kevin Fields new album illustrates this premise perfectly.
On Wednesday 25th April the CJC (Creative Jazz Club of Aotearoa) featured pianist Kevin Field as he promoted his ‘Field of Vision’ album. Being a fan of Kevin’s, I had been quick to obtain a copy of the album and I was delighted by what I heard. This was music with a deep groove and an unmistakable pulse. The banks of synthesizers, the singers and the electric bass lines had given it a distinct Soul Jazz context. Out of this came a series of mesmerizing grooves, which engulfed us in a way that made definitions quite meaningless. As the band played at the CJC we sunk happily into a warm vibe that made the Autumn night seem very far away.
The club gig kicked off with ‘See Happen’; a number that drew us deeper and deeper into a vamp while figures on the piano created a pleasing filigree by way of contrast. The next number ‘imaginary friend’, opened the vistas wider. On the album this was especially noticeable as the Steinway Grand, Fender Rhodes, Prophet T8 and Roland Jupiter 8 worked beautifully over the four piece string section
It had an almost cinematic feel to it and I could not help but be reminded of the work of Creed Taylor’s CTI label. Instead of CTI’s Don Sebesky this album had utilised the services of Wayne Senior who arranged the string section. The first airing of this material had been in the Kenneth Myers Centre and it was therefore fitting that Wayne Senior had been involved as his connection with the KMC goes back a long way.
The album was produced by Nathan Haines and his handiwork is evident throughout. He plays alto flute, an ARP synth and is credited as co-composer on 4 of the 11 numbers. The rest of the numbers were written by Kevin and they are probably his best work to date.
The band that Kevin brought to the CJC was a smaller unit than on the album and that is just as well because the club was packed. A small club has a very different sound to a recording studio and the warmth and intimacy is the obvious benefit of being in that space. When you buy the disk (and you should) you will notice a broader sound palette, a bigger line up and a crisper sound. Both experiences are complimentary and anyone attending who has also purchased the album will count themselves lucky.
Stephen Thomas had been brought in as drummer for the CJC gig and he had sweetened the deal by a congratulatory email that he sent to Kevin after the initial release. “Man those were some sick grooves” he had messaged. Kevin immediately confirmed him as right drummer for the gig. Stephen is a terrific drummer and the choice was a good one.
Once again we saw Dixon Nacey perform and as always we watched open-mouthed. This man is so good that it is frightening. Completing the lineup were guests; Nathan Haines, Marjan Gorgani and Clo Chaperon (the latter had great soul voices). All added something essential to the rich mix and in Nathan’s case this is only to be expected.
I would also like to mention Karika Turua. He played a big Fender bass and his grooves although loud, were as big as his guitar.
There were a few quieter piano passages as well and on these we hear the crisp touch, the harmonic exploration and the crunched chords that have become so familiar to us in Kevin’s playing. Kevin has many fans in New Zealand and most will have heard his previous piano trio album ‘Irony’ (Rattle Records). Although different I would regard both as essential purchases as we follow Kevin Fields career.
The CJC band was: Kevin Field (Leader, Yamaha piano, Fender Rhodes, Synth) – Dixon Nacey (guitar) – Stephen Thomas (drums) – Karika Turua (bass) – Marjan Gorgani / Clo Chaperon (vocals) – guest Nathan Haines (alto flute, soprano sax).
On the album were: Kevin Field (Leader, Steinway piano, Fender Rhodes, Roland Jupiter 8, ARP Odyssey,Prophet T8 ) – Nathan Haines (ARP Odyssey, alto flute) – Dixon Nacey (guitar) – Joel Haines (guitar) – Mickey Ututaonga (drums) – Migual Fuentes (percussion) – Karika Turua (bass) – Bex Nabouta/ Marjan Gorgani/Kevin Mark Trail (vocals) – Cherie Matheson (backing vocals) – Miranda Adams/Justine Cormack (violins) – Robert Ashworth Viola) – Ashley Brown (Cello) – Chris Cox – (drum programming).
This album can be purchased in any major record store or for more information contact ‘Haven Music’ a division of ‘Warners Music NZ’.
All photographs by Peter Koopman – Gig venue/CJC Jazz club Auckland
Seeing the Ottignon Brothers perform is to be put in mind of a very clever vaudeville act. There may have been more gags in a vaudeville act (well that is not strictly true) but the interaction between band and audience was honed to perfection. The jokes were often of a musical nature and none of them missed the mark. This was great fun, highly inventive music and above all top class entertainment.
I first saw the Ottignon brothers when they were living in New Zealand and again some years later after they had moved to Australia. Aron was regarded as a prodigy on piano and I recall seeing Matt performing high wire saxophone acts somewhere. The brothers are now scattered around the globe, with Aron living in Paris and Eden & Matt based in Sydney (but gigging all over). The Australasian tour gave us a chance to connect with their new music and for the brothers it was a chance to play together again after 8 years. The audiences responded by packing out their gigs.
Watching them communicate on stage was fascinating because they didn’t appear to need the cues that others rely on. This apparent telepathy was advantageous to them as they responded to each other with lightning speed. The spontaneous twists and turns of the gig required them to be fleet-footed.
