Australian Improvisers 2019

 

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The number of quality Jazz albums coming out of Australia these days is impressive and considering the lack of support from the mainstream music industry, surprising.  I have met a number of Australian improvisers over the years and the best of them have one thing in common, a burning desire to reach beyond the mundane. They communicate this passion in spite of the obstacles and they do it convincingly. The best of these are respected across the wider Jazz world. They are a cohort that brings joy to those hear them and the least we can do is pay them our fullest attention. In November 2019, I became aware of four recent Australian albums: Andrea Kellers ‘Transients, volumes 1 & 2,’  ’This World’ (a collaboration between Mike Nock, Julian Wilson, Hamish Stuart and Jonathan Zwartz) and ‘Stock’ by Julien Wilson. A common denominator linking the above recordings is Wilson, who appears on all four albums (and is the founder of the Melbourne based Lionshare Records). Christopher Hale appears in three of them.

This World: Anyone who has followed pianist Mike Nock over the years will always be hungry for more of his artistry. He never disappoints. A few years ago Wilson confided that he had been planing a collaboration with Nock but that prior commitments always seemed to get in the way. Then in 2018 disaster struck when Nock was hit by a car on a pedestrian crossing. Many feared that his injuries could curtail his career and his fans hoped for a swift recovery. Not long after he left the hospital (and against the odds), he joined Wilson, Stuart and Zwartz for a standards gig. They sounded so good together that they agreed to record an album of originals (with each contributing compositions). Next, Zwartz obtained an arts council grant, and they headed for Sony Studios.

While the results of the two-day session are a testament to their compositional skills, it is their tasteful interplay that remains with you. The album is a thing of soulful beauty, with the compositions coexisting in happy juxtaposition. For example, the cheerfully reflective tune Old’s Cool (Nock) is followed by the moody In The Night Comes The Rain (Zwartz). If you follow the tracklist in chronological order you could be forgiven for thinking that the album is about Nock’s accident. In the Night Comes The Rain – Home – The Dirge – Aftermath  – We shall Rise Again; perhaps that is not the case at all, but whatever the motivation the album is an essential addition to any Jazz collection. What musical heavy-weights these musicians are and how effortlessly they weave their magic. There is a hint of ECM about this recording and not least due to the amazing cover artwork by the Icelandic earth photographer Polly Ambermoon. 

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Transients volume 1 & 2: Late last year I came across the Transients albums by the multi-award-winning pianist and composer Andrea Keller. I first encountered Keller two years ago while I was visiting family in Melbourne. Her compelling stylistic originality intrigued me and I made a point of attending several of her performances in a row; resolving to keep an eye on her output from then on. On the first night she was decidedly minimalist and embedded deep within an ensemble; the second night a fearless explorer in a serialist vein. These two albums offer variety, innovation. The Transients project began in 2016 and since that time a series of interlinking trios have appeared, culminating in these extraordinary 2019 albums.

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This is music that requires your engagement and it is deeply rewarding when you listen properly. It is clear evidence that Australian music is developing its own distinct voice. The opening track on the first album is titled Musings and it is the perfect hook to draw you deep inside an intriguing world. As the tracks unfold you realise that you are listening kaleidoscopically. Phrases form and change along with mood. It is an interesting approach as the various trios sound like a band that could be playing as a larger ensemble. less is more. It is as if it is a bigger unit but with instruments redacted to achieve greater clarity. In spite of the contrasting moods and instrumental configurations, there is a unified heart; so much so that you can easily imagine how each piece would sound if the alternate trios played the piece. On volume two this is realised. On volume 1 you experience the journey while on volume two you are invited to examine it afresh. Many of the tunes like Saint Misha and Sleep Cycles are later reimagined, familiar but not familiar.

 

It is hard to praise the Transients albums enough and while it is obviously Keller who deserves the lions share of the accolades, the individual musicians excel themselves under her guidance. Wilson on tenor saxophone, clarinet and bass clarinet has long been a favourite of mine. He and the astonishing Stephen Magnusson have previously stunned us when appearing on recordings (notably with Barney McAll). With the addition of James Macaulay on trombone, Sam Anning or Christopher Hale on bass, James McLean or Leigh Fischer on drums and Flora Carbo on Alto, Keller has found the right mix of colours for her masterwork. 

