The Inflatable Ram ~ ShekBand Ukraine

Some stories play out quietly while others are thrown into sharp relief against a tapestry of upheaval. ShekBand is from Ukraine, and as missiles fly about them, it is tempting to place their project solely within the context of the unprovoked invasion. That would be a mistake. While the horror is inescapable, there is a bigger story at play here and ShekBand tells that story eloquently through their music. It is not usual to see musicians this young touring and recording, but their achievements are a testament to their dedication, a supportive home environment and the quality of a Ukraine Jazz education. Wars destroy, musicians create and the human spirit is bigger than war. This is an album to inspire; it is a beacon of hope.

Yesterday I wished Shekband’s drummer Maksym Shekera a happy birthday. He turned 12 years old. Along with his sister, Anna (14) and Artem (16) they are about to leave Ukraine. Their first album The Inflatable Ram has just been released and they have a tour of Europe ahead of them. The itinerary will take them to Warsaw, Berlin, Leipzig then back to Warsaw and on to Lithuania. They have been looking forward to getting on the road. Attend a gig if you can.

The album is filled with delights and as the respected bass player, Jeff Ballard commented, “All the compositions are well thought out. They are full of invention and cover a very large range of expression – very dramatic and sensitive qualities. Great stuff.”  Among the 9 tunes on the album, you will hear original compositions, Ukrainian folk references and their arrangement of a Wayne Shorter Standard.

Having fled Kyiv without their instruments they sought practice instruments along their escape route: old drums, town hall pianos, gaffer taped double bases. Emerging from air-raid shelters they focused on the tunes and to tweaked the arrangements. They eventually found a haven in the southwest, but they must now undertake some perilous journeys. Last week they drove back to Kyiv and were able to retrieve some instruments. It was a dangerous place to be. Today they face the missiles again as they drive towards the Polish border. 

Credit is also due to Patricia Johnston, co-owner of Taklit Artist and Concert Management in France. She came across these musicians during the 7VirtualJazzClub competition and her company awarded them an honourable mention. That company is behind the release on HGBS Blue/Black Forest Sounds. Patricia and I are fellow 7VJC judges and so I offered my assistance. The English version of the official press release is my small contribution. Yours will be to listen to the album and when physical copies are available please purchase one. From today it will be available on all major streaming platforms. Search for The Inflatable Ram or ShekBand on Spotify, Tidal, AppleTunes etc. Give likes, share and post comments. With our help, this will be the first step on a long and rewarding journey.

Anna Shekera: piano, chant – Artem Shekera: contrabasse, chant – Maksym Shekera: Batterie, chant 

For more information on the plight of Ukrainian musicians during the invasion, refer to my two earlier Ukraine posts which are available on this site.

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.

The Painter / Far Star

During recent months, a number of jazz projects have occupied my time and in particular the 7VirtualJazzClub competition. I am one of the judges. Both albums came to my attention via that platform, as the Tobias Meinhart band had an entry last year and Gilad Hekselman won four years earlier. 

Both albums reflect our interesting times as both were conceived during the lockdowns; they are uplifting and filled with promise. They inspire. Improvising musicians are torchbearers, reminding us of what could be and how unstoppable the creative spirit is. Even when the times are sorely testing.

The Painter: Tobias Meinhart 

This is an all-star band and with these musicians on board, it’s hardly surprising that it is such a great album. I came upon the band recently while judging the 7VirtualJazzClub competition. I was listening blind and the minute I heard the bass opening on White Bear I thought, oh, that could be Matt Penman and it was. I thought it might even be a Penman tune, but I learned later that Meinhart composed the tune with Penman in mind.

The German-born Meinhart has long been a significant presence on the New York scene. He attracts great players and this album features a dream lineup. Eden Ladin on keys, Matt Penman on bass and Obed Calvaire on drums; with guests, Ingrid Jensen on trumpet and Charles Altura on guitar; each one bringing their best to this project.

The compositions draw on many sources; a dumpling house, a koan, a painter, a baseball player, a meteor, racial injustice, Shep and Jarrett, The influences may be diverse but all resonate and invite deeper listening. White Bear, for example, is irresistible, a torrent of joyous invention, killing melodic lines, heart-stopping rhythms, and moments of surprise and all drawing our attention beyond the underlying complexity.

The tunes are Meinhart’s, with the exception of the lovely standard Estate (Martino). Estate is a duet with Ladin and I was reminded of the timeless Art Pepper duets with George Cables. There was a suggestion in the phrasing but especially so in the tone or intonation; a warm summery caress. A modern take on an old tune and done respectfully. The Last Dance is a tribute to Impulse, Jarrett and Shep. It is especially beguiling, a story told obliquely, it is perfect. 

There are many moods explored here, some delicate, some touching on the mystical, others capturing exuberance. The liner notes refer to a painterly or synesthetic approach and that is evident throughout. It is a feature of contemporary jazz to hold such conversations, reaching across art forms. Such a conversation is realised perfectly here.

Tobias Meinhart: tenor & soprano saxophones, alto flute, voice

Ingrid Jensen: trumpet 2 & 6

Charles Altura: guitar 1 & 10

Eden Ladin: piano, Rhodes, ARP Ensemble

Matt Penman: Bass

Obed Calvaire: drums

The album was released by Sunnyside Records and it is available now on Bandcamp, in digital form or on compact disk 

 

Far Star: Gilad Hekselman

When I was offered a review copy of ‘Far Star’ I jumped at it. Gilad Hekselman stands at the forefront of contemporary jazz guitarists. His discography is impressive, with a string of acclaimed albums and each one encompassing a widening cohort of fans. He is a guitarists guitarist, but he remains accessible. He possesses an extraordinary technical facility, but it is never deployed unnecessarily. Above all, he is adventurous and he brings his audiences along for the ride. 

It is a solo album with guests although not billed as such. The genesis of the album tells its own tale, a collection of tunes originally composed as vehicles for a live band became a different type of project, one born out of pandemic isolation. Creatives rise to such challenges and Hekselman certainly did. He plays a dizzying array of instruments here, guitars, keys, bass (and deploys effects). The leader’s contributions were recorded in Israel; some guests were recorded in other countries. 

pic/Josh Goleman

The drummer Eric Harland appears on 5 of the tracks and his addition was a masterstroke. He is always in lockstep but subtly manages to play with time. On track 5, Magic Chord, he took my breath away. In all, there are nine musicians appearing on the album although often fleetingly so. The gifted Israeli pianist Shai Maestro plays keys on track 2 and along with Nomok, is a co-producer.  

The opening track ‘Long Way From Home’ is a stunner. It begins with a pretty whistled melodic line. As the piece unfolds subtle complexities are introduced, and this simple beguiling melody morphs into a vehicle for exultant improvisation. Again, Harland is extraordinary, Hekselman the guitarist plus multi-instrumentalist is beyond belief. 

This is an album with many facets and it is an album that listeners will return to again and again; it has so much to offer, joy – and above all hope. The title track is the most reflective and wistfully so. There is Americana and there is edginess and the track titled ‘Cycles’ is pure and unalloyed beauty. When an artist produces an album this good, you have to marvel, and you wonder, how could he ever top that. 

Gilad Hekselman: guitars, keys, bass

Eric Harland: drums (1,2,3,5,6

Shai Maestro: co-production, keys (2)

Nathan Schram: viola, violin (4)

Oren Hardy: bass: (4)

Alon Benjamini: drums, percussion (4)

Nomrok: co-production, keys (7) 

Amir Bresler: co-production, drums, percussion (7)

Ziv Ravitz: drums (8)

Release date 13 May 2022 by Edition Records giladhekselman.bandcamp.com

Another Dance: Nock/Stuart/Wilson/Zwartz

This is an ensemble of seasoned observers operating from their shared vantage point of empathy and humanism. Jazz at its best reflects the world about it and it never shirks from truth-telling. To achieve this, primal emotions must be invoked. Something to cut through the memes, words, pretty tunes or familiar licks that inhabit our everyday life. It is not that the aforementioned attributes lack validity, but there are many a dances we can choose. This dance invites us to remember, to do better and to pay our dues in the turbulent world that we helped create.

It is unsurprising that this particular group locates the stark beauty hidden among the ashes and the ebbing floodwaters. The mood is darker than in ‘This World’ but in spite of that, the album resonates with hope. It is the hope that follows acknowledgement. This is an album for our times and it touches on the rawness of the human predicament and it does so unflinchingly. To add further context, it was cut in the midst of the epidemic; surreal and unexpected chaos that has characterised our existence of late. 

The tunes are all originals composed for the album and it feels like a collaboration in the fullest sense, musicians attuned to each other and to the musical possibilities unfolding ahead.

Deception (MP3)

For example, the intro to ‘Deception’ opens with a single chord, echoed quickly by another. The latter is more percussive, stinging, beautiful, and as those chords decay the mood is established with a series of sparse utterances. This is one of Mike Nock’s trademark devises, to beguile without overwhelming, to explore from an oblique viewpoint, then land you deep inside the tune. When you become aware of the others, everyone is so in sync that it takes your breath away. The process is seamless. This is the product of good writing and great musicianship, with Nock’s compositional input particularly evident throughout (especially so in ‘Winter’).

Winter (MP3)

Any of Julien Wilson’s fans will be delighted with his performance here. Although practically vibrato-less (as modern saxophonists are), he captures a Getz like warmth; on occasion his upper register breaking into cries or sighs, tugging at the heartstrings.

I introduced the album to a friend who was floored by its beauty. Wilson, Stuart and Zwartz react so instinctively to Nock’s phrasing and subtle comping. Adding depth, subtlety, texture and gently playing with the time. Zwartz and Stuart are the go-to musicians for an album like this and without them, the album would be the poorer. However overworked the phrase is, this group are rightly referred to as a supergroup. ‘This World’ attracted accolades and award nominations. ‘Another Dance’ is on the same trajectory.  

Mike Nock (piano), Hamish Stuart (drums), Julien Wilson (saxophone, effects), Jonathan Zwartz (bass)

The album is produced by Lionshare Records and is available in digital format on Bandcamp.

There is good quality streaming available upon purchase, and downloads are available in either standard CD format or the higher quality HD 24bit/96khz Audiophile Quality. I downloaded the Audiophile quality album and for those who have good equipment, it is a must. I have seldom heard such astonishing sound definition. It is like being in the studio and hearing the instruments breathe.

lionsharecords.bandcamp.com

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

Footnote: I hadn’t realised that the tune credits were embedded in each individual track listing. In a message exchange with Julien Wilson later he pointed that out. When I wrote that I detected Mike Nock’s hand in the composition ‘Winter’, I was both wrong and right. ‘Winter’ was composed by Jonathan Zwartz as a tribute Nock’s beautiful ‘Ondas’ from the ECM album of the same name. What a great tribute to a seminal album.

Part Two: Ukraine ~ A Jazz Story

It took me a minute to recognise what I was looking at. It was a picture of a burnt piano after a missile attack. No musician should ever need to post a photo of a bombed piano but Lyudmila Shekera did. It is now her Facebook banner. A symbol of defiance, loss, and perhaps of hope. While instruments can be targeted, music is impervious to shelling.

However, there are no photos of her family’s sewing business, which lies in ruins after a Russian missile fell. Non-combatants, the elderly, heavily pregnant women and babies, are mere collateral damage in the minds of the aggressors.  

This is a continuation of my earlier post because the story is ongoing. The families I wrote of have yet to escape the horrors of the invasion, and the journey across Ukraine is fraught with difficulty. It is snowing and bitter cold. Bombs and missile attacks dog their every step. At last writing, they had formed a small convoy and were moving from town to town. Sometimes they were able to stop and Lyudmila would dutifully message me. It is hard to sleep in an air-raid shelter. Relatives who lived through the blitz told me that.  

I am continuously anxious for their safety, but there is something else besides. I am captivated by the other stories, those of happier times.  And I love hearing about Ukraine’s musical history. Lyudmila is keen to share these stories and we should listen. Telling stories is how we survive and listening to them is an act of solidarity. They are essential for her and necessary for us, especially while the fabric of Ukrainian culture is under attack.

There are pictures of the Family factory in happier times, the Shekera children being shown how the sewing machines work. There is nothing left of the factory now as Russian shells razed it to the ground.

The best person to flesh out this narrative is Lyudmila. She speaks many languages but her English has a poetic resonance. It reminds me of what a critic said of the author Joseph Conrad. ‘Born in Ukraine, he didn’t learn English until he was in his twenties. He thought in his native tongue but wrote beautiful English prose’.  

Lyudmila wrote: ‘Girls, happy spring holiday! As my good friend from the local defence says, the weather is for us – the targets are not visible, the saboteurs leave traces. But you know how much I love snow. Since it is a holiday I will start my morning, not with coffee; every decent young lady has to throw a cosmetic bag into an anxious suitcase and find time to use it. Everything will be for Ukraine’. 

The above post appeared on Lyudmilas’s Facebook page in Cyrillic script. I pushed translate and gained a sense of it, I asked her to render it into English and she did. The tone is that of a haiku or an imagist poem, each word conveying a subtle subdivision of mood. And as she reassures her children and friends, she channels her anger into something of greater utility. Gentle defiance wrapped up in nostalgia. It is a plea to remember and hold the joy close before it sinks from view. 

Musicians never abandon their instruments, but what was previously unthinkable, is now overrun by necessity. For musicians, the lack of instruments brings another calamity, they can’t practice. To non-musicians, this might appear a small thing, but I assure you that it is not.  

Lyudmila: ‘Oleksii Proschenkov our music teacher and Anastasia his spouse joined us in Fastiv. But then Fastiv was attacked too. Russian troops keep trying to drag the city of Kyiv into a ring of human catastrophe, cowardly destroying everything in their path with shelling and tanks. We moved south, first to Vinnitsya where a Jazz festival is often held. Friends gave us a place to sleep. It was our first night without air raid alarms and bomb shelters. Then the airport was bombed, destroyed, so we decided to find a small town without important infrastructure. 

