Backbeat Bar, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Post Millenium

Watson meets Ward @ Backbeat Bar

Watson & WardIt is not often that you attend a gig where a set list covers such a range of styles but still pays due respect to each. If anyone could pull off such a gig; traversing the heights of Monk, Murray McNabb, Frantz Casseus, Bill Frisell and Ornette Colman it was these two. In lesser hands, the trajectory would have faltered, the items come across as disembodied. Here, the connecting threads, however improbable, made perfect sense. The centre held and the arc of the journey was a joyous adventure. Watson & Ward (1)

Neil Watson is a musician who musicians flock to hear. He breaks rules and strikes out in directions where few dare to follow. Everyone from Sharrock to Montgomery is referenced in his sound; with a generous pinch of Ribot thrown in for good measure. He sometimes hides in pit bands backing dancing fools, tours with famous country stars, opens for people like Marc Ribot, but whatever he does, he does convincingly. In recent years he purchased a pedal steel guitar and that is now an essential part of his repertoire. He exudes real warmth on stage, both as a storyteller and a musician.

I have only seen David Ward play on the odd occasion but it is always a treat. Like Watson, he is a master of diverse styles and he is particularly noted for his award-winning theatre compositions. He has toured extensively and gained a formidable reputation over the years. In Jazz and alternative music circles, it is the improvising band RUKUS that we mostly associate him with. RUKUS has featured a who’s who of adventurous improvisers such as Chris O’Connor, John Bell, Jeff Henderson, Eamon Edmundson-Wells, Cameron Allen, Finn Scholes & Rui Inaba. Watson & Ward (2)

The pairing of Watson and Ward guaranteed that creative sparks would fly.  It was always on the cards that they would perform together but until now the opportunity had not presented itself. I am certain that this project will develop from here –  logic tells me it has to. The quality of their musicianship was very much on display at the Backbeat Bar. On the three Monk tunes, they either ran unison lines or interwove an intricate counterpoint, and miraculously, the jagged phrases often created a fat Monkish dissonance; each guitarist deliberately landing on different voicings- creating a piano cluster chord effect. This was a quality band as Watson & Ward were backed by Cameron Allen (tenor and Baritone saxophones) Cameron McArthur (upright bass) and Chris O’Connor (drums). Understanding exactly what was required here the three left the lion’s share of the limelight to the guitarists. O’Connor displayed his usual eclectic virtuosity as the drum styles required were many and varied. Watson & Ward (3)

At one point Watson played solo, a composition by Frantz Casseus (a folksy classical guitarist who has influenced the likes of Marc Ribot). Out of his Fender came a delicate classical guitar sound – a moment of whispering clarity and magic. The pair also showcased their own compositions and again these contrasted in a good way. Ward’s ‘Mango’, ‘Shebop’ and ‘Hip replacement’ – Watson’s ‘Trash talkin’ (a Western Swing) and his extraordinarily ‘Murray’ – an apt tribute to the lost lamented and much-loved Jazz musician Murray McNabb. Among the tunes, we heard some heartfelt Americana (rare in New Zealand Jazz clubs and it is especially rare to hear Western two-beat Swing).

The high points were many, but I will put up two clips; The first is a Bill Frisell number ‘I am not a farmer’ from his moody atmospheric album ‘Disfamer’. The second up is a short clip where Watson plays a Frantz Casseus tune ‘Improvisations’ solo on Fender.

The gig took place at the Backbeat Bar, K’Road Auckland for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, 15 August 2018.

 

 

 

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

Viata (Dilworth) + Zephyrix (McAll)

IMG_0434Viata: When the Eamon Dilworth album ‘Viata’ was delivered, I was just about to head off to a gig. As I pulled out, I fed the CD into the car sound system and was immediately captivated. Some albums grab you like that, cutting through the dross of everyday life and commanding your fullest attention. The next day, freed from distraction I played it again, and as I listened, the power of the music was evident; a private world where carefully layered soundscapes revealed themselves in an unhurried fashion.  I have heard Dilworth live and listened to his recordings, but this is ‘one out of the bag’. Over the years I have learned to expect great things from Australian improvisers and this certainly reinforces that well-earned reputation. ‘Arrow’ was a great album but ‘Viata’ is quite exceptional.

