As New Zealand adjusted to the first easing of the pandemic restrictions, Leo Coghini, a young Wellington musician released a set of three improvised solo piano albums. They were recorded at studio 310, New Zealand School of Music, Victoria University and all on a single day.
The albums titled ’Wellington Solos’ were released on the SkyDeck label and an immediate drawcard was the gorgeous brooding cover art. When a package looks that good, there is the lure of promise, and in that spirit, I sat down, closed my eyes and played all three.
As I listened through, it became obvious that these albums were something unique. Only the bravest of improvisers record abstract solo piano albums and those who do so are generally seasoned musicians with established avant-garde credentials. Coghini is modest, perhaps even shy, but what confidence he mustered on that day in November, and how astonishing the result.
As I evaluated the material it was impossible not to bring Jarretts 70’s explorations to mind; the joyful free improvisation built on delicate motifs, the way the tunes begin; unwind, are reconstructed and concluded. When you consider that this is Coghini’s first recording in his own name and that he is still an undergraduate, it is all the more impressive. You can feel his absorption, but he fully engages. This not a musician abstracting for mere abstraction’s sake; here there is clarity of purpose and the images he conjures are accessible to the listener.
In a project like this, the nakedness of the piano is exposed and a recording must capture the pivot between instrument and artist. It should achieve that without the hand of the recording technicians being discernible. This recording achieved that to perfection. The right piano in the right hands when recorded properly sings.
I first encountered Coghini in 2017 at an emerging artists gig. On that occasion, his band played standards and I noticed his gentle swing feel. Later I heard him in a different context, as a sideman on the award-winning ‘Fearless Music’ album by Umar Zakaria. By then a confident and adventurous Coghini had emerged and after this latest offering, we can be certain that he will continue to impress.
Creativity is essential to human survival. It is the fuel of adaption and as Darwin pointed out, those who fail to adapt fail to thrive. Creatives understand this and none more so than improvising musicians. It is therefore not surprising that musicians increased their outpoint in a variety of ways during lockdown.
In the early weeks, I noticed a feverish burst of activity from improvisers as solo concerts streamed and unreleased albums materialised; appearing as if conjured out of nowhere. Many of these albums landed in my inbox but because I was caught up in an international journalism project I put them aside for a time. As my posts appeared more frequently and in far away places an increase in review copies landed.
It has been my usual practice to confine my posts to New Zealand or to Australian artists and I try to confine offshore posts to artists I’ve heard live. I rarely venture beyond those self-imposed limits, but during the pandemic, I have broken that rule and moved beyond. These albums provide a snapshot of two diverse locations. They portray an interrupted world but also the constancy of improvisers. Their creativity is what keeps us sane. Improvised music illustrates our connectedness as it builds new languages out of old. It is a universal heart beat created from the babel that is life on earth.
‘The Gathering’ (The Jac) New Zealand
From the time of their formation, accolades for the ‘The Jac’ have kept coming. They are an eight-piece ensemble with a great sound and underpinning that are experienced players, nice compositions and some tasteful arranging. Although they are essentially a Wellington ensemble they have attracted musicians from all over, this giving them a distinct and cosmopolitan flavour. The talented Jake Baxendale is the front person, but there is also real depth surrounding him. On this latest album the quality of the overall musicianship is particularly evident.
While some long-established groups remain static, ‘The Jac’ keeps reaching for new heights. They are rooted in the now and reflect multi-genre inclusiveness. The future of Jazz demands this, as it is not a dead language.
The sound clip I have embedded is titled Tui (composed by Jake Baxendale). This delightful tune is nominated in the composition category for this year’s New Zealand Jazz Awards. The powerful contribution of Nick Tipping on bass and Mathew Allison on trombone especially grab the attention.
This is the Jac’s third studio album but the release plans have been impacted by the pandemic. They have therefore decided to release part of the album on Bandcamp and to release the rest closer to 2021. Why not download the early release digital tracks now and pre-order the rest? The musicians deserve your support. You really need to hear this.
‘Totem’ ( Ferdinando Romano / w Ralph Alessi) Italy
Some albums take a few listenings to get inside, but I fell for this one instantly. With further listening, the attraction increased. Having a modern trumpet stylist like Alessi on board was an inspired choice, but it was also Romano’s engaging compositions that reeled me in. This is a master class in less being more. It is minimalism but it is not stark, perhaps, because it’s from the warmer south.
The musicians move like dancers. Gliding between the fluid embrace of the ensemble playing and the crystalline melodic solo lines with ease, and also playing with real conviction. This is definitely a European sound and at times reflective, but while the music resonates cerebrally, it can find the heart in an instant.
Compositions as finely balanced as this could easily be overwhelmed, but the band reacts to every nuance. There is texture, but melody is dominant. There is dissonance, but never overdone. The tone is set from the first number titled ‘Gecko’; opening over the leader’s pedal on bass, Alessi beguiling us with gentle smears and caressing lines. Then, seamlessly, Caputo picks up the thread, Magrini next, then the ensemble and outro. As a composition, it flows beautifully.
It is natural that Alessi grabs our attention as he is a master of his instrument, but in spite of that, the septet sounds like a band of equals. There are no weak links. This is an album I am likely to play often and hopefully, there will be more like this from Romano.
‘Giulia’ was the second Italian album to come my way during the lockdown period and like the first, it is close to the ECM aesthetic. There is deliberation and a sense of purpose behind each phrase and you can feel this especially in the spaces between. At the centre, the clarity and silken softness of Cataldo’s guitar work.
The airy compositions are all the leaders. For the project, he engaged Marc Copland and Adam Nussbaum, both celebrated American musicians and both perfectly suited to realise his vision. The remaining band member is Pietro Leveratto, an Italian bass player of repute. Together they weave a cohesive storyline and in doing so enter the listener’s consciousness. Before you realise it you are on the journey with them.
I have often visited the Mediterranean and hold a deep love for Sicilia which is Cataldo’s home base. The moods here speak of languid salty air and of the startling blue of the Siracusa seafront. I can think of few places on earth so evocative or beautiful. It is the birth and the death place of Archimedes. When an errant Roman soldier was about to slay him, his last words were ‘do not disturb my circles’. Was this in mind when Cataldo wrote his epilogue piece ‘Circles’?
The pieces here all evoke strong images. Some of the connections are obvious as with Levante (my favourite piece), while others are illusive. And presiding over all is the haunting cover art. Was there ever a more beautiful image. Giulia, the daughter of Cataldo and the presiding spirit over this beautiful album.