Our friend who organises the Vinnetsya Jazz Festival (and an opera festival) recommended Tulchyn, the motherland of a famous Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych who wrote Carol of the Bells. He founded a music school there a hundred years ago, (and when we arrived) they kindly opened the doors for us. Leontovych was killed by the NKVD in 1921 (Stalin’s secret police). 

They had a fantastic grand piano and drum set, and some friends even found us a broken double bass which the defence officer fixed with striped yellow defence tape. It was very kind of the Chief Manager of Culture Ms Natalia Tretyakova and Mr Vasyl Fedorivych the director of Tulchyn Music school to let us practice there. 

Mykola Leontovych

My children, ShekBand, held a concert in the hall before we moved south again. In Ukraine, that particular music school and the composer/founder Mykola Leontovych are symbols of freedom. Now we have to protect freedom once again.

It is important to be busy so that we don’t go crazy. War kills not only the body but the soul. My children keep working on their music arrangements, making a website. They want to be ready for future contests and Jazz festivals. It helps us to stay brave and to find strength. Ahead of us, gigs are waiting in Leipzig, Munich, Dublin and Nice.

It is safer now we are in the south but we can’t cross the border. Our teacher is not allowed, so we will stay awhile. We will check the news each morning so we can decide. In case of big danger, of course, we must leave to save our children. But my heart is here. 

I pray for peace and a strong beautiful Ukraine.

Many of us watch helplessly from afar and do what we can. We write and we donate cash to Ukraine Rescue, UNICEF,  Medicines Sans Frontiers, Ukraine Animal Rescue. And if like me, your childhood was filled with cold war dread, you feel that familiar nemeses return. A madman with bombs and chemicals is on the loose again.  

To Lyudmila Shekera, her husband Alexander and ShekBand; who are Maksym, Artem & Anna. The Jazz world sends love and best wishes. Please stay safe.

Like Shekband on YouTube

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.   

Alex Ventling ~ Nurturing the Creative Spirit

Interview January 2022

Alex Ventling is a musician worth keeping an eye on. His learning pathway is intriguing and his music is vibrant. He is an improviser in the true sense, avoiding inertia as he gathers information without and within. His method is to locate a point of equanimity and in doing so, honouring both the collective and the innate. Although Ventling was born in my city I had not encountered his eerily-beautiful music until recently. He was unfamiliar because he left us for Basel straight after high school, studying extensively in Switzerland and Northern Europe. That course of action has yielded dividends for the musician and for the listener. This post is about his journey but also something deeper, unlocking the creative spirit. 

JL32: Hi Alex, I know that you are just out of MIQ, so welcome to my Waitakere home.

AV: Thanks John it’s nice to be here for a few weeks of relaxation and freedom. This sort of freedom is quite rare in the world right now.

JL32: You are regarded as a Swiss pianist although you were born in Tāmaki Makaurau. How do you view yourself? 

AV: I still feel like I’m a Kiwi kid, but one (embedded) in Europe. There I discovered a culturally rich world and I am exploring that. My mother is Swiss Italian and my father is German American, so I have many cultural connections, but those particular connections only come into play when you experience the cultures first hand.  

Trondheim

JL32: I have been thinking about musical nationalism lately and about what Dave Holland said. That musical nationalism should be acknowledged but not overemphasized. He saw Jazz as a universal art form. How do you react to that?

AV: Yeah, I agree. There is so much to be said about how different peoples perceive a musician’s career and it relates to the values they have. So, moving about (between countries) you create music in different cities, and even though Europe is quite small in area, there is such a diversity of musical thinking.   

JL32: So where did your musical journey begin? 

AV: I grew up on the North Shore with a strong connection to Leigh where my mum did her marine biology degree, and I had a good piano teacher early on. She took the time to find out what music I related to. She allowed me to explore more open music, something closer to improvising. And at Pinehurst school, the Jazz pianist Dr Mark Baynes led our Jazz band, so I was very fortunate. He introduced me to people like Bud Powell, Keith Jarrett and Aaron Parks and I would listen to his recommendations on the school bus and ask for more each week.

JL32: And I bet you heard a lot of Brad Mehldau.

AV: Yes, because Mark was starting his thesis on Brad around then. And so at 19, I left for Basel in Switzerland, intending for it to be a gap year, a reconnecting with my roots. I stopped off in New York on the way to attend a New York Film Academy Music course. I’m interested in the visual arts, especially when combined with music. 

At that point, I was still deciding on what I wanted to do with my life; music or design. Then, while passing through Singapore I applied to Berklee Jazz School as they do auditions there. After my audition, I was accepted by Berklee and offered a scholarship. In the end, I decided not to take the offer up. In Basel, I thought the whole thing through carefully and decided to study there instead.

JL32: I am interested in this because it is not a typical study pathway for an aspiring Kiwi Jazz musician.  

AV: In hindsight, I am glad that I rejected that offer because I had nowhere near the capabilities that Berklee required and while they would have developed those skills, or any good Jazz school would have, I believe that I could have emerged into a sea of pianists who sounded much like each other. 

JL32: So you settled on the Basel Jazz Campus. How was that different? 

AV: The teachers certainly challenged us, we had Jorge Rossy, Larry Grenadier, Jeff Ballard, Mark Turner, Bill McHenry, but the focus was interesting (not just about developing chops).

‘by the way, I don’t care what ‘you’ can play and what ‘you’ can do. What I care about is what ‘we’ can do together. 

That changed the way I thought about group playing. I learned how to listen to myself with others and to view everything as a learning opportunity. There was a huge emphasis on listening at the Basel Jazz Campus. That is not to say that virtuosity is not valid, but we were encouraged to go beyond that. So, less focus on individualism and more about connections. Play something that the music is asking for rather than what your ego suggests.

(Brad Mehldau now teaches there also)

JL32: That is a nice segue to a related question. I’m interested in your involvement with Buddhist Vipassana meditation and how that practice factors into your development as a musician. I want to come back to that as it ties in nicely with what you are saying, but to continue with the European teaching methods you’ve encountered. Do you see this as being different from what is offered elsewhere?

AV: Perhaps there is a cultural component to this. In some cultures, you have to play louder, faster or say it quickly to be heard.  So to jump ahead a bit, that is what the Jazz School in Trondheim Norway is so aware of in their teachings. An amazing place. I managed to spend my last semester in Trondheim while completing my European Jazz Masters. They talk a lot about the generative potential of the musician. They are training your ears and the inner musician so that you draw on that, then translate that onto your instrument. If you develop that first, you will learn afterwards what technique you require to express what you have inside. Scandinavian Jazz schools tend to reorder priorities over many traditional Jazz Schools by putting skills development second. The generative potential and your skills can then be complimentary.  

JL32: You are the second European trained musician to express similar views. Rob Luft who was at the Royal Academy in London was told something similar. But back to Basel, tell me something about the bands you formed during and after your studies there?  The YouTube clips of those bands are captivating. Was the trio the unit you formed first?

AV: The trio, which I still have, arose out of my time in Basel. I wanted to start there because as a pianist, that particular classic piano trio form is the holy grail of Jazz. That trio is a multinational affair with the UK born Phelan Burgoyne on drums. Btw, Phelan was in a band with Rob Luft. He is now living in Florence with his Italian wife. And we had fellow student James Kruttli on bass, so yes, the trio is still going and we have more to say. Our last gig was in Berlin but we haven’t had many opportunities to play lately due to COVID. We had a different bassist in Berlin but it was a great reunion for me and Phelan. Before that, and weeks before COVID hit, we toured New Zealand of course. You reviewed that (We laugh about the white piano wish it a peaceful slumber). You play on what you are given, you adjust and play off that. That’s the attitude of pianist improvisers because you can’t bring your piano to a gig.

Jl32: How do you see the trio evolving?

AV: So the trio is still going and I’ve been playing more free music and loving that. Improvisers need to channel these varying experiences (even difficult pianos) and react to new places. Since I’ve been travelling, in Copenhagen, Berlin, Trondheim there are fresh ideas and we all have new tunes to share. So what was initially an acoustic piano trio is now involving a Korg Prologue synthesiser. We have evolved from a tunes trio to something else, last gig we only played two tunes per set and between we played free.

JL32: So do you enjoy playing free?

AV: I love it and that is mainly because I’ve been exposed to Scandinavian music, the free scene in Copenhagen and also in Berlin. 

JL32: Both of those locations have well developed free scenes, Have you found a difference? 

AV: Berlin is more of an animal, a beast of its own I would say. 

JL32: Open exploration and embracing hybridity?

AV: Yes improvisers should include their other influences and experiences, what’s around them and whatever else they are going through, even the non-musical elements. The places they’ve travelled through, the people they’ve met, the cultures they’ve encountered, soak it up and translate that into music. That’s when you get interesting results. This can be seen as the traditional journey for improvisers in a sense, many of the standards were just pop songs of the day reinterpreted.  I have a trio I play with right now in Scandinavia where we mostly improvise, but we also play jazz standards and fragment them. 

JL32: I’ve heard you do a version of Someday My Prince will Come as a reharm. 

AV: Exactly. That was a fully-fledged new arrangement until the melody line was barely perceivable anymore. 

JL32:  I just found an album on Bandcamp which is essentially Pakistani devotional music in conjunction with a Nordic Jazz Guitarist and bass. It remains what it is, devotional music, but through a Jazz lens. Nothing is forced.

AV: What you said then, through a jazz lens, I find it interesting when Jazz musicians or other kinds of artists look at something through their own lens, something different, often not even music. I mentioned before the school in Copenhagen I attended, the Rythmic Music Conservatory, they are all about that. People come there from vastly different styles and genres. We would embark on our different projects and get feedback from each other on our projects, a classical clarinettist, an extended technique only saxophonist, a hip-hop artist etc. When a Rap artist gives feedback on a piece by an improvising pianist like me, I will hear something different to what a Jazz musician will tell me. That musician will talk about aspects that I might not have considered. It’s more of a zoomed-out perspective. It is also nourishing to let go of that thing where you need to prove yourself (to people who know your thing)

JL32: With your Alex And The Wavemakers Quartet, you were exploring, expanding, you added a human voice, a Korean voice. I loved that. Were you influenced in any way by that European thing, like Kenny Wheeler/Norma Winstone, Weber, Endresen etc, interwoven vocal lines, melodic interplay?  

AV: The reference you made to Kenny Wheeler and Norma Winstone, I had certainly heard that, but I came to the use of wordless voice differently, using voice as a rhythmic instrument. So in the group, you are referring to, Alex and the Wavemakers, I was very much influenced by the Swiss musician Nik Bartsch and his Ronin band.

JL32: Yeah I rate that band, percussive serialism, tell me more. 

AV: So that’s the sort of sound I was going for, rhythmic organisms so that every musician had a piece of the rhythmic puzzle and we would all interlock. I would compose the rhythmic cycles so that they all knew where they were, but I didn’t want the voice to stand out by having lyrics. Everyone needed to be an equal part of a collective sound. So it worked out well with the Korean Singer Yumi Ito. She is a phenomenal singer, and also Japanese singer Song Yi Jeon (there is material featuring both available on YouTube). Song, who has a strong voice brought quite a powerful flavour to the band. It started with the Nik Bartsch influence but we ended up doing a lot more improvising (Bartsch concentrates on micro improvisations). We even had solos.

JL32: And has that approach changed?

AV: So that’s a strong part of my listening background, but in Scandinavia and particularly Copenhagen I’ve been concentrating more on improvising; where people are using a lot of textural approaches, thinking more about bringing together sonic textures. So the new group, the one I sent you this morning and which I started in Trondheim, has piano, synth, violin, vibraphone and drums. So changing the lineup and forming a new quartet was driven by COVID and the lack of gigs, but I’m developing a concept out of that. 

JL32: Yeah having a palette like that opens up a world of possibilities. As a composer, it must give you more scope. So do you prefer writing through-composed pieces or something looser? 

AV: Yes that’s a good question and I’ve been thinking about that a lot. Where do I lie between completely free and completely arranged? I find that whole area interesting, arranged, textures, free, and that’s where these cultural differences come into play. My observation is, that the further north you go, the more musicians think about composing beyond or before the notes are written.

JL32: As in they’ve internalised the ideas?

AV: Yes, working out structures in advance, but then the actual notes and rhythms can be completely free, but perhaps the dynamic, interplay, vibe and textures will be strict and fixed. So the complete opposite to how classical music forms are notated. So you don’t start with a melody, rhythm, set of chords.   

JL32: So you’re not necessarily thinking cycle of fifths, how to resolve or traditional forms?

AV: Oh yes, you’re probably right. There’s nothing wrong with that traditional approach at all, but nobody is talking about composition quite like the Scandinavians do. It’s a given that Jazz musicians will be familiar with song forms, scales etc, but does it matter if you have an individual approach?  A process that you develop. In Copenhagen, it wouldn’t necessarily matter if you had little knowledge of traditional song forms. If you have a process of your own, then that’s perfectly valid. 

JL32: I saw a video featuring Dave Holland, where a bass player student asked him how many notes ahead he thought. His reply was none.

‘during a free-flowing enjoyable conversation with friends, how many words ahead do you think or plan’?  

So he was saying, once you know how to speak, how you use speech is an in-the-moment creative process. 

AV: And you’re not thinking about which word you’re going to use. So you have a basic competency in language and you use it. So with this conversation now, we are not thinking about our next word, but we are thinking about what will we do with those words. Ideas are forming and I think that it is the same with music. The smallest details can make big differences and that is part of the minimalist approach. Listening to Nik Bartsch I discovered what delight you can get with these minimal changes, so I’m a big fan of minimalism. The composer-pianist from Norway, Christian Wallumod, exemplifies that. There are minimal and subtle changes that can occur over time when you are in a certain musical zone. This happens when a group is at a certain level and can shine a light on these (subtleties). It is fascinating when musicians are playing free, find their space, stay there for a while, then tell a story with those details.

