David Friesen Trio @ CJC

Friesen picGood improvising bass players get a lot of work, but they seldom get the acknowledgement they deserve. This is one of life’s inequities and it’s partly because a bass player by custom is hidden behind the other band members. When a pianist or guitarist plays solo they will often mimic or imply bass lines. A good bass line is both an anchor and an invitation – invoking deeper exploration; the consequent rub between notes and time is where most of the tension and release is hidden. Every so often a bass player claims wide-spread attention. Blanton, Mingus, Haden, McBride, Le Faro, Pastorius etc. David Friesen while not garnering the attention of the aforementioned bassists in the popular press, is without doubt a giant of the instrument. His is a name that frequently comes up when aficionados and musicians talk. He is the bass players bass player, an acknowledged innovator.

The point is best made when looking over his discography – seventy-six albums as leader or co-leader and in excess of a hundred as sideman. The list of luminaries he has recorded with defies belief; everyone from Dexter Gorden to Dizzy Gillespie. For the New Zealand leg of his tour, two of New Zealand’s finest musicians accompanied him. Dixon Nacey on guitar and Reuben Bradley on drums. That particular combination was bound to work well and the proof positive was in the outstanding performances. When artists pay each other respect on the bandstand it is a recipe for excellence. There were no Jazz standards performed and I suspect that many of the compositions were challenging for those new to them. If they were it did not show. Friesen explained that while he loved interpreting standards, he had come to the point where exploring his own compositions was his preference. A musician as gifted as this has plenty to say musically and Friesen found endless ways of expressing his unique world view. Friesen pic (6)As is often the case with great musicians, he was a compelling talker; spinning out yarns of people and places visited. Often with subtle humour woven into the narrative.  Above all he imparted his views on the place of music in these complex and troubled times. To paraphrase slightly, “Music is a way of healing a broken world, it is not just about the people making the music or about the audience receiving it, but something far deeper. The interaction creates a virtuous circle, each continuously enriching the other. Out of this comes the magic”. This reference to the primal healing power of music resonated and he received loud applause. Improvisers seldom earn what they should and yet they persevere. Understanding their mission of deepening human awareness. It was good that he reminded us of how vital a deep listening audience is. Sharing the joy brings its own responsibilities. That’s why I do what I do in print. Friesen pic (7) Friesen travels with a special bass; made for him by a famous Austrian instrument maker. Sick of having instruments damaged or interfered with by airline baggage handlers, he ordered an instrument small enough to go in the overhead locker. This custom bass is mainly crafted out of American Cherry wood and Canadian Maple. It also has a very sophisticated pick up. Because of the foreshortened neck I suspect that it would take some mastering by most upright bass players. In Friesen’s hands it sung.  Friesen pic (9)Nacey did what we expected of him; delivered stinging imaginative lines and soared on that lovely Godin semi hollow-body. As success spreads him thinner, we tend to see less of him in the Jazz club. When we do hear him we get the very best. He is a guitarist who can hold his own anywhere on the scene. The other Kiwi on the gig was Wellington drummer Reuben Bradley and what a performance he put on. Again it was hardly surprising, as Bradley is among our very best drummers. Like Nacey he is often the drummer of choice for visiting artists.

David Friesen (bass, compositions, leader), Dixon Nacey (guitar), Reuben Bradley (drums). The CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 4th November 2015

The ‘A’ List – Kevin Field

A List (10)‘The A List’ release has been a long time coming, or so it seems. Every recording of Kevin Field’s is noteworthy and when rumours of a New York album circulated I attempted to pin him down. Whenever I saw him playing as sideman about town or met him in the street I would pull him aside and say, “Kev, how is the album progressing, when will you release it?”. I invariably received iterations of the same cryptic answer; a knowing smile and a brief “it’s getting there, not too far away now”. the lack of specifics only fed my appetite. I have learned to read the signs and I can sense when an album pleases an artist. It is all in the body language, readable over the self-effacing vagaries of banter. Field had a look about him; a look that told me that he was nurturing a project that pleased him.  A List (7)  As the months progressed I gleaned additional fragments of information in bite sized chunks. Firstly that Matt Penman was on the recording, and incrementally that Nir Felder, Obed Calvaire, Miguel Fuentes, Clo Chaperon and Marjan Gorgani also. The substantive recording took place at Brooklyn Recording in New York with additional recording in Roundhead Studios Auckland. That was pretty much the extent of my knowledge. I have encountered this phenomena before. Treating an album as a child, holding it close before sending it out into the world. It generally presages good things to come. In this case it certainly did.  A List  The title is probably tongue in check, but it speaks truth. There are a number of A List personnel on the album. Field is arguably Auckland’s first call pianist. No one harmonises quite like him and his consistency as pianist and composer is solid. New Zealand Jazz lovers also regard Matt Penman highly. His appearances with leading lineups and his cutting edge projects as leader always impress. In the same vein is Nir Felder; frequently mentioned in the same breath as the elite New York guitarists. Obed Calvaire the same in drum circles. This was an obvious next step for Field; having risen to the top of the local scene, it was time to record with New Yorker’s.

The album is a thing of beauty and satisfying on many levels. Under Field’s watchful eye a flawless production has emerged. Having an album released by Warners is a coup. The big labels rarely release New Zealand Jazz (Nathan Haines being an exception). All compositions are by Field (on the vocal numbers he is co-credited with Clo Chaperon & Marjan Gorgani). From the title track onwards the album engages. We generally hear Field in a straight ahead context but he wisely followed his instincts here. This album extends the explorations of his well received ‘Field of Vision’ release; turning his conceptual spotlight on genres like disco funk and the brightly hued guitar fuelled explorations of the New York improvising modernists. The album also features Miguel Fuentes tasteful percussion which is subtle but effective. Field has done what brave and innovative artists should do. Take risks in the search for new territory.   A List (6)  The CJC (Creative Jazz Club) Auckland launch substituted ‘A’ List locals for the famous New Yorker’s. On guitar was Dixon Nacey, on bass Richie Pickard and on drums Stephen Thomas. The vocal section was; Clo Chaperon & Marjan Gorgani (as on the album). These musicians are superb and so the comparison with the album was favourable (Field is a little higher in the mix on the album and guitarist Felder is a little lower).  A List (5)The CJC was in different venue this time, owing to the refurbishment of the 1885.  The Albion is no stranger to Jazz and in spite of the ‘livelier’ acoustics, it was a good space in which to enjoy the music. Dixon Nacey always sounds like a guitarist at the peak of his powers, but somehow he manages to sound better every time I hear him. This time he used less peddling and spun out wonderfully clean and virtuosic lines. Apart from a tiny amount of subdued wah-wah peddle on the disco number his beautiful Godin rang out with bell-like clarity (the clipped wah-wah comping was totally appropriate in recreating the tight disco funk vibe).  The other standout performance was from Stephen Thomas, who is able to find a groove and yet mess with it at the same time. His complex beats added colour and he mesmerised us all. At the heart of the sound was Richie Pickard. Some of the material was definitely challenging for a bass player as timing was everything. Pickard navigated the complexities with ease. There are were three vocal numbers at the gig (two on the album). Chaperon and Gorgani are impressive together and well matched vocally. Hearing them on the album showcases them to best advantage, as sound mixing is harder in a club. Their presence certainly added excitement to the gig.A List (9)Buy the album and if possible see Field perform this material live. This music is exciting and innovative; past and present rolled into a forward looking Jazz form.

Kevin Field: The A List – Keven Field (Piano, Keys), Nir Felder (guitar), Matt Penman (bass), Obed Calvaire (drums), Miguel Fuentes (percussion), Clo Chaperon & Marjan Gorgani (vocals).  – Live performance: Kevin Field (piano, keys), Dixon Nacey (guitar), Richie Pickard (bass), Stephen Thomas (drums), Clo Chaperon & Marjan Gorgani (vocals). Performed at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Albion Hotel, Auckland, 19th August 2015. Available from all leading retailers.

 

Kushal Talele Quartet

Kushal Tale (4)By my best estimation, Murphy’s Law kicks in roughly once every three months. Before the gig I plugged in my HD video recorder to charge, gathered my camera equipment into one place and foolishly congratulated myself on being so well organised. That was the mistake right there. Having tempted the Fates they responded in kind. My video recorder didn’t charge because the gods rewarded my hubris by half unplugging the charger cable. This was a gig I particularly wanted to video but the battery died mockingly within 15 minutes. Immediately the battery gave out the gig got better and better.Kushal Talele (1)I had not encountered Kushal Talele before. Until recently he has been working overseas and in London in particular. What I do know about him is that Brian Smith and Pete France tutored him at the New Zealand School of Music; both wonderful musicians. He was born on the Deccan Plateau in the city of Pune, the ninth largest city in India and the second largest after Mumbai in the state of Maharashtra. His family moved to New Zealand when he was eight, but he is now clearly a citizen of the world and of music.Kushal Tale (5)His good looks and relaxed confidence tell a story before he plays a note. Looking the part on the band stand is about posture and being at ease with the task at hand. His tone on the tenor is beautiful. He is very much a modernist but with the elements of Coltrane and the post bop era embedded. I asked him who he particularly listened to and the first name he mentioned was Chris Potter. Serious tenor players all admire Potter and rightly so. I also asked him if Indian Classical Music informed his playing and he was quick to say that it didn’t; adding that it was something he would like to explore one day.Kushal Tale (3)I asked because I have been following altoist Rudresh Mahanthappa who successfully fuses elements of South Indian music with modern Jazz conceptions. In reality most serious post Coltrane saxophonists have these elements in their playing. The way he tirelessly works over figures of melodic and harmonic invention tells me that he has that influence. In approach if not in sound, he takes a similar route to Sonny Rollins. Easing himself into a tune, in no hurry; working over long vamps which stretch into infinity. This turning a piece over and looking at it from different angles; gnawing away until the essence exposed, is a very New York thing.Kushal TaleThe group came together for this gig. All younger musicians but all experienced. It was great to see Cameron McArthur back on the band stand. One of my favourite bass players and adept at handling any challenge. He and drummer Cameron Sangster have just returned from an extended stint playing the East bound cruise ships. On Keys and piano was Connor McAneny. The band settled in as the gig progressed and during the last set they were playing tight energised grooves. Talele worked these grooves to maximum effect. I could only capture the first number (see below). It is my sense, that to experience Talele in peak form, one should see him with a settled band. The density and complexity of his playing would be enhanced by this. As good as this gig was I would very much like to see him in that context.

Kushal Kalele Quartet: Kushal Kalele (tenor saxophone), Conner McAneny (Keys), Cameron McArthur (bass), Cameron Sangster (drums). At the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland 12th August 2015

‘Grg67’ & Manins Crustacean Empathy

Grg67 (9)There are a lot of interesting stories on the Jazz circuit and some of them more improbable than others. None more so than a gig dedicated to the Manukau Harbour mud crab Grg67 (Varunidae:Helice). This ten legged estuarine creature has inspired Roger Manins to name a band after him and to compose a significant number of tunesGrg67 (15) in his honour. I could say that environmental activism fuelled the gig (and in part it was), but the affection and respect Manins exhibits towards these crustaceans is more complex than that. It is the respect of a dedicated Flounder fisherman; coloured by the quirkiness of an improvising musician. To quote: “When we play these compositions there are sharp claws and a soft underbelly; at times we can move unpredictably sideways at great speed”.  Manins demonstrated this to great effect as he swiftly shuffled in alternate directions. You couldn’t make this stuff up. As the gig unfolded he delighted the audience with his antics and with the subsequent ‘crab’ influenced compositions.Grg67 (14) Underneath the crusty carapace were a bunch of good tunes and as Manins inferred, they were tangentially tricky and replete with interesting musical twists. Good improvisers are always on the look out for new challenges, new ways to interpret the world about them. In putting together ‘Grg67’ a fresh vehicle for improvisation is born. By bringing in several less experienced musicians Manins has fulfilled an older imperative. To challenge and encourage those beginning the improvising journey. This is how it should work, but many older musicians forget that and remain in their comfort zones. Everyone stepped up here under Manins watchful eye.Grg67 (7)The crab which is the central focus of these sets is Greg, but as Manins so eloquently explains “Crabs don’t use the letter ‘E’. It something to do with their waste not want not utilitarianism”. Other tunes had titles like ‘Crab Empathy’. These tunes and the stories that surrounded them evoked powerful mental images. As the music washed over us you could sense the ebb and flow of the tides. You could easily imagine a predatory Flounder sending the ever watchful crabs scuttling into their burrows (Flounder are none too bright according to net fisherman).Grg67 (6)Michael Howell and Tristan Deck are the youngest members of the ensemble. Howell is a Jazz student and with each month his guitar work grows more impressive. As his confidence grows he stretches himself and playing with Manins is exactly what he needs. He is ready for the deep end of the crab pool. On this gig he played a borrowed Fender and it sat well with him. That Tristan Deck played so well did not surprise me at all; his career trajectory assured as he increasingly takes his place among the better Jazz drummers of the city. He was good when I saw him two years ago; now he is very good. For the second time this month Mostyn Cole appears at the CJC. This time he held the groove with electric bass. He is reliable and multi faceted. Again Manins showed how seamlessly he slots into very different situations. He presented a complex set of tunes to good effect, navigating break-neck tempos and fusing complexities with an inexhaustible supply of good humour.

Estuarine crabs like Grg67 are highly skilled marine engineers. Purifying and oxygenating their environment in innovative ways. They are unafraid to identify as gender non specific. If you see one amongst the Mangroves, spare a thought for it (or its 80 Kiwi cousins). They are a hard-working cog in the indigenous ecosystem and as deserving of a Jazz quartet as any animal. The crab you see might even be ‘Grg67’ or one of his offspring, so say hi while you’re at it.

The Clip is ‘Bennetts Radio Blues’ (Manins).

Grg67 : Roger Manins (leader, compositions, tenor sax), Michael Howell (Fender guitar), Mostyn Cole (electric bass), Tristan Deck (drums)

CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 1885 Britomart, Auckland 29th July 2015

 

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Siobhan Leilani & Andy Smith gigs

Leilani (9)Last Wednesday the CJC took a step towards Robert Glasper’s ‘Black Radio’ project. At the time of its release the Glasper project shocked a few purists and delighted many others. It all depended on your point of view and your understanding of Jazz history. That particular album brought the ‘now’ of the urban streets into a Jazz recording; rap and urban soul coexisting with jazz keyboard harmonies. It is surprising that it shocked anyone! Surely this is an old story in the retelling. It is not hard to find earlier examples. George Russell’s ‘New York N.Y.’ and Gil Scott Heron’s output spring to mind. Words as poems, wordless vocals and instrumental Jazz are inextricably linked and always will be. Siobhan Leilani brought a Kiwi version of that to the Jazz club and we loved it. It felt in place and the nimble-footed danced. This constant reconnection with the streets is an essential part of our music and we forget it at our peril.John Taylor Kenny Wheeler (3)The first set to play was the Andy Smith Trio. Smith has played at the club as sideman a number of times, but it has been quite a few years since he brought us a project of his own. I have always enjoyed his slick guitar work and especially when he plays with an Alan Brown band. This gig was different as it reached deeper into the modern Jazz guitar bag. Smith has always used pedals convincingly but this time he dialled the effects right back. This was a purer form of modern Jazz guitar and in taking that route the music must stand on its own. It did. I like his approach to harmony and his compositions are compelling vehicles for improvisation.John Taylor Kenny Wheeler (2)The gig undoubtedly benefitted from having the gifted Stephen Thomas on drums.  While a regular in the club it has been a few months since we saw him. Thomas is a drummer’s drummer and he can tackle any project and shine. He constantly pushed the others to greater heights and his solos were tasteful, un-showy and tightly focused. The bass player Russell McNaughton was new to me, but I will be mindful of his presence in future. I particularly liked his arco bass work on ‘The Gypsy’s Dress’. The first number ‘CJC’ (Smith) was a good opener. There were plenty of meaty hooks to reel us in and an ever radiating warmth to dispel the chill rain outside. When they played a tune named ‘Awakening’ I recognised it instantly, but couldn’t recall where I’d heard it (or which group played it). It is actually an older tune of Smith’s and I had remembered it from three or more years ago. Again a solid composition and the fact that it had stuck with me after one hearing underlines that. A very nice trio.Leilani (13)Siobhan Leilani (Siobhan Grace) is an interesting musician and one I hope we see a lot more of. Her association with the UoA Jazz school has yielded dividends. She utilised the services of former and current students for this gig; her guest Chelsea Prastiti most notably. There is an inherent risk in putting a soulful Jazz rapper together with an experimental improvising vocalist. The risk was well worth taking. These two feed off each others energy on up numbers and a force field of ‘happy’ seemed to emanate from them. The opening numbers were more in the soul/Jazz idiom and these were compelling in very different way. The lyrics spoke of angst and identity and this worked well for Leilani. What impressed me most was the authenticity. The language and sentiments were honest; heart-felt and purely ‘street’. I am only sorry that she was not a little louder in the mix (when it comes to vocals my hearing is not as sharp as it once was). This was poetry and good poetry. Word play, syllables stressed for emphasis, cadence; telling a story in an original way.LeilaniOn piano was UoA student Sean Martin-Buss. He caught me completely by surprise with his confident piano accompaniment. I had only seen him perform once previously and that was on bass clarinet. He mostly took a two-handed approach, soloed well on two occasions and engaged in a brief but effective call and response routine with Prastiti. The drummer and electric bass player were unknown to me but again they gave good a good account of themselves. The pumping drum and bass groove was right for the music. On electric bass was Joshua Worthington-Church, on drums Olie O’Loughlin.Leilani (6)This was another testament to the gig programming at the CJC. With rare exceptions every Wednesday night brings an original project. The decision to encourage innovation and originality pays off time and again. The audience now expects it and they wouldn’t turn up week after week for a diet of well-worn standards. With gigs like this a bitter Winter is flying by.Leilani (5)Footnote:’lyrics and poetry are two sides of the same thing‘ (Levitin). Poetry purists often express disdain for song lyrics and especially rap lyrics. The same can occur in reverse when a rapper dismisses poetry as high brow. There is only good poetry and bad poetry. The earliest surviving piece of literature ‘The Gilgamesh’ was written in poetic form. The greatest epics in any language are Homers Iliad and the Odyssey; also written in verse and probably sung. If you want ancient earthy lyrics sung or chanted by a woman then try Sappho: Stuffy (male) scholars have tried for two and a half millennia to purify her verse. “Batter your breasts with your fists girls/tatter your dresses/its no use mother dear/I can’t finish my weaving/you may blame Aphrodite soft as she is/she has almost killed me for love of that boy” – Sappho born 612 BC

