Griffin / Chisholm / Meehan

Norman Meehan and Hayden Chisholm are always well received when they perform at Aucklands CJC Creative Jazz Club. There have been various iterations of their line ups over recent years and all of them compelling in different ways. The Unwind quartets attract big audiences and rightly so. This particular band was co-led by Chisholm, Meehan and Griffin, with Julien Dyne and Cameron McArthur rounding off the quintet. I was particularly delighted to see Hannah Griffin on the bill, as she occupies a unique and interesting musical space among improvising vocalists. The gig showcased iconic twentieth century New Zealand poets and Griffin’s impressive vocal skills were exactly what was required.   

Jazz lovers of a certain age often categorise vocalists according to how well they enunciate their lines. Whether that is important or not is debatable and it depends very much on context. I am generally more focused on phrasing and time feel and I like to hear a word stretched to fit an interpretation. If it’s a standard, then we know the words and having them messed with is part of the joy. I also listen to a lot of wordless vocal improvisors like Sidsel Endresen. 

When it comes to interpreting poems though, the clarity of the words does matter and Hannah Griffin gave a master class in balancing the many aspects of vocalisation. She does not merely intone a poem, she is part of the band and her melodicism is paramount in the mix. She can enunciate and still pay phrasing its due.

The first thing about this band is the way they respond to each other, sometimes finishing each others musical sentences. This seamless interaction is especially evident between the three leaders. Meehan is a master of understatement and his gentle swing can quickly bring a smile.  His default minimalism always serves the music well but it is on reflection that you realise just how powerful and judiciously placed those chords and sparkling runs are. He doesn’t require a percussive touch to make a big statement. I suspect that most of the arrangements are his as well. 

Chisholm always takes your breath away and from the first note, the emotional content in his playing is quite unmistakable. This is the sort of gorgeous alto playing seldom heard and you dwell on each note and phrase, marvelling at the purity of tone and the compelling story telling. His ability to deploy his multi-phonic technique, simply jaw dropping.

The other thing which grabs you is the sheer beauty of the bands sound. By that, I do not mean just pretty for it goes well beyond that. All of the emotions are engaged and the effect on a room is noticeable. Dyne is a popular local drummer who works across genres and who is sought after  around town. He has played with Meehan and Chisholm previously. Griffen has appeared predominantly with Meehan and in gigs similar to this. McArthur was the new-comer to this particular lineup but you wouldn’t think so. His reading abilities and his intuitive grasp of the music maintaining his usual high standard.   

At the previous Griffin, Chisholm, Meehan gig the band had Bill Manhire on stage, and as icing on the cake he introduced the poems. Gigs like that are hard acts to follow, but fast forward to 2020 and the band more than pulled it off. By extending the range of poets and poems our interest was engaged in new ways. My greatest pleasure was hearing more poems by the much lamented Dave Mitchell. More gigs like that please. You can purchase albums featuring these artists from Rattle Records at rattle-records.bandcomp.com

JazzLocal32.com was rated as one of the 50 best Jazz blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association. 

Maps to past and future

If you valued social justice and critical thinking, 2016 was confronting. Politically, it was the universe turned on its head. Pre-enlightenment thinking unexpectedly overwhelmed rational thought, barely literate misogynist tweets replaced policy announcements and the media discourse collapsed into alphabet rubble.  A constant throughout this mayhem was the focus of the creative sector. Writers still turned out exquisite prose, visual artists like Banksy spoke truth to power and improvising musicians played on. The year may have been chaotic, but good stuff happened in spite of it.

Alargo: During the last few months several recordings and books stood out for me and the first of these was the long anticipated Alan Brown-Kingsley Melhuish ‘Alargo’ album titled ‘Central Plateau‘. I first heard them at the Golden Dawn in Ponsonby Road and loved their atmospheric free-ranging explorations. Their palette is seemingly limitless as the two utilise a variety of instruments, loops and effects (eleven in all). These ranged from the oldest of instruments (Conch shells and horns) to live sampling and a variety of Synthesisers and keyboards.Alargo 128.jpg

In these hands, multi layered magic is woven into the mix. This is improvised music in the purist sense and it owes as much to the experimental innovators like Jon Hassell or Terry Riley as to anyone else. For Brown, in particular, the trajectory has been constant. It was inevitable that he should create an EP like this. His last album ‘Silent Observer’ took us deep into ambient territory. Now with the able assistance of the gifted multi instrumentalist Melhuish, a wonderful new soundscape is crafted. Jazz musicians have long played over drones or embraced mood over structural convention (locally, Gianmarco Liguori, Murray McNabb and Kim Paterson were early adaptors).