JL32: The Melbourne pianist Andrea Keller exploits those subtle variations to great effect, but she will also place them against fragments of the unsubtle. 

AV: Nik Bartsch talks about that in his book, (where he refers to) the unobtrusive difference. He quotes Stravinsky or Morton Feldman when he says, it is of the highest art when you can repeat something, change it very slightly, repeat a form many times over but it is the subtle differences. That creates the art. Christian Wallumrød gets variations out of simple major triads for example.

JL32: Again the internal battle with yourself over utilising all the chops you possess or telling a story in subtle ways.

AV: Which is what we were talking about, in developing an inner voice which tells you what you want to express. A different set of skills is required to express simple ideas well.

JL32: What about eliminating the bass, removing the anchor?

AV: Yes in my Trondheim quartet we don’t have a bass which can be liberating. I wondered if it would work at first, but once I’d prepared the left side of the piano with blue-tack mutes, I realised that they would take away a lot of the overtones and sustain, giving me a more percussive bass sound – even sounding at times like a Fender Bass. 

JL32: Nik Bartsch again. The harmonics are gone and you hear the patterns clearly – like Ta-tunk, ta-tunk.

AV: yes exactly, he utilises that. And then you are more of a percussion instrument again. I prepare the bottom two octaves of the piano, but also the top two octaves using wood, wooden cutlery between the strings. On a grand piano, I put the wood between two of the strings, leaving the third-string resonating (there are three strings to a note in the upper register of a grand).

JL32: There is a marvellous pianist in Auckland named Hermione Johnson who deploys a wide range of effects, some soft (stroked chopsticks), some percussive, some more like the gamelan. 

AV: Other harder objects and especially metals can give a strong gamelan sound; activating some of the frequencies in the soundboard and the strings. I think that prepared piano lends itself more to a percussive sound. While you can add to the sustain, it is a lot easier to take away, it is a subtractive exercise, eliminating the sustain but then adding to the attack depending on the materials used. I will be releasing an album soon with a Norwegian guitarist named Hein Westgaard playing a semi hollow-body guitar plugged directly into the amp. Without using pedals. I am playing prepared piano with varying acoustic preparations and it is completely improvised (it will be available on Bandcamp once released).  

JL32: The minimalist approach and use of extended technique have always been with us, even going back to previous centuries.

AV: And those forms will always be underdogs.

JL32: It can be extremely rewarding although deep listening is required. In a world full of easily accessible and disposable things, connecting deeper music to audiences must have challenges. 

AV: Yes, but that’s what improvisers do. I’ve been playing with another guitarist in Trondheim who plays Baritone Guitar and he bows it with a cello bow. He uses lots of pedals and creates these atmospheric worlds of sound and he loops it and feeds it through a granulation process. Much like Stian Westerhus the experimental guitarist, also a Norwegian. 

JL32: Eivind Aaset is someone I listen to a lot (a Norwegian guitarist who frequently works with Jan Bang, Arve Hendrikson and other notable improvisers). An American reviewer felt that this type of Nordic live improvisation and sound sculpting was like an extension of Bitches Brew.

AV: And it is influenced by the film music tradition. We had a class at Trondheim Jazz-Line NTNU called sound drama. It was about improvisation and group improvisation and trying to avoid tonal and rhythmical structures (the discussion turned to deep listening, which led us to Buddhist meditation and the influence it has had on improvisers like Gary Peacock and our own Jim Langabeer, who both attended the Woodstock Zen centre)  

JL32: So on deep listening and mindfulness, how did you get into practising Vipassana Mindfulness Meditation?

AV: I began practising Vipassana about six years ago, starting with a ten-day course in silence, no reading material, no distractions, no music, no talking. I went into it out of curiosity, but it turned out to be life-changing. I meditated feeling that it could be beneficial to music-making but not sure how. It turned out to be more than I expected and it was not about changing a person but making them more themselves. It strips you down and gives you tools. While I was in Basel I wrote a paper on Vipassana meditation and its connection to improvised music. In attempting to break down the elements I found some astounding relationships. There is a word common to Vipassana (and Buddhism in general), equanimity, and when you apply that to group playing it benefits the music. Letting go of your ego, not judging your performance while playing, living in the now. The music will tell you where to go and what it needs. This requires level-headedness.

JL32: Learning to be the observer perhaps?

AV: Yes the observer living in the moment. It’s hard not to think forward or back.

JL32: The restless monkey-mind demanding novelty, craving?

AV: Accept change as it happens as the observer. At first, I thought that I had to be reactive in Jazz, but now I think that being responsive is better, there is a difference. Making an instantaneous decision based upon everything that you’ve learnt and without ego. Being more giving to your fellow musicians. I don’t want to parrot the drummer or any band member in a rhythmical trade. Those ideas were in my Basel Thesis. I am now keen to explore how this could relate to composition. 

JL32: European Jazz is developing multiple strong identities and often at warp speed. 

AV: Especially the former Eastern Bloc countries. I hope that the free explorations continue but the internet could dilute that originality. Original ideas, folk music and new ways of exploring sound are very important in Scandinavia, but my Trondheim tutors worry about the risks posed by internet overload. 

JL32: Speaking authentically is vital for improvisers and I hope Jazz never travels down the ersatz road that commercial music has.  I guess that this is a good place to wrap things up. Thanks for coming over and agreeing to a grilling. By the way, I can’t wait to hear the new band. 

AV: I will send you a copy when it’s out. I return to Copenhagen and Trondheim in two days, so I must head home and grab my surfboard.

JL32: Where will you surf?

AV: Tawheranui.

You can find Alex Ventling’s albums on streaming platforms, Bandcamp or by contacting him via his website AlexVentling.com

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.

Rob Luft UK Guitarist ~ Interview

One of the few pleasures of lockdown is that it has afforded me time to conduct long-form interviews. But while I had the time, the subject of this interview was back touring again and his hectic schedule meant that dates and time zones had to be navigated with precision. Consequently, our pre-interview messaging often occurred during gig breaks. Guitarist Rob Luft is a significant presence on the UK and European Jazz scene. He is articulate and a good storyteller and so transcribing our zoom call has been a pleasure. We talked for nearly two hours. 

It was basically a long-distance hang, and when Jazz people are interviewed they tend to intersperse the geeky stuff with funny asides. This was no exception. For my part, I couldn’t wait to hear about his ECM experience with Manfred Eicher, but the unexpected foray into the joys of Arab music and being alone with Tutankhamun were the icing on the cake. It was never in doubt that Luft’s star would rise and it has risen on the back of sound judgement and hard work. And in aligning himself with astonishing vocalists like Alina Duni he has broadened his horizons. It is unusual to hear a young guitarist embracing thoughtful minimalism but in doing this he has shown real maturity. Under his fingers, less is invariably more.

JL32: Hi Rob, nice to see you again man and thanks for agreeing to an interview when you are so busy gigging.  I know that you had a gig in Oxford last night and were at Ronnie Scotts much of last week, before that on tour in Europe.

Luft: Hi John, good to see you too after a long strange few years. It’s been a while since we last met up. 

JL32. Yes, after your trip to New Zealand in 2016 (see review) we got together in London, first at the Barnes Jazz Club for the launch of Luna Cohens ‘November Skies’ album and then, a year later at Ronnie Scotts where you were playing with Kit Downes.

Luft: And I have played with both since, with Luna on my recent album and with Kit on a gig recently.

JL32: According to your discography you have been very busy since we last spoke. There was your Riser album with Joe Wright (sax),  Joe Webb (keys), Tom McCredie (bass) and Corrie Dick (drums), and then, a follow-up album with the same lineup adding vocalist Luna Cohan and on ‘Flumpit’ Byron Wallen. And over that same period, you were sideman on around eight albums. 

Luft: Yes and other projects, but, 2020 was almost completely dry of gigs because of COVID. We had the inverse experience to New Zealand because the UK was hit early and we were not open like your country.  Especially gig wise.

JL32: The last time we spoke you told me that you and the Albanian Jazz vocalist Elina Duni had an ECM album under discussion, and of course that came to pass with the beautiful ‘Lost Ships’. Looking at the release date, that must have coincided with the arrival of restrictions in the UK.

Luft: Well in the rest of Europe, after the initial lockdown, there were still gigs happening, I was able to play gigs in France, Italy, Germany, Spain and Switzerland throughout the summer. In the UK it was very different.

JL32: I’d like to come back to that, but before we proceed further,  a few biographical details if you don’t mind. I know that you were born in the London area and that you went to the Royal Academy of Music where you won the Kenny Wheeler Prize. 

Luft: Yes, and I had a bizarre sort of experience at the Academy. The class groups for the Jazz Studies Bachelor’s course were very small and in my year there were only five, then later four of us. And in my group was Jacob Collier, so for the best part of four years, I was there with Jacob who was obviously a multi-instrumentalist. We had no drummer in our year and so usually you would have a full group playing with you, and so Jacob would play a different instrument when each guest artist came to visit us. There was John Abercrombie, Kenny Wheeler, Stan Sulzman and so on, and Jacob would be there playing a different instrument for each ensemble. There was no sense of continuity or band sensibility because Jacob was fulfilling so many roles, quite bizarre actually.  

JL32: So in some ways your studies forced you to forge your own path.

Luft: I guess because the Academy only took in pupils who had advanced abilities at the outset. Less teaching and a more autodidactic approach, they encouraged that. They would get these great artists like Jerry Bergonzi to come in and play with us rather than teach us in the traditional sense. It was amazing to have people like John Abercombie come in and I’d be with him for a couple of days at a time.

JL32: That must have been especially good for you as a guitarist.

Luft: For me it was optimal. And obviously, the people coming in with Kenny Wheeler, like John Taylor, Norma Winstone and that class of musicians. 

JL32: Abercrombie, Wheeler, Taylor, they are no longer with us. 

Luft: Yes, back then Kenny Wheeler’s Big Band would come in and rehearse, imagine, you’re eighteen years old and you watch these legendary Jazz figures come in and rehearse in your music hall, it was amazing. Kenny had a huge influence on me, on my harmonic and textural approach. And Stan (Sulzman), a lovely player, and Ray Warleigh, they were all in that band, Ray was originally from Australia I think (Sadly Warleigh is also no longer with us).  

JL32: Kenny was across every style huh.

Luft: He was eclectic, as was Stan, across everything from playing alongside English folk guitarist Nick Drake to playing free alongside Evan Parker. And I love that open eclecticism, the Academy was like that, never dictatorial or saying, you have to play like this. 

JL32;  The UK scene historically, appears to have possessed enough confidence to do its own thing, not thinking that they had to sound exactly like American players. It appears to have an original voice, much as the Scandinavian scene does. What do you think?

Luft: Yeah it’s very similar to the Scandinavian Jazz scene. You will understand, because we meet up in London, that it’s a melting pot, with influences coming from all over Europe and everywhere else. Afro Caribean musicians because of the connections formed way back in colonial times. Or the Indian community in North London creating a hub of South Indian music and by the same token, there is a huge West African community bringing their traditional music, Ghanain, Congolese for example.

JL32: Like Shabaka Hutchings?

Luft: Exactly, Shabaka comes from a Barbadian background and is influenced by Calypso music.

JL32: And earlier, Joe Harriot from Jamaica, who was world-leading in his free and world fusion explorations.

Luft: Yes, and that’s the melting pot of London. So many forms of music around and played at a high level. And you came to see us in Barnes with the Brazillian vocalist Luna Cohen and her band features Brazillian musicians. I played with them again recently and Luna is on one of my recent albums. 

JL32: She sung wordless vocal lines, I love that.

Luft: I especially love that as a guitarist, the Pat Metheney group of the eighties, and Kenny with Norma Winstone, I can’t get away from it in my head, the vocalese. And the psychedelic jazz of the seventies, Mahavishnu and Alan Holdsworth. One of the first gigs I ever saw was Holdsworth with Jimmy Haslip and Gary Husband (Gary playing the drums and not keyboards). For better or worse, seeing that trio changed my life. 

JL32: Is Gary Husband English (Luft nods) I had no idea? 

Luft: A few months after my New Zealand trip I met McLoughlin at the Montreaux Jazz Festival and he adjudicated in a competition I had entered. Then his band played with the two winning bands, I got second place, all of us jamming a blues together and doing solos. I had to pinch myself and say, is this happening (laughs). He’s lovely, just lovely, and he speaks incredibly good French, but I was slightly dismayed that his North Yorkshire accent has all but disappeared. 

JL32: So moving to 2020 and your album ‘Life as a Dancer’, did you record that before or after the ECM album ‘Lost Ships’?

Luft: That was recorded six months before. I remember that session well because Byron had been held up. He needed to pick up his Flumpet which had a sticky valve. It sounds like a comedy sketch now (laughs), very Monty Python, me on the phone saying we need your Flumpet. We were recording and only had the studio booked for a limited time. When he arrived we only had time left for one take and he nailed it. 

JL32: I admire openness in writing, even after adding two extra voices (after Riser), that album still sounds spacious, and the palette creates a nice textural balance.   

Luft: I think you could say that the quintet was more inspired by textual, ambient ideas, perhaps Eno, more open and a washier sound, more open to explorations. We laid down a very simple progression and let the music go where it wanted to.

JL32: Are you drawn to open, model or spiritual jazz?

Luft: Yes, that new Coltrane album exemplified that, it blew me away. I am always inspired by that modal era, and when you add the electric guitar, electronics, which touches on those psychedelic influences, Eno, Byrne, then that whole world of sonic exploration opens. 