I live on another island deep in the South Pacific Ocean and that is a long way distant from Sicilia. It is physically distant but this music somehow connects the two places and for those who live on Islands, and who love Islands deeply, those connections hold mystical power.
My general rule is to confine my posts to New Zealand or Australian bands, or to local gigs by visiting musicians. Very occasionally, I post from further afield or review albums from the wider Jazz diaspora. In this case, my self imposed categories both fit and they don’t. The first album is Polish in origin, but the leader, Michal Martyniuk, has lived in both New Zealand and Poland. Each alternate track was recorded with Kiwi musicians. The second album is the astonishing New Yor-Uba ensemble and I have a story to tell about my brief but memorable online interactions with the leader, New York-based Michele Rosewoman. The next album is by the Italian born pianist Roberto Magris, who I narrowly missed catching up with when I was in Prague and Trieste. And lastly a heads-up. Jason Miles is about to release an album featuring Jay Rodriguez, a frequent visitor to New Zealand. Anything with Rodriguez will be worth checking out.
Resonate (Michal Martyniuk)
Resonate is an album that has shaped itself over time. The recordings took place in different countries and in three instances, the recordings were separated by more than four years. In spite of that, there is a remarkable cohesion throughout. I have reviewed Martyniuk previously and I follow his journey carefully. Anyone who has paid attention to his live performances and to his recorded output will understand why the spacial and time disparities are irrelevant. Martyniuk has an intense artistic focus and his mind-set is not to move on until he is completely satisfied. While it may not be a formula for producing albums in swift succession, it is a recipe which pays dividends for him. Like all strong leaders, he communicates his vision to the musicians and because of that, we get synergy and flow between tracks.
It is an album of beautiful pianism and an album that I would place firmly in the European modern jazz mainstream. I believe it is equal to the best coming out of Europe. He also has a keen sense of which musicians will work with his compositions and more importantly, which will react to the other musicians. His New Zealand trio is Martyniuk (keys) with Cameron McArthur (bass) and Ron Samsom (drums) (plus the Polish guitarist Kuba Mizeracki track two). His Polish quintet features Martyniuk (keys), Jakub Skowronski (tenor saxophone), Mizeracki (guitar), Bartek Chojnacki (upright bass) and Kuba Gudz (drums. Since reconnecting with his Polish roots and performing in Poland, Martyniuk has carved a strong niche for himself. With his career on the rise, we may see him less and less, but if you do get wind of a visit, grab a ticket. You can purchase the album through his Bandcamp site and if downloading I recommend the Wav option.
No matter how many times I listen to ‘Hallowed and I have listened often, my evaluation is always the same. This is an album of extraordinary depth and a testament to Rosewoman and her unique perspective on Afro Cuban music in America. Hallowed is the culmination of thirty-six years work, and of many successful and innovative collaborations. This latest album follows her acclaimed ‘New Yor-Uba, 30 Years: a musical celebration of Cuba in America’. Rosewoman deservedly garnered a Cuban Jazz Grammy for that. It was rated #1 by NPR in the Latin Jazz category. Although what she plays is always accessible, Rosewoman has long been regarded as an adventurous musician but she defies easy pigeonholing. Her early influences like Mingus informed her trajectory while her association with the likes of Greg Osby, Steve Colman, Julien Priester,and Oliver Lake plus a plethora of gifted Cuban musicians set her final course. The bulk of this latest album was the result of a commission by Chamber Music America. Long ago when websites were new, I decided to check out some online Jazz sites. I was enthusiastic about Rosewoman’s Quintessence albums and I found her site and typed her name into a message box. Within minutes her reply came back and it astounded me that I could talk to a musician in real-time. In the mid-nineties that felt like magic.
In the wrong hands, a large ensemble, weaving intricate clave rhythms can overwhelm. On Hallowed, the charts are meticulously crafted, allowing the music to breathe naturally. The orchestration here is simply exquisite. Each track begins with a particular rhythm, moving subtly to other rhythms and moods as the listener is drawn into the essence of the music, which in spite of its intricacy takes you on an expansive and heartwarming journey. As you listen you feel the warmth and undulating caress of a Cuban breeze. The heart of the album is the commissioned work titled Oru de Oro (Room of Gold). This should be listened to following the track order and the 10 tracks enjoyed as a whole. As with most Cuban music, the rhythms of the Bata are the threads upon which all else rests and although the warp and weft pulse and change, the centre always holds. There are many master musicians on this album and it could be described as an amalgamation of worlds, a uniting of times past and present.Although not prolific as a recording artist, this is Rosewoman at her best. It is hard to see how she could surpass this, but given her previous albums, she probably will.
To date Robert Magris has led or co-led around 30 albums and ‘Sun Stone’ is a recent offering from the Kansas City ‘JMood’ label. He is a veteran of the European Jazz scene and his consistent output has frequently brought him into contact with respected American Jazz musicians.He travels widely, performing at festivals and gigs throughout the world. These fruitful collaborations have frequently taken him to America where he has cut some well-received albums in recent years. While a mainstream Post-bop stylist, he is never-the-less difficult to categorise precisely. Like many pianists who have been around a while, he has absorbed many influences and to these, he has added his own southern European voice.
‘Sunstone’ the album features the respected multi-instrumentalist Ira Sullivan and the rest of the sextet apart from Magris hail from either Florida or Chicago. The first number and title track is a crackling energised number which sets the tone for much that follows, but there are also some reflective numbers. On several of the later tracks, Sullivan is heard to great effect on flute.Magris is from Trieste and he often performs in nearby Prague with the MUH trio. It was in those two cities where I almost caught up with him a few years ago. Trieste appeals to me greatly, so perhaps next time?
The number of quality Jazz albums coming out of Australia these days is impressive and considering the lack of support from the mainstream music industry, surprising.I have met a number of Australian improvisers over the years and the best of them have one thing in common, a burning desire to reach beyond the mundane. They communicate this passion in spite of the obstacles and they do it convincingly. The best of these are respected across the wider Jazz world. They are a cohort that brings joy to those hear them and the least we can do is pay them our fullest attention. In November 2019, I became aware of four recent Australian albums: Andrea Kellers ‘Transients, volumes 1 & 2,’’This World’ (a collaboration between Mike Nock, Julian Wilson, Hamish Stuart and Jonathan Zwartz) and ‘Stock’ by Julien Wilson. A common denominator linking the above recordings is Wilson, who appears on all four albums (and is the founder of the Melbourne based Lionshare Records). Christopher Hale appears in three of them.