Andy Smith Trio: Andy Smith (guitar, composition), Russell McNaughton (bass), Stephen Thomas (drums) @ CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 22nd July 2015

Siobhan Leilani: Siobhan Leilani (vocals, composition), Sean Martin-Buss (piano), Joshua Worthington-Church (electric bass), Olie O’Loughlin (drums) – guest Chelsea Prastiti (vocals) @ CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 22nd July 2015

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Matt Steele ‘Master Brewers’

Matt Steele 2015 087It is always good when proved right and in the case of Matt Steele I certainly was.  This was a superb gig and it confirmed the promise that I saw in Steele as a first year student. The ‘Master Brewers’ musicians are exactly what Steele needed at this stage in his development and he is clearly what they needed. There is a cohesion about this group and it extends beyond the music. This is a band of friends and because they spend a significant amount of time together, they are able to dive deeper into the material on hand. Most of the band is writing and being familiar with each others styles, they contribute compositions that serve the project well. Younger musicians often favour shorter term projects but I hope this unit continues for a while. When I last saw Steele perform it was at his honours recital and he was very much in charge. Now as leader, the reins are subtly loosened and the music benefits from this. With experience, leaders can confidently guide without over playing the role. That only works when the interactions and cues become second nature. In their best moments the ‘Master Brewers’ acted as a single entity; everyone maximising their options while retaining an awareness of the others.Matt Steele 2015 089I immediately noticed that Steele’s voicings were darker. His interesting harmonic approach an outcome of an ever-growing musical maturity. There are certain aspects to Steele’s playing that stand out and during the gig these crystallised in my mind. These attributes are why I follow his career so attentively. He is self-effacing by nature, but that masks a ruthless striving for betterment. Ever reaching further, listening deeply, critically and taking risks. For all that he able to relax into the moment and as he grows musically this is more evident. The most difficult journey for any musician is finding a distinctive style and owning it. Steele is well on the way.Matt Steele 2015 088Thanks to Roger Manins programming, Auckland audiences get to see good Wellington bands every few months. In this case the audience were unfamiliar with the musicians (apart from Steele), but what a treat this gig was. The band won us over quickly and by the time the second set began they were cooking. In spite of the modernistic approach and complex time signatures these guys have a definite pulse. They swing like crazy.Matt Steele 2015 090Ashton Sellars had suffered a mishap with his guitar and he had to borrow one at short notice for the gig. He told me that it felt very different to his own older instrument, but no one would have guessed it by the way he was playing. Under his fingers the instrument sang. He favours longer fluid lines (with a hint of Bauer/Tristano), but his is very much a modern sound. His improvisations are thoughtful and they invite you along. While their music is often complex there is no ballast of needless weighty intellectualism. Piano and guitar keeping nicely apart unless comping in support. Both understanding when to lay out. Once again cohesion and a sense of common purpose drives themMatt Steele 2015 091Johnny Lawrence played upright bass, maintaining the core rhythm duties. While he held the pulse intact, he could also solo very effectively. Like his band mates he fitted into the mix in exactly the right way. Cory Campion was also a strong presence, often giving colour or providing accents. Above all his compositions were strong. There is an increasing trend for drummers to compose and when they write like this it provides an interesting perspective.  Drummers write differently and the ones I hear lately, write very well. Steele and Sellars contributed the most tunes and each wrote in their own distinctive style. Together those charts and this band gave us pure enjoyment.

Master Brewers: Matt Steele (Leader, Piano), Ashston Sellars (guitar), Johnny Lawrence (bass), Cory Champion (drums) CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland 8th July 2015

Crystal Choi ‘Skogkatt’ @ CJC

Crystal Choi Skogkatt 098I looked forward to the ‘Skogkatt’ gig because Crystal Choi is a young musician with plenty of interesting ideas. She recently graduated from the UoA Jazz school and this project is largely drawn from her output as a student. Her arrangements and musical ideas show an evolving musician and her performance skills speak of energy and a growing confidence. When you speak to her there is a hint of shyness, but this evaporates the minute her hands touch the keyboard. At the piano her touch is decisive and the thinking behind the pieces is strongly communicated. She has grasped an important truth, how to play with space. One minute she is playing boldly with both hands raining down on the keys, the next dropping back to a gentle whisper or laying out. Her choice of project was a brave one as it tackled areas well beyond the usual Jazz orbit. Writing for strings and an unusually configured horn section an indicator of where she could be headed.Crystal Choi Skogkatt 101Her compositions and charts were of particular interest as they evoked more of a Northern European, or South American ethos than a North American one. While all Jazz arises from American roots, there are other forces at work in a globalised jazz world. As musicians from different ethnic backgrounds embrace improvised music something fresh is added. It is right that New Zealanders, Northern Europeans or people from other regions bring something of their own life experiences to the music. Jazz from the outer rim is particularly interesting at present.Crystal Choi Skogkatt 090There were solo, trio, sextet, septet and tenet pieces. Her writing for the ten piece band was notable. Although an uncommon configuration of instruments these oddly configured, medium-sized ensembles have been a feature in modern classical music since Saint-Saens ‘Carnival of the Animals’ (that was an eleven piece). In Jazz since the late 40’s. Having a front line with two violins and cello alongside trumpet/flugel, bass-clarinet, clarinet and flute/alto saxophone worked well. The unusual textures gave depth and interest to the composition. The slightly tart voicings of the Bartok like string section contrasting nicely with the woody richness of the woodwind horns. These sort of excursions are not embarked upon lightly but I feel Choi pulled it off. My only quibble, and it is a small one is that the ensemble needed to tighten up somewhat in places.Crystal Choi Skogkatt 087Another side of Choi is her singing. While certainly not a big voice it has charm and originality. Like many improvisers she sings while digging into a solo. These are wordless songs of the sort that you would hear on a Norma Winstone album. At times there is a Debussy feel to her solo and trio compositions.Crystal Choi Skogkatt 096This project while far-ranging begs developing further and perhaps recorded at some future point. It had a Kiwi ECM feel to it. I hope that she works with the material and refines it further. It is well worth doing.  Note: The Skogkatt is native to the forests of Scandinavia and the original Maine Coon cat.Crystal Choi Skogkatt 094

Crystal Choi – ‘Skogkatt Project‘ : Crystal Choi (piano, compositions, arrangements), Eamon Edmunsen-Wells (bass), Tristen Deck (drums), J Y Lee (alto sax & flute), Eizabeth Stokes (trumpet & flugel), Asher Truppman Lattie (clarinet, tenor saxophone), Sean Martin-Buss (Bass clarinet & tenor sax), Charmian Keay (violin), Milena Parobczy (violin), Yotam Levy (cello).

CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland 24th June 2015

Reuben Bradley’s ‘Cthulhu Rising’ @ CJC

Cthulhu Rising 085H P Lovecraft died under appreciated, but it didn’t curb his output. His imaginings took him to darkly strange and exciting places. Places that few of us dared contemplate. While he reached deeper than writers like Edger Alan Poe and further into the human psyche, his wildest dreams could not have prepared him for Wednesday night. Reuben Bradley, time traveller and keeper of lost grooves has wrestled with the spirits and brought Lovecraft to life again.

If anyone was up to this interesting challenge it was Bradley. An original drummer who moves across the kit with balletic fluidity and whose focus and musicality enhances any undertaking. He possesses superb compositional skills and these are fed by a fertile imagination. There is another quality to Bradley and perhaps this is the key. He has a highly developed sense of the absurd. A good humoured irreverence that is never far from the surface. This time his attributes were given full rein and he has excelled himself. Cthulhu Rising 091This is a truly exceptional album and it is no wonder when you consider the source material and the musicians associated with it. Bradley, Penman and Eigsti are a deadly combination and their interplay is crisply on the mark. Matt Penman is dear to our hearts in New Zealand. One of our finest Jazz exports. An expat from Auckland who conquered the American improvised bass scene in ways that few others manage. His work with James Farm, the San Francisco Jazz Collective, Aaron Parks, Kurt Rosenwinkel and a long list of luminaries is instructive. That he still appears with the best of our local artists and on local recordings is our immense good luck. An imaginative and wonderfully musical bass player who holds the groove and manages to tell interesting stories without distracting us from the overall focus of the piece. Few bass players could do this better than Penman.

Last but least is Taylor Eigsti on piano and keys. The New York based Eigsti is also an original stylist. While his name is often associated with the likes of Eric Harland, Joshua Redman, Ambrose Akinmusire, Julian Lage and Gretchen Parlato he deserves evaluating in his own right as leader. For a number of years now the Jazz community has singled him out as an exceptional talent. His back story and youthful entry onto the world Jazz scene is fascinating, but it is his mature output that continually amazes. He is well recorded, well reviewed and getting better with each passing year. At times you can hear influences but they are not the predominant voice. This is a wholly formed original artist and what he brought to Cthulhu Rising was priceless.Cthulhu Rising 094The judicious use of sampled ‘Lovecraft’ readings in several places adds to the atmospheric feel and doesn’t detract from the overall musical experience. Every note played and every voice-over is well placed. Yet again Rattle Records have excelled themselves here. The secret of ‘Rattle Records’ tasteful Jazz catalogue must surely be seeping into the wider world by now. ‘Rattle’ is the ‘ECM’ of the South Pacific. This album was recorded at the ‘Bunker Studios’ in New York, Engineered by Aaron Nevezie and mixed and mastered by Steve Garden at ‘The Garden Shed’ Auckland.Cthulhu Rising 088There was a change of personnel for the CJC ‘Cthulhu Rising’ release gig and for the Australasian tour to follow. Respected bass player Brett Hirst took Penman’s place and this was a sound choice. Hirst, another expat Kiwi, is well established on the Australian scene and frequently employed by visiting artists. He is a gifted musician and perfect for high end gigs like this.

Throughout the New Zealand leg of their tour they were enthusiastically acclaimed and no wonder. The project is well conceived and well realised. In spite of the incredible strengths of his band mates, this is still very much Bradley’s album. We are seeing more drummer led albums lately and the sheer exuberance and depth of this one is proof that the New Zealand improvised music scene just gets better and better.

Cthulhu Rising: Reuben Bradley, Taylor Eigsti, Matt Penman – on tour Brett Hirst – purchase the album from Rattle records or in stores

Live Gig: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand

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Carnivorous Plant Society – Finn Scholes @ CJC

Finn Scholes CPS 085 (1)Music has a million functions, some of them mysterious; it is the soundtrack to our lives. One of those functions, should not be underestimated, is to bring fun into our day. In this age of multi-media music performance the use of film and theatre is generally ceded to heavy metal or pop. That is a shame because Jazz audiences can react favourably to music when accompanied by these various forms of media. This works well at the Golden Dawn. Sometimes when the CJC is held upstairs, we get random film and images playing across the musicians as they perform. Who can forget the crazy brilliance of ‘The Grid’ (see earlier post). While happenstance can work; truly effective interaction needs working into a performance and be way slicker than a silly strobe light or an embarrassing disco chandelier. The Carnivorous Plant Society presented a coordinated performance and it enhanced the music on offer. Finn Scholes CPS 093This is very much a Finn Scholes project and it has been around for some time. Scholes is primarily known as a trumpeter (often playing the avant-garde end of town). Increasingly these days he is a keyboard player and showman. Last year I saw him with this group; belting out his signature brassy Mexican trumpet sound while playing an analogue synth with his left hand. The performance often tipped into the surreal because Scholes wore a Mexican ‘night of the dead’ wrestling mask. Not an image or a sound I will easily forget. Finn Scholes CPS 087The Carnivorous Plant Society is a quintet but there are many more instruments, pedals and electronic devices than there are band members. Scholes plays trumpet, tuba, piano, numerous keyboards, electronics – Siobhanne Thompson, vibraphone, violin, percussion, pocket trumpet – Tam Scholes, electric guitar – Cass Mitchell, Electric Bass – Alistair Deverick, drums, electronics. With use of loops, wizard like gadgets and Siva like arms, a number of sounds are generated at once. Finn Scholes CPS 094The occasional use of voice-over samples was far from being gratuitous as the ‘Max Headroom’ like humour often lay in these samples. There were strange Stephen King like stories of robots taking over the world and oddly quirky adventures relayed. The latter as if being recalled by deadpan 1950’s radio hosts. Many of these performed against brightly coloured cartoon graphics that played over their heads. The graphics were brilliant and although I have no evidence for supposing this, I presume that someone in the quintet (or a close friend hip to the project) created them.

Finn Scholes has been to the CJC often, but it has been a long while since we saw the fine bass player Cass Mitchell (probably with the Andy Brown band nearly three years ago). The rest of the group are new to the club as far as I know. Billed as ‘cinematic fantasy Jazz with a Mexican twist‘. An absolutely truthful advertising descriptor. As a Zorn, Sun Ra and Zappa fan I can hardly object. Finn Scholes CPS 085

Who: ‘Carnivorous Plant Society’ – Finn Scholes, Siobhanne Thompson, Tam Scholes, Cass Mitchell, Alistair Deverick.

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, 20th May 2015

McAll – #ASIO Mooroolbark

Barney McAll 2 071 (1)Mooroolbark is a place, an album and a state of mind. It is an intersection of worlds and a testament to Barney McAll’s writing skills .

There is a special place where artistic expression transcends the immediate, a place where archetypes become manifest in varied and subtle ways. This is a place where unexpected journeys begin. Where the eyes, ears, touch, smell and feel guide you inexorably toward ancient and modern shared memories. Jung spoke of this as the ‘collective unconscious mind’ (or the ‘universal mind’). This is a mysterious well of ‘unknowing’ and the best improvising artists navigate its depths. McAll is a musician eminently qualified to navigate this journey.

He is a storyteller and a fearless explorer. Revealing seemingly endless worlds as the patina of time and space reveal new layers note by note. The trick of this is the subtle cues left along the path. If the listener comes with open ears and mind, new depths unfold. In truth these are ancient devices, long the preserve of poets, painters, improvisers and prehistoric cave artists. McAll and ASIO use these subliminal cues to confound, tease and cajole. All is revealed and all is not what it seems. We listen, we enjoy, but there is always a Siren to lure us deeper. ASIO tantalises with motifs that sound familiar, but which often dissolve into something else upon closer examination; echoes from the future as much as the past. These are the archetypes of sound and silence.  Barney McAll 2 072 (1)#ASIO stands for the Australian Symbiotic Improvisers Orbit, but even in the title the story deepens? Another ASIO comes to mind, as hard-won Australian freedoms vanish in the eternal quest for security. At a pre-release gig in Sydney’s Basement the band donned high-viz vests with #ASIO stencilled on them; high visibility music juxtaposed with secretive worlds. This #ASIO has some answers. The landscape of McAll’s new album ‘Mooroolbark’ is littered with these potent images and if you let your preconceptions go, they will come to you. These musical parables are modern ‘song lines’; age old stories told afresh. ‘Mooroolbark’ completes a circle. A return to familiar physical and spiritual landscapes. A reappraisal of the journey with old musical friends.

McAll is a thinker and perhaps a trickster as much as he is a musician. To quote from Jungian sources “In mythology, and in the study of folklore and religion, a trickster exhibits a great degree of intellect or secret knowledge and uses it to play tricks or otherwise disobey normal rules and conventional behaviour.”

While his previous albums have featured New York luminaries like Kurt Rosenwinkel, Gary Bartz, Ben Monder, Josh Roseman, Billy Harper and others this is mostly an Australian affair. The one exception is percussionist Mino Cinelu. McAll’s collaborations with Dewey Redman, Fred Wesley, Jimmy Cobb and others have brought him much deserved attention. Now the story moves to his home country. The Mooroolbark personnel are McAll (piano, compositions, vocals), Julien Wilson (tenor, alto clarinet), Stephen Magnusson (guitars), Jonathan Zwatrz (bass), Simon Barker (drums, percussion), Mino Cinelu (percussion), Hamish Stuart (drums), Shannon Barnett (trombone). These are well-known gifted musicians, but everyone checked their egos in at the door.  Barney McAll 2 071This unit performs as if they are one entity. Every note serves the project rather than the individuals. The sum is greater than its considerably impressive parts. I have seen McAll perform a number of times and his sense of dynamics is always impressive He can favour the darkly percussive; using those trademark voicings to reel us in, then just as suddenly turn on a dime and with the lightest of touch occupy a gentle minimalism. On Mooroolbark everyone’s touch is light and airy, open space between notes, a crystal clarity that surprisingly yields an almost orchestral feel. Avoiding an excess of notes and making a virtue out of this is especially evident as they play off the ostinato passages (i.e ‘Non Compliance).