JL32: Jon Hassell?

Luft: Oh yeah, a huge loss. In 2019 I was on tour with Arve Hendrikson (Norwegian Trumpeter associated with Hassell), and I discovered Hassell after I had heard Arve, and I said to him, ‘hang on, there is so much in your playing that comes from Jon Hassell and I had no idea’.  

JL32: And guitarist Eivind Aaset, electronics improviser Jan Bang?

Luft: ‘Dream Logic’ is one of my favourite albums. The Norwegians are masters, they are like folk musicians. I met Eivind and Arild Anderson recently when I played at the Molde Jazz Festival, and I came to the realisation that these are deep folk musicians. Masters of sound, it’s about sound and the local roots. And Sidsel Endresen who is the biggest influence on Elina is astonishing. 

JL32: And last year, there was another album that was released. A trio with Norwegian bassist and vocalist Ellen Andrea Wang, You on guitar and Jon Falt on drums (Falt is the long time drummer with the ECM Bobo Stenson Trio). 

Luft: I’m a huge fan of Jon Falt and I love Bobo Stenson, a big influence across Europe, Here, he has an almost Jarrett-like status. 

JL32: Again that open airy free sound – like the American pianist, Marilyn Crispell,   minimalism and depth.

Luft: The trumpet player who appears on ‘Life is a Dancer’, Byron Wallen, has an album. I’m on tour with him at present. He plays trumpet, Flugel, Flumpet, piano, conch and reads poems. He’s of Belizian Descent and has this gorgeous dulcet voice, and while he reads a poem I play minimalistic triadic chords. A beautiful conversation, voice above the texture.  

JL32: Obviously, the thing I am keen to explore is your co-led album ‘Lost Ships’ and your impressions of recording with ECM. ‘Lost ships’ is the album that I am most likely to recommend to friends and your playing is a great example of less being more. You are understated, not all over the vocalist, but it feels so expansive. And all of you, relatively sparse instrumentation, Flugel, piano, guitar, vocals and not always at the same time, but a big sound.

Luft: I can tell you an amazing story about that recording. At that point, some countries like Italy were beginning to experience COVID but for us, it was a vague awareness of distant storm clouds gathering. We were there in the south of France and the days were mild. The studio Manfred had hired was in Avignon and the Israeli pianist Shai Maestro had just finished recording. And Manfred was there setting up the mics and desk levels, and then he had to return to Munich unexpectedly. So the set-up was complete and we had the engineer, but we were suddenly self-producing. 

I was initially gutted, but Alina who had recorded with Manfred before, said, this is an opportunity. His presence is everywhere in the studio, so we should draw on that and record as if he were here guiding us. We should play as though he were sitting on the other side of the glass. And we would do a take and listen and say to ourselves, how would Manfred view this, and it was kind of liberating because we had unexpected freedom and as a young guitarist, I might have been intimidated otherwise. 

JL32: Tell me more about the vibe.

Luft: I mean Manfred has produced some of my favourite albums like Metheney’s ‘Bright Sized Life’, John Abercrombie’s ‘Timeless’ with De Johnette/Hammer and many of my favourite guitar albums, so it took some of the weight off my shoulders to be imagining his presence. And as you pointed out, I felt able to play in a minimalist spacious way and I didn’t deploy all of my usual tricks and language.  I just told myself, be an ECM guitarist and it worked. I’ve been told that Manfred loves the album and that he plays it at dinner parties, so it’s a good sign. 

JL32: I would like to touch on the arranging, the writing, configuration etc. 

Luft: I did a fair bit of the arranging and we were lucky to bring onboard other musicians, Matthieu Michel on Flugelhorn, they call him the Kenny Wheeler of Switzerland, a mellifluous tone reminiscent of the Northern Europeans. Manfreds a fan of his playing and he’s featured on a few ECM albums, with artists like Susanne Abbuehl. And Fred Thomas who is a multi-instrumentalist. He went to the Academy about ten years before me, in the same year as Kit Downes (also an ECM artist). What I’m trying to say is that it is all very incestuous (laughs). It’s a beautiful thing that the entire Jazz world is so connected.

Getting back to ‘lost Ships’, it came out in November 2020, during the month that Europe called a circuit-breaker lockdown.  So right on release after the promise of clubs finally opening up again, lockdown. It was like a switch being turned off.  We were gutted that we could not promote our album and only one concert survived. We had a big release tour locked down and suddenly in my diary, everything had to be crossed out. 

The one remaining concert was the Cairo Jazz festival, Egypt! So in the middle of a lockdown, I showed up at Heathrow, guitar in tow, and boarded an Egyptian Airlines flight, without Matthieu. We were a trio with just Alina and Fred. But there was one gig on the way in Galicia Spain which was streamed and from there we flew directly to Cairo. (clip shown)

As we exited the Cairo terminal, the wafts of heat just swept over us, in stark contrast to wintery London. Taxi touts everywhere, shouting, and obviously no lockdown. We had two gigs at the festival and instead of live-streaming with no audience, we had a gorgeous venue and a full capacity audience. The Cairo Jazz Festival is amazing and we learnt an Arabic song for it, an ancient maqam from the 14th century. 

We met loads of great musicians and the director of the festival, Amr Salah said, why are you getting on a plane to fly into a lockdown? What will you do when there are no gigs? Why don’t you just miss the flight and stay in Egypt? It was a wine-fueled evening and we decided on the spot to do just that. We soon found ourselves exploring the wonders of upper and lower Egypt. There were no tourists and we had the ancient sites virtually to ourselves. I must be one of the few people to stand beside Tutankhamun without company. And it was just us inside the anti-chamber of the Great Pyramid of Giza. And one thing led to another and I stayed there seven months.

JL32: Did I hear you correctly, seven months?

Luft: I was there living my life as normal, learning a bit of Arabic, and I fell in love with the country. And for whatever reason, the desert or perhaps a lack of testing, but very few cases of the virus appeared. 

JL32: And are there any projects underway, ECM or otherwise?

Luft: Well three months ago Alina and I received an email from Manfred asking us to do another record. The finer details of which are under discussion right now and we might be recording in March 2022. And although we suffered through missing the lockdown release gigs, all of those bookings are suddenly active again, with promoters wanting us to appear all over. Strangely, I am busier with gigs now than I have ever been. In a few days, we head for Paris for a week of gigs, then around France. And another factor is that Elina and I work perfectly well as a duo and promotors find that easier to plan for. (some European countries have numbers restrictions again).

JL32: And how is the album doing?

Luft: By modern standards well and the sales are constant with gigs opening up again.  Loads of Radio Play in Germany and Italy especially. ECM is essentially an old fashioned business and what they do is remarkably successful. Manfred is across it all and he uses only a small number of studios and a handful of trusted engineers. There’s one in the South of France where we recorded, there’s one in Lugano south Switzerland. Even the famous Rainbow Studio in Oslo is not used anymore because the room is different. He values spaces and forms high trust relationships with certain engineers, and he probably delegates more than people think. Including delegating to the musicians. I have been told by other ECM musicians that his presence is felt, but not inserted into the project. Not insisting, I want you to do this now.  

JL32: Any plans for a down-under tour in future? 

Luft: The Melbourne scene is an important Jazz hub and the Melbourne diaspora (of jazz musicians) is felt throughout the world. We have a good friend in Melbourne who keeps threatening to organise a tour. If we were to go to Melbourne we would certainly try to facilitate a trip to New Zealand.  And I would tour with Alina, it’s just a question of time. My mentality now, since we started touring again is, every concert is a blessing, a gift. Even if it’s stressful to get there with quarantine or with testing, we brush that aside and give the concert our all. I don’t want to lose that.

JL32: And I want to mention another name, someone you know. James Copus the Flugel player. I reviewed the recent Scottish National Jazz Orchestra album where they honour some free-jazz titans and James was playing in the orchestra. I loved his ‘Dusk’ recording.

Luft: Yes, James is one of my oldest friends, we shared a flat in North London, we drank too much, jammed too loudly and annoyed the neighbours. We would rehearse in our room with Balkan brass ensembles and the poor neighbours were incensed. We have known each other since we were fifteen as we were both in the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. And in the Royal Academy, we were in the same year with Jacob Collier. James and I are going to record together next year.

JL32: I see that you recorded as guest guitarist with the SNJO.

Luft: Yes one album. Tommy Smith is amazing, the UK Michael Brecker. 

JL32: A few final questions. On ‘Lost Ships’ there is no bass player and minimal drums. How did you approach that?  

Luft: Yes, it freed up space, but it also put a lot of responsibility onto my shoulders as a guitarist. So that’s why I used the electronics to give me an octave below and to fill out that space a bit more. And if there is a drummer they needed to be very aware. Play more with the lower toms and bass drum. I played bass lines sometimes while comping, it’s a flavour. You can’t talk about bassless jazz without thinking, Paul Motian Trio. In my head, that’s the textbook on how to do it. 

JL32: Current influences? 

Luft: I try to listen to new stuff all the time. Actually, Egypt was amazing for that. Being immersed in a whole world of Egyptian singers and musicians was great, I had no idea it existed. And now I hear that and it touches me deeply. It’s incredible the way the Oud players, singers and violinists improvise within a mode and often microtonally. No pianos anywhere. I’m a huge fan of Anouar Brahem, so to walk into a cafe, drink a really strong coffee and hear musicians doing what he does, magic, all of that drone-based modal music. 

It’s lament music. Alina often points out to audiences, that once you cross the Bosphorus and arrive in the Middle East, something fundamental in the music changes. So in the West, a major key song is a happy song and a minor key song is a sad song. Once you cross the Bosphorus, the minor key becomes the happy song. And Jazz gets that as it understands dancing the sadness away. 

JL32: So with Alina, you will have been exploring this type of music.  

Luft: Because she’s from Albania, an ancient cultural melting pot, the Ottoman Turkish influence is strong, but it’s also a Mediterranean country with Italian and other influences. So Turkish microtonality blended with an Italian folky balladesque. And touches of Rock and Pop. The Balkans region influences me more and more. So I have an Oud now and I am beginning to explore that. The Oud shops of Cairo are the Tin Pan Alley of the Middle East. We have to innovate to keep moving.

JL32: And the recent album by Norwegian bass player Ellen Andrea Wang that you featured on. That is a prime example of the forward-momentum of improvised music. I get quite a few albums from that region for review, and many are similar to ‘Closeness’ in that they blend pop sensibilities with hardcore Jazz. Like folksy ballads alongside tunes like Ornette’s Lonely Woman or some Americana like Wayfaring Stranger.  

Luft: All over London there are Jazz gigs in small venues featuring this exact type of music, so you get teenagers coming along in droves, and sometimes I do gigs like that. We will throw in a Radiohead or a Nick Drake number with Jazz harmonies.  I love the excitement on the faces of new audiences as they hear that mix but also relate to the straight Jazz content. Brad Mehldau led the way.  Many young Londoners are becoming tired of shallow formulaic pop music and they are searching. And they discover new stars like Shabaka Hutchings who is very popular. Myele Manzanza from Wellington is also very successful in London, he has real crossover appeal. 

JL32: I am interested in your work as an accompanist, your sensitivity and awareness of the vocalist. Not every guitarist gets that, many overplay, miss the nuances when comping. Although you have a number of instrumental albums, you also gravitate towards vocalists. Are you drawn to them or do they seek you out?

Luft: I’ve always been drawn to singers because I love the spoken word. A number of years ago I studied at University College London, a degree course in the science of language. Along the way, I managed to pick up two additional languages, with a degree of proficiency, French and Italian, and I’m fascinated with the connection between poetry and melody. Voice and guitar, that extra layer that can be added. So I am drawn to them, but maybe it works both ways as they call me back for more gigs.

JL32: It appears that we’ve been talking for nearly two hours so I’d better wrap up and let you get some sleep (it’s Midnight in the UK). Thanks, for giving me so much time man, it’s been a really interesting and fun catch-up.

Luft: And you too John. Let’s hope that our paths will cross sometime in the new year or very soon after. 

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.

Wouldland ~ Michael Gianan

Michael Gianan’s ‘Wouldland’ gig caught my attention immediately.  First off, was that wonderfully evocative title (and accompanying poster), suggesting a balm to ease our way through troubled times. For a lover of forests and explorative sounds, it was irresistible. I was hopeful that this event would hit the mark because I have kept an eye on the leader’s trajectory since he graduated with honours from UoA Jazz School two years ago. During that time he has been associated with some diverse and interesting bands. This was his second CJC gig as a leader and the proof was to be in the pudding. 

The gig title suggested an elemental offering and in many ways it was. While it referenced many ideas and styles, all were distilled to their essence. Out of this, Gianan had forged a clear vision. It was a surprisingly mature offering and his strength as a leader became apparent as the sets progressed. He knew exactly what he wanted from the musicians and he signalled his intentions as the tunes progressed. The compositions, while structured, did not confine the musicians. They were pieces written with the ensemble in mind.  

It was particularly evident in the head arrangements, which were anchors for the developments which arose from them. Brief exchanges between guitar and saxophone, momentarily broke free of the structure, and this contrasted with the steady bass lines and drum pulses. There were burners and ballads, and every twist and tune seemed to balance what had preceded it. 

Gianan’s guitar can be either nimble or deliberate, but he never tries to make it just about him. His comping is supportive while the flurry of exchanges with the other musicians are to the point. Gianan’s Jazz school alumni Lukas Fritsch was the perfect foil for him here. His alto lines tight in the heads, and stretching during exchanges. His lines are often elided and I like that, he can say a lot with what he leaves out. Knowing when to leave space is important and again this says something about the quality of the compositions. 

