Jazz Journalists Association, Straight ahead

The Baker coordinates

I had been to Amsterdam before but never tracked down Chet Baker. I blame the city for this oversight because it swallows travellers whole, reorders their plans, confuses them with a multiplicity of offerings. You arrive, you drift through the alleys and before you know it, it’s time to check out. This time I was not to be distracted. As soon as I awoke I grabbed an early breakfast, noted down Chet’s address and headed for the red light district. His hotel was located in Prins Hendrikkade, a street on the edge of sanity. A quarter where bored women knit cardigans behind dimly lit shop windows.

At first, I missed the address as the hotel was being refurbished. I wandered up and down confused and eventually stopped for a coffee. After gulping it down I asked the young barista for directions. ‘Oh yeah – Chet’ he said shaking his head sadly. I was amazed that he had heard of Chet Baker as he looked about eighteen. He grabbed me by the arm and led me onto the pavement and pointed to a spot directly above us. A third story window was propped half open- and behind it – Chet in silhouette. “Talk to Pim next door”, he said. “He’s the man to help you”. I navigated my way around a stack of building offcuts and entered a crowded lobby. “Chet Baker”, I said and the man behind the desk beamed in my direction. “I’ll be with you in a minute,” he said, pointing me toward a glass cabinet containing a few items of Baker memorabilia. It was an odd assortment, a copper bugle, secondhand books on Chet, some faux Delftware and two paperweight trumpets.

When Pim was free of his duties he led us to a padlocked door which in turn led us to where the construction was happening. Inside, behind the plywood panels and stacked tools was another smaller door which hid a commemorative brass plaque. “He died right here,” he said, pointing to the ground below the plaque. We all stood silent for a time, reflecting on this gifted but flawed genius and his legacy. The beautiful youth with James Dean looks who morphed into a drug-ravaged parchment skull. The trumpeter who impressed Parker, the melodic improviser, the man with the mesmerizing androgynous voice. The man who could break your heart because he fell in love too easily. https://youtu.be/3zrSoHgAAWo

Looking up at the third-floor window I pondered over the many versions of his untimely death. I ran them past Pim who had clearly heard them all before: (1) he had nodded off in front the open window, (2) he owed money and was trying to escape angry drug dealers by climbing across to the next balcony, (3) he was pushed out the window by the drug dealers, (4) he was locked in his room by mistake and was trying to jump to the next balcony (5) suicide. Pim looked thoughtful for a minute and then spoke, “There’s another credible theory” he said as he paused for effect. We were all ears. “I believe that he was abducted by aliens because he was so uniquely talented, and after they had mapped his brain they tried to return him to his room. At this point, a tragic miscalculation occurred as their coordinates were out by a metre. It is rumoured that one of the younger aliens had forgotten to allow for the warping of time during transportation. A rookie mistake that robbed us of his musical genius”.

As we returned to the foyer I asked him if he would accept a tip as he had gone to so much trouble. He nodded happily and I handed him ten Euros. He held it up to the light, beaming as turned it over. “I like this so much,” he said, “that I will take it on holiday with me next week”. I now favour this new theory. It gives me hope that the aliens, appalled by their miscalculation, are working to correct it, planning to travel back in time and return Chet to his room in the Prins Hendrik. If they do I am certain that Chet and Pim will appreciate each other’s company.

Posted from San Francisco – John Fenton October 21, 2018.

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Australian Musicians, Review, Straight ahead

Eat Your Greens / No Dogs Allowed

The decision to review these two albums together makes sense for a number of reasons. They were both released on the Rattle Label earlier this year and both are quite exceptional. I predict that both albums will be nominated for Jazz Tui’s next year, it’s a no-brainer. Once again, Rattle has served us up a tasty fare. Albums that are beautifully presented and which compare favourably with the best from anywhere.