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Stock: Like This World, Stock was released by Julien Wilson’s Lionshare Records. It is a joyful, freedom embracing, open-hearted exploration of sonic possibilities. It enhances sound, but the electronic effects which it utilises to good advantage are tastefully deployed. This is an album which immediately brings a smile to your lips, exuding as it often does the sounds of a perfect summer (a happier summer than Australia is experiencing at present). It was recorded in 2019 and released by the artists on New Year’s Day 2020. It is the sound of now and I was delighted to hear in the new decade with this gem. Some, wrong-headedly, think that post-millennium Jazz like this has abandoned past learnings; they are mistaken. These artists have no need to look over their shoulder because the past has been absorbed into and informs everything they do as they move the music forward. While Stock is Wilson’s concept it is clearly a collaborative effort. No one creates at this level unless they are inside each other’s heads. The quartet has performed a while but this was a time to share their vision with a wider audience. The tracks cover many moods – here I have posted a joyfully ‘out’ track.

Wilson is noted for his skilful articulation; an artist who can wring new tears out of old ballads and carve scorching pathways through an up-number; one of the few Australasian reeds players who maintains his clarinet chops at this level. This feels like a fruitful direction for him as the step change has a rightness about it. As the album progresses, moving from the filmic to the elegiac, you marvel at the inventiveness. Yes, guitarist Craig Fermanis has a Metheny vibe, but this is an original offering and beholden to no one. He is magnificent throughout and able to create nuance out of controlled chaos, and Christopher Hale’s electric bass work and Hugh Harvey’s drums or percussion are so integrated that the band presents as a single fluid entity. It is the integration of the voices and of ideas within a free-flowing framework that worked for me. It plots an interesting path forward and in doing so brings us along with it.   

My last word is about the presentation and the sound quality of the above albums. The recording and mixing standards here are very high. All have eye-grabbing artwork but in the case of the Lionshare albums, the standard is extraordinary. Wilson has an eye for great cover art, intuitively understanding that the relationship between the eye and the ear is important. Music is about more than just sound. I know that he gives careful consideration to such matters, whether it’s the eerily atmospheric work of the Icelandic earth photographer Polly Ambermoon or the marvellous creations of Dale Cox. The albums are all released on Bandcamp. We should all purchase whatever we can through the Bandcamp platform as the artists share is considerably greater there. In addition, we get streaming at Hi-Fi quality and the albums and other merch can be accessed directly. The two Lionshare Albums are also available in 24bit/96kHz audiophile quality and are downloadable for burning. If you have a high-end audio system you should grab the 24bit versions as these are the best quality available to us.  

This World: Mike Nock (piano), Hamish Stuart (drums), Julien Wilson (reeds) Jonathan Zwartz (bass). Transients 1&2: Andrea Keller (piano), Julien Wilson (tenor saxophone & clarinet), James Macaulay (trombone), Stephen Magnusson (guitar), Floro Carbo (alto saxophone), Sam Anning (double bass), Christopher Hale (bass guitar), Leigh Fisher (drums), James McLean (drums). Stock: Julien Wilson (reeds, effects), Craig Fermanis (guitar), Christopher Hale (bass guitar), Hugh Harvey (drums & percussion)

https://julienwilson.bandcamp.com    https://andreakeller.bandcamp.com

Ocelot

OcelotA while ago the program director of the Creative Jazz Club, Roger Manins mentioned that he had booked a great young group from Christchurch to appear in the emerging artist’s slot. He went on to say that many of these young emerging artists were so good that he was considering renaming the slot, something like ‘young guns’. He was right. Ocelot exuded easy-going confidence, uncommon in younger players and by the second number they owned the bandstand; navigating some slippery lines with disarming ease and swinging. This was a tight unit and it was obvious that they had put in the necessary work beforehand. That gave them the freedom to relax into the music and the results were evident.