Completing the line up were two experienced musicians, Bass player Mostyn Cole and drummer Ron Samsom. Cole’s electric bass work has appeal. There were fragments of vibrato-tinged melody, played in unison; at other times a pumping groove. He was a late addition to the lineup and a good choice. We expect much from Samsom and we are never disappointed. He seemed to relish playing alongside his former pupil. He was on fire. 

I have put up a clip titled ‘Manara’. Unfortunately, the battery on my Rode mic gave out, so the filming relied on the camera mic. It is not ideal, but the music shines through. All of the compositions were Gianan’s. The tune titles were intriguing and added something to the vibe. Often Jazz musicians pay scant attention to titles, but not so with Gianan ( Wouldland’  ‘B B Tressler’  ‘Maegraeneous’ ‘Astigmatisn’ Manares etc). Enigmatic titles can add value and these felt like they belonged to the tunes.

It is noticeable when a gig flows naturally. Afterwards, something remains with you, an essence, not just a tune, but a sense of what the musician is communicating.  At times, this gig evoked a wistful feel, but it mostly suggested what could be. I for one will wait for what comes next with interest. 

The gig was at Anthology, CJC Jazz Club Auckland 7 April 2021 Michael Gianan (guitar), Lukas Fritsch (alto saxophone), Mostyn Cole (electric bass), Ron Samsom (drums). 

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. Some of these posts appear on other sites by arrangement.

Dixon Nacey Band ~ CJC December 2020

With 2020 nearly done, the penultimate gig at the CJC was an optimistic signpost; signalling hope and possibility. After a long and turbulent year, the music had bounced back better than ever and in spite of the obstacles along the way new energies were flowing. In amongst the offerings from our up-and-coming artists were gigs and albums by our finest. Last Wednesday’s Dixon Nacey Band and the release of Kevin Field’s ‘Soundtology’, stand out as musical high points. In a year of plague and pestilence, the music only grew stronger. There is a thing about genuine creatives; when the bats start to circle, they work with the chaos and create better. Dixon Nacey is very much in that category; what an extraordinary musician. 

Nacey appeared this time, with the same lineup that accompanied him on his Tui award-winning ‘Edge of Chaos’ album. There were numbers from the album, plus a few new tunes. In addition, he played a blues and two arrangements of Pat Metheny tunes which delighted everyone. I had missed his Ponsonby Road Metheny gig, which everyone who attended, raved about for weeks afterwards. 

Punching Bag (Nacey)

Nacey is a musician who keeps moving forward, and with each passing year, he reaches new heights. He is less inclined these days to rely on pedals and an uncluttered spaciousness is evident in many of his compositions. What he has absorbed has now been internalised, so there is no over-thinking, and out of that comes clarity and a cleaner sound. This enables him to say more and to give deeper meaning to the notes and phrases and underlying everything is some great writing. Playing like this demonstrates the best features of his Godin guitar, which in return, reveals its best self. The tune above is a recent Nacey composition. New Zealand Jazz at its finest.

And Then I knew (Metheny)

The band were superb and the tricky unison lines were executed well. Roger Manins is an excellent reader, and you could not have slid a cigarette paper between his and Nacey’s lines in the head arrangements. And behind those, adding fills or comping unobtrusively was Kevin Field. Responding exactly as he should and consequently giving the music a floating quality. There were rhythmic complexities on many of the numbers, but because they were navigated so well, they were rendered as easy. One or two pieces came close to being a shuffle beat, but not quite. This was a layered sound and the complexity of the overlaying time signatures needed skilled craftsman to make them fit properly. The reason it held together so well was down to Oli Holland on bass and Andy Keegan on drums. This is how a tight unit should function. What we got was a superb night of engaging music and it brought us end-of-year joy.

Dixon Nacey: guitar, arrangements, compositions – Roger Manins : tenor saxophone – Kevin Field: piano – Olivier Holland : bass – Andy Keegan : drums

The gig took place at Anthology K’Road for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, December 9, 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.

Kevin Field ~ Soundtology

With closed borders and venue restrictions biting, the release date for Kevin Field’s ‘Soundtology’ album became a movable feast. The original proposal would have seen some of his New York band appear, but because of the pandemic, that plan was ditched. If he was flustered by these frustrating circumstances it didn’t show. Making a virtue out of necessity he engaged local musicians and launched his album anyway. It was a night to remember.

Field is one of our finest musicians and his reputation stretches far beyond these shores. He has previously recorded with highly-rated New York Jazz musicians and also with the best of New Zealand’s improvisers. As an adventurous musician, Field eschews stasis and his developmental arc is particularly evident with this latest album. He is an artist who arrives at a successful formula and then turns it on its head. With each album, he makes references to his earlier works, and then he moves foreword. Everything that has gone before becomes a springboard to a new moment and each iteration is better than that preceding it. 

There is a lot to like about Fields new album ‘Soundtology’. The tunes are sublimely melodic, and as always, his trademark harmonic developments astound. I have always enjoyed his avoidance of cliche and in this case, there is something else. Even when upbeat, the tunes feel more contemplative, and the space afforded, lets the music speak with clarity.  This is the album of a mature composer and it is deserving of wide acclaim.

‘Good Friday’ Live in Auckland

The album has eleven tunes and features two quartets (alternating throughout). This provides contrast while not affecting the flow and continuity. All of these tunes belong together and each unit locates something special. The first quartet features Field (Piano Rhodes),  Nir Felder (guitar), Orlando Le Fleming (bass) and Charles Haynes (drums). The second quartet has Field (piano, Rhodes) Mike Moreno (guitar), Matt Penman (bass) and Nate Wood (drums). These are heavy hitters and Field could not have chosen better crews to spin gold out of his compositions. I was immediately drawn to the inclusion of Moreno, one of the worlds great guitar improvisers. I once flew to Sydney just to catch a concert of his. 

‘Soundtology’ is a beautifully presented album and it was recorded to perfection.  It is an album to be enjoyed on many levels; for its beauty and freshness and for its accessibility. If ever there was an example of complex music made to sound easy, it is here. The tunes are beguiling and memorable, but underlying them are twists and turns which elevate the tunes into listening adventures. A good example is the first track Quintus Maximus. It opens over an ostinato sequence, where a broken rhythmic pattern is established by bass and Rhodes. The intro is a teaser as it hints at possible directions without necessarily committing to them; then the melody soars and brings it together until the underlying ostinato phrases reappear. An interesting and enjoyable piece of music. 

The second tune, ‘Good Friday’ is a great composition. It is among the most melodic of Fields tunes and it has been around since he first recorded it on his 2012 Warner release ‘Field of Vision’. Back in 2012, the tune was a slower-paced offering. Over the last few years, I have heard it performed often; now, it has emerged as a punchier version of its former self. It is fascinating to hear good tunes like this under constant development. This is what Field does and it is his impulse toward reinvention that elevates him beyond the pack.  It is not surprising that he was recently awarded a doctorate.

There is no better example of its ongoing trajectory than the version of Good Friday we heard at Wednesday’s live performance. It had been rearranged to include a bass clarinet and a soprano saxophone. There were two guitarists as in the album, but the addition of the horns gave us yet another vantage point from which to examine the composition. A band member told me afterwards that the charts were interestingly structured. They forced the soloists to think outside of the square and to avoid any formulaic approach. 

‘People factory’ was the perfect vehicle for Moreno, Penman and Wood. This number is like silk in a ruffling breeze, I have never heard Moreno sound better (and he always sounds good). The responsiveness Field extracts from Wood and Penman is also marvellous. This is seamless interplay at its best.  Actually, everything is great on this album and there’s plenty of variety.  This one is 4.5 stars. My advice is, buy multiple copies and impress everyone with your hip good taste.

‘Soundtology’ by Keven Field ~ Released on TimezoneRecords.com 2020

Album: Keven Field (piano, Fender Rhodes), Mike Moreno, Nir Felder (guitar), Matt Penman, Orlando Le    Fleming (bass), Charles Hayes, Nate Wood (drums).   

Live gig: Kevin Field (piano, Fender Rhodes), Michael Howell & Kieth Price (guitars), Nathan Haines (tenor, soprano saxophones), Lewis McCallum (bass clarinet), Cam McArthur (bass), Stephen Thomas (drums).

The live gig took place at Anthology K’Road for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, November 11, 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.

Kang / Rainey ~ Christchurch

Last weeks CJC/Anthology gig brought the Christchurch Brad Kang/ Jimmy Rainey duo to Auckland. While I have heard both artists before, this gig was a step up for them. Both looked comfortable on the bandstand and their confidence was justified. It is always a pleasure to witness early promise being realised and while neither could be considered veterans, both have received a measure of favourable attention. Both are well travelled and tested in the wider Jazz world.

I am more familiar with guitarist Kang as he has gigged in Auckland several times. The last time he played here he was just about to depart for the USA and that and his other trips have yielded dividends. He was always a competent player but a noticeable change has occurred. He is now playing fewer notes and the way he phrases resonates. I know that he has studied with Mike Moreno and it showed. The virtuosity is still there, but never at the expense of the music itself. 

The last time I heard Rainey was at a CJC emerging artists gig but much has happened since then. He has benefited from overseas experience and his exposure to new ideas; particularly in his writing. This is a duo that writes to their strengths and because they understand that, they can play up a storm in consequence. At one point Rainey studied in Amsterdam, a Jazz loving genre-diverse proving ground. Anyone who has attended ‘Bim’ gigs will know what I mean. There’s a lot of freedom and innovation happening in that city.

From the first to the last tune they held us. The tunes while of varying tempos and alternating between the two composers, all spoke of the now. This is the type of music that is owned by younger players. It was unselfconsciously forward-looking and immediately brought ‘James Farm’ to mind. It did not lean heavily on harmony but the harmonic development was implied; there were clean unison lines and above all, the melody dominated. It was evident on the tune Spiral, where the cascade of lines emerged in sonic waves, while behind them piano, bass and drums carved up the rhythms. 

And this was made possible by the skilled anchoring of Tom Botting’s bass lines and by the steady pulse from drummer Adam Tobeck. With Field, comping minimally the effect was enhanced. Wise heads and good players always adjust to accommodate. If he was alive today, it is tempting to think that Tristano might have embraced this direction?

The first tune Herfst was a majestic and evocative composition by Rainey. Herfst is a Dutch word meaning August (majestic and the season). This was a good warm-up tune as it gave us an idea of what would follow and the course once set, remained steady.  Other tunes that Rainey penned were ‘Daze’ and ‘jubilate’. As well as the piece that I have posted on YouTube (Spiral), Kang composed ‘Passing Thoughts’ ‘A Quiet Place’ and ’Five Five Four’. 

Brad Kang|guitar, Jimmy Rainey|tenor saxophone, Kevin Field|piano, Tom Botting|bass, Adam Tobeck|drums. The gig took place at Anthology K’Road for the CJC Creative Jazz Club October14, 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.

Life is Brut[if]al ~ Andrea Keller

By any measure, Andrea Keller is an extraordinary musician and her latest release, ‘Life is Brut[if]al’ is the proof of the pudding.  This is music for our times, and it reflects her well-documented and highly original creative journey. Keller is Melbourne based and like most musicians in recent months, her activities have been severely curtailed. The insidious grip of the virus is causing ever tighter lockdown restrictions, but creatives are used to working in challenging conditions, and happily, her prodigious output continues. This artist has a work ethic that few can equal, and we are the beneficiaries. 

The term tune is wholly inadequate to describe how the pieces unfold and although the substitute term journey is somewhat cliched, it is accurate.  As we listen, we find ourselves in a world located far from the mundane, a world full of intricacy and wonder, but revealed via the medium of minimalism and kaleidoscopic shifting patterns. This is Keller’s preferred space as her various influences have led her here.  She is an extraordinary pianist with a deft touch, but her compositional skills are very much to the forefront in this work.  

As one would expect, Keller has gathered some of Melbourne’s finest musicians about her for this project. Her ensemble writing is always about collaboration: Scott McConnachie (soprano and alto saxophone), Julien Wilson (tenor, saxophone and bass clarinet) and Jim Keller (voice), alongside Five Below band members Stephen Magnusson (guitar), Sam Anning (double bass), Mick Meagher (electric bass), James McLean (drums). Andrea Keller plays piano throughout. 

The first piece ‘Meditations on Light’ is the longest and it is the perfect opener as it invites a reflective mood before diving deeper.  It opens with a soft pulse, followed by guitar; the latter evoking the sound of a wine-soaked finger rubbed on crystal. Then you hear Keller, moving slowly and purposefully; a T. E. Lawrence riding out of the distant desert haze. By this point, anyone with open ears and a receptive heart will be fully engaged. You listen and the realities and cares outside the door fade into obscurity.  The soprano, when it enters, soars ecstatically above the drums and bass. It has the feel of a Fellini movie and the album is worth buying for this track alone.  

The second track ‘Dear John/Joan’ is more somber and mysterious. It reminded me of church bells and mourners in an Italian village, and again it is eerily filmic. Perhaps it reflects the loss of connection that the world is currently experiencing. Bley and Burton achieved a similar effect with ‘A Very Tang Funeral’.  That is followed by the title track ‘Life is Brut[if]al’; a powerful track which takes a freer path over a long earthy vamp. I love this track, especially, as the freedom seeking soprano dances so unbound. This track best sums up that happy place where freer music talks to its growing audience. An intersection for the adventurous and a place where the finest of improvised music is headed. 

After that comes ‘Suicidal Snails’ and ‘Blip ‘the former featuring reeds in unison and the latter, a short but sweet segment featuring tenor saxophone. The penultimate, ‘Youth Unleashed’ finds us exploring the free again.  

The final track incorporates portions of Rainer Maria Rilke’s profound prose, from ‘Letters to a young poet’. The track is ‘Love in Solitude (disassembled)’. This intertextuality is the icing on the cake and perhaps the point where the album makes its strongest claim to greatness. This is art music and it is timeless. 