Arrow and Alluvium, were broader canvases – more eclectic; but these compositions are pastoral rather than urban landscapes. Revealed are breathtaking aural vistas of the kind you would expect from ECM artists; pristine spacious northern European landscapes. One of the tunes is titled ‘Eich’, a clear homage to Norway’s Matias Eich and it is beautifully realised, but as you work through the album the unmistakable dreamy warmth and gentle slurring of Tomasz Stanko is evident. Jon Hassel helped shape the direction of Scandinavian trumpeters and perhaps via the Nordics, Australian trumpet players also. These are not the only influences evident here and the vast Australian landscapes cannot be overlooked. In spite of its influences, the album stands strongly on its own merits. The quintet utilises the skills of notable Australian musicians; Alistair Spence (piano), Carl Morgan (guitar), Jonathan Zwartz (bass) and Paul Derricott (drums). With these heavyweights accompanying Dilworth, he couldn’t lose. This is an album I really enjoyed. If you listen carefully it is possible to hear a distant Bell beckoning.

IMG_0435Zephyrix: There is nothing that piques my interest more than receiving news of an impending Barney McAll project. His projects are seldom announced in conventional ways but they creep into your consciousness like portents. You see an image or hear a rumour and know that something is unfolding. A few months ago I noticed a mysterious image appearing below a McAll tweet. There was no explanation, just the word Zephyrix and an image of a man-bird. Because he paints on a vast canvas and because he is a master of subliminal, the image was the message; leaving you with the sense that something extraordinary was about to appear. This how McAll works his magic. By communicating on many levels at once. You always get great music, but embedded in that music and in the related media are archetypes. This album exemplifies his approach to creating art and it touches on his philosophy.

A few weeks after I spotted the image I received an email from Melbourne’s Monash University, inviting me to attend the launch of McAll’s Zephyrix album as a guest. The work was commissioned for the prestigious Monash Art Ensemble, a fifteen-piece Jazz orchestra. The work had six parts and was conducted by the well respected Paul Grabowsky. A few years earlier I had interviewed McAll during his Peggy Glanville-Hicks composers residency in Sydney. The work was composed at around that time.

Although unable to attend the launch I received a copy of the album and as I played it that familiar question arose. How can one artist have such a diverse body of work and yet achieve such excellence in everything that he creates?  The answer lies partly in McAll’s work ethic, but above all, it lies in the way he views life and the creative process. The integrity of his vision is never subordinated to the commercial imperatives which often grind artists down. In spite of that (or because of it), he has a large following and wins award after award (he just collected three further Bell Awards for ‘Hearing the Blood’).

As you listen to Zephyrix you enter a world of textural richness with surprises at every turn. Mythical and exotic creatures populate the imagination, only to disappear as another, takes its place. McAll’s work is always strongly allegorical and in this case, the allusions touch on the fundamental struggles of existence. Beginning with the Greek God Zephyr (God of the west wind ) and followed by the voices of Black Crow, White Swan, Peacock, Pelican, Zephyrix and Phoenix.  The odd creature out is the most interesting, one of McAll’s creations, the Zephyrix. This is a fusing of the Phoenix and Man – the man wearing business attire, the phoenix perhaps his better self.

As you listen to the album you detect the spirit of Stravinsky, but the touchstones go beyond orchestral Jazz or modern classical music. Even though the references to the past are there, this work sits comfortably among the best of forward-looking orchestral works. It is a journey well worth taking and I am eagerly awaiting McAll’s next project.

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Post Millenium, Small ensemble

Emerging Artists – Orr / Fritsch

Orr (1)In keeping with the longstanding CJC tradition of keeping twice yearly slots open for emerging artists, late March featured two such sets.  First up was a group led by bassist Denholm Orr.  Orr has appeared in lineups a number of times, but this was his first appearance playing his own material and as a leader. His recent compositional work has placed increasing focus on arco-bass and consequently, the charts reached into that territory. Arco is not the default style for Jazz bassists but I am seeing a lot more of it lately and I welcome that.

Orr opened with a piano trio and as the set proceeded more players were added.  The larger formations tackled ambitious arrangements and this is a hopeful sign of things to come. Emerging artists should reach beyond their comfort zone – being challenged is where growth happens. On piano was the ever-reliable Nick Dow and on guitar Michael Gianan (who wowed us all with his first CJC gig a few months ago). Misha Kourkov was on tenor and new to me was Charlie Isdale on alto and Jack Thirtle was on trumpet. Daniel Waterson was on drums. Kourkov is shaping up to be a presence on the scene and Fritsch is grabbing attention with each fresh appearance. As most are still studying and given their ages and experience, it was a good start. Orr

Lukas Fritsch headed the second set and again this featured ambitious material. Fritsch’s set had a tighter focus and perhaps because he had a few seasoned musicians in the ensemble ranks, the set sang joyously from start to finish. When Fritsch completed his finals, a buzz quickly circulated; that the recital performances had been something special.  I had not attended, but my attention was certainly piqued. The arrangements were superb and the musicians well focused, but the inclusion of Chelsea Prastiti and Crystal Choi gave the set that special something that lifted it beyond the ordinary.  Orr (2)

Choi is fascinating to behold as her trajectory is pointed ever upwards – a pianist who understands how to get inside the music and make it part of her story.  Prastiti likewise is an innovative trailblazer, who takes the path less ordinary.  The front line was Fritsch on Alto, Asher Truppman-Lattie on tenor and Kathleen Tomacruz on guitar.  On bass was Wil Goodinson and on drums Tom Leggett. Fritsch writes interestingly and his performances are well thought through and engaging.