This World: Anyone who has followed pianist Mike Nock over the years will always be hungry for more of his artistry. He never disappoints. A few years ago Wilson confided that he had been planing a collaboration with Nock but that prior commitments always seemed to get in the way. Then in 2018 disaster struck when Nock was hit by a car on a pedestrian crossing. Many feared that his injuries could curtail his career and his fans hoped for a swift recovery. Not long after he left the hospital (and against the odds), he joined Wilson, Stuart and Zwartz for a standards gig. They sounded so good together that they agreed to record an album of originals (with each contributing compositions). Next, Zwartz obtained an arts council grant, and they headed for Sony Studios.
While the results of the two-day session are a testament to their compositional skills, it is their tasteful interplay that remains with you. The album is a thing of soulful beauty, with the compositions coexisting in happy juxtaposition. For example, the cheerfully reflective tune Old’s Cool (Nock) is followed by the moody In The Night Comes The Rain (Zwartz). If you follow the tracklist in chronological order you could be forgiven for thinking that the album is about Nock’s accident. In the Night Comes The Rain – Home – The Dirge – Aftermath– We shall Rise Again; perhaps that is not the case at all, but whatever the motivation the album is an essential addition to any Jazz collection. What musical heavy-weights these musicians are and how effortlessly they weave their magic. There is a hint of ECM about this recording and not least due to the amazing cover artwork by the Icelandic earth photographer Polly Ambermoon.
Transients volume 1 & 2: Late last year I came across the Transients albums by the multi-award-winning pianist and composer Andrea Keller. I first encountered Keller two years ago while I was visiting family in Melbourne. Her compelling stylistic originality intrigued me and I made a point of attending several of her performances in a row; resolving to keep an eye on her output from then on. On the first night she was decidedly minimalist and embedded deep within an ensemble; the second night a fearless explorer in a serialist vein. These two albums offer variety, innovation. The Transients project began in 2016 and since that time a series of interlinking trios have appeared, culminating in these extraordinary 2019 albums.
This is music that requires your engagement and it is deeply rewarding when you listen properly. It is clear evidence that Australian music is developing its own distinct voice. The opening track on the first album is titled Musings and it is the perfect hook to draw you deep inside an intriguing world. As the tracks unfold you realise that you are listening kaleidoscopically. Phrases form and change along with mood. It is an interesting approach as the various trios sound like a band that could be playing as a larger ensemble. less is more. It is as if it is a bigger unit but with instruments redacted to achieve greater clarity. In spite of the contrasting moods and instrumental configurations, there is a unified heart; so much so that you can easily imagine how each piece would sound if the alternate trios played the piece. On volume two this is realised. On volume 1 you experience the journey while on volume two you are invited to examine it afresh. Many of the tunes like Saint Misha and Sleep Cycles are later reimagined, familiar but not familiar.
It is hard to praise the Transients albums enough and while it is obviously Keller who deserves the lions share of the accolades, the individual musicians excel themselves under her guidance. Wilson on tenor saxophone, clarinet and bass clarinet has long been a favourite of mine. He and the astonishing Stephen Magnusson have previously stunned us when appearing on recordings (notably with Barney McAll). With the addition of James Macaulay on trombone, Sam Anning or Christopher Hale on bass, James McLean or Leigh Fischer on drums and Flora Carbo on Alto, Keller has found the right mix of colours for her masterwork.
Stock: Like This World, Stock was released by Julien Wilson’s Lionshare Records. It is a joyful, freedom embracing, open-hearted exploration of sonic possibilities. It enhances sound, but the electronic effects which it utilises to good advantage are tastefully deployed. This is an album which immediately brings a smile to your lips, exuding as it often does the sounds of a perfect summer (a happier summer than Australia is experiencing at present). It was recorded in 2019 and released by the artists on New Year’s Day 2020. It is the sound of now and I was delighted to hear in the new decade with this gem. Some, wrong-headedly, think that post-millennium Jazz like this has abandoned past learnings; they are mistaken. These artists have no need to look over their shoulder because the past has been absorbed into and informs everything they do as they move the music forward. While Stock is Wilson’s concept it is clearly a collaborative effort. No one creates at this level unless they are inside each other’s heads. The quartet has performed a while but this was a time to share their vision with a wider audience. The tracks cover many moods – here I have posted a joyfully ‘out’ track.
Wilson is noted for his skilful articulation; an artist who can wring new tears out of old ballads and carve scorching pathways through an up-number; one of the few Australasian reeds players who maintains his clarinet chops at this level. This feels like a fruitful direction for him as the step change has a rightness about it. As the album progresses, moving from the filmic to the elegiac, you marvel at the inventiveness. Yes, guitarist Craig Fermanis has a Metheny vibe, but this is an original offering and beholden to no one. He is magnificent throughout and able to create nuance out of controlled chaos, and Christopher Hale’s electric bass work and Hugh Harvey’s drums or percussion are so integrated that the band presents as a single fluid entity. It is the integration of the voices and of ideas within a free-flowing framework that worked for me. It plots an interesting path forward and in doing so brings us along with it.
My last word is about the presentation and the sound quality of the above albums. The recording and mixing standards here are very high. All have eye-grabbing artwork but in the case of the Lionshare albums, the standard is extraordinary. Wilson has an eye for great cover art, intuitively understanding that the relationship between the eye and the ear is important. Music is about more than just sound. I know that he gives careful consideration to such matters, whether it’s the eerily atmospheric work of the Icelandic earth photographer Polly Ambermoon or the marvellous creations of Dale Cox. The albums are all released on Bandcamp. We should all purchase whatever we can through the Bandcamp platform as the artists share is considerably greater there. In addition, we get streaming at Hi-Fi quality and the albums and other merch can be accessed directly. The two Lionshare Albums are also available in 24bit/96kHz audiophile quality and are downloadable for burning. If you have a high-end audio system you should grab the 24bit versions as these are the best quality available to us.