Uptown Jazz Cafe – photograph J Fenton

Born of Czech parents and growing up in the ethnically and musically diverse city of Melbourne, Keller has been gifted an ecumenical viewpoint. Her album speaks to the world and beyond, and due to its originality, depth and fluid interplay it is a five-star achievement.  This album and its predecessor ‘The Composers Circle’ are part of her ‘Monday Nights at Jazzlab’ series. ‘Five Bellow Live’ won the 2019 Jazz Bell Award for the best Jazz Ensemble. 

Keller is a multi-award winner, renowned educator and mentor. She was contemplating a visit to New Zealand in the New Year, but travel restrictions will likely prevent that. Until then, I will remember Keller performing at the Uptown Jazz Cafe (and the night before at Jazzlab). They were wonderful performances, and my photographs and these albums, reinforce that memory. 

During the writing of this post, an email arrived in my inbox, informing me that Keller is about to release yet another album; this time of solo piano titled ‘Journey Home’. There is also a related film to be released on DVD. The latter, a collaboration with filmmaker Hayley Miro Browne; a tale of their fathers, fleshed out with graphics and Erik Keller’s photographs of the 70’s Czech Republic. Again, this speaks to the work ethic and the creativity of this gifted artist. I have my order in. To purchase the above or any of Keller’s self-released albums, visit her Bandcamp site. It is a treasure trove. There is also merchandise available, and who could resist that gorgeous artwork by Luke Fraser.  AndreaKeller.Bandcamp.com

Artemis ~ Blue Note Records

In 2017, seven leading Jazz performers came together as a group and toured Europe. The group was so successful that they embarked on a bigger project. They chose the name Artemis, which is appropriate for an ensemble of musically formidable women. Artemis (or Diana to the Romans) was the Goddess of the hunt & of nature; the goddess with nothing to prove. In an ancient universe crowded with ubiquitous male gods, Artemis was universally popular. 

When you bring a group of band leaders together in the Rock world, the term Supergroup is often applied; in the jazz world, it is applied sparingly.  It is commonplace for Jazz greats to move between groups and when the term is applied, it is seldom as a marketing formula.  Artemis is a supergroup by any definition, but it is the musicianship that makes it so. Anyone of these musicians is a drawcard on a bill and while a group of leaders in itself, offers no guarantee of success, this project proved the pudding. The lineup of Rosnes, Aldana, Jenson, Cohen, Ueda, Miller and Mclorin Salvant was a winner. 

The nominal leader is Renee Rosnes, pianist and arranger.  Five of the band have penned tunes and there are several well-chosen modern standards (Fool on the Hill – Lennon/McCartney) (If it’s Magic – Stevie Wonder). The first track, Alison Miller’s ‘Goddess of the Hunt’ comes closest to a title track and it is a marvellous vehicle for improvisation. It begins with an arresting ostinato pulse, and as other voices enter, the intensity increases. The tune has lush harmonies which flesh out the sound to make it sound a larger unit.  Miller is a great Jazz drummer, but her compositional skills should not be overlooked either. Check out her ‘Glitter Wolf’ Album on Bandcamp, is a favourite of mine.

The second tune ‘Frida’ is by Aldana. A ballad evoking wistfulness and inviting reflection (was it Frida Kahlo)? Fool on the Hill (Lennon/McCartney) is cleverly reharmonised and has a similar mood. The contrasts are delicious; sweet and tart tastefully juxtaposed. Here, trumpeter Jenson reminds me of fellow Canadian, the much-lamented Kenny Wheeler; a nice arrangement. ‘Big Top’ (Rosnes) uses stop-time and surprise to great effect; the tasty solos by Rosnes and Aldana having more edge than a blindfolded knife-thrower. 

There are two tracks featuring Mclorin Salvant and they are as breathtaking as you’d expect from this world acclaimed Jazz vocalist. ‘If it’s Magic’ (Wonder) will surely turn up in her repertoire as will Cry, Butterfly, Cry (Rocco Accetta).  Nocturno (Cohen) is a moody slow burner with an ancient to modern feel. Cohen’s origins are evident here, a sound painting of a sultry sunset. Her clarinet is sublime. Step Forward (Ueda) is a fast-paced tune which opens with bass and clarinet dancing around each other in a joyous abandon, while Miller and Rosnes urge them on to greater heights. 

 If there was one track that had me gasping from the first phrase it was Lee Morgan’s composition Sidewinder’ – in truth, it made more impact than the famous original. This snake, unlike his forbear, has slowed its slither and is luxuriating happily as it grooves across a sunlit clearing. The voicings are reminiscent of an Oliver Nelson arrangement and the interplay between the musicians is quite extraordinary. Muted trumpet, clarinet and that unhurried, luscious, undulating groove. 

Artemis may be a multi-national and multi-ethnic line up but in the end, the thing that counts most is the universality of their music; Renee Rosnes (piano), Melissa Aldana (saxophone), Ingrid Jenson (trumpet), Anat Cohen (clarinet), Norika Ueda (upright bass), Alison Miller (drums), Cecile Mclorin Salvant (vocals). 

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.

Australian Improvisers 2019

 

Aust Improvisers (1).jpg

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. 

Aust Improvisers.jpg   

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.

Aust Improvisers (3).jpg

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. 

Aust Improvisers (2).jpg

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

Lauren Nottingham Tour

 Whenever a young and talented vocal improviser appears on the scene, it piques the interest of Jazz lovers and beyond. Lauren Nottingham fits this bill perfectly and she is definitely someone we should take notice of. She is bound to have an upwards career trajectory over the coming years and with the talented pianist Mark Donlon as a collaborator, this is all the more assured. She has previously toured as co-leader with Donlon, but this time she stepped out as sole leader.

The setlist was a mixture of original compositions and reharmonized standards from well outside of the Jazz songbook; David Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Stole The World’ and The Beatles ‘Lady Madonna’ (McCartney). Both of the latter went down well. There were also a number of compositions by a singer-songwriter Matt Sagen and above all Nottingham’s own offerings. We also heard a tune by her drummer and one by Donlon. Her satirical ‘You can’t spell triumph without Trump’  and ‘Who you are’ felt personal while the composition ‘On a rooftop in China’, composed by drummer Dexter Stanley-Tauvao had a delightfully swinging feel to it. I have posted Donlon’s tune titled ‘Sarabande’ (Nottingham wrote the lyrics for this).  This was a nice band all round with tasteful playing from Beernink and Stanley-Tauvao.

Nottingham began singing publically at around the age of fourteen and before long she was singing in the National Youth Choir. She always had an interest in Jazz and in her senior year won a competition run by the NZSM. Later she completed a Jazz Studies degree with the NZSM. Following that she spent a year in Berlin, where according to her bio, she worked in a Jazz bar and did a lot of listening. For any developing artist, moving out of their comfort zone is important as academic learning is only a starting point; character and authenticity arise from life experience. The harder won and the greater the risks the better the stories. Nottingham through composition and her vocal interpretations has tales to tell us and her original approach is already evident.

Some time ago I heard a different tune by Donlon also titled ‘Sarabande’. I particularly love this latter one, as in Nottingham’s hands, the tune conveys a crystalline and even a lachrymose quality – entirely fitting for the wistful sarabande; that slow dance beloved of Baroque composers and with ancient Spanish origins. My only complaint about the gig – I hope that we get more wordless vocalising next time – we love her doing this (ref. her work with Mark Donlon’s Shadowbird Quartet).

The Band: Lauren Nottingham – leader, vocals, Mark Donlon – piano, Chris Beernink – bass, Dexter Stanley-Tauvao – drums. The gig took place at The Backbeat Bar for the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), November 14, 2018.

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.

 

 

 

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.

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.

 

 

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.

 

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

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

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.

Emerging Artists gig – Exploding Rainbow Orchestra – Equitable Grooves

Emerging A (2).jpgI always look forward to emerging artists nights at the CJC.  They don’t happen often but when they do, they’re fun, full of surprise and most importantly they are hopeful events. It is usual for emerging artists to salt the mine with seasoned players. Both of the bands did well in that regard. The first band up was Misha Kourkov’s ‘Equitable Grooves’, a six-piece unit playing multi-genre Jazz focused music. The material was well written and at times ambitious. Aiming high on the bandstand is good because that is where real learning occurs. If you wish to extend your reach, then having Alan Brown on the piano is exactly what you need. With that sort of experience and groove behind you, you have a fail-safe mechanism. The set opened a little tentatively, but they quickly found their groove; the last two numbers were especially enjoyable.Emerging A.jpg

Misha Kourkov is a strong tenor player. I like his playing in Oli Hollands ‘Jazz Attack’ and as a leader, he has real potential. Most younger players have discernible influences and with Kourkov it is Roger Manins. As he grows as a musician he is increasingly finding his own voice. The track that particularly took my fancy was ‘Friday night at the Cadillac Club’. Early rock and roll stole licks from Jazz. Now the tide has turned. On that number, the group mined the Happy Days vibe while sneaking in snaking bebop lines. The pairing of tenor and soprano worked well, suiting the material they played; the guitar completing the front line by adding a bluesy feel, nice solos, and textural richness. The soprano player, in particular, is one to watch, nice bass and drums also. A popular practice among emerging players is to create cryptic and often unpronounceable tune titles – if that was their aim, then both groups succeeded. Emerging A (5).jpgThe second set featured the ‘Exploding Rainbow Orchestra‘. This was a very different type of ensemble. Freer ranging, a bigger sound palette and an electric bass with the heavyweight punch of Bona. The bass player Joshua Worthington-Church who led the ensemble is accurately described as a maverick. His set list contained genuinely diverse material; gripping vamp-driven originals plus tunes from ‘Radiohead’ and ‘The Mint Chicks’. Under the leader’s guidance, the band took the material to a place close to my heart; a fusion of Jazz and psychedelia. I am happy to see this done, as the genre is all but forgotten. During the mid-seventies, that style of music was sacrificed on the altar of Jazz purism, a pompous battleground that tried to stifle genre exploration. Emerging A (6).jpg

I have always loved the Belgium Jazz guitarist Philip Catherine. Today he is regarded as an elder statesman; admired for his work with Chet Baker, Mingus, Carla Bley, Dexter Gordon, Lagrene etc. His work with the psychedelic Jazz Fusion group ‘Focus’, or the amazingly tripped out violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, overlooked completely. This material is worthy of re-evaluation. With the Exploding Rainbows Orchestra, we moved closer to that. The band worked well as a unit but there was no doubt where the greatest strengths lay; Callum Passells and Chelsea Prastiti. A pair combining musical maturity with an inbuilt urge to push boundaries.

Music that lays down a vamp, has a locked-in drum groove, can free up the rest of the band. When there is less rigidity in the harmonic structure, and if the musicians are brave enough, they interact organically: that’s what this ensemble took advantage of.  Passells on alto is a wonderful musician and he knows how to use space. When paired with Prastiti on vocals, otherworldly magic happens. In the background, almost hidden from sight, Crystal Choi layered moody fills and passages on a compact keyboard. The guitarist Michael Gianan took few risks, but his comping and his unison lines added another rich textural layer. I hope that this project continues – there are a few sound balance wrinkles to iron out, but hey, it really was a buzz.

Equitable Grooves: Misha Kourkov (leader, tenor saxophone) Alan Brown (piano), Nathan James (Guitar), Edwin Dolbel (bass), Daniel Reshtan (soprano ), Daniel Waterson (drums).

Exploding Rainbow Orchestra: Joshua Worthington-Church (Leader, electric bass), Callum Passells (alto saxophone), Sean Martin-Buss (tenor saxophone), Chelsea Prastiti (vocals), Crystal Choi (keyboards), Michael Gianan (guitar), David Harris (drums),

The event was at the CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, 03 May 2017

DOG meets KOOPMAN

KoopmanDog (1)There is never a guarantee that two good acts blended into one will work. This one did. DOG and the various iterations of the Peter Koopman trio are each in their way self-contained; exuding a confidence born out of time spent with familiar musicians. Bands that play together over long periods anticipate and react instinctively. Stepping outside of that circle can be a risk, but that is a large part of what improvised music is about.  DOG are a tight unit with quick-fire lines and nimble moves.  By adding a guitar, DOG risked crowding their musical space; with Koopman, this did not happen. He is an aware and thoughtful musician. The pairing aided by some well-written charts, a pinch of crazy and good humour. The result was a looser sound, but the joy and respect provided all the glue it needed for the gig to work well.

The first number up was Roger Manins ‘Peter the Magnificent’, a tune featured on the award-winning DOG album. Manins penned it years ago, but this is the first time we have seen he and Koopman play it together (the Peter referred to in the tune is Koopman).  Next up was Koopman’s ‘Judas Boogie’, a terrific catchy tune and a great vehicle for improvisation. It has memorable hooks and a feel good factor about it. It’s the third time that I have heard the tune and it is always mesmerising – weaving in and around a dominant bass note, a relentless pulse drawing you ever deeper into the theme. I like tunes like that, they are a gift to good interpreters.KoopmanDogThe unison lines and exchanges between guitar, tenor saxophone and Rhodes were just lovely. Kevin Field is always on form and the Rhodes with its chiming clarity was the perfect foil for Koopman and Manins. Field is the complete musician, tasteful, original and with impeccable time feel; Koopman’s guitar benefitting from the well-voiced chords, gently and sparsely comping beneath. Manins also gave a nice solo, and as we have come to expect, he reached for a place beyond the known world. Olivier Holland had a slightly different approach to Koopman’s regular bassist Alduca. Both approaches worked well on Judas Boogie. The interplay between Holland and Samsom was also instructive. As is often the case with good Jazz; the complicated was made to sound easy.KoopmanDog (2)

The craziest tune of the night was Manins ‘Chook 40’ – a crazy humour filled romp which swerved close to the avant-garde.  A Zappa moment filled with joy, and above all abandon. The last tune was titled ‘Home Schooled’.  This is a newer Field composition, one that regular CJC attendees will recall hearing during his last quartet gig. In this expanded context it sounded truly amazing – the tune was too long to post as a clip today, but I will try to do so later. The unison lines in that are particularly striking and the changes in mood and tempo revealed hidden delights.