Because they work in such a unified fashion it is almost a sin to single out solos. Inescapable however are the solos by McAll on ‘Nectar Spur and on the dark ballad ‘Poverty’; which has incandescent beauty. Wilson on the moody atmospheric ‘Coast Road’, and above all Magnusson and McAll on ‘Non-Compliance’. I am familiar with this composition and I love the new arrangement here.  Barney McAll 2 071 (2)A transformation has occurred with ‘Non Compliance’; morphing from a tour de force trio piece into an other-worldly trippy sonic exploration. All of the musicians fit perfectly into the mix and this is a tribute to the arrangements and to the artists. Zwartz (an expat Kiwi who has a strong presence here) holds the groove to perfection and the drummers and percussionists, far from getting in each others way, lay down subtle interactive layers; revealing texture and colour. Barker on drums and percussion is highly respected on the Australian scene (as are all of these musicians). Adding the New York percussionist Mino Cinelu gives that added punch. On tracks 6 & 7 noted trombonist Shannon Barnett adds her magic and Hamish Stewart is on drums for the last track.

A sense of place may pervade these tunes, but there is also a question mark. This is not a place set in aspic but a query. Places or ideas dissolve into merged realities like the music that references them. Layers upon layers again.

This is art music, street music and musical theatre of the highest order. Everything that you hear, see and experience serves the music in some way. It is a bittersweet commentary on the human experience. A scientist on New Zealand National Radio said that exploring the dark unseen areas of space is the new magic. I think that he is right. This album is replete with trickster references but the intent is deadly serious. This music turns the arrows of listening back on us like a Zen Koan.  Barney McAll 2 072Barney McAll is an award-winning, Grammy nominated Jazz Musician based in New York. He was recently awarded a one year Peggy Glanville-Hicks Composers Residency and he currently resides at the Paddington residency house in Sydney, Australia.

I would urge you to buy the ‘Mooroolbark’ album at source rather than purchase it on iTunes. The cover art and the messages are a trip in themselves. Available June 5th.

For two sample tracks on ‘Soundcloud’ go to: https:\\soundcloud.com/barneymcall

I took the photos of Barney McAll during a two-hour interview with him in Sydney April 2015.  I chose not to use the traditional question and answer format as this begged a different approach. For better or worse getting inside a story Gonzo style is what I do.  The first and last pictures are from the ‘Mooroolbark’ album artwork by Allan Henderson & Jenny Gavito and Andre Shrimski. The bird is the wonderful Frogmouth Owl (shedding the old New York skyline from its plumage).

The Album: ‘Mooroolbark’ – Barney McAll (piano, compositions, vocal), Julien Wilson (tenor sax, alto clarinet), Stephen Magnusson (guitars), Jonathan Zwartz (bass), Simon Barker (drums, percussion), Mino Cinelu (percussion), Hamish Stuart (drums [8]), Shannon Barnett (trombone [6, 7]) – released 2015 by abcmusic

Purchase information: http://extracelestialarts.bandcamp.com/

Biographical information @ www.barneymcall.com

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Harry Himself visits the CJC

Harry Himself 11-3-2014 074I often detect a unique quality in New Zealand improvised music, but when it comes to defining it, the illusive essence dissolves before I can grab hold. ‘Harry Himself’ has brought me one step closer, connecting me with a tangible manifestation. This band is the perfect example of improvised ‘Kiwiana’. At first hearing you detect a melange of the familiar; elements of World, Fusion, Straight ahead, Post bop, Post millennial Jazz and all served up with a generous dollop of classic country. Listen more closely and you will get strong South Sea references, flashes of musical memory permeating every bar. Everything from Bill Sevesi to the ancient sounds of New Zealand indigenous music. Even song titles revolve around Kiwiana themes .  Many of the tunes belong to a place, to the Islands we live on and to the immense swath of sea that surrounds it. Like the harbours and oceans that surround us, this is a mosaic of glittering fragments. A familiar yet unknown music to gladden the heart.  Harry Himself 11-3-2014 058 (2)Above all this is a good-natured band, oozing charm and character. The array of instruments and the judicious use of loops and pedals more than doubles their range.  The only constant in the sounds are the six string bass and drums. The leader Kingsley Melhuish is sometimes seen in the company of adventurous avant-gardists. He can also be found among the free ranging Ponsonby Road improvising bands. His use of pedals and loops is tasteful and it serves the music not a whim. His pedal effects and electronics are not added randomly, nor for the sake of it. He is an accomplished horn Harry Himself 11-3-2014 070player, switching seamlessly between trumpet, flugelhorn, tuba, trombone and lately, a vast array of conch shells. Melhuish often sets up loops and then he plays over them with different horns.  This layering of sound is achieved well and the real-time harmonic overlay enables him to add considerable texture and breadth. Neil Watson does likewise, as he frequently moves between Fender guitar and pedal steel guitar. The day after the gig I called into the MAINZ recording studio to grab a few shots of the group laying down an album. I overheard the recording technician asking the band after a take, “How do you feel that went; do you want to listen before moving on”?  Immediately a voice came from the studio speaker, “No, I think we’ll do that one again. The Fender and the conch will work better together than the pedal steel on this track”.  A huge smile crossed the technicians face, “I’ve never heard that said in a studio before” he said.  They were Harry Himself 11-3-2014 068right and it reinforced a long-held view of mine; that no instrument is beyond the reach of Jazz and that no sound should remain un-pillaged. I always appreciate Sam Giles electric bass playing and I am always left with the feeling that he is scandalously under-utilised. Solid and groove based was what the band needed and solid and groove based was what they got. On drums was premier drummer Ron Samsom. He worked these beats like he always does, purposefully, skilfully and making it look second nature. I’m glad the band is recording this material and I have a feeling that the album could grow legs with the right exposure. I hope so, they are fun. Harry Himself 11-3-2014 059I have added two video clips of the band, which demonstrate the diversity of their material. While diverse, it never-the-less hangs together nicely. The fist clip is ‘Cy’s Eyes’ a tune composed for one of Melhuish’s children. The second tune is the wilder freer ‘Zornithology’. A tribute to John Zorn (with an obvious play on the title of a Bird tune). There was one tune I wish I’d captured on video and that was ‘Rose Selavy’ by Enrico Rava.  Man, what a hard-edged powerhouse romp that was.

Who: ‘Harry Himself‘ is Kingsley Melhuish (trumpet, flugel, tuba, trombone, conch’s), Neil Watson (Fender guitar, Pedal Steel guitar), Sam Giles (six string e-bass), Ron Samsom (drums).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand 18th March 2015

Emie Roussel Trio @ CJC

 

Emie Roussel trio 048Any mention of Quebec catches my attention as I really like that part of Canada, so when I learned that a highly rated Montreal piano-trio was coming to town I knew that it would be a good experience.  I had not encountered the Emie Roussel Trio before, but a quick glance at the accolades they have garnered and the numerous You Tube clips that have sprung up over the past year, gave me all the information that I needed.  The group had attracted particular attention at the Montreal Jazz Festival and from what I saw online, deservedly so.

Montreal is a Jazz city and I rate it highly.  It is easy on the eye, friendly, laid back and intensely focussed on the arts. During a recent visit I spent my nights in its Jazz clubs and bars.  As many as I could cram into an Autumn week; anywhere featuring improvised music.  It was not the time of year to catch The Montreal Jazz Festival, so I got to see local bands like ‘Park X’ and the ‘Carl Naud Quartet’ at ‘L’OFF Jazz Festival’.  Emie Roussel trio 065As you move about that city, the familiar and the exotic coexist at every street corner.  I came to realise that this almost subliminal familiarity was the manifestation of a spiritual kinship. The sort that exists between certain special cities, a connection that is not about trade, mayoral visits or geography; a connection of musical and artistic synergies.  Emie Roussel trio 053The Emie Roussel Trio are part European and part American in aesthetic. They are wholly Montreal. Their music has a pulse and a vibe which draws on european classical music traditions and the deep earthy Jazz grooves that arose from the American continent. In the hands of improvisers like Roussel these influences communicate a universal language. As the pieces unfold there is a sense that this band works as an organic whole. What we heard was tight and full of vibrancy or as a musician I spoke to during the break put it. “We are hearing the result of rehearsal, dedication to a project, discipline and road time”.  While I love the free-flowing loose feel of New Zealand improvising bands, I must acknowledge that we seldom hear trio’s which sound like this.

The set-list was a selection from the trio’s recent albums with a few tunes from her new album in the mix. All of the compositions and arrangements were by the leader Emie Rioux-Roussel. Her compositions are well thought out and adventurous; taking sudden twists and turns, but never losing sight of the momentum and the inner logic. The segments are pieces of a puzzle placed by very skilful hands.  As significant as her piano chops are, it was her work on keys that reeled me in. She quickly dug in on the Korg, carving out intense and deeply pleasing grooves with her left hand. The tasteful flurries from her right opening up the possibility of a million directions, all worth taking; her voicings felt original and warm as the summer breeze.  This was an altogether funkier feel and as the beats reflected the changed mood the electric bass thumped out lines that danced in your head.  Emie Roussel trio 045The bass player Nicolas Bedard and drummer Dominic Cloutier never faltered.  They wove in and around the tunes with consummate skill and were the perfect interpreters of Roussel’s music. These men are versatile and skilled and whether on brushes, sticks, upright or electric bass, they knew exactly what would serve the music best.  Emie Roussel trio 046The second set brought us an added treat as the Kiwi trumpeter Lex French came to the bandstand. I have long rated French as one of our finest trumpeters. He completed his studies in Montreal and was already well acquainted with several of the band members. His addition changed the pace once again, opening the way for harder blowing.  As the sets progressed the constantly evolving moods worked well for them, giving the gig real breadth.  Emie Roussel trio 050The trio’s recent album ‘Transit’, includes many of the numbers heard on the tour but with one significant difference; The inclusion of a string section, the ‘Quatuor St-Germain’ and a percussionist Julie Quimper.  Roussel’s charts in the hands of this larger ensemble are very different to the trio.  I particularly like her compositions like ‘L’ attente du chat’ and ‘La timbale et la fourmi’.  The mood of the ballad is cat-like in its grace and time feel. The latter, a delightful shape-shifter of a piece full of contrasts and propulsion.  I look forward to the new album which is just the trio but with some Rhodes tracks as well as piano.

I hope that they came back one day as this is a band well worth keeping tabs on.

Who: The Emie Roussel Trio – Emie Rioux-Roussel (piano, keys), Nicolas Bedard (contrabasse), Dominic Cloutier (batterie).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Brittomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand, 17th December 2014.

Dave Jackson ‘ Cosmontology Live’ Review

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I am a keen follower of ‘Tiny Hearts’ and if you explore the tributaries flowing from that creative enterprise you will arrive at this album. ‘Cosmontology’ is an incarnation (minus Eamon Dilworth).  Dave Jackson is the leader of this project and joining him are three of Australia’s finest improvising musicians.  This is Jackson’s second album under the title of ‘Cosmontology’, the last being in 2012.  I have not asked the meaning of the album title, but the related term Cosmology is the science of unravelling the beginnings of the universe.  At the centre of that work is the Big Bang Theory.  If we transcribe that theory into musical terms we begin to divine the ethos of this album.  This music feels incredibly bold to me, at times raw but always full of life, promise and excitement.  The sub atomic particles and vibrations that exist at the centre of the musical universe have coalesced here.

Jackson is an established alto saxophonist who like the other band members works in the Sydney area.  His approach while guided by an innate sense of musicality is somehow bolder than many of his alto playing contemporaries. There is a confidence that radiates from his every phrase, a sense that he is forging ahead without the need to look over his shoulder. He carries the history of Jazz in the DNA of his sound, but is always forward-looking.

This sense momentum is evident from the first listening.  The title track ‘Cosmontology’ begins with an almost meditative intro by Barry who plays Rhodes throughout the album.  In the first few bars the chords shift subtly, teasing us with possibilities.  This nicely sets the mood up for what comes next, an unerring journey into the heart of a compelling composition.  Bass and drums follow and as they weave in and around the chords a visceral power is evident as the groove develops.  When Jackson comes in there is no equivocation.  An overwhelming clarity of purpose has everyone moving in unison.

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Steve Barry is a gifted acoustic pianist and he is well recorded as such.  To hear him on a Rhodes is a treat.  On this album Barry often takes the measured approach, providing the necessary counter weight to the wilder explorations.  This frees Jackson, Botting and Derricott to work in a freer space, it is the springboard they need.  A steadying hand guiding the explorers as they surge forwards.  In Barry’s playing there is the feeling that you are on ‘Voyager’; experiencing unimaginable colours as you cut through the silence of space.

Tom Botting’s bass work quickly took my attention here.  I rate him as a bass player but I have seldom heard him recorded so well.  He has found an album where he can really shine and he makes the best of the opportunity.  His strong lines and immaculate sense of time serve to unleash Derricott who rains down shimmering flurries of beats as he moves and shapes the sound.  His contributions add depth, colour and heart stopping excitement.  As a unit they are immaculate.

Some people might not like the use of pedals with a horn, but they need to catch up.  Improvised music has never stood still, often appropriating new sounds, striking out in new directions.  The Scandinavian trumpeters fatten up their sound by electronic means as do American trumpeters like Cuong Vu.  The history of Jazz is full of examples of changed and amplified sound.  Without those experiments no Charlie Christian or Jimmy Smith.  What is the difference between utilising extended technique acoustically and adding the use of pedals to delay or chorus?  The only questions that should arise are; has this been done well, does the music have integrity?  In this case I say a resounding yes.

 

Who: Dave Jackson (alto saxophone, electronics), Steve Barry (Rhodes), Tom Botting (acoustic bass), Paul Derricott (drums)

What:  ‘Cosmontology Live’ – www.davejacksonmusic.com/

 

John Bell – Horn Free @ CJC

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John Bell is an iconoclast, always bringing something new and unexpected to the bandstand.   There is also a rich vein of tongue in cheek humour that runs though his onstage banter.  Like his music, it takes unexpected twists and turns.  That is not to say that his shows lack serious intent as he utilises quality musicians; doing what they do well.   It is perhaps best to describe his gigs as full of Zen humour, the sort that Carla Bley is so adept at.  The slap in the face accompanying a sly tickle of the ribs.  Even Bells instruments are other than the expected.  A metallophone instead of a vibraphone (vibes, sans motor and Leslie unit as played by Gary Burton these days).  A horn in a gig titled Horn Free (and an obscure tenor horn at that).  I was equally unsurprised when I was invited to their live recording date; “Last Modern Jazz Qtet Concert’.  Perfect.

To do justice to his music Bells gigs require quirky and talented musicians.  Good readers, good time keepers, prepared to veer off at a moments notice into uncharted realms.  No genre remains un-pillaged in the source material for John Bells compositions; Korean folk songs, bebop or brass band music.  When he announces a standard it is best to think popular Korean TV program theme, Sonny Sharrock or Sankey Hymn.   Nothing is what it seems in his Kaleidoscopic world of shimmering sweet and suddenly dissonant sounds.   The music is weighed up and re-evaluated long after the event.   It leaves an impression hanging in the air for weeks and because of that it is somehow more satisfying than predicable gigs.  Perhaps it is in the ears of the listener, but to my ear this was brave and satisfying music.  It made me happy.

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Watching an animated vibes player is pure theatre.  They throw themselves into the task more than other instrumentalists.  At times Bell would launch him self forward with apparent fury. His left foot trailing behind him as the energy released.  This wonderful two or four mallet dance was a product of the reduced amplification.  Body, mallet and instrument interacting with intensity.  IMG_2508 - Version 2

The rest of the lineup consisted of guitar, drums and bass.  A mix of veterans and up and coming players.   Neil Watson was on guitar and he is the perfect foil for Bell.   He is at least as iconoclastic as Bell, with wild forays ranging from the joyously punk to fusion bebop.  Watson is a respected musician about town and if he has boundaries they are not immediately obvious.  Stylistically he is often somewhere east of Frissel, Montgomery and Ribot.  He has gradually been adding more slide guitar into his repertoire (and now a pedal steel guitar is part of his bag of tricks).  Watson provided one composition to the gig and while different to Bells compositions it was equally enjoyable.   A well-known musician sitting beside me whispered, “That is in the time signature of Take Five, but it is way further out”.

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Eamon Edmunson Wells was on bass and Cameron Sangster on traps.   While Bell and Watson often leave the known universe to explore the outer reaches,  Edmunson Wells and Sangster hold the ship intact.  I have heard both often, but never in this context.  I was extremely impressed by their efforts and my respect has deepened for both.  If you do something well in a straight-ahead context that doesn’t necessarily translate into a more avant garde setting.   Musicians like Joey Baron show us just how far you can stretch if you are so minded.   It pleases me to see younger musicians following this braver path.  IMG_2513 - Version 2

The audience numbers were not as good as they could be and that was a pity.  This music is a rare treat and it deserves our attention.  All you need to enjoy music like this is a pair of open ears.  If you listen, really listen, you will soon have a smile on your face.

(an updated audio to clip to be added shortly in this space) 

Who: John Bell (metallophone, tenor horn), Neil Watson (guitars), Eamon Edmunson Wells (bass), Cameron Sangster (drums).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 1885 Britomart, Auckland, New Zealand      www.creativejazzclub.co.nz   

Asher Truppman Lattie / J Y Lee emerging artist series

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Thirty years ago Jazz students kept close to the safer standards for a first time club gig.  Post millennium Students reference a variety of genres; even during a single number.  That may sound like a recipe for disaster and if handled ineptly it would be.  What I heard on this gig was at times clever and perhaps even cheeky.  It bodes well for the adventures ahead.  It is important that Jazz retains a sense of adventure and joy.  There is certainly room for serious explorations, but music that takes itself too seriously is a downer.

