NOLA /New Orleans

My excuse for not posting for a month is a good one. I was travelling in places where the internet was bad and where the music was just too good to sit around posting stuff. I refer to New Orleans, Crescent City, Jazz City, The Big Easy or as the locals say, ‘NOLA’. We had been planning a reunion with our American based family for some while when my son said, ‘we have to go to New Orleans, and without further ado he organised it’. It’s a no brainer for a Jazz writer and in fact for anyone who wants to understand musical evolution. Almost everything we call modern music emanated from that steamy delta city, a place where happenstance and oppression caused cultures to collide.

Louisiana was once the home of the Choctaw, Natchez, Atakapa, Caddo, Houma and Tunica, the first nation peoples, but after colonisation it was French, then Spanish, French again (almost German or British) and finally after the Louisiana Purchase, a part of the United States of America. It was the greatest real estate bargain of all time and it happened because Napoleon was broke (it was a wonderful bargain unless you were Indian, creole, or a slave). Today it is a place where the old music lives on in its original forms and if you look beyond the lights of Bourbon Street, you realise, that what began in Congo Square lives on; it is the Buddy Bolden, King Oliver gig; a hundred years along the road and the bands are still marching to those hypnotic voodoo beats.

We began our journey in San Francisco and had a few days to spare before heading south. I checked out the S. F. Jazz offerings and spotted the name, Carmen Lundy. We booked immediately. The show was at the San Francisco Jazz Centre and it lived up to expectations. Hers is the Jazz of the deep south and her voice overflows heartfelt soulfulness. Carmen Laretta Lundy was born in Miami which is east of New Orleans across the Gulf of Mexico (Cecile Mclorin Salvant comes from nearby well).  ‘Hi y’all, are you ready’ said Lundy and from that moment the southern vibe was locked-in ready for the trip ahead. She has variously been compared to Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Aretha Franklin and all of those comparators are accurate. She is also noted for her ability to cut through to diverse audiences. She performed no standards, but sometimes referenced them as her voice moved through the styles with ease; then she just as quickly she would reference gospel blues and in a way that brought a lump to the throat. She had a recent New Zealand visitor Terreon Gully in her band (a powerhouse drummer). He sends his greetings to his Kiwi Jazz friends.

Lundy has always attracted the best musicians and this band was no exception. A few albums ago she had Geri Allen on piano, on the next album Patrice Rushen. As we travelled to the airport next day I heard an unmistakable bassline and double-clap emanating from the car radio. Wow, I said to the driver, they’re playing ‘Forget me Not’ by Patrice Rushen. It’s just been re-released he told me. There on local Jazz radio was the gifted Jazz pianist who for a brief time blazed across the firmament as a disco-funk diva. Check it out, black disco-funk, Patrice Rushen.

I had been suffering from a bad cold and so I planned an early night. It had taken over four hours to fly down to NOLA and on US domestic flights four hours in the air requires stoicism and lots of Vicodin. Our brains were also stupefied after watching days of congressional impeachment hearings (why you may well ask). It was winter in the North and not winter in the South. We arrived in the French Quarter just on nightfall and within minutes all ideas of an early night evaporated. The street music was seeping under the door and when the voodoo beat calls there is no option but to rise up and follow. Outside the hotel and almost invisible in the shadows, an old guy played a sad delta blues, along Royal Street a brass-heavy ensemble testified and around the corner skinny kids were playing on makeshift drums. The combined effect was hypnotic, and it gave us a taste of the heady stew that is NOLA. Throughout the next day, we discovered the food; cornbread, grits, gravy, gumbo, jambalaya, collard greens, Beignets and my guilty favourite; Southern Fried Chicken. I was definitely going to add some weight in that town; and as for Beignets, well imagine a pillow fight in an icing sugar factory and as a forfeit, you are made to eat crunchy crusty doughnuts.