DOG: Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Kevin Field (Rhodes), Olivier Holland (bass), Ron Samsom (drums) – with Peter Koopman (guitar).

Kevin Field @ Thirsty Dog

Kevin 3-2017 254 (1)It was appropriate that Warners ‘A List’ recording artist Kevin Field brought with him local A listers Dixon Nacey, Cam McArthur, Roger Manins and Stephen Thomas. Field has a substantial following in New Zealand and his innovative music attracts musicians and fans alike. Since his last ‘A List’ gig he’d clearly been busy – writing new material and rendering the familiar into something altogether different. Zoot Sims once quipped, “Jazz is a music where you never play the same thing once’. Field certainly exemplifies that tongue in cheek descriptor. Commentators and visiting musicians often remark on his innovative approach to harmony and rhythm. It is as if he has invented a new musical language out of the old. In truth, there are strong elements of related genres like R & B, latin and even disco funk there; under his fingers they become unique vehicles for improvisation.Kevin 3-2017 258Unlike Janet Jackson, Field never suffers from wardrobe malfunctions. He does however occasionally suffer from equipment malfunctions. I mention it only because his Rhodes had failed him during a previous weeks CJC gig. No one listening comprehended that he had lost some of the middle-register.  No one noticed because he re-voiced mid improvisation to work around the problem. I have heard of old timers doing this but seldom modern pianists. Field can effortlessly jump over obstacles and find a sweet spot.

On Wednesday he used the Thirsty Dog’s upright piano as well as his Rhodes. Miking an upright presents challenges that don’t arise when miking a grand, consequently the piano was a little quieter in the mix than the Rhodes (and Nacey’s guitar). It didn’t matter in the end because the music was wonderful and the others modulated their sound when necessary.Kevin 3-2017 256There were old favourites reworked like ‘Game Changer’, ‘Good Friday’ and ‘Left Field’, but the rest were recent compositions. Among the newer numbers were ‘Rain check’ and ‘Acme Music Corporation’ (the latter featuring Manins on soprano – a rare event). Another new number ‘Unconditional love’ was introduced by Field with the following story. ‘There are many types of love in the world and today an unusual  example came up in my twitter feed, – ‘Trumps deportation threats make my in-laws fearful. They live at 2b/34 Main St, Phoenix. My Mother in law arrives home from work at 4:30’ “.Kevin 3-2017 255The last tune ‘Home Schooled’ was the best possible number to finish the evening with. Far from being a wind-down number, the musicians reached inside themselves, each giving magnificent performances. Manins back for a second number was on tenor, and he sounded happy to be back on his favourite horn. Nacey was at his best, making his guitar soar, as if he had found an ancient alchemy, a way to condense sunlight into music; the epitome of sonic clarity, invention and virtuosity. McArthur and Thomas each in step and reacting to the challenges. With material like this good musicians can achieve wonders. 

Kevin Field: (Rhodes, piano, compositions), Dixon Nacey (guitar), Roger Manins (tenor and soprano saxes), Cam McArthur (bass), Stephen Thomas (drums). CJC (Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog Tavern, 29th March 2017.

Jasmine Lovell Smith – ‘Yellow Red Blue’

Jasmine 258After years traveling the wider Jazz world,  Jasmine Lovell-Smith came home; launching her latest album ‘Yellow Red Blue’ at the CJC last Wednesday. The Album features a quintet ‘Towering Poppies’; a group she formed in New York over five years ago. Her New Zealand gig featured locals Roger Manins, Kevin Field, Eamon Edmundson-Wells and Chris O’Connor. After her New York release she garnered a number of favourable reviews and no wonder. This is a lovely album, her compositions and arrangements outstanding, the recording immaculate.

Lovell-Smith spent the last seven years in the United States and Mexico. Along the way she studied with the experimentalist, saxophonist and composer Anthony Braxton. When you first listen to ‘Yellow Red Blue’, the wild raspy joyous alto of Braxton is not the first thing that comes to mind. Good musicians, and Lovell-Smith is one, learn from their teachers while transforming the information into something all their own. Lovell-Smith has clearly assimilated a multiplicity of interesting influences. Her beautifully crafted  compositions teeming with ideas.Jasmine 257 Her soprano sound  is warm and enveloping, the cleaner tone of her straight horn nicely counterbalancing with the woody earthiness of the bass clarinet, the well constructed charts coming into their own when these delightful interactions occur. The rich textures are never overwhelming, even when strings enter the mix. This is chamber Jazz at it’s best, engaging the listener without resorting to cliché.

The compositions also travelled well. Wednesday’s gig had a different lineup from the album. Replacing bass clarinet was a tenor saxophone (Manins) and in place of the piano was a Rhodes (Field). Manins is incredibly intuitive in these roles and a hint of that wild (Braxton-like) unconstrained joy was evident. On the head arrangements they were captivating, on the solo’s explorative. Field and Manins are so in tune after years of interaction, that they can push each other to greater heights effortlessly. In spite of such familiarity the two avoided falling into familiar groves, stimulated by the charts and aided by Eamon Edmundson-Wells intuitive bass lines. Edmundson-Wells is a multifaceted bassist and often seen with avant-gardests.Jasmine 256

As a special treat we had the amazing Chris O’Connor on drums. I can never get enough of this guy. He can do anything on traps including hyper subtlety. On the last number of the first set he turned in a solo which was so coherent, so perfect, that the world moved into his orbit. This faster-paced tune ‘A nest to fly’, was from an earlier Lovell-Smith album.

The tunes were all by Lovell-Smith with the exception of Joni Mitchell’s ‘I had a king’. Her arrangement on that teased out fresh ideas. One particular version of that tune always sticks in my mind, the one from ‘The Joni Letters’ (with Shorter & Hancock). This version pleased me for its raw beauty and quiet intensity. The sound-clips posted here are ‘Moving mountains’ from the album and ‘A nest to fly’ from the live gig.

The title track ‘Yellow Red Blue’ is reflective and abstract. It is written in reaction to the Mark Rothko painting of the same name. I have recently been on a modernist painting viewing binge in Europe and America. The bold eerie magnetism of Rothko is still fixed in my mind’s eye, greatly refreshed after this homage. The title ‘Red Yellow Blue’ and the Rothko reference feels appropriate. Neither invite pigeon holing, both draw you deep into a borderless world.IMG_0263.jpg

Lowell-Smith is back in New Zealand to pursue a Doctorate in composition with John Psathas. Her albums are available from www.jasminelovellsmith.com

Towering Poppies: Jasmine Lovel-Smith (soprano, compositions, arrangements), Josh Sinton (bass clarinet), Cat Toren (piano), Adam Hopkins (bass), Kate Gentle (drums). A string quartet features on 3,5 & 7)

Towering Poppies live NZ: Jasmine Lovell-Smith (soprano), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Kevin Field (Rhodes, piano), Eamon Edmundson-Wells, Chris O’Connor (drums). March 15, 2017, CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Thirsty Dog, Auckland.

 

Flightless Birds – Callum Passells

Passells 254Callum Passells’ newest project was an exploration which took us to the outer edges of Bebop. The title ‘Flightless Birds’ a wordplay; a pebble tossed into the pond, suggesting many possibilities. The obvious Jazz reference is a comparison  between flightless New Zealand birds and Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker – his musical descendants especially. A cohort that tried and often failed to catch his musical coattails. For a time after his death, alto saxophones were laid aside in favour of the tenor; only a brave few risked comparison with the troubled prodigy. As his legend grew he seemed unassailable. Attempts to demystify, to separate the legend from his musical  legacy came later. In the post millennium era few such sensitivities remain. Parker is deeply admired for his genius, then deconstructed unselfconsciously. The gifted altoist Rudresh Mahanthappa immediately comes to mind.

As the Wednesday CJC gig progressed the flightless birds theme was teased out with self-deprecating humour and clever asides. If the aim was to challenge us to view Bebop in fresh ways, while stripping away some of the worshipful churchy reverence, then it succeeded. Passells is able to strike that rare balance between irreverence and devotion, and all the while delighting his audience. He makes the outlying and complex accessible and this is his gift. His music makes us think, it makes us laugh, but never at the expense of enjoyment.Passells 256The two things that draw me to Passells are his tone and his communication of ideas. For a musician who leans toward the avant-garde he has a remarkably clean tone. This works well for him when he heads into uncharted choppy waters, cutting though the turbulent air incisively. There is obvious precedent for this in Albert Ayler (who strove to sound like Desmond or Konitz while tearing at the very fabric of harmony and form).Passells 254 (1)

The quartet had no chordal instrument and adding one would have subtracted from, not enhanced the performance. Accompanying Passells were tenor player Ben Sinclair, Bassist Tom Dennison and drummer Adam Tobeck. As tempting as it is to compare this to the Marsh/Konitz quartets, or even the piano-less Mulligan quartets would be superficial. This project was firmly grounded in the Bebop tradition and interpreted in an honest Kiwi way. Sinclair was the ideal foil for Passells, also possessing a clean tone and delivering pleasing and inventive solos. The warm harmonies struck between the two horns and the bass were at times spine tingling – more bebop than cool and often bookended by edgy heart stopping unison lines.  It’s been ages since I’ve seen Dennison on the bandstand and that was a treat in itself. He gets such a fat warm sound from his instrument and his time feel is great. This is the second week in a row that drummer Tobeck has played a CJC gig. He had different duties to perform on Wednesday and he obviously warmed to the challenge.Passells 255The tunes were all ‘contrafacts’ and cleverly constructed. I am crap at working out the mother tunes – a job best suited to musicians fed a rich diet of standards’ changes. The pieces had titles like “The Punisher” (Sinclair), or ‘Buy a Car’ (Passells).  The Punisher was written over the changes of ‘In a Mellow Tone’ (Ellington) and ‘Buy a Car’ over ‘Take the A Train’ (Strayhorn). After each tune the original was announced, then people got it immediately, cursing themselves for not getting the connection quicker. The tunes were close enough to hint at familiarity, but far enough away from the original to cause some head scratching. One tune needed no guesswork. “I’ve got it bad and so I’m obliged to notify all previous sexual partners” (Passells) – no prize for attributing that one.

My favourite contrafact of the night hands down, was ‘Parkers Dead'(Passells). This title was a double word play – referencing ‘Parkers Mood’ and the graffiti that arose in and around North American cities immediately after Bird’s death; ‘Bird Lives’. This tune was the purest Bebop, with a powerful unison line and hooks so strong they could snag a Great White. Because of a passing superficial similarity, I initially thought it to be based on Parkers ‘Bloomdido’ (my bad).  As is always the case with Passells gigs, I came away musically satisfied and challenged to dive deeper into the music I thought I knew.Passells 257

Flightless Birds: Callum Passells (alto saxophone, compositions), Ben Sinclair (tenor saxophone, compositions), Tom Dennison (upright bass, compositions), Adam Tobeck (drums). CJC (Creative Jazz Club) – Thirsty Dog, 08 March 2017

 

Live Dog @ Thirsty Dog

DOG16 128.jpgAs another DOG night approached I could feel the excitement in my bones. I had followed their tracks from the groups inception, enjoying every moment along the trail. I was at their first gig in February 2013 and it amazed me then just how rounded and complete they were. If you search for the ‘(Dr) Dog’ post in this blog site you will find a video from that gig. Man that blew me away. I just couldn’t get the tunes and the excitement of that night out of my head. Later I used a cut ‘Dideldideldei’ (Holland) as the signature for my YouTube site. I also sent the cut to a Jazz DJ friend Eddie B in LA and he played it on his show. Unsurprisingly people phoned in immediately wanting to know, “who were those amazing cats”?  Before long the group decided to record – everyone who heard them wanted more. DOG seemed to encapsulate everything that was good and exciting about the local scene – DOG was, and still is, something special.DOG16 131.jpgThere are so many aspects to this group that it is hard enumerate them all; of course there are the outrageous dog jokes, the brilliant compositions from each band member, the powerful stage presence, but it is something else that excites me the most. This is a band that could gig anywhere in the world and we could hold our heads up, knowing that they would do us proud, tell our story. I felt excited when they were nominated for ‘album of the year’ and as pleased as a dog with two tails when they won the ‘Jazz Tui’. Now it is rumoured that a new DOG album is on the way. I can’t wait.

Most bands take a number or two to warm up, but not this one. At the Thirsty Dog the band leapt out of the starting gate like fixated greyhounds after a lure. The first number of the first set was a new composition by bass player Oli Holland (‘Scheibenwischer’ – this translates as windscreen-wiper) and it sounded great, setting the tone for the evening. Next was Ron Samsom’s tune ‘Push Biker’ (the first track on the DOG album). The intro begins with a long morse like pulse, everyone joining in but from a different perspective, then a melodic head – coming right at you like a freight train. A great vehicle for Roger Manins to use as a launch pad as he jets into orbit on his solo.DOG16 133.jpgThroughout the sets were a scattering of familiar DOG compositions – plus a few new ones (like ‘Merde’ by Samsom and Hollands ‘Shceibenwischer’). All of the tunes sounded fresh and somehow different, perhaps because Kevin Field was playing a Rhodes and not a piano. I love the Rhodes in all its antique glory and in Field’s hands it is especially wonderful. It cut through the room like crystal. Hearing the familiar tunes like ‘Peter the Magnificent’ (Manins), ‘Icebreaker’ (Field) and ‘Sounds like Orange’ was like meeting old friends. The last track of the evening was the familiar ‘Dideldideldei'(Holland). DOG ripped into it with the usual abandon, leaving us shaking our heads in disbelief and grinning like Cheshire cats.DOG16 129.jpgThe Thirsty Dog works well as a venue, having good acoustics, good sight-lines and a sizeable bandstand.  They also serve snack food and they are most welcoming. The first DOG album is available at Rattle Records and if you don’t own a copy don’t delay. Everyone wants a DOG for Christmas.