This World: Mike Nock (piano), Hamish Stuart (drums), Julien Wilson (reeds) Jonathan Zwartz (bass). Transients 1&2: Andrea Keller (piano), Julien Wilson (tenor saxophone & clarinet), James Macaulay (trombone), Stephen Magnusson (guitar), Floro Carbo (alto saxophone), Sam Anning (double bass), Christopher Hale (bass guitar), Leigh Fisher (drums), James McLean (drums). Stock: Julien Wilson (reeds, effects), Craig Fermanis (guitar), Christopher Hale (bass guitar), Hugh Harvey (drums & percussion)
Have you ever heard one of New Zealand’s iconic pop songs and wondered how it would sound reimagined as Jazz? The journey from popular song to Jazz piece is a well-trodden path. Many tunes that we now refer to as ‘Jazz standards’ began their life as tunes written for broadway musicals or for the popular music market. For a tune to successfully cross that divide it needs to be well constructed and to lend itself to reharmonisation. With ‘Alchemy’, this elusive symmetry is realised.
In the late twentieth century, classic Beatles tunes or those of Michael Jackson, Prince and Stevie Wonder were effortlessly adapted as Jazz vehicles. If you hear Uri Caine, Brad Mehldau, Herbie Hancock or the Kiwi Jazz pianist Jonathan Crayford playing ‘Blackbird’ you might conclude that Blackbird was written with a Jazz pianist in mind. These crossovers are a tribute to the composer and to the transformational skills of arranging Jazz Musicians.
A few years ago the award-winning New Zealand writer/director/producer Mark Casey embarked on an ambitious project to recast a number of New Zealand’s best-loved pop songs as Jazz tunes. It was a significant and perhaps a risky undertaking but gradually the project gathered momentum. In mid-December, ‘Alchemy’ was released and immediately, it rose up the NZ music charts. This is a significant achievement but it is not down to Casey alone. His masterstroke was engaging leading New Zealand Jazz Pianist Kevin Field as the Musical Director. Field is not only a gifted Jazz Pianist and acknowledged Warner recording artist, but his skills as an arranger and vocal accompanist are beyond question. Creative New Zealand came to the party and backed the proposal.
As the project moved forward a variety of Kiwi Jazz musicians were approached, some working in New York, most local, and one by one they came aboard. When the album was about to be recorded, I was asked by Field and Casey if I would be interested in witnessing the recording process. I was. I seldom pass up a chance to become a fly-on-the-wall during recording sessions and this project fascinated me. Being an embedded observer in such situations is always intriguing. It affords a writer the opportunity to gain insights that would otherwise be invisible. As the musicians turned up to rehearsals and to recording day there was a palpable sense of enthusiasm. No one questioned Fields guidance as he tweaked the charts and made suggestions. And any sense of disconnect between the pop and Jazz world evaporated swiftly. This was not pop Jazzed up. It was Jazz, and although there were reharmonisations and Jazz rhythms, the integrity of original tunes remained intact.
In the recording studio were Auckland’s premier Jazz and Soul singers and a selection of experienced Jazz instrumentalists. On vocals were Caitlin Smith, Lou’ana Whitney, Chelsea Prastiti, Allana Goldsmith, Bex Peterson and Marjan Nelson. On piano and keyboards was Keven Field, Roger Manins was on tenor saxophone, Richard Hammond on electric and acoustic bass, Michael Howell on acoustic and electric guitar, Ron Samsom and Stephen Thomas on drums and percussion. In addition, there were two special guests, Michael Booth (trumpet) and Nathan Haines (soprano saxophone). This was serious firepower and thanks to the arrangements, all well deployed. The NY based ex-pat bass player Matt Penman had arranged tracks 7 & 12 and Marjan co-arranged tracks 4 & 8 with Field.
There are six vocalists on the album and they sing two tunes each. Careful thought had obviously been given to who would sing each song because the strengths of the individual vocalists were well matched to the tunes. For example, the warm but wistful lyricism of Chelsea Prastiti paired with ‘I’m glad I’m not a Kennedy’ (Shona Laing), the heartfelt reflectiveness of Caitlin Smith with ‘I hope I never’ (Tim Finn) or the engaging bell-like clarity of Marjan singing ‘Brown girl’ (Aradhna Patel). Together the musicians delivered something unique. This is a project which works and the more you listen to it the more you are beguiled. It is Kiwiana and it could be the perfect soundtrack for your summer.
‘Alchemy’ the album is available in New Zealand stores or from online sources.
Serendipity, by its very definition, denotes the uncontrived. It is a felicitous happenstance which brings unexpected joy. Last week, a serendipitous package fell my way. It began as many good things do in a small Jazz Club. I was hardly through the door when Roger Manins the club coordinator handed me a package with a Japanese postmark. I glanced at the address and smiled. It was addressed to me care of The Creative Jazz Club, Backbeat Bar, Aotearoa, New Zealand. That appealed to me greatly, an improbable address which found me in a city of nearly two million people. Apollo and Artemus clearly had a role in guiding it to my hands as the address on the label no longer exists. Within days of delivery it hit its mark.
I shoved the package into my bag and promptly forgot about it as the live music demanded my full attention. The next morning I was fishing for something in my bag and I located it again. The return address gave few clues as to its origin as it was in Japanese. Inside was a handwritten note in English and the words, ’Dear John, I hope you will be curious’. It was signed, Tom Pierson. No writer worth their salt lacks curiosity and I am no exception. I love riddles and musical riddles are the best of all.
Inside the package was a double album titled ‘Last Works’. The cover, plain in multi-hued claret and to one side, in a discrete white font, that simple title. Understated cover art is an act of confidence and in this case, no wonder. The first track, a long-form piece titled ‘Abandoned’ offered a compelling foretaste of the musical journey ahead. ‘Abandoned’ is a brooding and captivating piece, with splashes of bright light illuminated against a dark textural background. I put it on and sat down as it was impossible not to be drawn inside the music. As I listened, every fibre of being told me that I was hearing a monumental work. A work to experience without distractions; a grab a cup of coffee, hang a ‘do not disturb’ sign on the door sort of experience.
That opening sequence of ‘Abandoned’ set the tone for me. My attention was immediately drawn to the lower register, its bass trombones and baritone pumping out an earthy pulse. Each utterance hitting my solar plexus with an angel punch. Oh yes, I thought, this music is visceral. The strong bass presence and the uncluttered mid-range gifted the winds airy freedom. The track titled 45/8 is another gem. It unselfconsciously gathers up all Jazz; a history lesson in one breathtaking sweep.