While a little hesitant at first, they progressively engaged with the audience. This has been a theme of mine in recent months, a desire to sense the person behind the instrument. It is not about exhibitionism but about something infinitely more subtle. Something that tells a live audience that they are an essential part of a performance triangle, instrument, musician and audience. Seasoned Jazz audiences are fine-tuned to detect enthusiasm on the bandstand and likewise, they can detect disengagement.  Ocelot got that and was well received. 

The setlist was nicely thought through as it balanced originals with tasty tunes by established and lesser-known artists. Bravely, and to their credit, they played a Jazz arrangement of Prokofiev’s (Concerto No 2). These forays can be fraught with danger, but this interpretation was handled with ease as was Jonathan Kreisberg’s ‘Strange Resolutions’. The latter required them to navigate some tight Tristano-like unison lines in the head and emerge swinging. They did, and to see a young band do this with apparent ease was pleasing.  I have posted Strange Resolutions in the YouTube clip.

 

The originals in the setlist were penned by the bass player and guitarist and a tune which took my fancy with its danceable Klezmer vibe was titled ‘Rakia Nightmares’ (Jonah Levine Collective). The bar is being lifted all the time, as our various Jazz Schools flourish, but what is most encouraging about this, is that they are not producing clones. 

Ocelot: Finley Passmore (drums), Mitchell Dwyer (guitar), Finnzarby Richwood (piano), Callum McInnes (bass), Cheena Rae (alto saxophone). The gig took place at Anthology for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, K’ Road, Auckland CBD, 23 October 2019

  

 

Dixon Nacey ~ The Edge Of Chaos

 

Nacey.jpgThis Dixon Nacey album has long been anticipated and although Nacey has previously recorded as co-leader, this is the first album to be released exclusively under his name. Nacey is firmly on the radar of Jazz loving Kiwis, but his fan base extends well beyond that. He is a professional musician of considerable standing, an in-demand teacher and in recent years the musical director of CocaCola Christmas in the Park. To up and comers he is a guitar legend and on this album, they have something to aspire to; twenty years of experience distilled into excellence.     

The material arose from his Master’s degree which focused on advanced compositional techniques and which was completed last year at the UoA Jazz school. In the process, he gained important realisations and applied these to his art. As listeners, a music degree is not needed as the album has visceral appeal. Just follow your ears and you will get to the heart of things, and that is the point of compelling Jazz performance. 

I have caught many of Nacey’s performances over the years and they never disappoint. I have also gained a sense of the man. He is generous, open-hearted, enthusiastic and very hard working. He takes his craft seriously, but never at the expense of his human qualities. All of the above are evident in his warm playing. The man and his music are not separate. He was aiming at a modern sound here and he has achieved this beautifully and done so without a hint of contrivance. This is how guitarists sound post-Rosenwinkel or Moreno, but he has made the sound his own. A more exact equivalency would be to place him alongside the top-rated Australian guitarists. Price (1).jpg

On the album, he is accompanied by former colleagues and friends and it reminds me how lucky we are to have such musicians in our city. Keven Field on Rhodes and piano, Roger Manins on tenor saxophone, Olivier Holland on upright bass and Andy Keegan on drums. One track features Chelsea Prastiti and Jonathan Leung on vocals. With friends like this to help him realise his vision, he has received an added boon. They are all in peak form here and Rattle Records has also done the artist proud. Steve Garden and UnkleFranc you are extraordinary.

The launch at the CJC Jazz Club, Anthology room had Alan Brown on Keys and piano instead of Keven Field. I looked into my database and learned that it was exactly six years ago to the night that Dixon Nacey led a band at the CJC, and as it was last Wednesday with Alan Brown on keys. It was a great night filled with enthusiastic applause as everyone bathed in the vibe; and the soaring runs which glissed and glowed like silken fire. As well as numbers from ‘The Edge of Chaos’ album we heard a few earlier Dixon compositions like ‘Sco’ and ‘The all Nighter’. I have posted a video of The all Nighter from the gig – how could I resist. To listen to a sample of the album go to Rattle Bandcamp where you can order a hard copy or download it in any format. Try a sample track and you will certainly buy. And while you are at it, take time to reflect on our extraordinary musicians. 