The gig was the last at the Thirsty Dog for the CJC (Creative Jazz Club, It took place on March 21, 2018.

 

 

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Post Millenium

Marjan

MarjanWhen Marjan stepped up to the microphone, she owned the room from that moment on. Her previous association with the Jazz club had been peripheral, but this gig changed everything. I have sometimes engaged with her about Persian music or Sufi poetry and I have heard her performing in the Kevin Field ‘A List’ band. She is always impressive when she sings, but this was impressive in a different way. It was her first Jazz club gig as a leader and suddenly, here she was delighting a capacity audience, every bit the seasoned professional; exuding an easy-going confidence. It was tempting to think that she had magically transformed herself into this fully formed artist, but her back story offers deeper insights. Marjan is of Persian descent and while this breathes exoticism into her music, it is only a fragment of her story. In truth, she has been a performer for much of her life; an established presence in the world of film, an in-demand voiceover artist, a teacher of music, dance, and drama. She draws on many strengths but on Wednesday they coalesced; a marvellous voice and a formidable stage presence the outcome.Marjan (3)If her choice of a first number was to make a bold statement, then she succeeded admirably. Stepping out from behind the black curtains, accompanied by a shimmering Rhodes, she embarked on her engrossing journey. The first few bars of her ‘Desert Remains’ were straight out of the Sufi Jazz tradition; it was a call for universal tolerance: arising from her belief that music provides a pathway to transcend the banal. Almost imperceptibly, the tune became a love song, settling into new and funky rhythms. This was a nice piece of writing and the rhythmic interplay gave her much to work with. The influences in many of her compositions are generational; Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Brian Wilson and of course her indigenous roots. All of this is filtered through a Jazz lens. Although her approach is modern, she doesn’t shy away from the traditional fare of Jazz singers.Marjan (6)Looking to popular music for new material is not a recent phenomenon for Jazz vocalists. Ella tackled ‘A Tisket a Tasket’, Louis appropriated a multitude of pop songs. The great American songbook is a selection of one-time popular songs. It is what Jazz musicians do; explore, steal and transform. The more diverse the influences the richer the music. When she tackled the lovely Jazz standard ‘Detour Ahead’ (Ellis/Frigo) she owned it completely. That hint of smokey voice, that delicate phrasing; being adventurous while showing deep respect to the composition. It was hard not to think of Norah Jones; an artist who is traditional and modern in equal parts. I would also give her top marks for her set list; the numbers included ‘The look of love’ (Burt Bacharach), ‘God only knows’ (Brian Wilson), ‘I’ll be free’ (Donny Hathaway) and of course her own compositions and one of Kevin Field’s.

To sound your best you need fine musicians backing you and she had that with Keven Field on Rhodes and piano, Michael Howell on guitar, Mostyn Cole on bass and Stephen Thomas on drums. Everyone on the Auckland scene is familiar with Field, Cole and Thomas – they never fail to please. I would like to single out Howell here as he gave us a great performance. It was tightly executed, appropriately modulated and exactly what was required. Nice fills, tastefully brief solos and well executed pedalling. It can take years for a chordal accompanist to learn these skills. In a younger artist, it shows real maturity. It seems certain that Marjan’s singing career can only gain pace from here. Her grace, good sense, great vocal chops and confidence will see to that.

Marjan (vocals, compositions, arrangements), Kevin Field (piano, co-arranger), Michael Howell (guitar), Mostyn Cole (bass), Stephen Thomas (drums) – CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, K’Rd Auckland, 6th September 2017.