I have seldom heard charts like this and it is little wonder that Jazz greats like Gil Evans drew attention to Pierson. Evans described him as ‘the best unknown composer I know’. I hope that changes as this musician deserves wider recognition. Writing orchestral charts can be a time consuming and lonely occupation. And if you have exiled yourself to a country far from your old home, all the more so. Perhaps that is why the humanism shines through the music so strongly. The orchestral voicings resonating so deeply; capturing the bittersweet sounds of modern life while communicating the hope that a better way could be found.
The orchestra is a sixteen-piece ensemble and it’s clearly a multi-national affair. A name that stands out is the inimitable Lew Soloff. Sadly, Soloff is no longer with us, and poignantly, this was his final recording. He is impossible to miss on the disks with his stratospheric high notes, growls and that edgy harmonic-rich bite (especially tracks 4 + 10). In truth there are many great performances on the album as Pierson has selected a stellar line-up. I hope that the title is tongue in cheek as ‘Last works’ can be read two ways. Last as in final, or last as in recent. I hope it’s the latter.
There are thirteen tracks on the album and thirteen reasons to buy a copy. Go to Bandcamp/Tom Pierson and purchase the download in a high-quality audio format. Listen to a few tracks first and reflect on the artistry. If you do, you will surely make a generous contribution when asked how much you are prepared to pay. Not a lot of musicians make orchestral charts of this quality and without our continued support, they could easily vanish.
The musicians: Tom Pierson (leader, arranger/composer, piano), Blue Lou Martini, Mark Vinci, Stu Enomoto, Neil Johnson, Michael Lutzeier (winds + reeds), Dominic Derasse, Mike Ponella, Tim Leopold, Lew Soloff (trumpets), Ben Harrington, Robinson Khoury, Dan Levine, Jeff Nelson (trombones), Tom Pierson (piano), Kanoa Mendenhall (electric bass), Pheeroan Aklaff (drums),recorded at Systems2 Brooklyn
Sometimes an album blows straight into your heart like a warm breeze off the summer ocean. ‘Shuffle’ is exactly that album. There is an easy-going familiarity to it and you instantly feel good as your body connects with the rhythms. Shuffle achieves that rare feat of sounding both new and familiar. This is the sound that I grew to love many years ago, as practitioners like Jimmy Smith, Big John Patton, Gene Ammons, and Brother Jack McDuff fused Soul and Jazz into a rare amalgam. To appreciate this music you need no acclimatisation; no understanding of Jazz. To appreciate this music you only need one prerequisite, a human heart. It’s ‘groove’, it is sensual and it’s my guilty pleasure.
While the album has immediacy, a long story underpins that. Roger Manins, Ron Samsom, and Michel Benebig have played together for many years, and whenever they get together they thrill audiences. At some point, Benebig, the New Caledonian B3 organ master, decided that he wanted to play with the American guitarist Carl Lockett. In B3 circles, Lockett is a legendary figure having played with Jimmy Smith and Jimmy McGriff. The problem was that Lockett had no Facebook presence, no current management, and no listed phone number. Eventually, he was located and agreed to a tour (he has since played with Benebig on a regular basis). During a trip to New Zealand in 2016, the album was cut.
With the exception of two tunes, ‘Blackwell’ (named after drummer Ed Blackwell) and ‘Patton 8’ (named after groove icon Big John Patton), all of the tunes are Shuffles. If you look up Shuffle in a musical dictionary you will see that it has a deceptively complex structure and that it is hard to describe in rhythmic terms (it has an 8 note feel, essentially playing 3/4 over a 4/4 beat to make the music swing). It is sometimes called the ‘flat tire’. My dictionary gives up trying to explain it and simply states, ‘when you hear it you will understand it perfectly’. It has a loping swing and it’s infectious – or as Samsom writes so beautifully in the liner notes, “The Shuffle is the shit for me. It isn’t just flat, it’s broken, and that’s where the music lies. It’s so beautifully wrong’.
The songwriting duties on the album are shared. One tune by Benebig, two by Samsom and five by Manins. The album begins with a slow, smouldering burner by Samsom titled ‘BB gun’ – what a great way to begin an album – this has that Gene Ammons ‘take me home baby’ feel and it sets up the faster-paced numbers to follow. By the time you get to the solos, you are there, in the zone and understanding why Lockett was so essential to the project. What a great composition and how in the pocket every one plays, and then as you progress through the album you realise that every track is a gem. Manins ‘Shuffle ONE’ (big leg Shuffle), or his ‘Blackwell’ which takes a faster route and gives the soloists a chance to shine while moving at pace. Man, these guys sure can write. Benebig’s tune is a 12 bar blues ‘Dog Funk Walking’. It made me think of John Mayall at his peak (once upon a time I listened to a lot of John Mayall). On this track, in particular, you hear the powerful blues credentials of Lockett laid bare. It is impossible to sound more soulful than he and Benebig do on this. The compositions are all great, but so is the playing.
Samsom and Manins have realised something special here and in the process, they’ve showcased real artistry. I have posted two tracks as sound clips – ‘Gout Foot Shuffle’ (Manins) & ‘Dog Funk Walking’ (Benebig). So it’s Christmas and you know what you have to do now. Rush out and buy at least one copy of this stellar album and experience the joy of North & South Pacific musicians playing up a groove storm. Support local music and tell your friends to do the same. You will never have a moments regret owning an album like this.
The album is a thing of beauty thanks to Rattle and the amazing cover designer UnkleFranc. As always I acknowledge the hard work and the deft touch of Rattle’s Steve Garden and ‘Roundhead Studios’ in Auckland. The ‘Shuffle’ Lineup: Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Ron Samsom (drums), Michel Benebig (Hammond A100), Carl Lockett (guitar). You can buy a copy from your local store, Amazon or better yet from rattle.co.nz or online from rattle-records.bandcamp.com
I was out of the country when Umar Zakaria came to the Backbeat Bar in September. I was particularly sorry to have missed Zakaria’s Fearless Music Tour as they had just won the 2018 Jazz Album Of The Year. Because I was away it took me a while to get my hands on the album and when I did I was deeply impressed. While the name Zakaria may be unfamiliar to many outside of Wellington, he is hardly a newcomer to the scene. He is a graduate from the New Zealand School of Music and the Boston Conservatory and he has performed and studied with significant improvisers from around the globe. Already, accolades are coming his way and when you consider the fact that he is at the beginning of his career, you comprehend just how significant that is.