The gig took place at Anthology for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, K’Road Auckland, 16 October 2019. Purchase the album from Rattle Records Bandcamp

Daniel Waterson / Wil Goodinson

How we hear and process music is the result of endless debate. When a resonant voicing or melodic fragment is freed from the wood, wire or chip, the vibrations refract; entering our consciousness through individualised prisms, and each note coloured by preference, mood and previous exposure. What I heard last Wednesday I can only process through my own lens and how I heard it may not be how it was conceived. The opening number took me directly to a place that I visit often. A warm and familiar place situated in a time before these musicians were born. That place was the early electric Jazz fusion era (I love that shit) and in the second set, to the atypical small ensemble arranging by the likes of Carla Bley, Jimmy Giuffre or French horn player John Graas.

I am not saying that either band were reprising those eras because they weren’t. What they played was freshly minted, modern and innovative. The connection and the intense pleasure both groups afforded me was that meeting place between my point of reference and what they created. This is the eternal triangle of improvised music; musician, instrument and listener. A cycle with an endless feedback loop, which brings me to a second point. The players communicated their passion well; something of themselves. It manifested in the leader’s smiles of delight or in the shouts of mutual encouragement. As young, as they were they had cracked a vital code of musical communication. It is not just chops or clever compositions that push you over the line, but putting yourself at risk, exposing a glimpse of the human being and the joy feeding the music. 

The musicians were mostly from the UoA Jazz Studies programme and the sets were interesting contrasts. First up was the Daniel Waterson Quartet with drums, keys, guitar and bass. The first number was titled ‘Not enough Lithium’ and it was this piece that contained embedded echoes of 70’s fusion. It had various motifs but as it developed, mood predominated. This enabled me to make my own emotional connection to the music. The piece didn’t tell us how to engage but it invited the listener in and I believe that that is important. Some tunes are so nailed down that they feel like a lecture. This was not. All of these musicians are a credit to the Jazz School and I was familiar with everyone except the keyboards player (more on him later). Michael Gianan showed how far he’d come since we last heard him at the club. I last heard Waterson when he played in the Indian Jazz fusion group Takadimi. He is an engaging and innovative drummer and it was good to hear his own compositions.

The second set up was the Wil Goodinson Septet and it was unusual in that it featured bassoon, bass clarinet, cello, bass, guitar and piano.  Goodinson is well thought of as a bass player and it is not unusual to catch him in others lineups. This was a chance for him to showcase his arranging skills and his charts were quite exceptional.  Apart from the first tune by Joe Henderson, all of the rest were his own compositions. All arrangements were his. This was an interesting ensemble and they navigated the charts with ease. The bassoon and bass clarinet were complimentary and their textural possibilities were well utilised (Asher Truppman Lattie demonstrated his skills here and I applaud his work on this lovely under-utilised horn). The guitar, while not dominant in the mix, was essential as it gave brightness, a gently articulated voice to contrast the bass-rich sound. Holding everything together was the bass. We could not see the leader but his cues were evident as he guided the others through the charts.

The drums and piano contributed with accents, pulse and solos and both were well placed in the mix I also have a fondness for cello in Jazz and the instrument was well deployed. When bass and cello played unison arco, the air vibrated as the low notes tugged at the senses. It was the sort of ensemble that ECM might feature, but the originality made it hard to pigeonhole as just that. 

For a few months now, people have asked me, have I heard Joe Kaptein play. Until last Wednesday I had not and after hearing him on Wednesday I admit to being caught off guard. What I heard was a high degree of pianistic maturity; unusually so for a Jazz Studies student partway through his second year. He leaned on no particular style and was as much at ease playing in a freer percussive mode as he was where gentler minimalism was called for. His comping was notable, as was his sense of time. He understood when to play and most importantly when not to; he could lay-out or enter a groove and milk it for possibilities. It felt good to be in on this at ground level and I will watch his journey with great interest. Kaptein and Goodinson played in both sets

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Daniel Waterson Quartet: Daniel Waterson (drums, compositions), Michael Gianan (guitar), Joe Kaptein (keyboards), Wil Goodinson (bass).