The programming of CJC gigs ensures that a variety of acts.  This is a particular strength.  I have remarked upon this before and it is this practice that enables the Jazz club to hold ’emerging artists’ gigs every so often.   It is far from being a weak commercial proposition as these nights usually draw significant crowds.  Everyone who follows this music knows that artists don’t emerge from their studies fully formed.  They develop incrementally; as they practice, play beside better musicians and as they perform in front of discriminating audiences.  Having a project in hand like the ’emerging artists’ series is an important step.  There are a number of Jazz schools in New Zealand (and some very good teachers in the private sector).  It is therefore important that we evaluate the students.  So far the quality of emerging artists has been impressive.  IMG_1957 - Version 2

There was a double billing on the 6th August.  First up was the Asher Tuppman Lattie quintet, followed by the J Y Lee Sextet.  Following tradition the band members were all fellow students or recently graduated students and the reasoning behind this practice is sound.  If they appeared with well established and highly competent musicians, a lingering doubt could remain.  Would they have sounded as good without the latter?  Choosing from fellow students gives context and synergy.  Everyone needs to step up in unison.   IMG_1953 - Version 2

I have posted a number titled ‘Tango’ which provides a context for my initial comments.  At first it appears to be traditional Jazz Tango fare as it briefly utilises the raspy sounds made famous by Gato Barbieri.  Then you get a sense of fun, as it playfully takes the genre apart.  We get bebop and the merest hint of free in what follows.   The vaudevillian feel of the piece worked well.  It is similar to the sounds I heard during my explorations of Italian Jazz, a country where the blurring of Jazz, folk and free is often elevated to high art.  Jazz Tango is something that I love and I’m not sure Kiwi’s get this.  Listen to Gerry Mulligan with Aster Piazzolla or Gary Burton or even Carla Bley and you will find Tango gold.  The Jazz Tango master who appeared to acclaim at the recent Wellington Jazz Festival was probably ignored by most Jazz fans.  Their loss.  The pianist Connor McAneny  played the first set.  He is an imposing presence; not because he is dominant, but because his assuredness when comping and his tasteful solos grow ever more confident.

Second up was J Y Lee, a young alto player who is often seen around town.   He is heard in many lineups and his taste for the avant garde has added a piquancy to his sound.  His played a  varied set, giving him the ability to demonstrate a range of his writing and playing skills.   Utilising Chelsea Prastiti on vocal lines was a masterstroke as the colour she adds to an ensemble is unique.   As in the Asher Tuppman Lattie set the second horn player was Sam Weeks.   Sam had played Alto in first set but took up tenor duties for the second set with J Y Lee.  I have put up a piece which shows Weeks and Lee playing together.   The arranged head is tight and melodic and as the piece opens out, everyone is given a chance to stretch a little.  IMG_1950 - Version 2

The pianist for the second set was Chrystal Choi.  She is a gifted pianist and it is a real shame that we don’t see her more often.  In spite of having well-developed chops she never over-plays.  Every note counts and she is definitely one to watch.   Bass player Djordje Nikolic and drummer Tristan Deck played both sets.   I have only heard Nikolic a few times but he acquitted himself well.   Tristan Deck is increasingly seen about town and it is no wonder that he is employed more often.  His time feel and confidence mark him out.

There was a good attendance for the gig and judging by the whoops and cheers everyone enjoyed it.

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club)  www.creativejazzclub.co.nz

yeahyeahabsolutelynoway @ CJC

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An array of guitar pedals is sometimes deployed to hide a multitude of sins, but in the hands of a skilful improviser the opposite occurs.   Yeahyeahabsolutelynoway! illustrate the best of modern guitar work as they invoke past, present and future.   Their gigs feature their own compositions, with performances drawing upon influences as diverse as rock, country, experimental improvised music and traditional Jazz.  They juggle these competing influences skilfully while still imparting a surprising degree of subtlety.  I have sometimes seen Jazz guitar traditionalists roll their eyes at the sight of pedals, but I would respectfully suggest that they haven’t been paying proper attention to their Jazz history.  IMG_1659 - Version 2

Everyone from Charlie Christian onwards embarked upon a never-ending quest to change, modify, enhance and above all to extend their sound options.   Without those open skies explorers and without enhancements, the use of the guitar in boisterous Jazz lineups would have reached its high-water-mark with Freddie Green.  I love Freddie Green with a passion but the guitar is about more than chords.  Almost every instrument used in Jazz today is modified or extended in some way.   Putting a trumpet through a pedal and working in real-time with loops created by multi phonic effects does not mean that the musician is cheating.  It must be about integrity and the sound.  Beneath the right fingers improvisational integrity and storytelling always come to the fore.   Yeahyeahabsolutelynoway! understand that.

‘Yeahyeahabsolutleynoway’ are the latest addition to the impressive Rattle Records stable.  On the 16th July they did an album release gig at the CJC and for those who braved the winter night it was a treat.  I had listened to the album in advance and so I knew what to expect, but to see them in action held a few surprises for me.  I had wrongly imagined that there would be pre-recorded loops but this was strictly live music.  Every effect we heard was created in realtime, with the constant adjustments from both guitarists giving them an immense palette to work with.  If the sound scape was impressive the tunes were even more so.

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There is something special going on with Australian guitarists at the moment and this band and ‘The Grid’ are occupying a unique space in the antipodean Jazz spectrum.   In the case of ‘yeahyeahabsolutelynoway’ there is no bass guitar, not even a five string.   It is not that unusual to see two six string jazz guitars together in a trio with drums.  What is more unusual is when neither of them takes on the traditional rhythm duties.  These guys were often working the same space, swapping lines or converging on a passage to create a subtle filigree.  While they worked as equals, they never appeared to intrude or crowd in on the other, so attuned they were.  Their focus was always on the subtleties of the music and this made for a good listening experience.  On a beautiful Ibanez solid body guitar was James Brown, who looked more like a member of ‘Z Z Tops’ than his namesake.  On a classy looking blond Fender Tele was Sam Cagney.  Both could be seen crouching at various times throughout the sets, as they coaxed beguiling sounds out of the pedals and all the while playing on through.   The drummer Stephen Neville was vital to the mix and created a seamless flurry of beats or subtle whispers on brushes as required.   It would be hard for me to pin down his drum style other than to say that it was effective and impressive.

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The tunes in the set list and on the recording were varied in approach.  A fun number is the rock influenced ‘Why Sleep?’  When I put the album on at home my partner Darien immediately replayed ‘Why Sleep  over and over.   It is the one to hook you and draw you in.   I liked the Americana feel of ‘Down home’.  It wouldn’t have been at all out-of-place on a Bill Frisell album.  The album was recorded live in Adelaide South Australia where the bands originates from.  Rattle is definitely on a roll this year (yeah, shake rattle & roll) and as the label goes from strength to strength, the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) and the Jazz audiences benefit.   Keep them coming Steve Garden!  IMG_1680 - Version 2

A foot note:  I see that Columbia University is now running a Computer Science course on programming for Jazz Musicians.  As Melhdau and others increasingly follow the footsteps of Herbie Hancock in using programmable devices to extend their range, such courses can only grow in number.   Don’t be too dismayed, this is improvised music folks!  Jazz will strike out in any direction that musicians take.   It is up to us to keep up.  

Who: yeahyeahabsolutelynoway! – James Brown (guitar, effects) Sam Cagney (guitar, effects), Stephen Neville (drums & cymbals)

What: A Rattle Jazz Album: UM.. yeahyeahabsolutelynoway!   http://www.rattlejazz.co.nz

Where: Live album release at CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 1885 Britomart, Auckland, New Zealand      www.creativejazzclub.com

 

Chelsea Prastiti 2014

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Chelsea Prastiti could be said to represent an intergenerational change in the direction Jazz Vocals are headed.  I have watched her grow in confidence since her time at the Auckland University Jazz School and she is always ready to try brave new experiments.   Because her default is the use of wordless vocal lines, she has better been able to explore the relationship between voice and the other instruments.   This integrated approach is possible for two main reasons.  Her keen awareness of what is happening around her and above all her compositional skills.

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Chelsea Prastiti is writing good material.  At times it feels brave and edgy, but it is always interesting.  Perhaps another factor is the musical familiarity with her band mates.   Her bands generally feature Matt Steele (piano), Callum Passells (alto saxophone), Liz Stokes (trumpet), Eamon Edmunson-Wells (bass) and Tristam deck (drums).   Because they were students together and because she has played with them often, I have gained the impression that she may even write material with them in mind.   One of her best recent performances was as guest artist on Callum Passells last CJC gig.   These two always work well together, but hearing them moving in lockstep as they traversed standards and amazingly innovative free numbers was a joy.

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There were a few newer compositions and some re-arranged takes on earlier compositions.  Everything in the sets was composed by Prastiti.   I like ‘Bells’ which begins with a simple peal of bells, but quickly evolves into an altogether more complex piece.  Steele was standout on this, never over-playing but making every note count.   His comping was at times minimalist but he conveyed a certain strength.  The rhythmic feel that he laid down was further enhanced by Deck and Edmunson-Wells.   This allowed Passells and Prastiti to explore the tune in a methodical manner.  Steles solo is worth a particular mention on ‘Bells’, as it underscores his growing maturity as a pianist.

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Prastiti is involved in a number of local projects including an ethnically influenced a capella group.  It is however her ability to edge toward the avant-garde that always interests me the most.

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What: Chelsea Prastiti (vocals, compositions), Matt Steele (piano), Cameron Passells (alto saxophone), Eamon Edmuson-Wells (bass), Tristan Deck (drums) – Guests; Liz Stokes (trumpet),   Cristal Choi (vocals)

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand.  9th July 2014. http://www.creativejazzclub.co.nz

 

James Wylie/Miles Crayford Group

 

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James Wylie last passed through Auckland in late 2012 when he played two gigs at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club).   A gifted alto saxophonist who doubles on clarinet, he has always been popular here.  In his travels around the world, his natural creativity has found endless new avenues for expression, examining, dissecting and assimilating the sounds around him.   What you get from Wylie is authenticity, an authenticity fuelled by indigenous music, country music, his own imaginings and all through a Jazz lens.    Last time he appeared, Greek singer Egli Katsiki accompanied him for two numbers.   This time we were again treated to some improvisations around traditional Greek melodies and to my delight a particularly lovely medieval Arab melody.  This interface between the ancient streams of Mediterranean music and Jazz is one that I am always up for, but seldom get a chance to hear in New Zealand.  Wylie is these days a resident of Greece.

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The co-leader Miles Crayford, now based in Auckland, has appeared at the CJC several times in recent months.  An interesting pianist and composer who compliments Wylie in unexpected ways.  This meeting of musical minds stimulated both artists.   The bass player was Mostyn Cole, but Crayford’s usual drummer, the Wellington based Reuben Bradley was replaced by Ron Samsom.  While all respected musicians in their own right, putting such combinations together is not in itself a guarantee of success.   In this case it worked well.   I like Reuben’s drumming enormously, but Ron Samsom gave the lineup an unusual colour that would not otherwise have been there. Samsom can draw on an endless array of styles, in each case arriving at a feel that is indispensable to the improvisers around him.   Like Wylie and Crayford, Cole contributed an original composition or two.   Cole is also based in Auckland these days and that is our gain.  He often incorporates passages of arco bass into his arrangements, perhaps more so than his local contemporaries.  IMG_1438 - Version 2 (1)

The musical connection between Crayford and Wylie was obvious, with the deliciously dark voicings of the pianist giving the alto player much to work with.   The first tune up titled ‘Taniwha’ (Crayford), set the tone for the evening.   A compelling tune with a melodic head, opening out to reveal depth upon depth.   In the second set Wylie showcased some traditional Greek tunes, unmistakable as to their origin, but somehow imparting a hint of that familiar Kiwi sound.  Kiwi musicians are reflections of our national character,  often excelling at what they do but seldom acknowledging their achievements.  Many are deliberately self-effacing, only letting their music speak for them.  Telling their stories in other ways is a writers job.

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I enjoyed this band and judging by the enthusiastic applause, so did the audience.   There was a time when I dreaded our more talented improvising musicians moving overseas as it felt like a loss.   Now I think differently.  Every-time James Wylie, Jonathan Crayford or Mike Nock returns home they bring back something new.   Nothing is ever lost if we listen properly and keep supporting the music.  These musicians and the many students who tread the same path are our legacy; where ever they live.  IMG_1417 - Version 2

Who: James Wylie/Miles Crayford Group.  – James Wylie (alto saxophone), Miles Crayford (piano), Mostyn Cole (bass), Ron Samsom (drums).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 1885 Brittomart, Auckland, New Zealand.   http://www.creativejazzclub.co.nz

Lex French Quintet @ CJC 2014

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The trumpet is arguably the first instrument of Jazz but we hear it infrequently in Auckland.  When we do it is seldom the lead instrument.  To redress the balance, the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) featured Lex French last week, an impressive musician who is garnering increasing attention on the Jazz scene.  This gig was one to look forward to.  The occasion was the launch of his new Rattle album ‘The Cut’, which is an international affair; recorded at McGill University’s MMR & Studio ‘A’ utilising top rated young Montreal musicians.  The mixing and mastering done in Auckland by Rattles Steve Garden.  For the album release tour French had assembled a quintet of Wellington based musicians, people he has played with before and all well-respected.

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While French has been around for some time and amassed an impressive CV he is not as well-known in Auckland.  After this album (and gig) that should change.  In spite of his relative youth he has already worked extensively overseas and has long been an essential component of the Wellington scene. He came to my attention earlier this year when ‘The JAC’ toured New Zealand and he really stood out, as trumpet players of his calibre are few and far between in New Zealand.  His ability to engage an audience goes way beyond mere chops as the way he connects is personal.  His tone is impressive as is his control of dynamics.  While a strong decisive player, he can also whisper a beguiling phrase.  ‘The Cut’ features his own compositions and these are as strong as the playing on the album.  photo

If I had to pinpoint a particular mood, a particular composition I would draw your attention to ‘Metro’.  Montreal has an impressive metro, teaming with cosmopolitan life.  This track (2) and the others on the album connected me back to a city I love; a great Jazz city.  This is what Jazz does best, paints sound pictures, reconnects us to fading memories while at the same time pointing to the unknown.  ‘The Cut’ has an up to the moment feel with strong edgy interplay between instruments.  Strangely it conveyed to me the vibe of Miles ‘Sorcerer’ album.  Perhaps it was the compositions, perhaps it was the phrasing and intonation of the trumpet, but whatever the reason it evoked memories.   Over the week I have played the album over and over and with each acquaintance a new pleasure discovered.

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French is from Wellington New Zealand and there he obtained a B Mus with honours before moving to Montreal’s McGill University to complete a Masters.  McGill has a highly respected Jazz Studies course (the Schulich School of Music).  As an aside, New Zealand has another respected McGill alumni in drummer Ron Samsom (now head of Auckland University’s Jazz Studies Program).  The musicians on ‘The Cut’ are all from McGill, Montreal.  They are Lex French (trumpet), David Bellemare (tenor saxophone), Nicolas Ferron (guitar), Nicolas Bedard (bass) and Mark Nelson (drums).   French is clearly the leader, giving a consistently strong performance, but with impressive sounding musicians like this behind him he is extremely well supported.   For the New Zealand tour he had Jake Baxendale (alto saxophone), Dan Hayles (Rhodes, Piano), Scott Maynard (bass) and Lauren Ellis (drums).   Having keys replace guitar changed the feel somewhat, but both configurations were effective in their way.  With the authoritative French upfront it could hardly be otherwise.   10462624_10202402878617968_7985350930627100965_n

French is impressive in an ensemble but he is a standout when leading his own unit.  Buy this CD to show your support for an up and coming artist, but above all buy it for the pure enjoyment of sampling the best of contemporary Jazz.  We can also chalk this up as another win for Rattle, in what is already an impressive 2014 Jazz catalogue.

What: Lex French ‘The Cut’ Album release for Rattle Records      www.rattlerecords.net

Who: Lex French Quintet: (‘Album) Lex French (trumpet, leader), David Bellemare (tenor saxophone), Nicolas Ferron (guitar), Nicolas Bedard (bass), Mark Nelson (drums).  (NZ tour) Lex French (trumpet, leader), Jake Baxendale (alto saxophone), Dan Hayles (Rhodes, piano), Scott Maynard (bass), Lauren Ellis (drums).   www.alexisfrenchmusic.com

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand, 18th June 2014  www.creativejazzclub.co.nz

‘The Grid’ land @ CJC

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There are some musicians who arrive on earth fully formed, having journeyed from distant planets.  Sun Ra was one of those.  There is yet another category of musicians who are not aliens, but who clearly hitch a ride with aliens from time to time.  The Grid is one of the latter, as there is no other explanation for their mix of in your face humour, outrageous musicality and otherworldliness.   They have been to Auckland before when I reviewed them for this blog (read ‘The Grid off the Grid’).  This is their second coming and it has long been anticipated by local musicians, metal jazz fans, mental Jazz fans and those who enjoy amazingly improbable improvised music.  People of all ages attended, as the censorship restrictions had obviously been overlooked.

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Reinforcing the view that ‘The Grid’ had been beamed in from a spaceship, was a light show that eerily played across them as they performed.   The gig was not in the usual basement spot, as we had been booted upstairs for the night by the building owners.  Being upstairs means psychedelic light show and being upstairs means playing to people at barely visible tables rather than to people sprawling on leather couches or sitting cross legged on the floor.  Some musicians are less comfortable in this space, but The Grid appeared to thrive on it.  As ever changing patterns played on the walls above them, or descended to spotlight their instruments, they worked with it.   This gave the gig an oddly surreal atmosphere, as isolated instruments or disembodied heads floated strangely in the air.