On the second night, we found Frenchman Street. I had previously asked musician friends where we should go to hear the best music. ‘Just head up to Frenchman Street and follow your ears’ was the advice. Frenchman Street and not Bourbon Street is where the best music happens (although the daytime street musicians in the Quarter can be amazing as well). As you near Frenchman Street the music grabs you, amplifies and intensifies until it reaches crazy. You turn into the sound and are confronted by a special kind of mayhem. Bar after bar and the music spilling onto the pavements and fighting for supremacy. Pure New Orleans Jazz (and real old school), New Orleans funk, washboard blues; songs by WH Handy, Louis Armstrong, Louis Prima or Henry Red Allen and everyone wailing and thumping. It was vibrato rich, the horns played licks as filthy as swamp mud; the brass players whooping as they shook off the ‘dirt’ and all of it floating joyously above a seething dancing throng. On the street corners, attractive dancers held out buckets, strutting their stuff while just behind them, Second Line Parades formed. Call and response while the drums roiled the air with heart-stopping polyrhythmic beats. To experience that was really something. This is where it all began, and this is where the flame burns purest.

I was also amazed by the funk units with those pumping groove lines; three drummers, percussion, horn-heavy, organ, guitar and always an e-bass, leading with a groove like a prizefighter, landing killer blows. The received wisdom is that James Brown invented funk, but New Orleans funksters tell another story, ‘Yes, brother Brown nailed that mother down, but it took a third drummer from NOLA to get it just right’. I was informed (correctly it appears) that funk was recorded in NOLA long before JB recorded and the evidence is there for anyone to check out.

I must also mention Congo Square. For those who love music and who understand the history, going there is akin to visiting an atmospheric cathedral. This is where the Spanish slave masters reluctantly ‘allowed’ their slaves to play music and dance. The slaves and Creoles responded with an inestimable gift to the future, the creation of modern music. Here, traditional African rhythms met European melody and civil war musical instruments were bent to new uses. It is a silent place now, surrounded by mature Live Oaks, each tree trailing dreamy sprays of Spanish moss while around the edges, statues of the luminaries like Louis Armstrong look benignly on.

That New Orleans happened at all is a miracle, as it’s an unsuitable site for any settlement. It has defied calamity after calamity and yet it survives, and at its heart, the Mississippi barges and the paddle boats ply their trades. On a calm day, the mighty river looks benign but the threatening waters wait patiently, and alligators and cottonmouth vipers wait in the bayous. Five pumps and a few meagre levies are all that protect it, but barely. The cities inhabitants were appallingly treated during Katrina and the federal authorities nearly closed the city for good. Indeed, they tried, but back the inhabitants came, and all the while the music played on.

Ocelot

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

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

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

 

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

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

  

 

Reuben Bradley ~ Shark Variations

SharkPost Trump’s inauguration, improbability is the new normal and in keeping with the mood of the times Wednesday’s gig emerged from improbable beginnings. It began with an international cat rescue mission, an attempt to thwart a ‘catricidal’ former neighbour. Before the mission had even been concluded a subplot had emerged; one involving the inhabitants of three cities, two countries, and assorted sharks. Those familiar with Reuben Bradley will not be surprised at this turn of events as he’s known for his humour, good nature and above all for his ability to turn improbable adventures into really good music. ‘Shark Varieties’ is a drummer led trio and a vehicle which showcases a bunch of the leader’s original tunes. It also showcases a joyful reunion.

The Shark Variations album was released by Rattle in 2017 and it followed a successful tour by the band a few months earlier. Bradley was in the process of moving to Australia at the time and he was keen to record with longtime collaborators Roger Manins and Bret Hirst. He needed to do this while they were all in the same place and this was his best window of opportunity. Hirst is an expat Kiwi who lives in Sydney, Manins is based in Auckland and Bradley was at that point, about to head for the Gold Coast. Because of their shared history, the musicians knew exactly what they were aiming for; an open-hearted collaborative and spontaneous expression of their art form. That they realised this vision will be apparent to those who listen to the album.

As a leader, Bradley never shies away from an opportunity to leaven his gigs with humour. He tells jokes against himself (the trademark of all good Kiwi humour) and as you peruse his tune titles you find a plethora of throwaway lines and in-jokes. During live gigs, the titles become hilarious stories and his delivery is always pitch-perfect. Improvising musicians frequently tell an audience that the title came after the composition and that they struggled to name tunes. In Bradley’s case, I suspect the reverse is true; that a series of off-beat incidents have stimulated his already vivid imagination and the incidents become the catalysts for his compositions. ‘Wairoa or L.A.’ ‘Wake up call’ Makos and Hammerheads’ are all examples, the latter giving rise to the title, in spite of the fact that he could only name two shark types (which he felt was more than enough). 