IMG_0442‘Eat Your Greens’ is an album by to the popular Wellington pianist and educator Anita Schwabe. It was recorded at the UoA Kenneth Myers Centre in Auckland during her recent tour. Her band also performed live before a capacity audience at Auckland’s CJC Creative Jazz Club and it was immediately obvious that they were in great form. Schwabe normally plays with Wellington musicians and regularly with the Roger Fox Big Band. The idea of recording in Auckland was formed while sharing gigs with Roger Manins earlier and it was with his assistance that the Kenneth Myers Centre was made available for recording.

The semi-muted acoustics in the KMC auditorium work well for smaller ensembles and especially when John Kim captures them. Schwabe is a delightful pianist and her swinging feel was elevated to the sublime by the inclusion of Manins on tenor saxophone, Cameron McArthur on upright bass and Ron Samsom on drums. Having such fine musicians working in sync is the first strength of the album; the other strength is the compositions.

The album is a hard swinger in the classic post-bop mould, and in spite of the references to past greats, the musicians insert a down to earth Kiwi quality. The compositions are superb vehicles for momentum and improvisation and the band wastes no opportunity in exploiting those strengths.  In light of the above and unsurprisingly, a track from the album. ‘Spring tide’, won Schwabe an APRA Award for best New Zealand Jazz composition this year. As you play through the tracks you will be grabbed by Manins bravura performance during ‘Anger Management’ or by his sensitive playing on the lovely loping ‘The way the cards Lay’ (Manins is Getz like here); at how beautifully McArthur pushes that little bit harder in order to get the best from his bandmates or how finely tuned Samsom is to the nuances of the pulse (plus a few heart-stopping solos).

It is, however, every bit Schwabe’s album and it is her playing and her compositions that stay with you. I am particularly fond of ‘There once was a Time’ – a fond smile in Bill Evans direction and evocative from start to finish. That such a fine pianist should be so under-recorded is a mystery to me. Thanks to Rattle that may well change. This is an album that Jazz-lovers will play over and over and each time they do they will find something new to delight them.

Anita Schwabe: (piano, compositions), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums). Released on Rattle

IMG_0441

‘No Dogs Allowed’ is the follow-up to the acclaimed 2015 Jazz Tui winning album ‘Dog’. The earlier album set such a high standard that it was hard to contemplate that offering being improved on. This, however, is not a band to rest on their laurels and the restless creative forces driving their upward trajectory have resulted in another album that feels like a winner. This time around there is an Australian in the mix, as they have added the astonishingly gifted Adelaide guitarist James Muller as a guest. It was a brave move to mess with a winning combination and to expand the quartet to a quintet but anyone who has heard Roger Manins play alongside Muller will know that this addition was always going to work to their advantage.

While Muller has chops to burn and manifests a rare tonal clarity, you will never hear him deploy a note or a phrase needlessly. Here you have five master musicians speaking a common language and communicating at the highest level. Although each is a seasoned veteran and bursting with their own ideas, they harness those energies to the collective and the result is immensely satisfying. It must be hard for gifted musicians to set ego aside this way, but these five did just that.

While the album is the perfect example of Jazz as an elevated art form it is never for a moment remote or high brow. As with the 2015 album, the core Dog members shared compositional duties. There are two tunes each from Manins, Field and Holland and three from Samsom. Their contributions are different stylistically but the tracks compliment. Place Manins, Field, Holland and Samsom in a studio and the potion immediately starts to bubble. Add a pinch of Muller and the magical alchemy is complete. When you are confronted with a great bunch of tunes like this and have to pick one it’s hard. In the end, I chose Manins ‘Schwiben Jam’ for its warm embracing groove. The album and particularly this track connects your ears directly to your heart.

The Album is released on Rattle and was recorded in Adelaide at the Wizard Tone Studios.  DOG: Kevin Field (piano and keys), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Olivier Holland (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums) + James Muller (guitar).