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The set list was replete with new tunes, all introduced by Ben Vanderwal as he joked his way from number to number.  This was proper Antipodean humour; highly irreverent, at times dry and always delivered with a pinch of intellect.  At one point a dissertation on Kylie Minogue’s lyrics occurred (she should be so lucky), at another a series of imponderable questions were left hanging in the air.  “What if god were one of us?  What if U2 were from Brazil?   Before we could grasp the enormity of these questions, the band had launched into an astonishingly good version of ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ (U2) based upon that premise.  The ideas may have appeared random, but they actually supported an interesting narrative that runs through all of their gigs.   These guys are very good musicians and it is not hard to fathom why alien beings would want to abet them on their journey.  IMG_1112 - Version 2 (1)

I have included a video clip of a composition by Dane Alderson titled ‘Hitch’.   The tune was written to honour iconoclast Christopher Hitchens at the time of his passing.  Sometime during the second set the guitar amp blew up and after a bit of head scratching it was mysteriously re-routed.  A casual observer might think that it was appropriate that a band delivered to us by mysterious forces should disappear in shower of coloured lights and sparks.   I am confident that someone will find a way to beam them back soon.  We like them here in Aotearoa.  IMG_1113 - Version 2

The Grid is: Ben Vanderwal (drums), Dane Alderson (electric 5 string bass, pedals), Tim Jago (guitars and pedals).  Perth/USA

Where: The CJC (Creative Jazz Club) Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand.  www.creativejazzclub.co.nz

Sam Blakelock @ CJC

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Sam Blakelock is a guitarist open to the various streams and influences around him and he is clearly going places.  Formerly from Christchurch where he completed the Christchurch University Jazz Studies course, he found himself attracting wider attention.  A best guitarist award and the Jack Urlwin scholarship were to follow.  After a stint on luxury cruse ships he settled in New York where he is about to embark upon a Masters at NYU.

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Like a number of Jazz guitarists these days Sam Blakelock plays a Fender.   With Fender playing Bill Frisell cleaning up the ‘best of’ Jazz guitar polls year after year, the instruments emergence in mainstream Jazz is unsurprising.  It is hard to imagine Marc Ribot ripping up the rulebook on a classic hollow-body.   These warhorse guitars can be coaxed gently or smote with force and in the hands of a Jazz trained guitarist the sound palate is open-ended.  Blakelock’s approach is more to coax the instrument and the clip I am posting illustrates that approach.  While the quality of an instrument matters, it is the inventiveness and the ability to communicate interesting musical ideas that matters more.  The compositions were all original, many composed for this New Zealand farewell tour.   They felt like markers laid down at a waypoint in the journey.   A point to delineate his hometown success from the success that is surely to follow.

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For bandmates he chose two ex-pat Christchurch musicians, Richie Pickard (bass) and Andy Keegan (drums).  Completing the quartet was popular local alto player Callum Passells.   Having an alto in the mix gave him a very specific palate; giving the arranged heads a distinctive sound.  A certain freedom in voicing made possible.  Blakelock’s upper register lines blended perfectly with the clean toned melodic alto; playing in unison or subtly accenting solos with minimalist comping.  Keegan and Pickard anchored the quartet.  IMG_0600 - Version 2

At one point Blakelock played a riveting solo piece and on another he stole the limelight with a slow blues that burned like a torch song and sang like an exotic bird.  It is when he is in complete charge or playing alone that we see him at his best.  It will be interesting to see him in a few years time, when New York has further polished his already considerable skills.   When he has a moment I hope he passes this way again.

What: The Sam Blakelock Quartet Farewell Tour.  Sam Blakelock (guitar, compositions), Callum Passells (alto sax), Richie Pickard (upright and electric basses), Andy Keegan (drums).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, 7th May 2014.  www.creativejazzclub.co.nz   samblakelock.com

Jonathan Crayford – ‘Dark Light’ Trio @ CJC #jazzapril

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I attended three Jonathan Crayford gigs while he visited New Zealand.   All of the bands were different and all were exceptional in their way.  This tells me something important about the artist; a leader able to communicate a vision with the utmost clarity and bring out the best in other musicians.  Just over a month ago I interviewed Crayford and my first question was, “What projects do you have in the pipeline?”.  He told me about an album that he is going to record in New York in a few months.  We then talked about ‘Dark Light’, his new ‘Rattle’ album.  As the title implies this is about that mysterious place behind the light.  This recurring theme is regularly mined by improvising musicians.  Monk, Jarrett, Maupin, Towner, Pieranunzi and others have peered into this chiaroscuro world, where the shadows between light and dark reveal subtle wonders.  This piano trio album recorded in New York in late 2013, has the stellar sidemen Ben Street on bass and Dan Weiss on drums.  The album was pre-released to New Zealand audiences during Crayford’s gig on Wednesday which was the fourth of the Creative Jazz Club’s 2014 #jazzapril series.  IMG_0373 - Version 2

I hear a lot of music these days and much of it I like, but occasionally an album comes your way that really stops you in your tracks.  This is just such an album.  It has a profundity and a depth to it that works on so many levels.  It is an album that deserves hearing over and again and since obtaining a copy I have done just that.  At first impression I thought of game changing pianists like Esbjorn Svensson or some of the modern Scandinavians, but this has a strongly original feel.  As in all Crayford’s compositions, we hear a skilfully written head, that gradually evolves into an ever-widening groove, begging deeper exploration.  While it is music played at the highest level it is neither self-indulgent nor introspective.  The album has real depth but it is also incredibly accessible.  This is music that everyone will recognise at some level: partly because it is so articulate, but also because the blues and a myriad of other familiar song forms are neatly distilled into it.

It was obviously not practical to fly Street and Weiss (who are New York based) down for the CJC launch and so Crayford engaged two New Zealand musicians.  While not hearing the full recorded trio was a shame, we were not disappointed by their substitutes.  He could hardly have chosen better.  On bass he had Wellington musician Patrick Bleakley and on drums was Auckland musician Chris O’Connore.   I am less familiar with Bleakley but I certainly know him by reputation.   The last time I saw him was with ‘The Troubles’, a delightfully anarchic Wellington band.  He is an experienced and melodic bass player with an instinctive feel for time.  On the album with Street and with the New Zealand trio, the bass player anchored the pieces; leaving piano and drums to react to each other.  O’Connore is one of the finest drummers on the New Zealand scene and he routinely plays in diverse situations.  This open skies approach gives him a real edge.   He is a drummer and percussionist with a highly developed sense of space and dynamics and in this case his colourist tendencies were strongly in evidence.  IMG_0422 - Version 2

The tracks have an organic logic in the way they’re ordered and a natural ebb and flow is discernible.   The set list at the gig followed that order, creating the sense that we were on a journey.  The titles of the pieces reference the ‘Dark Light’ theme and none more so than ‘Galois Candle’.  Galois was a genius French mathematician (1811 – 1832) who used abstract algebra to prove the links between field theory and group theory.  He suffered unbelievable bad luck in his short life and was not appreciated or understood until the 20th century.  Many of his proofs were accidentally or careless destroyed by others, hence the title.  As I play this sad evocative piece, the story of Galois unfolds before me.  This is what Jazz can do well; steal a moment out of time and create a compelling narrative.

There is a luminous quality to Crayford’s playing; a quality which sounds newly minted and yet familiar.  Crayfords contribution to Jazz deserves wider recognition and with this album it could happen.  I would therefore give the album four and a half stars out of five, not out of some Kiwi patriotism but purely on merit.  No Jazz lover will regret the purchase

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Who: Jonathan Crayford (piano) Ben Street (bass *album), Dan Weiss (drums *album) – Patrick Bleakey (bass *CJC), Chris O’Connore (drums, percussion *CJC)

What: ‘Dark Light’ released by Rattle Records http://www.rattlerecords.net 

Where: Pre release CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland 23rd April #jazzapril

‘The Antipodean 6tet’ Tour @ CJC

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There are a number of factors that make music special to a listener and for most it is the familiar that attracts them.  Improvised music is a different beast and the most valued quality is what Jazz essayist Whitney Balliet termed “the sound of surprise”.  When Jazz listeners are fully engaged it is seldom the melody line or a familiar riff that holds their attention.  While melody, chord voicings or an ostinato groove bring us to the moment, it is the promise of the new that creates a state of joyous anticipation.   So it was with the ‘Antipodean 6tet’ and the rewards were immediately evident.  Mike Nock told me recently that some of the young Australian bands are on a par with the best of what’s on offer in America.  A statement like that from a person of Mike’s undisputed authority causes you to take notice.  Some of the members of this group were among those mentioned by him.

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The idea for the ‘Antipodean 6tet’ was conceived in Berlin when Jake Baxendale, Aiden Lowe and Luke Sweeting decided to create a vehicle for their music.  By the time of the Australasian tour they had added Ken Allars, James Haezelwood Dale and Callum Allardice.

Those of us who pay close attention to Australian and New Zealand Jazz knew that we were in for something out of the ordinary.  A heightened sense of anticipation followed the tour announcement.  Earlier this year Rattle records released JAC’s ‘NERVE’ album.  The album featured Wellington musicians Jake Baxendale (alto, compositions) and Callum Allardice (guitar, compositions).  Many saw Jake as he toured with JAC during the launch tour and enjoyed his alto playing.   Callum Allardice was in Germany at the time of the launch, but his compositions and arrangements were also appreciated.   These two musicians form the New Zealand contingent of ‘The Antipodean 6tet’.

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Luke Sweeting is an Australian pianist who conveys more with his light touch than many do by playing percussively.   His playing is thoughtful, airy and interesting.   He has previously composed for sextets and is obviously central to the bands well crafted ensemble sound.  Sweeting, Aiden Lowe (drums), James Heazelwood Dale (bass) and Ken Allars (trumpet) are well established on the Australian scene with the former two having toured Europe extensively.  They have all attracted positive attention around Australia.  All have worked as leaders, but melded into an ensemble the instruments speak in a unified authoritative voice.  IMG_0060 - Version 2 

A Sydney bass player contacted me a few weeks ago saying that I would be mad to miss this innovative band.  He was right in his estimation of their impact, as they appear to bring something fresh and exciting to the scene.  northern European aesthetic with an authentic Australasian feel.

To best illustrate the above I must focus on Ken Allars.   I have been aware of Allars for some years but it was probably his compelling trumpet work on Mike Nock’s critically acclaimed 2011 album, ‘Here and Know’ that first grabbed my attention.  I received a review copy shortly after the 2011 release and was immediately struck by his use of dynamics and strong improvisational abilities.  Later I saw him in the horn-line of the JMO (Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra) when it toured Auckland with Darcey James Argue.  Now seeing him with ‘The Antipodean 6tet’ my positive first impression is reconfirmed.  On the opening number we saw his use of extended technique.  Not so much the usual growls or smears, but a skilful deployment of flutter tonguing and airstream effects.  The whistles, breathy explorations and pops augmented the contributions of Jake Baxendale who wove in quiet upper register ostinato responses (like Evan Parker in the opening few bars of ‘The Lady and the Sea’ – Kenny Wheeler).  So controlled was the sound production that at times Allars sounded like he was playing a flute.  When he did blast out a phrase it was doubly effective as it contrasted with the softer moments.

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I have seen bands who lower the volume for a ballad or a thoughtful meditative piece, but never quite like this.  They skilfully utilised the pianissimo and piano and diminuendo to impart an infinite array of subtleties and within that space communicated a world of information.  Earlier I mentioned the European aesthetic and perhaps I refer more specifically to the Norwegian ECM sound.  I detected a strong influence of this future-facing aspect of modern Jazz in Allars playing.  Later I asked him whether he had listened much to the modern Norwegian trumpeters.  Yes he had checked them out in person.  We then discussed people like Arve Hendriksen, Nils Petter Molvaer, Mathias Eick and others.   While Molvaer and Eick often use electronics and loops there were no such effects used by Allars.  IMG_0099 - Version 2

This band is purely acoustic and the impressive range of sounds and effects at their disposal will have pedal manufacturers smiting their brows in frustration.  Because of the sound balance, the imaginative drum work and the punchy bass lines are as strong in the mix as the other instruments.

They are due to record shortly and I look forward to that.   I urge anyone who can to catch this tour or subsequent outings.  I guarantee that you will not regret it.

What: ‘The Antipodean Sextet’ Luke Sweeting (piano), Jake Baxendale (alto saxophone), Ken Allars (trumpet), James Heazelwood Dale (bass), Aiden Lowe (drums), – in New Zealand – Callum Allardice (guitar).

Where: The CJC (Creative Jazz Club) Britomart 1885 building, Auckland.  26th March 2014

 

 

 

 

‘Mr M’ @ CJC

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‘Mr M’ is an enigmatic title but the meaning is more straightforward than might be supposed.  The trio members are Miles Crayford, Reuben Bradley and Mostyn Cole; take the first three letters of their forenames and you have ‘Mr M’.  Attempting to challenge our sense of time and place they introduced themselves as a Wellington band with a majority of the musicians based in Auckland.  When they played the CJC last Wednesday these small puzzles were swiftly cast aside.  What we heard was to the point and the quality of the music beyond disputation.  This was my first opportunity to hear a popular trio, one that my Wellington friends had told me about.

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Throughout the night we heard original compositions with all of the band members contributing tunes.  I am increasingly impressed by the writing skills of New Zealand musicians and it tells me a lot about the quality of New Zealand Jazz education.  The quality of their musicianship did not surprise me as I am familiar with each of them.  Anyone who follows the New Zealand Jazz scene will know that they form part of the ensemble on Reuben Bradley’s ‘Resonator’ album ‘(which won the Vodafone Tui’ Jazz Award in 2011).   This is probably the best starting point in evaluating ‘Mr M’.   Anyone who doesn’t have a copy should grab one.  It is still available in most big record stores (and from Rattle).   What ‘Resonator’ established was that these musicians at the core of the recording work well together.   Forming a trio was a logical step.

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Reuben Bradley has regularly been featured at the CJC.  He is not only a highly respected drummer but an important figure on the scene.   He has a vision for the music and communicates that well.  When you hear him for the first time the musicality of his playing strikes you.  His drum chops are immediately evident but there is an extra something that he brings to the kit; an innate sense of time and a magical spark that makes you sit up and pay attention.  All good drummers understand dynamics and know exactly where they should sit in the mix at any given moment. Reuben epitomizes tastefulness in this regard.   He is probably the best known of the three, having regularly performed about New Zealand and further afield.  His most recent Rattle Album ‘Mantis’ is deservedly a finalist in this years Tui’s.   It is one of a very few New Zealand Jazz albums to garner broad attention from the media.  ‘Mantis’ is another must-have album (both ‘Resonator’ and ‘Mantis’ have Roger Manins on them which of itself is enough to recommend them).

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Miles Crayford is from an impressive musical Dynasty.  He is well-known about Wellington as he regularly gigs there.  Apart from a guest appearance with his uncle Jonathan Crayford a few weeks ago, he has not played at the CJC before.  When he plays you know that you are listening to a modern stylist.  There is a certain intensity evident and his voicings are often dark and brooding.  The focus on composition as well as performance gives an added depth to his work.  He has not yet recorded as leader, but his sideman credentials in recordings are very well established.

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Mostyn Cole also appears on a number of top rated local recordings.   Like the others he is a fine composer.  The clip I have included is from a tune of his titled, “I was therefore I am”.  I love the tongue in check reference to Rene Descartes’ maxim.  Incidentally unlike many Australasian composers he names his tunes well (as opposed to ‘first tune’, ‘not yet unnamed’ etc).   He is a strong bass player and his recorded output is best represented on two Rattle albums, Reuben Bradley’s ‘Resonator’, Roger Manins ‘Trio’ and the World Jazz album Carolina Moon’s ‘Mother Tongue’.   He also stood in for Matt Penman during many of the ‘Mantis’ gigs.   His sound is unusually warm and his ability to react to the musical ideas of others instinctive.

This is a trio of equals.

Who: ‘Mr M’ are Miles Crayford (piano), Mostyn Cole (upright bass), Reuben Bradley (drums).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 1885 building Britomart, Auckland, 19th March 2014

James Muller Quartet @ CJC

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Every Jazz guitarist in Australasia seems to admire James Muller.  Here in New Zealand at the mere mention of him, guitarists shake their heads in disbelief and fall into a contemplative trance.  It is as if you had uttered a secret mantra; one ascribed to an unnamable deity.  I have always been drawn to Jazz guitar and while I need no prompting to follow the genre, pointers like this are irresistible.  When musicians are so highly regarded by other musicians it is generally with good reason.

I first encountered the name James Muller on the 1999 Naxos disc titled ‘Sonic Fiction’.  Even in his twenties there was no mistaking that lovely clean sound, the imaginative improvising and the virtuosity.  Since that time James was awarded a number of prestigious music awards including a recent Australian Arts Council Fellowship grant (two years) and the ARIA award.  These achievements have never gone to his head and he comes across as an artist constantly examining his body of work to see where he could improve.  After half a dozen stints in New York, numerous recordings as sideman and at least four albums as leader he ranks among the premier Australasian Jazz artists.

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Because we are getting more highly rated international jazz musicians coming to the CJC, I bailed up Roger Manins and asked him about bringing James back (he was here three years ago).  It was already on his radar and towards the end of last year he told a delighted CJC audience that James Muller would be appearing in early 2014.   I had always been of a mind to seek out one of his gigs and then a chance presented itself.  Roger Manins told me of a gig with Mike Nock, James Muller, Dave Goodman and Cameron Undy at the 505 in Sydney.  It was time for a family visit, so I headed to Australia.  Seeing the Manins, Muller, Nock band was a highlight.  Now a few months later I looked forward to the Auckland gig.

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Roger Manins, Oli Holland and Ron Samsom were to accompany James at the CJC.

I have learned that James generally avoids playing with pianists, but there are certainly exceptions to this.   His longtime friends Sean Wayland and Mike Nock would top that list of exceptions.  In Auckland he expanded his default guitar trio format to include Roger Manins on Tenor sax.  When James and Roger play together the guitarist generally lays-out during solos.   This allows for the intensive probing improvisation that both are known for. What we saw on the 12th of March was Jazz of exceptional quality and a packed club.   They queued early, mostly younger people and among them numerous guitarists who had just been to the masterclass at Auckland University.