Fearless Music is a beautiful album in so many ways; the artwork, recording quality, compositions, and individual performances. An increasing number of highly regarded Jazz recordings come from outside of the US and this must surely count among them. It frequently draws on motifs and themes from outside of the European or American world and perhaps that is the secret to its authenticity. There are no awkward attempts to blend styles here as everything falls naturally; the music is deeply rhythmic and recognisably Jazz in spite of the obvious Middle Eastern or Asian influences and scales. ‘Suite Melayu’, the bulk of this recording is the gem within. it sticks with you. There is undoubtedly a good story behind the suite segment titles but there are no liner notes, the music, however, is more than enough. Suite Melayu felt like the sort of material that the brilliant Dhafer Yousef might write.
The tune ‘Archimedes’ has a deeply contemplative quality to it. Archimedes was a polymath who lived in Siracusa Sicily and he is a hero of mine. This feels like a fitting tribute to the greatest physicist, engineer, mathematician, astronomer, and inventor of the ancient world. There is a subtle Mediterranean feel to this track and if like me you’ve travelled around that ancient Island you will pick up the Moorish vibe right away. -especially in Leonardo Coghini’s lines. Zakaria is a gifted bass player but his compositions, in particular, mark this out as an exceptional album. He deserved to win the Jazz Tui with this project and I look forward to the sequels which must surely follow.
His fellow musicians are also exceptional here. Coghini I have heard before and after this performance, I will pay him much closer attention. His touch is so clean and purposeful, but also delicate. His lines breathe as good lines should. The drummer Luther Hunt, has been around on the wider Wellington music scene for some years and more recently he studied Jazz Performance at the New Zealand School of Music. Again, an exceptionally sensitive performance, knowing when to lay out and when to be supportive. Lastly, there is Roger Manins. I hear him in so many diverse situations and in every one of them, he sounds as if that is his thing. This excellence in versatility is the mark of a really good musician. At his best, which is almost all of the time, there is no one in New Zealand to touch him. What he brings to performances like this is professionalism with heart. We are lucky to have him in our midst.
Auckland got a chance to see Zakaria again when he came to Auckland recently in a co-led trio. the Kang/Lockett/Zakaria trio. Of these, drummer Mark Lockett is the best known as he has appeared at the CJC numerous times and is a popular performer. He also runs the WJC in Wellington. Brad Kang, a formidable technician on guitar did a gig earlier in the year. The writing duties had been spread between the three musicians and many of the numbers were hard-hitting burners, especially in Kang’s hands.
Fearless Music: Umar Zakaria (bass, composition), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Leonardo Coghini (piano), Luther Hunt (drums) – Recorded and mixed and produced by David Lisik at New Zealand School of Music, SkyDeck Records http://www.skydeckmusic.com
Kang/Lockett/Zakaria appeared at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 5 December 2018
Sometimes I step into the shadows to locate a light that is otherwise denied me. A place where anti-art hides real art and where music appears in bizarre disguises. It can feel like an unnatural place but if you walk on, your eyes soon become accustomed to the half-light. It is only then that the ghosts in the machine become visible. This is the strange world of Anti Pop; a place where those striving to earn a living from popular music bite the hand that pretends to feed them. It is digital Dada – it is an off note brought to a knife fight.
TQX is a subversive entity, a logo hiding in plain sight. I was introduced to the phenomena by a Jazz musician and sworn to secrecy. I will not reveal my source as corporate lawyers and music industry moguls are circling like demented bats. The sort of bats which swooped on Hunter S Thompson during a bad day in the desert. Thompson once wrote: ‘The music industry is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There is also a negative side’. What would he think of the industry now? It causes hallucinations just to ponder on it. Yesterday primo Jazz trickster Barney McAll sent me a link to this anti-pop album titled Global Intimacy. This ‘revolution is under the radar – ‘it will not be televised’. I recognised many of the names – Sia, Gian Slater, Ben Monder, Barney McAll, Kool A.D. Musicians who come from across the musical spectrum. It was a message disguised as popular music, but the sort that is often confined to student radio or oddball playlists. It was political but not everyone will have the ears to hear the message. The material will not suit every taste but everyone should try a bite. I got the message, understood the flavour, and I hope others do.
Then I read an exchange between TQX and the graffiti artist known as Banksy (are either of these people real?) and the whole thing got even stranger. I will reproduce excerpts from that email exchange.
‘Dear Banksy, My name is Barney McAll. I am a pianist, producer, and composer and I’m writing on behalf of an international group of artists known as TouniquetX. We want to use your image……. Dear Barney. I don’t license my images for use in such a way, sorry but good luck with it! (signed) Banksy ……. Thanks for your response Banksy but we don’t want to license your image. We want to blatantly use it without any license, with full public knowledge that it was your image and that – we stole it.’
I leave it up to readers to untangle this maze of subversion and if their curiosity is piqued, if they think alt-pop is for them, they should discretely access TQX and obtain a collectors edition – only hard copies are available. None of the proceeds will be creamed off by the 1%. Nostalgic for the present yet? goto TQXofficial@gmail.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
‘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
‘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).
Viata: When the Eamon Dilworth album ‘Viata’ was delivered, I was just about to head off to a gig. As I pulled out, I fed the CD into the car sound system and was immediately captivated. Some albums grab you like that, cutting through the dross of everyday life and commanding your fullest attention. The next day, freed from distraction I played it again, and as I listened, the power of the music was evident; a private world where carefully layered soundscapes revealed themselves in an unhurried fashion. I have heard Dilworth live and listened to his recordings, but this is ‘one out of the bag’. Over the years I have learned to expect great things from Australian improvisers and this certainly reinforces that well-earned reputation. ‘Arrow’ was a great album but ‘Viata’ is quite exceptional.
Arrow and Alluvium, were broader canvases – more eclectic; but these compositions are pastoral rather than urban landscapes. Revealed are breathtaking aural vistas of the kind you would expect from ECM artists; pristine spacious northern European landscapes. One of the tunes is titled ‘Eich’, a clear homage to Norway’s Matias Eich and it is beautifully realised, but as you work through the album the unmistakable dreamy warmth and gentle slurring of Tomasz Stanko is evident. Jon Hassel helped shape the direction of Scandinavian trumpeters and perhaps via the Nordics, Australian trumpet players also. These are not the only influences evident here and the vast Australian landscapes cannot be overlooked. In spite of its influences, the album stands strongly on its own merits. The quintet utilises the skills of notable Australian musicians; Alistair Spence (piano), Carl Morgan (guitar), Jonathan Zwartz (bass) and Paul Derricott (drums). With these heavyweights accompanying Dilworth, he couldn’t lose. This is an album I really enjoyed. If you listen carefully it is possible to hear a distant Bell beckoning.