Humour aside, this is seriously good music. Bradley is a gifted and popular drummer and musicians love having him alongside. It is therefore not surprising that he would choose these collaborators. Manins is undoubtedly the best known contemporary New Zealand saxophonist and a musician whose formidable abilities are attested well beyond these shores. Hirst left New Zealand many years ago and is regarded as a bass heavyweight on the Australasian scene. He is frequently found performing with Mike Nock and his resume includes playing alongside James Muller, Greg Osby and other notables. 

The reunion gig took place on a cold wet Auckland night and many gladly braved the chill to get a piece of this. I have put up a video from the gig titled ‘Wake up Call’, which Reuben assured the audience had only the thinnest connection to an actual wake up call. In keeping with the ‘spirit’ of the gig, I miscalibrated my camera and the resulting shot turned Bradley and Manins into ghosts. The album is available from Rattle Records. The gig took place at Anthology, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, 02 September 2019. 

Footnote: The cats were rescued safely and after an unfortunate travel accident they both found asylum abroad.

Louisa Williamson Quintet

Louisa Williamson (1)Louisa Williamson is a gifted young tenor saxophonist who has visited Auckland on previous occasions. This time, and for the first time, she visited as a bandleader, showcasing her beautiful compositions. I have always admired her tone and improvisational abilities, but this was a step up. Freed from the comfort of a band she knew well, she cast herself among an array of experienced Auckland musicians. Stephen Thomas on drums, Tom Dennison on bass and Michael Howell on guitar. The only Wellingtonian (besides Williamson) was pianist George Maclaurin and together as a band they delivered. This was engaging straight-ahead Jazz. 

In the history of this music, only a handful of female tenor or baritone saxophonists have received their due. If Williamson keeps playing like this she will surely inspire others and that is how the music grows. She has already come to international attention when she became the first New Zealander to join the JM Jazz World Orchestra in 2016. She is at present working towards a Masters in composition at the NZSM. After hearing her compositions on this date, the outcome should prove interesting. Her tunes possess an appealing melodicism while underpinned by an unfussy harmonic cushion. It is post-bop mainstream but there is nothing stale about it.  Afterwards, a band member from among the Auckland pick-ups remarked how well the charts were constructed.Louisa Williamson

I have put up the first tune from the first set titled ‘Slightly run-down’.  A tune where the underlying motifs are opened up as the theme develops. It is a story with a beginning, middle and ending and it is told without artifice. Everything felt in balance, the short phrase of arco bass during a changeup, the staccato restatement of the theme on the guitar, and above all the horns careful parsing of the melody.

The keyboardist Maclaurin was familiar with the leader’s tunes and consequently, he was the perfect harmonic anchor point. He also delivered some nice solos. The Auckland contingent of Howell on guitar, Dennison on upright bass and Stephen Thomas on drums took no time in establishing their credentials. I was particularly happy to see Dennison on the bandstand as he is seldom seen at the club these days. A fine bass player who always finds the best notes; a melodicist and a musician who has an impeccable feel for time. Howell and Thomas we see regularly and both are deservedly popular with audiences. I look forward to Williamson’s continued journey as she is learning to show more of herself. Being the leader, she spoke and told stories and I hope she does more of that. Jazz is at its best when it shows some emotion and in live performance, the artist’s engagement with an audience is the X factor lifting the music ever higher.

Louisa Williamson Quintet: Louisa Williamson (tenor saxophone, compositions), George Maclaurin (keyboards), Michael Howell (guitar), Tom Dennison (upright bass), Stephen Thomas (guitar). The gig was at Anthology for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, 25 September 2019Louisa

Kushal Talele

Kushal (3)It was four years ago and almost to the day, that Kushal Talele was last at the CJC. Then, as now, he had just returned from a long period overseas. I heard him for the first time then and I was impressed. That was in the cellar of the 1885, a place now a fond but distant memory. A few days ago he returned to the CJC and although he played with a different band, his unmistakeable upwards trajectory was evident. There is nothing unduly flashy about Talele as he radiates calm and absorption. At the microphone, he talks quietly, but there is passion in those subdued tones.  