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The set list was a mix of James Muller compositions, some standards and a Roger Manins composition.   Most of the heads were often approached obliquely and what followed were long solos and unencumbered explorations.  This was a chance for the musicians to stretch out and they certainly did.  In contrast was the standard ‘Moonlight in Vermont’.  A lovely tune and one played less often these days.  Unlike the other numbers there was no laying out during the saxophone solo.  It felt right to approach this lovely tune with tasteful comping and soloing closer to the melody.  They later played a fast paced version of ‘Rhythm n Ning’ (Monk), a killing ‘More than you Know'(Rose/Eliscu/Youmans) and absolutely best of all a Lennie Tristano number.

I am an acolyte of the Tristano cult and I doubt that anyone could ever deprogram me.  To hear ‘317 East 32nd Street’ performed so well was bliss.  As Roger and James ran those memorable unison lines I felt the joy wash over me.  Here was a tune I truly loved and they had even included the car-horn sounds that had so influenced Tristano when he composed it.  Tristano once told a musician, “this tune was composed in front of an open window, while listening to the New York street sounds outside”.

Both Oli Holland and Ron Samsom gave exceptional performances during the evening.   Oli with his Slam Stewart like sung unison lines during his solos.   Ron with his subtle and interactive drumming on the slower paced numbers and his blistering explosions of white heat on the burners.  I have read that James likes the bass as an anchor and the drums to work more outside.   That is what he got.

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I have spoken to James on several occasions now and he seldom discusses his accomplishments.  This is not false modesty or even shyness, but rather a manifestation of that classic antipodean sense of understatement.  It is the hallmark of Australasian musicians that they are often self-effacing, preferring to use throw-away-lines or obscure insider humour in verbal communication.   I have often observed this in local musicians and it fascinates me.  It is particularly evident in their bandstand banter. When I meet American musicians they seldom come across as self-effacing.  There is an ebullience about them that underpins the conversation and selling their accomplishments comes naturally.  It is seldom the same with Australian or New Zealand musicians who rely on their music to speak up for them. 

We hear many fine guitar players at the CJC but this gig would rate among the high points.

Who : James Muller Quartet – James Muller (guitar), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Oli Holland (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 1885 Britomart, Auckland 12th March 2014

Callum Passells Quartet @ CJC

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I like the inventiveness of Callum Passells both as an alto player and a composer.  There is something of the risk taker about him and his instincts seldom fail him when reaching for fresh ideas.  His quartet was bristling with edge last week, a band without a chordal instrument and utilising the talented Chelsea Prastiti as vocalist.  Chelsea is always up for these types of sonic explorations and perfectly able to handle the challenge.  This was a gig crafted around a particular range of sounds, but more importantly it appeared to have particular musicians in mind.  On bass was Cameron McArthur and on drums Adam Tobeck.  The bass player and drummer handled the challenges confronting them perfectly, creating texture, nuance, colour and anchor points appropriate to the diverse range of music.  I often praise Cameron McArthur and in this situation his skilful bass lines were crucial.  I was pleasantly surprised by Adam Tobeck’s versatility, as I had only seen him in straight ahead gigs.  He is a tight focussed drummer, but in this situation he showed just how broad his skills base is.

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The set list was skilfully constructed, offering endless contrasts and explorations into a number of Jazz related subdivisions.  During the first set Chelsea sang the ballad ‘My Ideal’ (Robin/Chase/Whiting).  The intro was just vocals and bass, but when the alto and drums came in they took a minimalist approach.  The interesting thing is that the arrangement had a fulsome quality to it, almost orchestral.   This is a tribute to Chelsea and definitely to the arrangement.  IMG_9746 - Version 2

At the other end of the spectrum was a free piece titled ‘N+/-1’.  This was an extraordinary piece of music with all of the excitement and theatrics that you could wish for.  Callum had warned the audience that they were about to hear a free number and suggested that those who were queasy about such offerings could move to the bar area at the side.  I am unsure if anyone took him up on that, but in reality ‘N+/-1’ had the opposite effect.  Drawing people into the bands orbit; all of them smiling and whooping in delight.  While the piece followed its own internal chaotic logic it never-the-less communicated a strangely cohesive and exciting narrative.  There were distinct parts to the piece and each more marvellous than the last.  Voice, bass and drums weaving ever deeper, as if sucked into an alternate reality by the brilliance of the alto.  People watched transfixed, marvelling at the cascade of sounds and the flow of musical ideas.  This number was a tour de force for the group but there was no mistaking Callum’s influence.  Even though he gave the others plenty of space, his presence was always felt, guiding, cajoling and demanding that bit more.  As I watched and listened completely engaged I cursed that I did not have a movie camera on hand to record the moment.

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With a few exceptions Chelsea sang wordlessly and this style is definitely a forte for her.   She can sing a unison horn line so convincingly that you do a double take, scanning the bandstand to see if there is an instrument you have missed.  Her range, timbre and musicality enriched the group.  This was particularly evident on ‘Lennies Pennies’ (Tristano).  I love all Tristano compositions but especially this one.  As they negotiated the exciting fast paced, measured lines a special synthesis was evident.  This was innovative and original; adding something of value to an already rich Tristano-ite output.  IMG_9773 - Version 2

There were other original tunes such as ‘Tashirojima’, ‘Monte Cecelia’ ‘Sons Multiples’ ‘Indifference’ and a number of standards (‘Yardbird Suite’, ‘Mood Indigo’ and ‘Straight no Chaser’).  They were all captivating in one way or another but one original deserves special comment.   Sometimes there are layers of meaning in titles and ‘Indifference’ certainly qualifies in that regard.  Written by Callum in tribute to his father who is gravely ill.  The power of this composition and the delivery by Callum spoke to me deeply.  It is clearly not about casual indifference.  It felt to me like the struggle to view life in a wider context when faced with mortality.  Perhaps the indifference of the universe to our small world suffering and how to make sense of that.  The sound of the alto cut so deep that for a time nothing else seemed real.  This is what raw emotion sounds like.  The audience were quieter and as I looked up at the light show playing against the wall, I saw a brief skeletal picture flash up on the screen.  One brief frame in the play of an endlessly looped digital sequence.  While this fleeting spectral apparition was pure happenstance, it was strangely apposite.   This piece was so much more than elegiac; it placed a marker of just what it means to be human.

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Who: The Callum Passells Quartet: featuring Callum Passells (alto sax, compositions), Chelsea Prastiti (vocals), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Adam Tobeck (drums).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 1885 Britomart, Auckland – 5th March 2014

Jonathan Crayford @ CJC

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Jonathan Crayford has long intrigued me as a musician so I make a point of catching him when the situation presents itself.  He’s an artist embedded so deeply within his music that his persona reflects in those terms.  It’s as if he were the embodiment of sonic shapes and forms.

I have seen him perform on a number occasions but there’s no second guessing what will materialise on any given night.  His experiences in music lead him in many directions and all of them interesting.  While some describe him as genre busting, I think the descriptor is overly simplistic.  I have heard him perform a killing version of, “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” (Bob Dylan).  Yes, he appropriates the sounds about him and often performs with artists from outside of the Jazz spectrum, but at heart he’s an improvising musician.  No matter what notes he plays you can feel the integrity; the perpetual questioning of a deep level interpreter.  IMG_9576 - Version 2

For the CJC gig he showcased a folder of new tunes; the charts interpreted by a six piece band that he had assembled for the gig.  As he explained, “this band is work shopping some new ideas which I will record later in Europe”.  The numbers were all in extended form, giving the musicians space to develop the themes and ideas.   Many of the tunes began and ended with a percussive vamp and as a groove established the horns congas, bass and drums swelled the sound.   The textures and complex layers of sound created an implied centre over which the soloists improvised.  Watching over this was the leader, a benevolent presence who knew just when exhort, when to extend or curtail a solo and when to pull the explorations back to the head.  The tune titles where intriguing also; ‘Groove 21’, ‘Strange Tune’ and others which told a more cerebral story.

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‘Bruno’s Dream’ in particular piqued my interest.  Jonathan Crayford has worked extensively on film scores and his association with the actor/musician Bruno Lawrence gives us the context for this piece.  After Bruno’s passing Jonathan dreamed this tune, a kaleidoscope of images as imagined through Bruno’s eyes.  This is wonderful expansive music and the band entered into the spirit of it.  As with all dreams the evolving and often surreal story has several parts.  In this piece we saw the best of Crayford’s keyboard artistry and writing skills.  There were solid solo performances by Kim Patterson on valve trombone and Finn Scholes on trumpet.  Kim Patterson is the elder statesman here, having recorded over his long career with most of the luminaries of New Zealand Jazz.    The last section of the tune, an intense modal sequence was a gift to Scholes, who grabbed the opportunity with glee mining it convincingly for all it’s worth (echoes of ‘Teo’).  IMG_9494 - Version 2

Early in the second set a brief change in pace occurred, when we heard a duet between Crayford and Patterson.  They performed the only standard of the evening, the gorgeous ‘Old Folks’ (Robison).  It lived up to its heart-string tugging potential.  At the end satisfied sighs were heard from the audience.  Piano and valve trombone work extremely well together and I was briefly minded of the duet recordings between Bob Brookmeyer and others.  IMG_9584 - Version 2

Having both traps drums and congas was integral to the sound as they added heft and edge.   On traps was Julien Dyne, an energetic and multi faceted drummer who has worked previously with Jonathan Crayford ( ‘Pins & Digits’ – Dyne’s album).   On congas (and facing the band) was Miguel Fuentes, a highly experienced percussionist who never flagged during the long and energised grooves.  The remaining band member was Chip Matthews on electric bass.  His presence was integral to the mix and he managed to provide  both an anchor and groove lines without crowding out the others.  The sound scape was dense at times and intentionally so, but the overall momentum was never lost.   With Jonathan Crayford at the helm this is hardly surprising.

The other departure from the format occurred when Jonathan invited Miles Crayford to sit in for a number.   Miles a pianist and keyboardist also, came to wider attention when he participated in Reuben Bradley’s award-winning ‘Resonator’ album.

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If you ask Jonathan Crayford where he lives now you will get vague answers.  He lives where the current project is happening and where the music is.   For the next two month’s he’ll be gigging around New Zealand and then returning to New York to mix and master his next album (with the well-known New York bassist Ben Street and drummer Dan Weiss).  The album is intriguingly named ‘Dark Light’.  Crayford tells me that he wrote the music during a long winter sojourn in London, where the seemingly endless days of low light are commonplace.  Having lived in London I understand this focus with radiating light.  The interplay and intensity of light occupies your thoughts there as it never does in sunnier climes.

If you Google this artist you’ll notice that he’s recorded as ‘currently living’ in Spain or Paris; throw in London and New York and the picture becomes a little clearer.   This is a musician chasing the music and living in the moment.  In Spain he records two solo albums, in New York trios and a sextet and then on to new projects in other cities.   We gladly claim him as an expat Kiwi but in reality he’s a citizen of the world.

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Who: Jonathan Crayford (piano, keyboards, compositions, leader), Kim Patterson (valve trombone, percussion), Finn Scholes (trumpet), Miguel Fuentes (percussion), Chip Matthews (electric bass), Julien Dyne (drums).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 1885 Britomart, Auckland.  19th February 2014

Jonathan Crayford albums (and streamed samples) are available from his website, Rattle or iTunes –  jocray.com

Benny Lackner (Germany) @ CJC

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I missed the Benny Lackner trio when they came last year and I had subsequently been besieged with the inevitable, “man you missed a great gig”.   This time I made sure that was able to attend.  Benny Lackner is from Berlin, Germany and his touring schedule has taken him round the world a number of times.  His brand of jazz is forward-looking and has a distinctly modern-European feel about it.   I am a fan of European styled Jazz although surprisingly it is often overlooked by American Jazz fans.  This is ironic because American Jazz musicians have always relied heavily on European tours and are hugely supported there.

This trip Benny came without his trio and teamed up with Cameron McArthur and Ron Samsom for the Auckland gig.   As the gig approached a problem arose, when the building owners required the downstairs room for a function.   The room with the lovely grand piano in it and the better acoustics.  An urgent call went out for a Fender Rhodes and before long Mark Bains had lent one, along with a nice keyboard.   The upstairs venue has a nice feel to it but the acoustics are more difficult to manage.  Such obstacles are quickly dealt with by experienced musicians who are quite used to playing in a wide variety of settings.

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The sets were mainly centred on Benny’s own compositions, but interestingly he had thrown in some modern pop tunes, mined for their improvisational worth.   There was a Bowie number and a Radiohead number, both of which went down extremely well with the audience.  Gone is that awkwardness that the 50’s Jazz musicians often exhibited when they tackled the popular tunes of the day.   From Miles onwards and through to Brad Muhldau ( a mentor of Benny’s) the game has changed.   American musicians like Bob Frisell and others will routinely interpret modern tunes or rock classics.   In many cases the vocabulary of rock is appropriated.  The Europeans however are the masters of this and artists like Mathius Eik, Esbjorn Svensson and Marcin Wasilewski have blazed a clear trail ahead.  He also tackled Monk’s ‘Bemsha Swing’ which I have posted.  EST played this often and this version takes the tune even further out.

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Benny Lackner approaches his material obliquely and to my ear there is no hint of the Evans legacy in his voicings.  He often plays big percussive chords, but he can also show real sensitivity as he negotiates the well constructed tunes.  The Radiohead number worked particularly well on the dominant sounding Rhodes, with the slightly softer voicings emanating from the smaller keyboard.  You get the feeling watching Benny at the keyboard that he views each performance as an open-ended adventure.  I am only sorry that we never got to hear him on the clubs grand piano.

He told us that he was very pleased with his new band mates and why wouldn’t he be.   Ron Samsom is such a fine drummer that you expect a top-level performance from him.   Ron has a world of experience behind him and so many local and visiting overseas acts benefit from his multi faceted traps work.  I have never seen him falter in any setting and the diverse styles required of him only appear to urge him on to greater heights.

As has been the case so often in recent months, Cameron McArthur filled the bass slot and all of the experience he is gaining is now paying dividends.  This guy is a crowd pleaser, with the chops and ears to provide the goods.   We also heard some very nice solos from him.

This has been a big tour for Benny.  From Berlin his hectic schedule took him through South East Asia, Australia and New Zealand.  Although he was born in Berlin he also lived in the USA for many years.  The many influences absorbed along the way have moulded him into an original and interesting pianist.

Who: Benny Lackner (leader, keys, compositions), Cameron McArthur (bass), Ron Samsom (drums)

Where: The CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 1885 building, basement, Britomart, Auckland 9th October 2013

Emerging Artists Series: Alex Ward / Allana Goldsmith

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Two or three times a year the CJC reserves a gig night for emerging artists. On Wednesday there was a double billing and while they could legitimately be termed emerging artists, they showed a confidence and polish that bespoke experience. In fact both have been performing about town and in Allana’s case for some time. This was a moment to show a discriminating Jazz audience what they are about and they delivered.

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First up was pianist Alex Ward. He has recently graduated with honours from the NZSM Massy campus. I last saw Alex play just over a year ago and he showed real promise then. Now the hard work and years of study are bearing fruit. He appears to play with even greater confidence and this obvious self belief has influenced his performance. His set was mainly a showcase for his own compositions and they were interesting and varied. There were ballads, uptempo burners and a (new) standard on offer. Standards always give us points of comparison and his rendering of Robert Glasper’s ‘Yes I’m Country (and that’s Ok)’ from the Blue Note, Double Booked album did just that. It was flawlessly executed and delivered with real heartfelt exuberance. Among his own compositions I really liked ‘Litmus Test’ for its edgy hard bop feel and the more reflective ‘Lighthouse Keeper’ (a recently written tune). There was also a reharmonisation of ‘Beautiful Love’ but with dark voicings and with an oblique approach to the melodic structure. These tunes while all quite different, hung together well as a set.

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On Bass he had the gifted Cameron McArthur and on drums Ivan Lukitina (who I had heard about but not seen before now). They both provided solid support for Alex and delivered good performances during solos. Cameron was particularly energised during ‘Litmus Test’ and Ivan was right there with him. Ivan excelled on ‘Yes I’m Country (and thats OK)”.

This should be a right of passage for Alex and he will surely become a fixture about town if he continues performing at this level.

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Allana Goldsmith has appeared in a number of bands and her musicality and stage presence are pleasing to ear and eye. I have heard Allana a number of times now and on those occasions her role as ‘part of a lineup’ gave me a brief taste of what could be. She has performed with various sized bands but most often as part of a duo with guitarist.

She is a current member of the ‘Sisters of Swing’, which is an Andrews Sisters tribute band and co-member Trudy Lile speaks highly of her abilities. I recently saw her with Peter Scotts ‘Bad Like Jazz’ project and I was very impressed; especially as she sang a stunning rendition of ‘Freedom Jazz Dance’ (Eddie Harris). It is this preparedness to take on challenging projects and to do them well that sticks with you. Her voice is strong without being loud and in many ways she is reminiscent of the great singers of the past. What is not redolent of past singers however, is her preparedness to tackle adventurous modern projects. IMG_8310

For this gig Allana had selected a few well-known and some lessor performed standards and to stamp her own mark on them, sung often in Te Reo Maori. While Whirimako Black has already moved into this territory, Allana has her own unique approach to the music. Hers is an original voice. It is tempting to think of songs sung in Te Reo Maori as being different or apart from European traditions. In Allana’s case that is not so as she has maintained the integrity of both traditions. The best illustration of this was her brilliant rendition of the Miles Davis tune, ‘In a Silent Way’. This was the first tune of her set and she used it as a Karakia or blessing. The notion of using this open, spiritual number to unify us all and to call down blessings was a perfect beginning.

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Her band was Ben McNicholl (tenor sax), Dave Fisher (guitar), Cameron McArthur (bass), Jason Orme (drums).

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I have always rated Ben highly on ballad material. His concise soloing and the atmospheric vibe that he created behind Allana worked well. When backing a singer on a ballad, tasteful minimalism trumps busy, every time. This sort of restraint is counter intuitive to a musician, but the balance between Ben and Allana was pitched just right. I know that he took care to select just the right reed for the job in hand.