This is a local variant of the exciting explorations being undertaken by the Nordic ambient improvisers. It is however, a very New Zealand sound, as the sense of space, warmth and terrain evoked could only be ours. Last week I journeyed to the central North Island of Zealand where I spent time on the Desert Road and Central Plateau. I took this album with me and it was the perfect road trip soundtrack. The title of ‘Central Plateau‘ may refer to this particular place or perhaps to an imagined landscape. As I listened to the snow-fed mountain streams, and Tui, I marvelled at how perfectly Brown and Melhuish had captured the vibe. The album is available at alargo.bandcamp.com – in CD form or digitally.Alargo 129.jpgIn the months before Christmas, we were reeling from the twin body blows of Trump and Brexit. During this period of disbelieving paralysis, Norman Meehan, Paul Dyne and Hayden Chisholm came to town. What they played was a balm for our troubled souls, a sublime ballad gig. I reviewed the gig on November 27, 2016 (this site).  A week later Norman Meehan and Tony Whincup launched a new book titled ‘New Zealand Jazz life’.  This is a great read for anyone interested in New Zealand music history and a must for anyone interested in improvised music. Meehan’s prose is much like his playing, devoid of needless ornamentation but pleasing. he is a natural with words, but he also manages to impart vast amounts of information without the reader ever feeling force-fed. His interviews with significant New Zealand improvising musicians are carefully blended with personal observation. Musicians like Jim Langabeer, Lucian Johnson, Nathan Haines, Kim Paterson, Jeff Henderson, Anthony Donaldson, Frank Gibson jr and Roger Manins are featured. I highly recommend this book as a vital reference work and as a very good read. ‘New Zealand Jazz Life‘ is published by Victoria University Press and available at all good bookstores. img_0079

Most Anticipated Albums 2017 – 

Manins, Samsom, Holland, Field are rumoured to be recording a new ‘DOG‘ album.  If it is anything like DOG one, we can expect a wonderful album. In December the band performed at the Thirsty Dog, and on all indications this will be a contender for another Jazz Tui. The band is simply extraordinary and it is impossible to fault them. ‘DOG’ is renown for showcasing great compositions, superb musicianship and for generating joyous excitement.

Meehan, Chisholm and Dyne have also finished recording and the album will be released sometime this year. Anyone who heard them on tour will certainly want the album. I will keep you posted on that.

Poetry:

I spent the northern Autumn travelling extensively throughout Europe and on the return journey I stopped off in San Francisco. Along the way I collected ‘found’ poetry. My self-imposed task was to record any poem (or fragment of a poem) scrawled on a wall or pavement, or in a street handout. These stumbled-upon poets were often unknown to me and this personalised anthology is the perfect trip reminder. As I moved from city to train, my bags become increasingly heavy with volumes of verse. In Gdansk, North Eastern Poland, I discovered the Nobel Prize winning poet Wislawa Szymborska. IMG_0083.jpgHer Maps‘ anthology has seldom been out of my hands since. Szymborska communicates the Polish experience like few others. She evokes a sense of impermanence, an un-belonging that has characterised Polish life for millennia. I am descended from Pomeranian Polish stock and perhaps this adds a particular resonance in my case. This is a window into a floating world surprisingly free of rancour. ‘Maps’ in translation is published by Mariner Books.img_0085The City Lights book shop in North Beach San Francisco has always been at the centre of my universe. Whenever I’m in that wonderful city I head there immediately. I had just spotted a verse from a Diane di Prima poem in a street pamphlet and I couldn’t wait to get a volume or two of her poetry. I have long been familiar with di Prima’s work, but the gifted female Beat poets were unfairly eclipsed by their male counterparts. A book published by Conari Press titled ‘Women of the Beat Generation’ is now back in print and it’s a good starting point for examining their body of work.IMG_0082.jpg di Prima is still with us and some of her best work is contained in a recent volume titled ‘The Poetry Prize’ published by the City Lights Foundation. IMG_0087.jpgLastly I will post one of my own recent poems, which rounds off the theme of maps. I wrote this in the week before my journey began. As I was about to depart, a well-known New Zealand Jazz musician shared some travel tips with me, offering insights, drawing me an abstract map as guide. I was so pleased with it that I wrote this poem. I took his wonderful  map with me and although I was unable to strictly follow it’s path, the spirit of it was an inner compass to guide me. It made me happy to have it near – now a prized possession, a travel memory, a manifest.Screen Shot 2017-01-14 at 2.59.51 PM.png

John Fenton JazzLocal32.com January 2017