 

 

 

Backbeat Bar, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Small ensemble, Straight ahead

Steve​ Sherriff Sextet @ Backbeat Bar

Sherriff (1)This project was bound to happen sometime and it was long overdue. On the night of the bands first gig, the pent-up energy that had long been building found a voice. As they kicked off, the room filled with potent energy and the enthusiasm of the band was met in equal parts by the capacity audience. Steve Sherriff is fondly remembered from Alan Browns Blue Train days and he brought with him an interesting group of musicians. Most of them were compatriates from earlier bands and their familiarity with each other musically paid dividends.

On keyboards, was Alan Brown and this was an obvious and very good choice. Brown has a long history with Sherriff and this was evident as they interacted. On trumpet was the veteran Mike Booth; a musician more than capable of navigating complex ensemble situations and delivering strong solos. Ron Samsom was on drums, another well-matched band member, ever urging the band to ever greater heights as he mixed organic grooves with a hard swing feel. Then there was Neil Watson on pedal steel and fender guitars and Jo Shum on electric and acoustic bass. When you put a group of strong soloists and leaders together there is a degree risk, but these musicians worked in perfect lock-step. As in sync as they were, Sherriff was the dominant presence on stage and no one doubted who the leader was.  Sherriff

Sherriff is a fine saxophonist with a compelling tone on each of his horns. On this gig, he alternated between tenor and soprano (though he sometimes plays alto in orchestral lineups). He has an individual sound and it is especially noticeable on tenor ballads and on tunes where he plays soprano. His other strength lies in his compositions. He and Brown contributed all of the numbers for this gig, but in future, other band members will be contributing also.  This was small-ensemble writing of the highest order – tightly focused – melodically and harmonically pleasing. The faster-paced numbers were reminiscent of hard bop – the ballads memorably beautiful. Brown and Sherriff set a high compositional bar.Sherriff (2)

It was Watson though, who took the most risks and the audience just loved it. At times he appeared to be stress testing his Fender as he bent strings and made the guitar wail. At other times he was the straight-ahead guitarist in Kenny Burrell mode – then on a ballad number, he would gently coax his pedal steel guitar and play with such warmth and subtlety that you sighed with pleasure. It had been a while since I’d seen Jo Shum perform and this was a setting where she shone.

Although the band was only formed recently, they will be ready to record sometime in the near future.  The material and the synergy of the band is just too good to squander.

Steve Sherriff (compositions, leader, saxophones), Alan Brown (keyboard, compositions), Mike Booth (trumpet), Neil Watson (pedal steel and Fender guitar), Jo Shum (upright + electric bass), Ron Samsom (drums). The gig took place at the Backbeat Bar, K’Road, Auckland, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, July 25, 2018.

 

Backbeat Bar, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, New Zealand Jazz Gigs, Straight ahead

Sumo (Christchurch) @ Backbeat Bar

SumoWednesday 30th May was the Auckland launch of Sumo’s second album titled ‘Shiko’. I am reliably informed that Shiko is a stamping motion which Sumo wrestlers perfect during training. The action drives away evil spirits and when you hear the band, the descriptor strikes you as appropriate. Suspense and surprise are hallmarks of this unit and as in Sumo wrestling, you get theatre, tricky moves, tradition and a degree of inscrutability.  Above all, they showcase quality improvised music.   Sumo (2)

The compositions were the first thing that interested me. Some were warm ballads, but mostly they were propulsive tunes with a compelling forward momentum. Sumo is billed as a quartet, but they regularly invite guests to perform with them and they encourage the guests to bring original compositions to the bandstand. This concept always works, as the best, improvised music arises out of challenges and tensions. Complacency is death in Jazz. The guest on this night was the talented Christchurch guitarist Brad Kang. I had heard his name mentioned by visiting musicians, but I had never heard him perform. He has a real presence on the bandstand and his effortless post-Rosenwinkel runs are jaw-dropping. He made it all look easy when clearly it was not.

The core group is Gwyn Reynolds on tenor saxophone, Darren Pickering on keys, Mike Story on bass and Joe McCallum on drums. During the evening we heard compositions from all of them and their different compositional approaches made the sets interesting. I like bands that exude human qualities rather than mechanical ones and underpinning this group was a warmth and an interconnectedness. Together they have a great sound and it is no wonder that Roger Manins had been trying to lure them north for some time. If there were any lurking bad spirits around that night they stood no chance of survival.