I thought that I knew all of the Jazz guitarists about town, but clearly I don’t. Dave Fisher has played with Allana for some time and he picks up on her every nuance. The voicings that he uses are those of the skilled accompanist and the warmth of his tone caresses and underpins her vocals perfectly. This was mostly chordal work, which shifted, swung and shimmered like the guitarists of an earlier era. It was an effect deliberately aimed for and it was easy on the ear. His guitar is an Epiphone Hollowbody of the sort used by Joe Pass and that made sense as well.

Cameron McArthur was also the bass player on this second set. Because he works so often about town he has developed a keen ear and had no trouble fitting into this different groove. Unlike the earlier piano trio gig, with challenges thrown down and returned in kind, he needed to keep more out-of-the-way here. Seeing him perform so well in such a variety of situations certainly increases my respect for him.

The remaining band member was drummer Jason Orme and I am very familiar with his playing. Oddly though, I had never seen him playing in this sort of situation, which at times required a very nuanced approach. His skills in such a setting were immediately apparent and his brush work was especially fine. Like the guitarist and the tenor he focused on the singer, enhancing every inflection of voice or following every whispered line. Each accent delivered with a quiet flurry on the snare or a tap on a muted cymbal.

Allana is currently studying performance at the NZSM Massey and this was her first CJC gig. She will certainly be back.

* Thanks to Dennis Thorpe for the high quality video material

Wh0 (first set): Alex Ward (piano), Cameron McArthur (bass), Ivan Lukitina (drums).

Who (second set): Allana Goldsmith (vocals), Ben McNicholl (tenor sax), Dave Fisher (guitar), Cameron McArthur (bass), Jason Orme (drums).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 1885 Brittomart Building, basement, Auckland

When: 11th September 2013

Conner McAneny @ CJC (+Nacey/McArthur/Samsom)

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Conner McAneny has played at the CJC on previous occasions, but this is the first time that he has done two sets as leader.  He was ably abetted by the Dixon Nacey trio (with Ron Samsom and Cameron Mc Arthur).   The sets were a mix of standards and originals.   It was particularly nice to hear the fabulous Dixon Nacey composition ‘The Lion’ played again and even better to hear Connor tackle the Lennon/McCartney composition ‘And I love Her’.

For me these two tunes stood out, but for very different reasons.   ‘The Lion’ is from Oxide the second Samsom/Nacey/Haines album and it is a great composition.   The tune moves through several distinct phases, drawing the listener ever deeper as the melody unfolds.  The structure lends itself well to improvisation.  Conner took a different approach to that of Kevin Field (who appeared with Dixon, Ron and Kevin Haines on Oxide) and it worked well.  I like to see local compositions being taken up by other local bands , especially if they are compelling.  We must create our own standards, because we have musicians with good writing skills in our midst.  Having two of the Oxide band in his support group made this an obvious choice.

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The Lennon/McCartney composition ‘And I Love Her’ worked very well as a Jazz ballad and if the arrangement was Connors particularly big ups to him.   I can clearly recall the Diana Krall version (2009), arranged beautifully by John Clayton.  There was also a John Abercrombie version from around that time.  Both were terrific in different ways, but the Sarah Vaughn cover of 1969 sits very awkwardly in her repertoire.  As much as I love Sarah Vaughn, this particular rendering sank like a stone.

I think time is the vital ingredient here.   It was as if there was a musical ‘Wallace Line’ that separated older players from younger in this regard.   For my generation (those alive when the Beatles arrived on the scene) the idea of their material ever becoming jazz standards was strange.  When musicians of the 50’s and 60’s attempted Beatles or Rolling Stones tunes there was an awkwardness and a self-consciousness about what they were attempting.   This is not at all evident in a younger generation of musicians like Uri Caine whose ‘Blackbird’ (McCartney) from the 2001 album ‘Solitaire’, stands up perfectly against any Tin Pan Ally tune.  In my view only a Brad Mehldau could pull off a version of ‘Hey Joe’ so convincingly.  He is young enough to see the tune for what it is and what it could be.  My generation saw such massive hits as the enemy of Jazz; brilliant, compelling but still the enemy.  Perhaps Gil Evans was the exception.  IMG_7799 - Version 2

Connor works hard at his craft and each time he appears we see a more rounded artist.   I have often written about the skills of the other band members and suffice to say, where they go good improvised music follows.

What: Conner McAneny (piano) with Dixon Nacey (guitar), Cameron McArthur (bass), Ron Samsom (drums).

Where: The CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 1885 Basement, Auckland July 10th 2013

‘The Grid’ off the grid at the CJC

Tim Jago

Tim Jago

This band shakes all conceptions in the known musical universe and they do it by pillaging pieces of reality and cunningly re-assembling them into new and abstract forms. They are as brilliant as they are disarming. Getting under your skin with outrageous banter and constantly evolving story lines. Perhaps this is the future, laughing back at us, as we live in our bubbles of musical complacency?

It’s a little hard to define ‘The Grid’ by using existing musical terminology, so I will do so by drawing upon disparate references. If you were to add a pinch of Marc Ribot, Dvorak, R2D2, Kraftwork, Radiohead, Andre 3000, Willie Nelson and John Zorn into a crucible, you might create something approximating this band. In spite of the bands modernity, they have embarked upon a musical odyssey of classical proportions. Like Odysseus they’re building strange narratives as they navigate Siren’s and Cyclopes. Ever drifting into uncharted waters.

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The first number up was ‘Commodore 64’ from their first album. Since its inception this story has evolved into a saga (see video clip). The setting is somewhere in the future at a time when humans are replaced by robotic machines. The cyber children of these evolving machines have become bored with life and in order to alleviate that boredom they start copying human pop culture. A hipster culture develops and the young male machines start attending nightclubs in order to pick up cool hipster machine chicks. The goal is locating their ideal, a female robot dressed as a ‘Commodore 64’. I don’t think that Phillip K Dick could have bettered that storyline and the music is machine referencing, freaked out cyber nostalgia.

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Some other outrageous story-lines were as follows: Ben Vanderwal; “Don’t you just hate it when people make pretentious statements like – If Bach were alive today he would be an improviser” or “If Charlie Parker were alive today he would be in a ‘metal’ band“. He proceeded to say how distasteful and silly this sort statement was and then with a straight face announced his next tune as Dvorak’s third Symphony, the scherzo movement. Pausing before launching into their digitally enhanced heavy-metal tinged phantasy he added, “Of course if Dvorak were alive today he would be playing in this band”. Another tune intro was; “I am proud to relate that UNESCO has just voted this the tune most likely to bring about world peace”. They also told us that they would be playing a number from Ellington’s occult period ‘Satan’s doll’. It took a minute to sink in but when we heard the opening chords of Satin Doll we fell about laughing.

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There is much more to this band than outrageous humour, there is also outrageous music. They can slip between Willie Nelson and thrash-punk hardcore in ways that defy logic and in spite of the yawning stylistic chasms it all makes perfect sense at the time. It is later when the enormity of what you have just witnessed sinks in and you find yourself sitting in a confused state on the edge of your bed that you mutter WTF.

There is electronic wizardry aplenty at their disposal but that is not what stays with you. It is their musicality, their ability to connect and their cleverness. This band really can play and they impart strangely apposite history lessons as they go. The music can also turn on a dime, moving from the outer reaches of sanity to a gentle jazz ballad played over clever loops. I am absolutely certain that this sub genre of guitar trio will soon become more mainstream. Marc Ribot (Ceramic Dog) and Australia’s Song FWAA tread similar paths.

This is intelligent music and it requires mastery of the instruments plus mastery of a bewildering array of pedals, rattly things and clips. Making drums imitate machines or making guitars imitate an angel or a banshee is not a job for amateurs. All three band members are highly regarded on the world scene where they have gathered a multitude of accolades, awards and scholarships. Individually they have accompanied the cream of American artists such as Terrance Blanchard, Chris Potter, Chic Corea, Victor Wooten, Joe Lovano and others.

The Grid is primarily known as a Perth Band, but the USA could also claim them. In reality the band members now live in three cities and two countries. Ben Vanderwal (drums) is originally from Perth and so is Dane Alderson (electric bass) but Tim Jago (guitar) is from the USA where he lives and works at present. He has recently been working on a doctorate and teaching in Miami. Ben Vanderwal (who told the stories at the CJC) regularly plays with top US musicians and our own Frank Gibson Jr is credited as being his original teacher. Dane Alderson is the son of a jazz drummer and the winner of various prestigious awards. He plays an Aryel 5 string bass and like Tim Jago conjures up a world of wonderful sounds. My final comment on The Grid is; I hope that they comeback….soon.

Both of these clips are from earlier gigs – the stories and the instruments have evolved since then. The music is great as always.

Where: The CJC Creative Jazz Club 12th June 2013

What: The Grid

Who: Tim Jago, Ben Vanderwal, Dane Alderson

Sean Wayland & David Berkman @ CJC Winter International Series

Sean Wayland

Sean Wayland

We don’t get many offshore Jazz pianists visiting New Zealand, but we have seen quite a few over recent weeks. This particular gig comes hot on the heals of hearing Sean Wayland appearing as featured guest artist with the marvellous Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra. Sean had impressed me at the JMO gig and so I really looked forward to hearing him play at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club).

Before he had played a note Sean Wayland won us over with his easy-going banter. Especially when he thanked us for Mike Nock and mentioned band mate Matt Penman. These are two of Auckland’s best-loved sons and I suspect that Kiwi’s, like Canadians, enjoy our worth acknowledged by the big country next door. This generous acknowledgement by a respected New York based (Aussie born) pianist reveals an interesting truth about Australasian Jazz.

There may be a struggle to meet the financial realities, deal with lack of good pianos and the paucity of gigs, but the two scenes continually produce world-class Jazz musicians. The Scenes are in fact so intermingled that it is often hard to know who is an Aussie and who is a New Zealander. Steve Barry and Mike Nock illustrate this perfectly as they live and work in Australia. Roger Manins lives in New Zealand but gigs across the Tasman every other week.

In spite of the difficulties there is no lack of great music coming out of Australasia and the main problem is that of distribution. An upside of this changing business model is that bands travel more. For the keen Jazz fan live music is once again king. We don’t have to wait for a multi-national recording label to tell us what we should or shouldn’t like, we can explore ‘You Tube’ or ‘Bandcamp’ and hear from the artists directly.

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Sean Wayland is a hugely respected figure on the Australian scene and in New Zealand as well. He is a very modern pianist, as he moves in circles where new approaches are constantly being explored and new sounds developed. After listening to his compositions I was not in the least surprised to find him supported by the likes of Matt Penman, Jochen Rueckert, Will Vinsen, and James Muller. This is essentially the Rosenwinkel generation. While he speaks that language fluently he is unmistakably an individual stylist. No one sounds quite like Sean.

Sean’s tunes are very melodic. Often unfolding over a simple bass line as with ‘eenan’ off his ‘Lurline’ album. What sounds catchy and accessible can actually be quite complex as his approach to rhythm gives the tunes that unique feel. This is tension and release at its sophisticated best. I have put up a version of ‘eenan’ as a ‘You Tube’ clip which unfolds in subtle and beguiling ways. So beguiling in fact that I dreamed the tune two nights in row. Such powerful hooks are not accidental but the result of careful craftsmanship. There is a strong sense of pulse or swing to his tunes, but approached from a different perspective to that of the more traditional pianist.

This intergenerational shift is one that I hear more often as the changing of the guard occurs. Other tunes played to great effect were his, ‘Trane plus Molly equals countdown” and the solo piece ‘Little Bay’. Both of those tunes are found on the ‘Expensive Habit’ album. ‘Trane plus Molly equals countdown’ hints at McCoy Tyner, but you quickly realise that the voicings have very modern in feel. I can however certainly imagine Kurt Rosenwinkel doing the tune. It is an extraordinary composition where the left hand continuously punctuates the flow with oblique accents. I was left wanting more than the single set and I certainly hope that we get to see Sean again on his next trip back to Australia.

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Accompanying Sean were Cameron MacArthur (bass) and Jason Orme (drums). Both accomplished musicians who quickly slotted into the challenges of supporting a world-class and highly inventive pianist.

The next artist up was David Berkman. He has been to New Zealand before and anyone who saw him last time would have jumped at the opportunity of seeing this top flight New York Pianist in action. There is a fluidity to his playing and above all an impeccable sense of timing. This hard-driving post bop fluidity and the big bluesy chords is what most characterises his work.

The Kiwi members of the quartet were Roger Manins (tenor), Olivier Holland (bass) and Ron Samsom (drums). Together they formed a powerhouse of inventiveness and Roger in particular seemed to benefit from this grouping. His solo’s were so incendiary as to cause gasps of surprise and from an audience who are used to such pyrotechnics. While we expect Rogers high wire acts he is always able to surprise us and this night saw him really on fire. David Berkman certainly knows how to amp up the tension and his ability to extol a horn player to reach deeper and deeper is impressive. He worked the room with as much enthusiasm as he would have done in a prime New York club and everyone there appreciated that commitment. This was the kind of gig where you sat back and let the sound wash over you, tapping your feet uncontrollably and yelling enthusiastically between numbers.

David Berkman

David Berkman

David Berkman’s repertoire was a well-balanced mix of his own compositions and some lessor known standards. During the gig he talked about his mentor, the much respected pianist Mulgrew Miller (who sadly passed away that very evening). He has worked with a wide variety of artists such as trumpeters Tom Harrell and Dave Douglas and his contribution to Jazz education is well-known. Having moved to New York some years ago he quickly settled into the routines of gigging, recording and teaching and since then he has been a fixture on the local scene. He travels extensively and is a Palmetto recording artist.

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The two pianists were very different, but both were amazing in their way. In David Berkman we heard the history of the post bop era and in Sean Wayland we glimpsed the future.

What: Sean Wayland and David Berkman Winter International Series.

Who: Sean Wayland (p) (leader) Cameron McArthur (b) Jason Orme (d). – David Berkman (p) (leader), Roger Manins (s), Oli Holland (b), Ron Samsom (d)

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 29th May 2013

Rosie & The Riveters@CJC

Rosie & the Riveters

Rosie & the Riveters

The name ‘Rosie & The Riveters’ grabbed my attention immediately as I come from an activist family. The derivation goes back to WW2 when women had to work on the production lines while their men were away fighting. When the men returned after the war they were expected to return to obedient domesticity but many resisted and the ‘Rosie’ symbol became a potent feminist statement. Roseann Payne understands this history as she referred to it in her introduction but she also had a more prosaic explanation on offer. “My name is Rosie and I hope we will be riveting”.

Rosie Payne had graduated from the Auckland University Jazz School on the day of the CJC gig and her upbeat mood reflected this achievement. She had assembled her support band mainly from fellow students and alumni: Ben Devery (p), Cameron McArthur (b), Adam Tobeck (d), Callum Passells (alto & baritone sax), Asher Truppman-Lattie (tenor sax) and Elizabeth Stokes (trumpet & flugal). It was a night of celebration and the cheerfulness communicated itself to everyone present. IMG_7072 - Version 2

The set list alluded to the time-honoured influences such as Ella Fitzgerald but mainly it spoke of the forces that are shaping young singers post millennium. The influence of Sera Serpa and Esperanza Spalding were evident in the source material, interpretations and compositions. Along with Gretchen Parlato, these are the new influences on Jazz singing and they bring a vibe that is modern and in some ways quite nuanced. At times there is a hint of Blossom Dearie in this new way of singing and I make no judgement about that (I like Blossom Dearie and her ability to poke subtle digs at the male hegemony while singing in that wispy girlie voice). Jazz singing is as much a journey as jazz instrumental playing and good improvisers should dive into the sounds about them for fresh inspiration. Interpretation and authenticity is everything and while it is important to acknowledge the past it is not necessary to dwell there permanently.

I have put up a You Tube Clip from the night, which is a slightly reharmonised version of ‘Body & Soul’ sung in Spanish (probably influenced by the Spalding version). This interpretation ably illustrates the juxtaposition between past and present. ‘Body & Soul’ (Johnny Green Edward Heyman, Robert Sour) is one of the oldest jazz standards and for a long while it was the most recorded song in the history of music. Standards survive because they have depth and subtle hooks. Just possessing a hummable melody will not cut the mustard as many a pretty tune has fallen by the wayside. There must be an ‘X’ factor and in Jazz the tune needs to be a good springboard for improvisation. It was the great tenor player Colman Hawkins who again elevated it from obscurity and its wide appeal caught him by surprise (1940). “It’s funny how it [body & Soul] has become such a classic” he mused. “It is the first and only Jazz record that all the squares dig as much as the a Jazz people”. Hawkins hadn’t even bothered to listen to it after the recording session and it surprised him to learn that he had such a big hit. His version only briefly toyed with the melody which makes it all the more surprising. The song was written in haste by the relatively unknown Johnny Green; commissioned by Gertrude Lawrence who quickly rejected it. Whiteman, Goodman, Tatum, Hawkins, Holiday and a thousand others are glad it survived (source references Ted Gioia). IMG_7053 - Version 2

Young musicians like Rosie are acknowledging the history while giving us their own perspective and that is as it should be. The band was right for her and as they moved through the sets we heard flashes of brilliance. Callum on Baritone sax really stood out, especially when you consider that this is not his principal horn. Adam Tobeck is a drummer that engages the attention and Cameron McArthur is fast becoming a fixture at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club). New to me was Pianist Ben Devery and tenor player Asher Truppman-Lattie. Both did well by Rosie. Lastly there was Liz Stokes who had also graduated on that day. Her skills gave an added dimension to the line up.IMG_7061 - Version 2 (1)

Samsom/Nacey/Haines – Jazz April

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The first ‘Jazz April gig was at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) featuring the ‘Samsom/Nacey/Haines’ band. I can’t think of a better way to kick off Jazz April 2013 than by hearing seasoned musicians having fun, while at the same time stretching themselves as players and composers. The group formed in 2008 with the idea of providing a vehicle for new compositions. The outcome of these collaborations was an album named ‘Open to Suggestions‘ and later the 2010 ‘Oxide‘ album was released (with guests Kevin Field, Chris Melville, Neville Grenfell and Roger Manins). The albums have all been extremely well received with ‘Open to Suggestions‘ ending up as a finalist in the Tui Music Awards and ‘Oxide‘ (Rattle Records 2010) receiving critical acclaim from far & wide. The name ‘Oxide‘ arose from John Ruskin’s writings on crystals (artist, author, patron of the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood and proto-socialist philosopher). This album is still available in record shops or from Rattle Records and I highly recommend it.