FYI: YouTube refuses to upload video, even though I have some great cuts from this gig – will post if I ever get it sorted.

DOG: Kevin Field (Rhodes, compositions), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone, compositions), Oli Holland (bass, compositions), Ron Samsom (drums, compositions) held for the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) at the Thirsty Dog, K’Rd, Auckland city, December 7th 2016.

GRG67 cries ‘fowl’

GRG67 127.jpgAgainst a background of complacency in regard to the ever declining biodiversity on the planet, one band is determined to raise our awareness. Those who have encountered the quartet on prior occasions will know the back story, connect the dots. GRG67 arose out of an impulse of crustacean empathy, an emotion usually confined to marine biologists and not Jazz musicians. However, once you grasp the fact that the band’s founder is Roger Manins, the rest falls into place. A sustainable fisher and co-manager of a small menagerie, Manins could best be described as the David Attenborough of the tenor saxophone. His world is strewn with animals and that’s the way he prefers it.GRG67 131.jpg

GRG67 the band, was inspired by a sea crab named Greg (as there are evidently  no vowels in the crab language, the name was rendered as GRG – but still pronounced Greg by etymological purists). At the bands inception the improvisational possibilities of the crustacean kingdom were examined, then the net was widened. Wednesday nights gig set sail for chook territory, relentlessly braving the ‘fowl’ winds of the wild west coast. With one or two exceptions, chooks (Gallus gallus domesticus) were eulogised in composition. They were plucked at by Michael Howell and Mostyn Cole, given a thunderous improvisational makeover by Tristan Deck and vocalised in all their glory by Manins.GRG67 128.jpgEach tune title was accompanied by a personal story or zoological insight; each bird was treated with deep respect. With titles like ‘chook empathy’, ‘chook 40’, ‘ginger chook’, ‘dark chook sin’ we were afforded some rare insights into the avian world. ‘Chook 40’ was not about the 40th chook as you might suppose. It opened our eyes to the fact that chooks have one more chromosome than humans. During that particular tune you could really sense that extra chromosome. ‘Dark chook sin’ was an invitation to anthropomorphism. What would a chook sin look like? Manins felt that Mallard ducks were more likely to sin than a chook (anyone living near ducks who has a deck will have a view on this).GRG67 129.jpg The quartet played with wild enthusiasm in both sets and the good humour of the evening was infectious. Given the subject matter it was only fitting that the gig took place at the Thirsty Dog (dogs are also a recurring theme with Manins). The venue was congenial and the acoustics good. What more could you want on the last night of Spring. This band is a rallying cry, reminding us that in this troubled world we shouldn’t take the good things for granted. At a time when we are buffeted by the ill winds of international politics, the arts matter more than ever. New Zealand Jazz rewards us in so many ways and the diversity of improvised music in our city is a treasure. You get good musicianship and fun combined – and if you’re lucky a musical insight into the natural world around us.GRG67 133.jpg I have posted the bands signature tune GRG67 as it simply crackled (cackled) with life (and it broke a previous speed record). These guys are fine musicians and GRG67 was never better than on this night. These guys sizzle.

GRG67: Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Michael Howell (guitar), Mostyn Cole (electric bass), Tristan Deck (drums). Playing at the Thirsty Dog, CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Auckland November 30th 2016.

Oli Holland’s Jazz Attack

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2016 has seen more internationals passing through our Auckland Jazz club than ever before. Most of these offshore artists were extremely polished, playing at a level you’d expect from musicians tested in the hot-house of big city venues. Against that back drop it is exciting to encounter a first time up local band that can turn on a gig like this. ‘Oli Holland’s Jazz Attack’ is a fun band and an engaging one. The band’s leader (Dr) Olivier Holland, is an extraordinary bass player, renowned throughout New Zealand; the other experienced band member was trumpeter Finn Scholes, the remainder of the sextet were students.Oli 2016 121From early in the first set, I felt the passion behind the performances, the sheer exuberance that is generated when a group know that they are performing effectively. Seasoned touring musicians sometimes sacrifice this – perhaps the effort of being on the road, the effects of jet lag, robbing them of warmth. It reinforces my view as a listener, that an artist needs more than chops to fully engage with an audience. When a band is comfortable on stage, properly rehearsed and above all up for a riotous night, magic can happen.

I enjoyed this gig and what I will take away is that joyous enthusiasm they generated. This is largely down to Holland, a seasoned bass player who generally downplays his role as spokesman. “Bass players are not supposed to speak,” he said, “but I will anyhow”. A leader who can move from grin to deadpan in an instant; a natural talker, who milks the hell out of his spoken lines. He is extremely funny, the master of throw away lines and in between numbers storytelling. This clearly rubs off on the band members and establishes the mood.Oli 2016 126Trumpeter Finn Scholes can always surprise and over recent years he has impressed me increasingly. His vibrantly brassy ‘south of the border’ sound in the Carnivorous Plant Society is well-known, but anyone who thought that was all there was to him, hasn’t been paying due attention. He is raw and raspy on avant-garde gigs, mellow and moody on vibes and in this lineup reminiscent of the young Freddie Hubbard. His solo’s had bite and narrative, his ensemble playing was tight; above all, he generated palpable excitement, the sort that brings people back to live music again and again.Oli 2016 125

There were four students in the line up and the thing about students at this level, they have the ability to step up. Often though, they lack the confidence to do so. Many will over think a performance or only tentatively express what is in their heads – a careful observer can see that hesitation. The four students here stepped free of that hesitation, especially the tenor player Misha Kourkov. Being in the moment and bringing your skills to bear instinctively is what good Jazz performance is about.Oli 2016 129

Kourkov delivered some blistering solos and the best came surprisingly early in the gig. It has been a while since I saw him play (as a first or second year student I recall); he has come on in leaps and bounds since then. He looked and sounded good on the tenor, as if the instrument was a natural extension of his body. There was no mistaking the influence of Roger Manins either – that preparedness to reach for impossible notes, that full-bodied rich golden sound, storytelling.Oli 2016 123

On piano was Nick Dow from Christchurch, completing a Masters in Auckland. A nice touch and avoiding the trap of playing too many notes. On guitar was Michael Howell, no stranger to Auckland audiences, another AUJS student: playing an attractive solid body instrument; rounding out the sextet sound nicely and not over peddling. The remaining band member was Daniel Waterson (drums). Like the others he was obviously enjoying himself – he took a few solos and acquitted himself well. At the end of the first set, special guest ‘Heidi’ performed the jazz standard ‘Nature Boy’, rounding off the set nicely.

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I have posted ‘The Baseline Tune’ (Holland) which was second up in the first set, a tune which allowed everyone to stretch out. In Hollands introduction he warned the audience, “If you think you know where this piece is going you’ll be wrong. I don’t compose any tunes like that”. A typical Holland comment and accurate. All of the tunes were composed by him and all were quirky in some way. I liked the quirkiness, the way the tunes moved through many phases – often like a suite. In spite of their complexity they lingered in memory – you couldn’t hum them, but tasty fragments remained in your head. Challenging, satisfying, edgy improvised music for grownups.

Oli Holland’s Jazz Attack: Oli Holland (bass, compositions), Finn Scholes (trumpet), Nick Dow (piano), Michael Howell (guitar), Misha Kourkov (tenor saxophone), Daniel Waterson (drums) – guest Heidi (vocals). CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Albion Hotel basement, Auckland, Wednesday 17th August, 2016

Kevin Field Group – Winter 2016

Kevin Field 124Kevin Field has for many years been regarded as a phenomenon on the New Zealand Jazz scene. A gifted pianist and composer whose approach to composition and harmony is strikingly original. When you listen to many pianists you can hear their influences, discern the pathways that led them to where they are. With Field, those influences are less obvious. I suspect that this independence, originality, makes it easier for him to strike out in any direction of his choosing. On his ‘Field of Vision’ album, he moved into uncrowded space, one occupied by very few Jazz pianists. It was Jazz without compromise but utilising grooves, rhythms, and melodies of other genres. The music contained distinct echoes of the disco/Jazz/funk era, crafting it carefully and forging a new post-millennial sound.Kevin Field 123The tunes were all memorable and within a few listenings, you could hum the themes. This is not so common in modern Jazz and less so with music (like Fields) which retains its Jazz complexity. In Fields case, the clean melodic hooks do not come at the expense of harmonic invention. That is a tricky balancing act and one he achieves convincingly. His co-leadership of ‘DOG’ took him in a different direction again, but the same deftly crafted grooves astounded us. His recent album ‘The A-List’, was a further excursion into the disco/Jazz/funk realm. It is slightly tongue in cheek while still challenging the listener to think outside the square. Artists like this take the music forward, it is up to us to catch up.

The Kevin Field Group often meets up to work through new and old compositions – this work ethic is evident in what we hear. While personnel changes occur from time to time, the group has a core membership. Field, Dixon Nacey, Clo Chaperon, Cameron McArthur, and Stephen Thomas. While we heard tunes from recent albums there were also a number of new tunes on offer. The new material took his earlier conceptions further out, while the older material was cunningly reworked. I have heard this group a number of times and each time I hear them I sense the progressive momentum.Kevin Field 129They played at the Wellington Jazz festival recently and for many Wellingtonians, this was their first exposure to the group. I saw that show and I immediately noticed how the familiar tunes had subtly changed. ‘Perfect Disco’ with its energised danceable funk momentum was recast as a duo piece. Field and vocalist Chaperon wowed them with that number. We also heard this duo version last week. Other familiar tunes had developed into profoundly interactive exchanges. The sort that can only occur between highly attuned musicians. This is where the guitar mastery and the deep listening of Nacey came into its own. His Godin guitar soaring with stunning clarity while Field reacted in kind, urging them further out with each challenge.Kevin Field 122Again we see Thomas and McArthur doing what they do best. Working hard and rising to the challenge. Thomas laying down the tricky rhythms and while McArthur runs his bass lines. While pleasant to the ear, there is not doubt at all that these compositions required skill and concentration. It is on gigs like this that the musicians familiarity with the material and each other pays dividends. It was also nice to hear Chaperon on some new and old material. She is a real crowd pleaser – she looks great on stage and sings up a storm.

Keven Field Group: Keven Field (piano), Dixon Nacey (guitar), Cameron McArthur (bass), Stephen Thomas (drums), Clo Chaperon (vocals), CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Albion Hotel 20th July 2016.

Sam Weeks & Sean Martin-Buss @ CJC

Sam & Sean 094This year has seen a lot of international acts through the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), compelling musicians with interesting stories to tell and often with serious gig miles under their belt. As exciting as it is to see the high-end performers of the scene, it is just as important to recognise and evaluate those who might one day take their place. Not all will last the course, but the persistent and the passionate can make that journey. Standing in front of a discerning club audience tests young musicians in ways not easily replicated. Unlike the Jazz School environment, the musicians technical prowess is subservient to the authenticity they bring to the bandstand. Fluffing a line is more likely forgiven than delivering a technically perfect but lifeless performance. Sam Weeks and Sean Martin-Buss tested themselves and came through the fire relatively unscathed.Sam & Sean 095The gig was part of the emerging artists series and the musicians first time at the CJC as leaders. Both have previously played as sidemen at the club, but standing anonymously in a horn line is a different thing entirely. I am happy to give this gig the thumbs up as they performed well. It took the first few numbers for them to warm up properly, but warm up they did. The rest of the first set and the one after that delivered crackling performances. All of the material was their own and their writing skills were favourably displayed (especially those of Weeks). A piece titled ‘Missing Together’ by Weeks was a gem – opening with some tricky unison lines, followed by a few bars of counterpoint. They made it sound easy, but clearly, many of these compositions were not. The act of embracing the difficult is how a musician grows. I am glad they took some risks, as Jazz functions best in the absence of complacency.Sam & Sean 093Sean Martin-Buss was on alto saxophone with Sam Weeks on tenor saxophone. Each gave the other ample room and the contrast between the horns was therefore amplified. They also differed stylistically and this gave an added piquancy to the gig. They made good use of interactive Banter, musician to audience and to each other. Off the wall comments came out of nowhere, and the audience included in the joke. The humour was not in the lines but in the offhand delivery. A very Kiwi type of onstage banter – self-effacing, mumblingly casual.Sam & Sean 098Emerging musicians are often tempted to rely heavily on musicians from their own graduate class. There is nothing wrong with that per se, but the first question is always, which musicians will serve the gig best? Again the co-leaders made good choices in Tristan Deck (drums) and Eamon Edmundson-Wells (upright bass). The remaining band member was Crystal Choi on piano. Deck and Edmundson-Wells perform in public regularly and both have earned considerable respect. They personify good musical taste. They have talent and better yet, they work extraordinarily well together. It was this combination that tightened up the performance – real assets. Choi was extremely interesting on this gig. I have sometimes noticed a tiny hesitancy in her delivery. On this night, her performance exuded confidence and several of her solos were stunning. The enthusiastic audience responded throughout the night.Sam & Sean 103Although the leaders possess perfect vision and are clearly not Venetian, the project was ‘The Blind Venetians’. This was also the name of the final number of the last set; a roistering finale bringing down the cantilevered shutters at gigs end.

The Blind Venetians: Sam Weeks (tenor saxophone, compositions), Sean Martin-Buss (alto saxophone, compositions), Crystal Choi (piano), Eamon Edmundson-Wells (upright bass), Tristan Deck (drums). Performed at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Albion Hotel, Auckland, New Zealand, 04 May 2016