Sumo: Gwyn Reynolds (tenor saxophone), Darren Pickering (keys), Mike Story (upright bass), Joe McCallum (drums) plus Brad Kang (guitar). The gig took place at the Backbeat Bar, K’Road, Auckland for the CJC Creative Jazz Club. May 30, 2018.

Backbeat Bar, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Straight ahead

Phil Broadhurst Quintet 2018

PhilAfter a year of living in Paris the Auckland educator and pianist Phil Broadhurst and his partner, Julie Mason, have returned. The Broadhurst Quintet has been a regular feature on the Auckland scene for many years. The unit is fueled by a constant stream of great compositions, an unchanging line up of fine musicians and three critically acclaimed records (one of them a Tui Jazz Album of the year winner). Broadhurst’s ‘dedication trilogy’ set a high bar compositionally, but his pen is always crafting new compositions.  After last weeks gig, I suspect that another album capturing the artistic soul of France might be in gestation. Broadhurst, as many will know, is unashamedly francophile. Out of this deep appreciation and finely honed perception flows terrific creations.     Phil (1)

When people talk about the Auckland Jazz scene, the name Phil Broadhurst always comes up. His constancy has been a bedrock and an enabling presence. He is an exemplar of quality mainstream Jazz. When I looked back over my posts I noticed that this particular Quintet was first reviewed by me in 2012 but I have no doubt that it predates 2012. When so many people crowd into a small club it makes the sight-lines difficult, but I have managed to capture a number from his gig.

The tune in the clip is called ‘Stretched’ and it is from his ‘Flaubert’s Dance’ Album.  One of Phils newer compositions was titled ‘I’m Busy’ (dedicated to Jacky Terrasson). We also heard two lesser-known Jazz standards from Julie Mason.  The first was ‘You taught my heart to Sing’, a tune by the pianist McCoy Tyner; the second, ‘Speak no Evil’ by Wayne Shorter from his classic album of the same name (incidentally, a great album to play on a road trip as you plunge into the black of night).

The quintet personnel are Phil Broadhurst (leader, composer, keyboards), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Mike Booth (flugelhorn), Oli Holland (bass, composition), Cameron Sangster (drums). The gig was at the Backbeat Bar, CJC Creative Jazz Club, May 02, 2018.

  • Roger Manins and Oli Holland have just returned from an extended overseas trip. While there, Holland recorded an album with Geoffry Keezer and others (incl. Roger Manins). From what I hear, a real treat is in store for us when that album is released.
Backbeat Bar, Bebop, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Straight ahead

Callum Passells – Flightless Birds

Birds (1)This is the second appearance of Flightless Birds at the CJC Creative Jazz Club and the audience flocked to hear them. The band is a history lesson to the initiated and an initiation to those unversed in Jazz history.  They presented a programme that was both clever and accessible and therein lay its charm.  The band specialises in contrafacts and especially those of the bebop and swing era. The inside joke is that many of those tunes were once contrafacts themselves; new and often frenetic tunes written over the changes of familiar ‘songbook’ standards. In the bebop era tunes like ‘Cherokee’ (Noble) became Ko-Ko (Parker), ‘I Got Rhythm’ (Gershwin) became ‘Dizzie Atmosphere’ (Gillespie).  Musicians like Charles Mingus took things a step further by introducing a wry political humour into titles, exemplified in his contrafact ‘All the things you could be by now if Sigmond Freud’s mother was your wife’ was ‘All the things you are’ (Kern). A throwaway favourite of mine is ‘Byas a Drink’ (Don Byas) which is ‘Stompin at the Savoy’ (Sampson). Birds (2)

The above examples are more than a play on words, they are fiendishly clever compositions and sometimes as famous than the tunes they arose from. This was not cleverness for cleverness sake but a bold in your face statement arising from the ongoing struggle of African American Jazz musicians who were tired of being sidelined for jobs, or sent to the back door of the hotel. Especially at a time when many of the inferior white bands cashed in doing the same material, often rising to superstardom. It was also about having fun and mocking the incredulity of the music press. They did it because they could and they were extraordinary musicians who used their intellect to brand a new music. This band is a modern antipodean successor, DNA intact.