 

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, experimental improvised music, Post Millenium

Chris Mason-Battley Group

CMB (1)Hearing people talk about the Chris Mason-Battley Group reminds me of the Hindu parable – the blind man and the Elephant.  “Oh yeah, that guy has a smooth sweet sound’ one said as if that settled the matter. Well yes, he has got a smooth sound when playing a ballad, but anyone who thinks that defines his music has simply not been paying attention. This band has enormous depth; playing anything from a melodic ballad to music that is way off the grid. What we experienced on Wednesday was music with integrity; at times raw and inventive, drawing us into its heart, emotionally engaging and above all satisfying.  CMB  The first number was ‘Mountain Song’ (by CMB); then they moved to a series of pieces from the CMB John Psathas project ‘Dialogos’ (progressing through excerpts from ‘Song for Simon’ and ‘Demonic Thesis’). As that set progressed we heard a new composition or two and lastly ‘Tahuna Caravan Park’ from his ‘Two Tides’ album. This gave us a broad sweep of his past projects and the Psathas album in particular. Dialogos was widely acclaimed as an exciting and bold step forward for the band – I can highly recommend the album (out on Rattle). Before the band left the stage for a break, Mason-Battley said; “That was the nice half – the second set is nasty half” (quoting from an album titled ‘The Jaberwocky comes to Town’ which had a ‘nice side’ and a ‘nasty side’.)CMB (3) As pleasing as the band were in the first set, they reached much deeper for the second; pulling out an utterly engaging and masterful performance. It began with several of the blacker pieces from ‘Dialogos’, ‘The Calenture Suite’. The drummer Stephen Thomas must be mentioned at this point – His work was integral to the overall performance and it underlined his maturity as a musician. At times subtle, at others incredibly complex – and all made to look easy in his hands. Thomas was extraordinary throughout and although a relative newcomer to this long-established band, his searing flames licked at their underbelly, an indispensible presence. In perfect contrast to the complex drum flurries was Sam Giles on electric bass. Giles is a master of the ostinato – repeated motifs, perfect time feel and the voodoo factor writ large. He is also an influence on the bands direction; favouring Zorn like explorations and paths less trodden. CMB (4)The CMB Group keyboardest is David Lines, an intersting and in my view under-rated musician. On this gig he played a Roland RD-700. What a beautiful piano and Rhodes sound. A  machine hardly heard these days, replaced by the Nord Stage or modern Korgs. While the newer keyboards have more bells and whistles, I am unconvinced that their piano sound is an improvement. Perhaps it sounded so good because of Lines touch? He is not a busy pianist and every note counts, in this gig his often voice leading role was perfect for the project (his solos were stunning). I only wish we saw him more often.

As good as the rest were, Mason Battley stood out; especially on soprano and alto. He has a real stage presence and his luminous lines are always well conceived. It is great to hear him reaching ever deeper as time goes by. The number I have posted is a tune of his titled ‘Drum Dance 4 (Psathas)’; a Coltrane-esk exploration that exemplifies a way-point on their interesting journey. On that tune, everything is in perfect balance, Thomas taking a leading role while the others work off that, each bar taking us deeper, highly charged and sparse.CMB (2) The last tune of the evening was free and political. It was titled ‘The Emperor Has No Clothes’; an obvious reference to the greedy authoritarian amoral elites that hold sway in the world; particularly the Trump administration.  It was free and it was raw emotion – in the background a loop recited ‘billions and billions’ – then, faintly at first, we heard the strains of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’. The band read the mood of the audience well with that one – people stomped and cheered afterwards as if someone had taken the words right out of their mouths and rendered them into abstract musical form.

CMB Group: Chris Mason-Battley (soprano, alto, tenor saxophones, compositions arrangements, electronics), David Lines (keyboards), Sam Giles (electric bass), Stephen Thomas (drums) @ CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, K’Rd, Auckland, July 26, 2017

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Post Millenium, Straight ahead

Stephen Thomas – No Hawkers

Steve Thomas (1)In spite of his relative youth, Stephen Thomas is counted as one of New Zealand's better Jazz drummers. He approaches his craft with care and intelligence and it shows in his playing. While his technical skills are superb, he can also communicate on a human level and this is important as it speaks of character. Thomas is a regular on the scene, but like many sidemen and most drummers, he prefers to remain in the shadows. On Wednesday he changed that focus and convincingly staked his claim as band leader.Steve Thomas (4)The ingredients that contribute to a successful gig are often intangible, but this gig ticked a number of those boxes. While tailored to suit a Jazz audience, it did so without being remote or elitist. Another reason the gig worked was because Thomas used humour to good effect; not just his on stage banter but in the music as well. In a live setting this is important – interacting with the listeners on some level, bringing them inside the circle.Steve Thomas (3)Thomas has an abiding interest in the Ellington/Mingus/Roach, 'Money Jungle' recording and Wednesday provided him with a further opportunity to explore that project. While unusual as a source of standards material, it is a great album to focus on – the perfect vehicle for deconstruction. At the time it was recorded, it stood out for a number of reasons. In fact it shouldn't have worked at all, as the trio members reputedly disliked each other. Each had marked stylistic differences and Ellington was of an earlier generation. Ellington told the others that what they would play on the record should be a collective decision; then he turned up with a set list of his own tunes. The one tune which was not Ellington's was by Juan Tizol – a man who Mingus had once been in a knife fight with and because of whom, he was sacked by Ellington. What should have been a disaster for many reasons was a success. A brave post-bop recording by artists firmly rooted in other eras.Steve Thomas