The way they had arrived at their set list was fairly post-modern and to lesser musicians it would have been challenging. Only days away from the first gig in Australia they had put up a Facebook post; requesting ‘friends’ to nominate the tunes they should play. To be selected, each tune needed to attract at least two votes and predictably the suggestions were quirky. ‘Black and Crazy Blues’ (Roland Kirk), ‘Eden’s ukulele Song’ (Eden singing with ukulele, composed days before the gig), ‘African Mailman’ (Nina Simone), ‘Running Up That Hill’ (Kate Bush), a Medley of Sly & The Family Stone numbers, The poem ‘Trees’ which had been suggested by their Grandmother (Edwardian war poet Joyce Kilmer), ‘God save the Goat’ etc. You get the idea.
The diversity of the material held the audience’s attention throughout, but it was their good humour and the solid musicianship which clinched the deal.
Each number was a little crazier than the last but there were a few numbers which will linger in my memory for quite some time. When Matt played the ‘Sly and the Family Stone’ medley the tone on his tenor morphed into a deep breathy rich sound. On ‘Its a Family Affair’ he reminded me of Pharaoh Sanders and I asked him about that after the gig. He told me he had been taking an interest in some Ethiopian tenor players of late and that they cultivated that particular sound. The other number that I liked was more of a novelty and that was when Matt played his iPhone using the ‘Gyro Synth’ app. This looked easy but it is not (I know because I have the app). Matt has played with Lou Reed, Brain Wilson and Mike Nock among others.
Throughout Aron laid down solid percussive grooves on the piano and lived up to his considerable reputation. In Europe he fronts a group called ‘Aronas’ and is featured in a number of well-known bands. Eden showed his chops on double bass and electric bass, but also ventured into song and ukulele as the set list demanded. Eden is the leader of the ‘Sun Searchers Collective’. Dan Kennedy was on drums for the New Zealand leg of the tour and Kiwi’s are familiar with his tight propulsive, energetic style. Dan is a favourite at the CJC and they could not have picked better for this gig.
I have seen Murray McNabb perform many times over the years and it has often been said that he plots a course at variance to the mainstream. If this is true it could also be said of many top Jazz musicians; they understand that Jazz audiences seldom want to hear endless note-perfect repetitions of previously played music. Improvisation demands musical bravery and the Murray McNabb band has this essential quality. The sharp-witted Zoot Sims summed up the sentiment when he said, “Jazz is the music where you never play the same way once”.
Auckland has of late been experiencing an explosion of Jazz creativity and the ‘Astral Surfers’ album is a fine example of this. The album came out over a year ago and for some reason I had never located a copy. I should have tried harder because the album is marvelous. It gives a nod to the best Jazz of the 1960’s but the album is also very contempory. This is a musical narrative (like ‘Zoo’) and the overall vibe is essential to the journey which unfolds. It is exactly as the title and track list suggests; a journey through exotic and often surreal landscapes. I am always up for this if the music is good and it is.
The album was created with a much larger pallete than the live band used at the CJC. Apart from the core band of Murray McNabb (keyboards), Frank Gibson (drums), Neil Hannan (bass) and Stephen Morton-Jones (saxophones), additional members were present on the album. Martin Winch (guitar), Basant Madhur (Tabla), William Yu (dulcimer) and Tanya Li (erhu). All of the compositions are Murray McNabbs.
For me, there is a powerful presiding spirit hovering over this album and that is guitarist Martin Winch. His passing late last year was felt deeply in the Auckland Jazz community and to have him recorded to such advantage here, makes the album a treasure for that reason alone.
The first two tracks on the album are ‘Marco Polo’s Return’ and Sub Continental’ . These tracks draw on the shifting sounds and colours of the silk road. Stephan Morton-Jones weaves engagingly in and out of a solid groove laid down by Murray, Frank and Neil, occasionally extracting microtonal effects from his soprano as he traverses foreign sounding scales. The richness and diversity of the musical palette does not divert us from the core theme and that is as much down to Murray’s writing as to the musicianship of the band. Adding tabla, dulcimer and erhu into the mix works, as they fit in well and enrich without overpowering.
The title track ‘Astral Surfers is also brilliant with Frank Gibson putting his experience and chops to the best possible use. He makes sure that he does not overshadow the tabla while never-the-less blending in a few percussive tricks of his own.
It is the track ‘Snake’ that I like best. It has a solid bass line and a nice melodic hook while providing a vehicle for improvisation. Martin Winch can be heard playing against Murray’s engaging vamps while Stephen extracts alto gold from the deep groove. Martin and Murray also provide convincing solos.
Many of Murray McNabbs compositions are modal or give the impression of being so. He has developed the art of extracting profound messages from apparently simple progressions and the fact that they are so satisfying is due to his writing skills.
The band that fronted the CJC gig was the basic McNabb, Gibson, Hannan & Morton-Jones unit. They got down to business and showed us that they did not need the extra instruments to create a big sound. Murray had thrown a curve ball at Stephen by writing parts for two saxophones (to be played simultaneously) and Stephen in true Roland Kirk fashion had risen to the challenge. I asked him after the gig if it had been daunting to play two saxophones at the same time and he admitted that he had needed to work hard in order to get there. The fingering on a soprano and on an alto is the same, but a fourth apart. This unison playing worked well and at times Stephen also used one of the instruments as a drone. He joked afterwards that the biggest challenge would be playing counterpoint to himself. Maybe that wasn’t a joke.
Many of the tunes played were not from the album and the first tune Scarborough Fair (trad) was a knockout. This had been reworked into a near modal form and the rich voicings and nice ballad groove gave the band a freedom which they used to advantage. Another tune that appealed was ‘Turkish Like’. I intend to follow the McNabb band more closely in future but I will not be expecting more of the same as they tend not to do that.