Wil Goodinson Septet: Wil Goodinson (bass), Joe Kaptein (piano), Kathleen Tomacruz (guitar), Asher Truppman Lattie (bass clarinet), Karen Hu (cello), Monica Dunn (bassoon), Tom Legget (drums) 

@ CJC Creative Jazz Club, Anthology, K’Road, Auckland New Zealand 31 July 2019

Brad Kang Quintet

Brad Kang @ CJC (1).jpegBrad Kang has previously appeared at the CJC, but this time he was here with his own quintet. It is not too much of a stretch to say that most emerging Jazz guitarists during the last decade have demonstrated a liberal dose of Kurt Rosenwinkel in their playing. It is in their sound and their approach to melody and it was unmistakable with Kang. That clean bright tone and the fluent unison lines as he and saxophonist Louisa Williamson ran through the head arrangements.

His compositions were vehicles for showcasing a formidable technique and the tunes were internalised, allowing him to play the sets with barely a glance at his charts. It is common for older and more experienced musicians to internalise the music, but less common for younger musicians who like to keep the charts close at hand.  Kang’s confident familiarity with the music paid dividends for him.

Kang and Williamson are a natural fit; not only when they run those tight unison head lines, but also during solos. Williamson adding a necessary weight to counter-balance Kang’s guitar, which mostly traverses the higher register. On stage, Williamson tends to hide behind the horn, giving little of her self away. That is, until she solos. Then, she’s suddenly authoritative and an expansive storyteller. Her tone rich and her fluency beyond question.

Unlike Williamson and Kaa, the pianist George Maclaurin was new to the audience as were bass player Hamish Smith and drummer Hikurangi Schaverien Kaa. They hail from either Wellington or Christchurch; part of a nationwide and pleasing renaissance invigorating the New Zealand Jazz scene. 

Since his return from North Texas where he studied previously, Kang has become a fixture on the Wellington and Christchurch Jazz scenes. This New Zealand tour will be his last for a while as he is moving to New York shortly to study at the Manhattan School of Music.  When he returns, his musical journey can be updated and he will no doubt share that with New Zealand audiences.  

Brad Kang Quintet: Brad Kang (guitar), George MacLaurin (piano), Louisa Williamson (tenor saxophone), Hamish Smith (bass), Hikurangi Schaverien Kaa (drums), at Anthology, CJC Creative Jazz Club, 24th July 2019. Photograph by and with thanks to Barry Young.

 

A Love Requited~Myele Manzanza

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The Myele Manzanza ‘A Love Requited’ gig opened with a heart-stopping rendition of his tune ‘Ritual’. As the leader’s beats drove out the grey of winter, it left no room for doubt; this was a drummer gig. He moved his body to the music and rained down rhythms and everyone was mesmerised. As drummers move, their feet and hands blur and dance, but few move their upper bodies like Manzanza. This gig was all about sublime motion; kinetic transportation into pulsing parallel worlds. It was very ancient, eternally present, and futuristic. As he bent close to the kit or circled the snare he looked like a hawk circling his prey. This was different drumming and while it was firmly rooted in Jazz, it also mined deeper timeless roots. It also felt intensely personal.

With him on the New Zealand leg of the tour were genius pianist Jonathan Crayford and the powerhouse Wellington bass player Johnny Lawrence. His bandmates needed to be chosen well, because what was on offer was not your usual piano trio music. Everything about the compositions centred around the percussive and was juxtaposed against compelling rhythms; whether soft or loud, piano or bass. Powerful ostinato patterns established, evolving into figures or melodic lines before turning back on themselves. This had the effect of intensifying the vibe and drawing the audience deeper into the soundscape. The drums on the gig were often loud and at times really loud, but when the quieter more reflective passages occurred the intensity remained.  

Manzanza is the son of a Congolese master percussionist and the name Manzanza derives from beat out rhythms. All of that is implicit in his compositions, but it is also a doorway into a bigger story. ‘A Love Requited’ is also about fine composition and superb arranging. Out of that rich rhythmic brew and long evolving history comes an album filled with surprising subtlety. The album is well mixed and the individual players in the ensemble are given ample room to breathe. There are various arrangers credited and all serve the music well. That said, Manzanza arranging Manzanza is what stands out for me.