Chosen from the Money Jungle material were 'Wig Wise and 'African Flower' (Ellington). Both of these tunes were given interesting treatment. The latter rendered into a dreamy fusion like vibe and the former, given a wonderful vaudevillian twist; the head melody line played on an analogue Prophet 08 synth. Reverence and open exploration in equal parts.Thomas's own tunes were interesting as well. 'No Hawkers' was a cleverly constructed solo piece; his engaging beats triggering pre-recorded samples, which he played over. 'Rat Race' was another great tune, this time with the full ensemble.Steve Thomas (5)

The other two standards were Giant Steps (Coltrane) and 'Fascinatin' Rhythm' (Gershwin). His quintet featured Crystal Choi, Michael Howell, Tom Dennison and J Y Lee and what a great band they were. Choi was especially wonderful; she's comfortable in a variety of settings and she just keeps growing as a musician – she really digs in and the sky's the limit for her. Howell was also decisive in his playing and it really suited him. Lee and Dennison are seasoned professionals and we are never disappointed by either. I was still buzzing from Dennison's previous weeks gig on electric bass – that boy can do no wrong.

No Hawkers: Stephen Thomas (arrangements, drums, samples), Crystal Choi (keyboards), Michael Howell (guitar), J Y Lee (alto saxophone), Tom Dennison (upright bass) – CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, K' Road, Auckland, July 12, 2017

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Post Millenium, Straight ahead

Tom Dennison Quintet

Tom D (6)Dennison is a first class musician and someone we don’t hear nearly enough of on the Jazz circuit. He rarely gets to the CJC but when he does it is always a treat. These days he is mostly found doing session work or backing visiting artists and it is hardly surprising that he is a bass player of choice. Whether on upright bass or electric bass he is equally proficient; always an engaging presence, always demonstrating a deep musicality. He has one more string to his bow which can’t be overlooked and that is composition. His tunes are often whimsical, but whatever the mood, a deftly crafted structure sits beneath every phrase. Never over done, bass driven and just right. There is also a thread of melancholia and wistfulness in his ballad writing: these are difficult emotions to evoke and anyone with knowledge of poetry will know, that only the most skilful poets do the moods justice. Dennison can.Tom D (4)Passels playing was another high point of the evening for me. He just gets better every time we hear him. He is also exactly the right person to interpret mood. I liked the way he approached the tunes, working his way inside them methodically. Sometimes angular, at other times teasing at the melody. During the ballads, he often began with sparse phrasing, establishing mood without overstatement; then, slowly telling his story as if looking at the theme from differing viewpoints. Although he plays decisively, he carefully modulates; generally without flourish or vibrato – pushing at a note until subtle multiphonic textures form – his paper-thin Konitz-like tone saying more than any honk. His versatility is also an asset. Any player who can comfortably move outside and inside while still maintaining a theme is a person worth listening to.Tom D (3)McAneny, who initially faced a cable problem, overcame it quickly and delivered a fine performance. Having a Rhodes and a guitar together can be problematical, but the charts and McAneny’s nimbleness enabled him to avoid crowding the space. Howell gave a nice performance and his lines are terrific; He knows what he’s doing but I’d like to hear him bite into his solos a bit more. Drummer Adam Tobeck was on solid ground with this group, he obviously enjoyed the company and reacted well to whatever was thrown his way. After not playing here for a few years, he is now a regular on the bandstand. I like his drum work very much.

Dennisons post-Zoo material is terrific. Fresh, adventurous and deeply appealing. I hope this gig presages a ‘Zoo Two’ album (or ‘Zoo Two by Two’?).  From Zoo we heard ‘The Cat’ – of the newer material there were many great pieces – I loved ‘Unkindness’, also the punkish take on the Beatles ‘Day Tripper’ and ‘J Y Lee’ (a contrafact of ‘Donna Lee’ which in turn is a contrafact of ‘Indiana’).

Tom Dennison Quintet: Tom Dennison (5 string electric bass, compositions), Callum Passels (alto saxophone), Connor McAneny (Rhodes), Michael Howell (guitar), Adam Tobeck (drums). CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, July 5th 2017.