It is especially evident when he plays, as you are taken directly to melody and it’s heartfelt melody carried on his distinctive sound. There were many influences evident last time, but on this gig one thing was clear. We were now hearing something closer to a modern New York tenor sound; the tonal qualities, the clarity of articulation when in full flow. On ballads, however, there was a hint of vibrato and at the end of phrases, the merest whisper of breath. Taken as a whole package, these stylistic approaches are appealing. 

Talele does not play at high volume, or at least he didn’t on this gig. He stood back from the microphone and this emphasised a number of acoustic subtleties. Small flurries, slight changes in modulation, nothing demanding greater amplification. Playing at lower volume allowed for more interplay and the conversations between instruments were more nuanced. There was however one uptempo number and to everyone’s delight, that channelled a bebop vibe. 

Talele’s compositions were also noteworthy and most of the tunes we heard were originals. In all of those, it was the melodic arc which grabbed your attention. Harmonically, they leaned toward romanticism, but every voicing was in service of the melody. Reinforcing this was his rhythm section, drawn from among the finest that Auckland has to offer; Kevin Field, Olivier Holland and Ron Samsom. Having the piano away from the bandstand is at times a little disconcerting, but Field always makes the best of any situation. He made that white piano sing and because the sound was well mixed, the proximity of the piano was not an issue.

This was an enjoyable gig and I hope that Talele gets to stay a while. New Zealand and Australian saxophonists are gradually developing their own distinct thing. They absorb what they hear elsewhere and bring an antipodean perspective to it. Perhaps a bit of the Chris Potter vibe, so evident in players like Talele will accelerate that process. 

Kushal Talele (tenor saxophone), Kevin Field (piano), Olivier Holland (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums). The gig took place at Anthology, CJC Creative Jazz Club, Auckland 7 August 2019.   

Talbot/Dunbar-Wilcox @ CJC

Emerging Artists (Wellington) Talbot-Dunbar (1)

As Wednesday nights at the new Anthology venue move into high gear, a tried and trusted CJC programming philosophy remains constant. To provide a quality venue for local and international musicians to showcase their original projects, and to provide a performance space that up and comers can aspire to. As before, two or three gig slots are kept for emerging artists, and this year those slots have expanded to include Wellingtonian and Christchurch improvisers. Performing on Wednesday were Wellington musicians Frank Talbot and Ella Dunbar-Wilcox. Both sets had the same rhythm section; pianist Kevin Field, Bassist Cam McArthur, and drummer Adam Tobeck.

First up was Frank Talbot. A tall tenor player with a clean tone and nimble articulation. Talbot is a recent graduate of the New Zealand School of Music and he is currently completing his honours degree. New Zealand produces many good tenor players and judging by Talbot’s confident performance on Wednesday, he will go from strength to strength. He is certainly making all of the right moves and testing himself in varied situations, so he will certainly be one to watch.  On his setlist, there were all originals and I have posted his interesting tune ‘Inquisition’. I also liked ‘Intervalic’ and a moving tune (which I heard as) ‘Steak and kidney pies, no goodbyes’. The latter was dedicated to his mother who is going through very tough times health wise. A nice heart-felt tribute. Talbot-Dunbar

The second set featured Ella Dunbar-Wilcox. A vocalist in her third year of studies (also at the New Zealand School of Music). Her performance showed considerable maturity as she tackled some challenging arrangements and tunes. Not many emerging vocalists would tackle the more upbeat Coltrane tunes or a tricky stop-start McLorin Salvant arrangement. She navigated these charts with ease. I also liked the balance in her set list which provided us with pleasing contrasts. The cheerful, upbeat (and rarely heard) Bobby Timmons number ‘That There’. This followed her own ballad ‘Lonely Eyes’.  Then there was ‘Night Hawks’, a reference to the Edward Hopper painting and capturing perfectly that sense of isolation and ennui.  I have put up her interpretation of ‘I didn’t know what time it was’.

Engaging a quality local rhythm section for both sets was a sensible move. Field, McArthur, and Tobeck are adept accompanists and used to working with unfamiliar musicians. And more importantly, all have worked extensively with vocalists. This draws upon very different skills and in this regard especially, Field is superb.