Zephyrix: There is nothing that piques my interest more than receiving news of an impending Barney McAll project. His projects are seldom announced in conventional ways but they creep into your consciousness like portents. You see an image or hear a rumour and know that something is unfolding. A few months ago I noticed a mysterious image appearing below a McAll tweet. There was no explanation, just the word Zephyrix and an image of a man-bird. Because he paints on a vast canvas and because he is a master of subliminal, the image was the message; leaving you with the sense that something extraordinary was about to appear. This how McAll works his magic. By communicating on many levels at once. You always get great music, but embedded in that music and in the related media are archetypes. This album exemplifies his approach to creating art and it touches on his philosophy.
A few weeks after I spotted the image I received an email from Melbourne’s Monash University, inviting me to attend the launch of McAll’s Zephyrix album as a guest. The work was commissioned for the prestigious Monash Art Ensemble, a fifteen-piece Jazz orchestra. The work had six parts and was conducted by the well respected Paul Grabowsky. A few years earlier I had interviewed McAll during his Peggy Glanville-Hicks composers residency in Sydney. The work was composed at around that time.
Although unable to attend the launch I received a copy of the album and as I played it that familiar question arose. How can one artist have such a diverse body of work and yet achieve such excellence in everything that he creates? The answer lies partly in McAll’s work ethic, but above all, it lies in the way he views life and the creative process. The integrity of his vision is never subordinated to the commercial imperatives which often grind artists down. In spite of that (or because of it), he has a large following and wins award after award (he just collected three further Bell Awards for ‘Hearing the Blood’).
As you listen to Zephyrix you enter a world of textural richness with surprises at every turn. Mythical and exotic creatures populate the imagination, only to disappear as another, takes its place. McAll’s work is always strongly allegorical and in this case, the allusions touch on the fundamental struggles of existence. Beginning with the Greek God Zephyr (God of the west wind ) and followed by the voices of Black Crow, White Swan, Peacock, Pelican, Zephyrix and Phoenix. The odd creature out is the most interesting, one of McAll’s creations, the Zephyrix. This is a fusing of the Phoenix and Man – the man wearing business attire, the phoenix perhaps his better self.
As you listen to the album you detect the spirit of Stravinsky, but the touchstones go beyond orchestral Jazz or modern classical music. Even though the references to the past are there, this work sits comfortably among the best of forward-looking orchestral works. It is a journey well worth taking and I am eagerly awaiting McAll’s next project.
Multi reeds and winds player Jay Rodriguez recently released an album titled ‘Your Sound’ and it could not have been more appropriately titled. It is an album which conveys the warmth of the man and his interesting musical journey from Columbia to New York; it lays bare his openness and his heart on sleeve humanity. It is a life and times offered up for appraisal, it is richly diverse and contemporary. Above all, it offers us joy. Put simply, ‘Your Sound’ is the sound of the Jazz life and it delights from start to finish.
I have heard Rodriguez perform in various live settings and he is, without doubt, one of the most engaging performers around. His warmth and personality are encapsulated by his sound in interesting ways. Importantly, he is not confined to just one sound – he has many and each has his stamp on it. When I hear his bluesy alto in a random playlist I say to my self – ‘oh that’s got to be Jay Rodriguez’; whether on tenor, bass clarinet or peppery Latin flute he traverses the history of improvised music – he has a distinction. When you examine his life story you realise that all of the above is borne out of a life lived at the heart of music; a life of working tirelessly at his craft, his every note conveying that personal touch. He is so busy as a sideman that he records as leader infrequently; after hearing this album I hope that will change. He is also one of a select group of musicians who doubles on a wide range of winds and reeds – unusually, he sounds really terrific on all of them.
Joining Rodriguez for this recording were an extraordinary group of musicians and man did they deliver. Billy Harper (tenor saxophone), Larry Willis (piano), Eric Wheeler (acoustic bass), Billy Martin (percussion) and J.T. Lewis (drums) – all well-known musicians and all with very impressive discographies. On some tracks, two tenors play in unison but with Harper always cutting his own clear path – his honest take no prisoners approach giving depth and contrast. Like Rodriguez, Harper has a strong connection with Kiwi and Australian improvising musicians and ears prick up down under when his name is mentioned. He is regarded with reverence in the Jazz world.
Larry Willis is another musician who needs little introduction. He has worked alongside artists as diverse as Jackie McLean, Carmen McCrae, Carla Bley, Groove Homes, Blood Sweat & Tears and Nat Adderly. He has also released twenty-four albums as a leader. His touch is deft here and his diverse abilities a boon. Whether playing free or bluesy he is right on the money. Bass player Eric Wheeler is a professional musician from DC and again he has worked with the who’s who of the jazz and classical world (killing). Lastly, there’s drums and percussion, J T Lewis and Billy Martin, another highly experienced pair who gave their best on the bandstand. Both have impressive credits to their name and they meshed perfectly. With this group and Rodriguez leading, something special happened. Track 7 Spirits from the album is embedded below with Rodriguez on alto.
The opening number is titled ‘Ghost Dancer’. Establishing itself over a vamp and edgy Latin rhythms, drawing you deep inside an exotic sound-forest. Then the mood and tempo change, allowing the flute to dance like a bird of paradise. On this, the flute is Peppery and alluring. As we get into the album, standards appear like ‘Golden Earrings’ (Victor Young) or ‘Lover’ (Richard Rogers); all sitting comfortably alongside the spellbinding Rodriguez originals like’ Ghost Dancer’, ‘Your Sound’ or ‘Spirits’ (the latter is a tribute to the ghosts in Rodriguez life). There are Ornette referencing tracks, ballads and plenty of soulful storytelling. Underpinning this rich diversity are some very skilful arrangments.
Jay Rodriguez: (Leader, tenor, alto & soprano saxophones, flute, bass clarinet), Billy Harper (tenor saxophone), Larry Willis (piano), Eric Wheeler (acoustic bass), Billy Martin (percussion), J.T. Lewis (drums). The album was recorded live at ‘Dizzy’s Club-Coca-Cola’ in NYC and it is released on Whaling City Sound. It is available for purchase from whalingcitysound.com or from the usual outlets like Amazon or iTunes. Highly recommended.