The album features a medium-sized ensemble with additional players appearing on certain tracks. This band has connections far and wide but it is mainly an Australasian affair. Manzanza and Jake Baxendale are from New Zealand as is ex-pat Mark de Clive-Lowe. The remaining band members, mostly Australian, feature talents such a Matthew Sheens (full personnel list below) and co-producer Ross McHenry. A number of the above musicians are either resident in or regular performers on the USA scene.

If you get a chance, catch the live gigs. More importantly, grab a copy of the album as it is one that you will want to keep on hand for repeat plays. The best option is to visit Bandcamp, where you can order a physical copy or grab an uncompressed download; available in many high-quality formats. In the nineteen fifties Ellington and Strayhorn penned a suite titled Such Sweet Thunder. They were referencing Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer night dream’; the full quotation being, ‘So musical a discord, such sweet thunder’.  Such sweet thunder certainly applies to this album. 

Myele Manzanza Bandcamp

‘A Love Requited’ Auckland: Myele Manzanza (drums, leader), Jonathan Crayford (keys), Johnny Lawrence (bass). CJC Creative Jazz Club, Anthology, K’Road, 10 July 2019

Album: Myele Manzanza, Matthew Sheens, Jake Baxendale, Ben Harrison, James Macauley, Jason McMahon, Adam Page, Django Rowe, Mark de Clive-Lowe, Brenton Foster, Jack Strempel

The Committee (Mat Fieldes)

CommitteeThe original  ‘Jazz Committee’ was formed while bass player Mat Fieldes was still living in New Zealand. Back then he had quite a few fans, and many who remembered him turned out for his recent CJC gig.  Anthology, the new CJC venue, was packed to capacity and that was good news. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since Fieldes left and New York has long been his base. When he arrived in that city 25 years ago he studied at Juilliard. From there he went on to establish a solid career that spans genres and continents. He has played with symphony orchestras, on Broadway and with out-jazz musicians like Ornette Colman. He is a master of fusion and comfortable with Hip Hop. That he is always in demand is a tribute to his abilities as the US music scene is extremely competitive. It is apparent to me, that our New Zealand bass players do very well in hothouse environments (e.g. Fieldes, Hammond, Penman).

It is not often that Fieldes gets back here as he has a busy performance schedule, but this time he was open to doing some local gigs. The vehicle, a collective, was an updated version of the ‘Jazz Committee’ now simply called ‘The Committee’.  In its new incarnation, Fieldes is on upright bass and electric bass, Dixon Nacey on guitar, Roger Manins on tenor and Ron Samsom on drums. The program was fusion heavy or as Fieldes put it, ‘I don’t know if this is Jazz, I’ll let you decide’. Manins clarification muddied the waters further. ‘If you like it then it’s Jazz, and if you don’t, then it’s still Jazz’.

It was a compelling grab you by the collar type of music; it was punchy, improvised and drawing upon many streams; tilting towards an updated but funkier Return to Forever or Electric Miles vibe. Many of the tunes were Fieldes but the others submitted originals as well.  Among them, Samsom’s funk offering, Nacey honouring Scofield and Manins showcasing his wonderful tune, Schwiben Jam (see clip). That tune featured on last years ‘No Dogs Allowed’ album and I am happy to see it in this setlist. Occasionally, I hear a tune that could become a standard or at the very least a local standard. Here it was in a different context and with Nacey and Fieldes steering it into fresh waters. It was immaculate and I hope that I hear it played often (perhaps, with Rhodes fills for additional texture and Nacey as a must-have).  

It’s always interesting when the diaspora of improvising musicians return.  They bring with them the stories of their new home and the influences of those who they’ve played alongside.  It is also instructive to see how they interact with their old bandmates (and some new ones). If last Wednesday is anything to go by, the answer is, very well.  This type of gig is increasingly important in our fast burgeoning scene. We have hit a sweet spot and the audiences are responding. When artists like Fieldes return there is cross-pollination. As a consequence, we are enriched. And just maybe, some of that essence finds its way back into the New York scene.  

Committee: Mat Fieldes (upright & electric bass), Dixon Nacey (guitar),  Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Ron Samsom (drums). The gig was at Anthology, K’Road, Auckland, 19 June 2016