Frank Talbot (tenor saxophone)

Ella Dunbar-Wilcox (vocals)

Rhythm Section: Kevin Field (piano), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Adam Tobeck (drums) The gig was for the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) @ Anthology, K’Road, Auckland, 3 July 2019 

TTTenor on tour in New Zealand

TTT (1)Andy Sugg’s collaborative album ‘TTTenor’ was cut in Melbourne back in 2006 and rightly, it has garnered praise. In a land of significant horn-players, the tenor triumvirate of Sugg, Oehlers, and Wilson was a standout. Three gifted saxophonists who capitalised on the imaginative charts to showcase their formidable skills. Completing the original sextet was an immaculate rhythm section – Paul Grabowsky (piano), Gary Costello (bass) and Andrew Gander (drums). Since then, Sugg has recorded other albums like ‘The John Coltrane Project’ ‘The Berlin Session’ ‘Brunswick Nights’ ‘Wednesday at M’s’ and ‘Tenorness’.  He has also been involved in numerous International projects (including writing and lecturing). He was an adviser during the making of the John Coltrane feature-length documentary film ‘Chasing Trane’. All of the above have brought him critical acclaim.       

In spite of Sugg’s busy schedule, the ‘TTTenor’ project was never retired. Last week he teamed up with Auckland’s Roger Manins and Canberra’s John Mackey to present a new and exciting iteration of the TTTenor group. To complete the sextet were, Mark Lockett on drums, Kevin Field on piano and Cameron McArthur on upright bass.  This was not a reprise of the older material as new compositions and interesting charts had been created.  This time, the different stylistic approaches from the three tenor players gave added contrast during solos and a rich texture was noticeable during the head arrangements. Three-tenor-gigs are not commonplace and I suspect that writing for three instruments occupying the same total range presents challenges.  Throughout the head arrangements, the skillful voicing was evident. Dense beautiful harmonies which set the mood for the solos which followed. Inviting the soloists to mark out their points of difference in that space.  

Sugg is a versatile artist and on many of his albums, the influence of Coltrane is unmistakable. It is there in spades on soprano offerings but on tenor, there is an added something that perhaps draws on earlier influences. He is a muscular player and the phrases which flow from his horn seem so right that it is hard to imagine any other possible note choices. This fluidity when storytelling is perhaps his greatest gift. Manins while also a muscular player takes a different path. He is a disciplined reader in an ensemble situation and it, therefore, amazes those unfamiliar with his playing when he dives into his solos, urgently seeking that piece of clear sky ahead and reaching for joyous crazy. While there is considerable weight to his sound, he frequently defies gravity when the excitement of his solos bursts free of the expected.  John Mackey was previously unknown to me, but I found him compelling. His approach to solos was thoughtful, leaving lots of space as he backed into a piece. His storytelling developed methodically, taking you with him as he probed the possibilities. His skillful use of dynamics, a softer tone early in his solos and during ballads. His solo destinations were often heart-stopping in their intensity. This Contrasted with the other tenor solos and gave the project added depth.   

The pianist Grabowsky is a very hard act to follow but Field managed to carve his own space with ease. His signature harmonies and rhythms giving the others much to work with. His own solos a thoughtful reprise from the front line horns. Cameron McArthur is a first choice Auckland bassist and he lived up to his reputation on this gig.

Mark Lockett is an original drummer and perfect for the gig as he has worked with Sugg before. He certainly pleased the audience last week, accenting phrases and pushing them to greater heights. Near the end, he gave an extraordinary solo, not a fireworks display but a master class of melodic and rhythmic invention, aided by gentle and occasional interjections from Field and McArthur. 

This was the first gig at the new venue. The attendance was good and everyone appeared wowed by what was on offer. This gig sets the bar high and why not. Australasian Jazz produces some amazing talents. I have put up a clip ‘TTTenor’ playing John Coltrane’s ‘Naima’ – the sound quality is less than perfect as the bass drops right out once the tenors begin – I am working on that – spacious new venues can definitely be a challenge, sound wise.

‘TTTenor’ was: Andy Sugg (tenor saxophone), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), John Mackey (tenor saxophone), Kevin Field (piano), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Mark Lockett (drums).   5 June 2019, Anthology K’Road – CJC Creative Jazz Club