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It is hardly surprising that there was an expectation of a third album. The new release titled ‘Cross Now’ has no guest artists appearing. Left to bounce off each others ideas and in an uncluttered musical space, the three musicians made the most of the situation. This spirit of collaboration was particularly evident at the gig as they joked and constantly acknowledged each others skills while downplaying their own input. That is a very Kiwi thing and audiences take it as good form. No one would dare do this if they were uncomfortable with their performance. It is a matter of reading the cultural codes. When they were improvising, the interaction between players was both cerebral and intuitive. There were moments when they appeared as one entity.

As soon as the first set kicked off a sense of joy and playfulness emanated from the bandstand. Some the best music arises from joy and good humour; musicians tapping into an unconscious wellspring of creative goodwill and being at one with the world.

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The material on ‘Cross Now’ is new and like ‘Oxide’ some tunes were only finished days before recording them (or even polished in the studio car park). This is Dixon Nacey’s forte; to write brilliant tunes in the eleventh hour. Someone told me that his ‘The Lion” was written on the way to the ‘Oxide‘ recording sessions. Kevin Haines informed us that Dixon’s moving tribute to the recently diseased and much-loved drummer Tony Hopkins, was likewise written days before the recording. The compositions represent the styles of the originators and even though the compositions are jointly attributed, it is possible to detect just whose hand has had the greatest influence over each number.

So often the back stories behind tunes can enrich a listening experience, but I am not sure how many musicians appreciate this fact. While it is true up to a point that the music should speak for itself, that liner notes or background stories are an added superfluity, that received wisdom obscures a deeper story. To many of us music is an experience extending way beyond the auditory senses. We pick up cues from the musicians movements, we absorb colours from the lights glancing off the instruments and we gain insights from the stories. To me improvised music is like a good film and a well shot film is like improvised music. A place to occupy empathetically for that one hyper-sensitised moment in time. No sensory input should therefore be denied.

Kevin Haines wrote ‘…With Eyes Averted…’ (which began with a poem about relationships) and this added a perspective to the tune that would not otherwise have been evident (I have posted a video of this which features Matt Bray on 2nd guitar) . His tune ‘Cross Now’ was about a particularly irritating crossing signal outside of a Tokyo hotel. In Kevin Haines hands the annoying beeps became a polyrhythmic pulse to build a tune upon. He also contributed ‘Broken Tones’. IMG_6521 - Version 2

Drummer Ron Samsom’s, ‘Happy Dance’ (a fast samba) was fabulous. Written about his dog, we could feel the exuberant bounding energy as the tune progressed. Ron Samsom had begun with the tongue in cheek announcement, “yes drummers write tunes too”. After ‘Happy Dance’ we heard ‘Seiko (in 13/8 time) and a ballad ‘Qua’. I heard someone murmur that drummers needed to write more tunes and in Ron’s case I agree (See You Tube Clip by Jen Sol).

Dixon’s contributions were ‘Song for Xavier’ (written for his son) and ‘Conversations with Mr Small’ which he explained as arising from, ” Well perhaps this won’t be such an interesting reason for title…ah…it is about my musical theory conversations with Dr Stephen Small”. In comedy and music, timing is everything and these guys had it down pat. The tune that we will never forget is Dixon Nacey’s moving tribute to the beloved and much lamented Jazz drummer Tony Hopkins. I found myself glancing at the places where Tony had sat and imagined him at the kit; knitting the band together in that particular way of his. This is the power of Jazz. The musicians interpret while we see, feel and hear a story unfold. The tune was, ‘The Remarkable Mr Hopkins’ and by the end a few of us were tearing up. From the bottom of my heart, thanks Dix.

The new album will be in the record outlets shortly, but your best bet is to contact Rattle online and order a copy.

Who: Samsom/Nacey/Haines (guest Matt Bray)

Where & When: The (CJC Creative Jazz Club) Brittomart 3rd April

This was a Jazz April event – visit the JJA Website by following this link.

John Fenton

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Myele Manzanza Trio

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The CJC (Creative Jazz Club) is increasingly on the world Jazz circuit, but it also attracts a number of artists from around New Zealand.   This outreach is exactly what Roger Manins, Caroline Manins and Ben McNicholl had envisaged when the collective began.  The CJC’s prime purpose is to further Jazz and improvised music as an art form and to create an intimate performance space where projects can be realised.    This space is suited to listening audiences, which in turn spurs the musicians on.  The trio who performed on Wednesday appreciated that.  IMG_6436 - Version 2

On Wednesday we heard the Wellington based Myele Manzanza trio.  A drummer led band has a different feel to a piano led trio.  When a drummer is leader the drums are generally more forward in the mix than is otherwise the case.  This is the way of things and whether it’s Max Roach or Matt Wilson we expect to have the drums as a strong focus.  Myele Manzanza is a captivating drummer and I was immediately struck by how different he is to most Auckland drummers.  When I spoke to him later I went out on a limb by suggesting that his style was reminiscent of Manu Katche.  He told me that he had not heard him, but that others had said the same.

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According to Myele, Roger Manins suggested that they should push the boundaries.   Rising to that challenge the band hastily composed a tune for the gig.   The gig was a mix of standards, interesting takes on tunes not usually associated with jazz and a few originals.  The originals were often subjected to an angular approach and with pared back melody.   Their take on the Ellington tune ‘Caravan’ was probably the most conventional of their tunes but even then it was given individual treatment.  The pianist approached the tune in a percussive manner, but with right hand runs that were definitely post bop (a little like Michel Petrucciani was fond of doing).  Led by the drummer, time signatures morphed into various new patterns.

The Pianist Daniel Hayles often begins pieces with long ostinato intro’s and while not quite a minimalist, he never-the-less avoids excessive ornamentation.  I really warmed to him as the evening progressed and I found his approach modern and fresh (and often North European).  With Scott Maynard on bass the unit knitted together well.  Because of the way the tunes unfolded it was essential that he made his presence felt and he did.   In situations like this the bass often has to carry some extra weight.IMG_6431

Myele has spent time working in New York and he has studied under Jazz drummer E J Strickland.  I also know that he is passionate about Jazz, but why his band sounds different is because other very modern influences have seeped into the mix.   Myele Manzanza works with many ground breaking non-Jazz lineups and that is probably what he is best known for.   This brings me back to Manu Katche who is a very modern jazz drummer, but one who works across a variety of genres (Peter Gabriel and Sting).  Katche’s Jazz drumming is atypical and madly engaging.   Jazz should never stand still and this window on yet another approach to our music tells me that the exploration continues.

I hope that the band returns again as they expand our horizons while making us smile.   After thanking his band Myele Manzanza turned to the audience and said, “Thank you Auckland and the CJC.   This is an unusual situation for us.  An audience that listens appreciatively and doesn’t talk through the gig.   This is what Wellington lacks”.

Every city needs a CJC …and lots of nights like this.

Who: Myele Manzanza (Leader, drums), Daniel Hayles (Keys, Piano), Scott Maynard (bass).

When and Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 1885 building Brittomart, 20th march 2013

Note: Jazz April and International Jazz Day are nearly upon us.  Do your bit by supporting as much jazz as you can during April.

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Rebecca Melrose Super Band @ CJC

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Rebecca Melrose is fairly new to the Auckland scene but she is already gaining a reputation for excellence about town.  Although young she has several recordings under her belt and her career is gaining momentum.  She is a singer/songwriter with an engaging voice and this gives her considerable scope.  It means that her own material gets aired alongside that of Gretchen Parlato and Esperanza Spalding during a gig.  This was her second performance at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club)

Parlato and Spalding are clearly strong influences for her but she can also sing challenging standards from an earlier era.  She not only choses well when adding standards but executes tricky numbers superbly.  Like many emerging singers of the post millennium she has a multi genre appeal and whether she moves into a more ‘soul’ space is a moot point.   On this night she was a primarily a jazz singer and if the enthusiasm of the audience is anything to go by that route will work very well for her.

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Last year she was more tentative during her between number introductions, but that hesitancy has now fallen completely away.   The Rebecca that we saw tonight was sassy, confident and on top of her game.   She played with the audience and tried out various lines of patter.   Not all of the jokey asides worked as intended (some went over very well) but it didn’t matter a damn and her good-natured handling of the audience captivated everyone.   She is on the right track here and I encourage her to keep going in this vein.   Music is a performance art after all and Jazz and banter go together like the reverse sides of a rich tapestry.  IMG_6273

The last time I saw her perform she had Dixon Nacey on guitar and Andrew Keegan on drums.  This time with a much bigger line up she utilised the additional scope that this afforded her .  She performed several times with singer Chelsea Prastiti (once in duo doing the Esperanza Spalding arrangement of the Jobim Tune ‘Inutil Paisagem‘ – which was magical to say the least ).  In other numbers as a quartet, quintet or octet  This set list struck out for higher ground and the risk paid off.

On trumpet and flugal was Liz Stokes, who stepped up with an impressive solo in the second set.  Alex Ward did a great job on piano and especially on ‘Lush Life‘.  I have not seen him play very often and enjoyed his contribution as he tackled numbers that were often demanding.  It was also good to see Jarad Desvaux de Marigny (drums) and Eamon Edmunson-Wells (bass) teamed up again.  This pair work extremely well together and have a more subtle colourist approach which is especially suited to singers and the less percussive of piano players.  On guitar,Manaf Ibrahim and on Tenor Scott Thomas.

In guest spot was Callum Passells who played a couple of numbers which absolutely floored me; especially his masterful alto solo on ‘Lush Life‘.   Every note in that solo was perfectly placed and with the rhythm section meeting the challenge, we were given a rare treat.   I will say more about Lush life later.  IMG_6288 (1)

Rebecca’s own compositions are interesting as are the modern standards she likes, but I have especially singled out the two older standards for praise.  ‘Tea for Two‘ is not terribly challenging as written, but as a singer you immediately fall under the shadow of Ella, Anita and Frankie.   The tune was written in 1930 by Tin Pan Alley song plugger Vincent Youmans,who was unsure if he liked it at first.  The lyricist Irving Caesar later admitted that his lyrics were intended only as a stop-gap. they never were replaced thank goodness.  The song is from the musical ‘No, No, Nanette‘ and it quickly became a runaway success.   Why this song works so well for Jazz is exactly for the reason Youmans worried about it; a simple form.  There is so much an improvising musician can do with it.  Before long Art Tatum had played it (1933), Benny Goodman (1937), Fats Waller (1937),  Django Reinhardt (1937), Dave Brubeck (1949), Bud Powell (1950) and Thelonious Monk 1963.   The singers who performed it were legion but Anita O’Day absolutely tagged it as her own in ‘Jazz on a Summers Day‘.   Rebecca quoted from Anita, took the number at the same fast pace, but wisely interpreted it in her own way.

The other track that I can’t resist posting is Rebecca’s ‘Lush Life‘ by Billy Strayhorn.  This song is the antithesis of  ‘Tea for Two‘ as it didn’t emerge from the Great American Songbook and it is very challenging to perform.   To my sensibilities it is almost the perfect song.  This is one of the great Jazz Standards and apart from Frank Sinatra’s version it has not been sung much outside of Jazz.  Sinatra only performed it once and refused thereafter, which is one of the enigmas of his musical life.  Recently unearthed rehearsal tapes from the recording session with Nelson Riddle provide an answer.  He struggled with it and at one stage blamed fly dirt on the page for making ‘a very hard song harder’ (Google Sinatra, ‘Lush Life’ and you can hear that rehearsal).

The definitive version for most is probably the Johnny Hartman/John Coltrane Impulse recording (1958).   IMG_6286 (1)My personal favourite is the more recent Fred Hersch /Andy Bey version (from the ‘Passion Flower’ album on Nonsuch) – quietly dedicated to gay Jazz musicians past and present.   Strayhorn was of course an out-gay man at a time when this was almost unheard of.   Ellington revered Strayhorn and regarded him as his chief calibrator (‘my other hand’).   Oddly this tune which written in 1936 remained unperformed until 1948 when Strayhorn performed it in a duet with Kay Davis.   The song was never adopted into the Ellington repertoire and did not become famous until the 50’s.   Its gay innuendoes is probably one reason but its sophisticated complexity is certainly the other.  Well done Rebecca and well done her accompanists’.    Callum Passell’s alto solo was to die for as he breathed the musical history of the song into the solo.   I liked the drums and bass contributions and especially Alex Ward’s sensitive but firm rendition.

Rebecca is a young woman with a big voice.   It will be interesting to see whether she keeps her Jazz chops honed or whether she’s tempted toward singing mostly soul.  Either way the best of luck to her.

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Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 1885 Bar Auckland

When: 27th March 2013

Who: Rebecca Melrose Super Band

Dixon Nacey – Zauberberg IV

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Dixon Nacey always exudes enthusiasm.   He is one of those musicians who you cannot think of separately from his music.   He is articulate, a family man and a thoroughly well-rounded human being, but music never the less defines him.  He is one of New Zealand’s great guitar talents and so people trip over themselves to attend his gigs.  Dixon appears in a variety of contexts: teacher, composer, sideman (to the likes of Alan Brown and sometimes up & coming musicians like Rebecca Melrose) but most often as leader or co-leader.   This is the guitar go to guy.

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We tend to associate Dixon with the more up tempo pieces where the changes are gleefully eaten up, but like Marc Ribot he can surprise with thoughtful acoustic offerings.  When this occurs there is a hush because the nuanced story telling and the rich voicings take us to warmer place than we ever imagined possible.   We heard both facets during the Zauberberg IV sets and the contrast spoke volumes about Dixon.  A number of originals (composed by  he and Oli Holland) were reharmonised versions of standards.   ‘Gutted and Gilled’ could only have come from the pen of Ollie Holland the obsessive fisher.   It is a metaphor for what this band can do with a tune; paring it to the bone.  Dixon’s red Gibson was no where to be seen and he playing another brand of guitar during the 13th February CJC gig.  He was trying out a handsome looking custom-made guitar (the name alludes me).   This was a wonderful instrument with the warmth of a Les Paul and the bite of Strat.

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‘Day and Night’ made references to ‘Night & Day’ but they emerged as glimpses arising from a darker tapestry.   ‘Conversations with Dr Small’, (another great title) had quirky adventurous twists and pointed squarely at Dr Stephen Small (pianist), who I presume this number was referencing.  ‘If I Should Lose You’, ‘Recordame’, ‘Everything Happens to Me‘, ‘Softy as a Morning Sunrise” and ‘Have You Met Miss Jones were a sampling of the standards played.  ‘Softly as a Morning Sunrise’ was played with such high-octane and at such a velocity that we were pulling ‘G’ forces.  On the other hand the beautiful ballad ‘Everything Happens to Me’ was approached in a loving and respectful manner.  Jason Jones has a gorgeous tone and when Dixon comped behind him with warm soft chords the mood was perfect.   It is right to place such numbers in juxtaposition, as contrast is a vital ingredient of any rich palette.  IMG_6079

Oli Holland on Bass has long occupied an unassailable position on the Auckland scene.  It was a good day for New Zealand when a long sea voyage washed him up on our shores.  He is increasingly providing compositions for the more experienced musicians about town.   Compositions which both challenge and please.   I have often witnessed band members commenting, “Oh this is challenging”, but the results speak for them selves.

Andrew Keegan on drums may be a relative newcomer to Auckland but he has made his mark already.   He brings with him a wealth of experience (including from offshore).  CJC audiences are always pleased to welcome him back.  His posture when drumming is compact and that makes him great to photograph.   It is as if he is drawing all of his energy into a circumscribed arc before unleashing its power.

Jason Jones is the last member of the group and he is somewhat of an enigma.   People who have been around the scene for a while remember him well, but his public appearances have been scant in recent years.   He teaches at the Auckland University Jazz School and was Berklee Trained.

There is often an interesting back story to a band and so I asked Dixon hoping to get gain a few insights.  His reply was typically self effacing but actually yielded rich pickings.  Many years ago Oli had been in a band in Germany named the ‘Zauberberg III’ and they had recorded several times.   This gig was actually booked over a year ago as the ‘Alain Koetsier Quartet’s’ second appearance.    That particular line up was Alain, Dixon, Pete France and Oli (see earlier review).  As the time got closer Alain unexpectedly found himself booked for a week of recording for the second Nathan Haines Warners album.  Pete France had to drop out suddenly and that left Oli Holland and Dixon Nacey with a week to go and short by two band members.   When in doubt re-invent yourself and above all improvise.   The new name came from Oli, Jason Jones was coaxed back into performing and the often complex set list (typical of Dixon and Oli) emerged in the nick of time.

Jazz line ups are often conjured out of thin air and I have witnessed quite a few such manifestations.   It is my observation that flying by the seat of your pants can  often yield the best results.   This is how humankind has always moved the paradigm: our advances over the millennia have always come from risk taking.  In life and Jazz improvisation is everything.

I have posted the Matt Denis tune because it is so beautiful that I even managed to shed a tear through a very bad cold.

Where: Creative Jazz Club Auckland

When: 13th February 2013

What: Zauberberg IV