The Flightless Birds took this concept a logical step further and not only created contrafacts out of contrafacts but they hinted at or altered the embedded ‘quotes’ and references. It was done with a smile but it was also done with a certain reverence. The times that these tunes arose from were acknowledged, but the joy and eternal spirit of Dizzy et al shone through. Here are a few of the gig tunes and their origins: ‘Stephen Thomas’ (Tom Dennison) is over the changes of ‘St Thomas’ (Sonny Rollins). There is a world of referencing right there (posted as a YouTube Clip). Stephen Thomas is, of course, the gifted Auckland drummer. ‘Buy a Car’ (Passells) utilised the changes of ‘Take the A Train’ (Strayhorn), ‘J Y Lee’ (Passells) was naturally ‘Donna Lee’ (Parker), ‘The Punisher’ (Sinclair) was a great new arrangement based on the changes of ‘In a Mellow Tone’ (Ellington) and so on.  This was a fun night. Passells announcements were entertaining (as they always are) and above all the band looked as if they were enjoying themselves. We were also. Birds (3)

Flightless Birds: Callum Passells (alto saxophone, Compositions), Ben Sinclair (tenor saxophone, compositions) Tom Dennison (bass, compositions), Adam Tobeck (drums). The gig was at the Backbeat bar, K’Road, Auckland, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club on April 25, 2018.

Backbeat Bar, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Guitar, Straight ahead

Samsom/Nacey/Haines

SNH (1)This particular group is an uncommon thing on the Auckland scene. A Jazz guitar trio formed by three of our best musicians and each of the musicians in it for the long haul. Samsom/Nacey/Haines have been playing and recording together for a long time and the commitment has remained constant throughout. Their longevity is clearly about musical chemistry, but also about their combined approach to composition. Each band member writes in their own style, but each instinctively understands how the others will react to the chart. This is how mature bands operate; the familiarity enabling the collective to dive into the heart of a composition and extract the best from it. While their original compositions form the bedrock of their output, they also tackle standards; especially when performing live.SNH (2)

Their approach to standards and the arrangement of them is flawless; leading you away from the familiar, while somehow retaining an essence of what you know and how you remember it. This ability to interpret while mixing comfort and risk in equal parts is a gift. It requires a degree of expertise that younger bands seldom possess. Samsom, Nacey and Haines know a thing or two about focusing the attention and on challenging audiences to listen more deeply. They have recorded three acclaimed albums already and a fourth is almost certainly lurking in the wings.

There were a quite few new compositions (some as yet untitled), some familiar tunes from earlier albums and a tasteful assortment of cleverly arranged standards. Three of the standards grabbed my attention: Nica’s Dream (Horace Silver), In Your Own Sweet Way (Dave Brubeck) and Detour Ahead (Herb Ellis/ Johnny Frigo).  I have posted a clip of the Brubeck number as it typifies the adventurous nature of the trio. True improvisers often extract gold from this composition, a case in point being Brubeck himself.  He seldom played it the same way twice and on a 1964 Belgian clip, he exposes the bones while Desmond lays down a new tune entirely (a miraculous example of melodic re-invention captured on film for posterity).

Anyone of the musicians could have introduced these tunes, but the duties fell to Kevin Haines.  His easy-going banter struck just the right note. He was engaging and above all funny. I have often observed how easily this comes to the more seasoned performers. Years of standing at the microphone teach them that a few well-chosen words can enhance any performance – especially a good performance. SNH

Samsom/Nacey/Haines are – Ron Samson (drums, compositions), Dixon Nacey (guitar, compositions), Kevin Haines (upright bass, compositions). The gig was at the Backbeat Bar, K’Road, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, on April 18, 2018.