Rarely, do we get to experience something truly sublime and for this to occur a number of planets must be perfectly aligned. Art at this level cannot be forced as the realization is dependant on both tangibles and intangibles. The musician might be in peak form, but if the room or the instrument is mediocre then the fine edge of perfection is blunted. It is harder to achieve in a capacious concert hall; easier in a well-appointed studio or an intimate vibing Jazz club. There is no manual to guide us to the point of departure. It is a divine alchemy pure and simple.
When I heard that Jonathan Crayford would be touring the country with a Steinway D Concert piano and one with considerable provenance, my first inclination was to doubt. This was no small undertaking. The piano in question was special, played by luminaries such as Lily Kraus, who signed it. It was formerly owned by a branch of the Guggenheim family and if Crayford had not asked a friend to purchase it, we would have lost it to an offshore purchaser. The friend, surprisingly, agreed and said, “Now use it”. Crayford is one of the few musicians who could pull this off.
The piano and Crayford travelled up from Wellington a few days ago and the first concert took place on the day of their arrival in Auckland. The lovely Uxbridge Arts Centre in Howick was the first venue; a pleasant, modern 100+ seat auditorium with good acoustics (especially for a piano) and an intimate cosiness. I arrived early as I was videoing and sat quietly in the darkness; watching Crayford and his magnificent piano get acquainted.
Crayford approaches pianos with reverence and sensitivity. I watched as he played a few phrases – then he paused when a particular voicing took his attention. Putting his ear close and playing it again with a look of delight. He was learning the secrets and subtleties of the instrument. Later during the concert, he gently tapped out a note which had taken his fancy. “Listen carefully”, he said to the audience, pointing to a particular key. A soft harmonic-rich sound reverberated gently through the room – revealing a warm golden timbre. As he shared these insights we felt privileged. Crayford treats fine pianos as living entities; beings to be understood, curated, exalted. When he finished a piece he would gently lift his hands and time would stall as the slow decay of chord or phrase created new harmonics and textures. Sound bouncing off wood, frame and room until it faded into infinity.
He opened with a composition of his own, a reflective piece of deep spacious improvisation, perfectly realised and just the right length to reel us in. The awed hush from the audience said it all. This concert was special and everyone there swiftly grasped that. Next, we heard his take on an obscure but unmistakable Monk tune, the familiar jagged lines morphing into new shapes as he went. There was no set playlist, no charts to guide him; just a small black notebook with dozens of possible tunes written down and in no particular order. The piano and his musician’s instinct informing him of the journey as he went. Tunes were chosen or rejected on the fly. His programme consisting mainly of reflective material but with a few faster-paced tunes to balance these out. A tune from the Spanish civil war attributed to Garcia Lorca was an example of the latter. On the slower reflective pieces like a Satie Gymnopedie, he left space for the music to breathe – space for the spirit of the piano to sing through. He would often play three pieces together and then rise from the piano to quote a line from Shakespeare or to offer an insight into a piece. He is a fascinating speaker and his enthusiasm utterly infectious. Nothing was out of place, everything he did conveyed the magic of the moment.
I urge music lovers to clear their calendars and attend these extraordinary concerts as Crayford travels throughout New Zealand. It is seldom that we get to experience projects like this and extremely rare to hear them in such intimate spaces. The most difficult gig in Jazz is the free-ranging improvised solo piano concert. When it works (and this certainly did) it is the most rewarding. This was deep improvisation, sensitive interaction and piano/sound curation at it’s best. It paid respect to the solo art form and above all to a very special Steinway piano. It was Jarrett like (but without the abuse). It was Crayford at his best and that is enough to satisfy any music lover.
The eponymously titled album ‘Lucian Johnson+5’ was first released in 2016 and has recently been re-released in Japan on vinal. I have only encountered Johnson performing once or twice as he has spent a lot of time outside of New Zealand. He was born in Wellington, but led an interesting life elsewhere, travelling the world with various innovative bands and living for long periods in Paris. I first encountered him when he toured with ‘The Troubles; a delightfully anarchic folksy ensemble he co-founded along with Scottish Jazz drummer John Rae. After hearing Lucien Johnson+5, I will be paying close attention to his futures offerings.
I became aware of the album’s existence soon after its release, but carelessly lost the Bandcamp access code when I changed computers. I finally regained access, listened and was immediately impressed. This is a mature piece of work with real depth. Given the diversity of experience, the musicians bring to the project that is hardly surprising. Johnson’s musicianship and compositional abilities are well known – pare him with these five musicians and you get something special. Any project involving Crayford, French, O’Connor, Van Dijk and Callwood is going to grab the attention.
There is a certain mood emanating from this album, a palpable sense of the Iberian Peninsula. It is more than just the track names – it cuts far deeper than that. You will not hear overt Jazz Flamenco or Moorish tunes. You will hear reflective ballads, Latin, hard swing and all with fine arrangements (arrangements which evoke the hay-day of the classic Jazz ensemble). The album warmly invites us to engage, and the deeper we engage the greater the reward. The musicians were clearly onboard with the project and each of them gets a chance to shine. There are many wonderful solos, none that are too long and each solo harnessing to the spirit of the collective. Brilliant musicians all, but with no egos on display.
‘Light Shaft’ has a dancy Latin feel with French and Johnson reacting to Crayford’s rhythmic accenting; Crayford later tying it all together with a masterful solo. ‘El Cid’ is another great tune, again with a Latin American flavour, this time Afro Cuban. The clave aside, it evokes the Reconquista hero perfectly. El Cid’s is a tale well worth the re-telling; especially since modern scholars discovered that his antecedents were actually Moors, the very people he fought with such evangelistic fervour – a modern parable. ‘Zapata’ is another delightful tune and with plenty of meat on the bone. It opens with O’Connor beating out a Krupa like rhythm on the toms, the ensemble comes in next, navigating a skillfully arranged head with nimble ease. Van Dijk and Crawford follow with stunning solos, but everyone is superb. This is a great piece of ensemble playing and above all it is fun. Here is Zapata:
My favourite from the album is ‘Asturias’. This track has a thoughtful quality and as many layers as a ripe onion. In spite of being a sextet, the ensemble sounds like a nonet at times – capturing the vibe of 50’s Gil Evans. This lies mainly in the skillful writing, as space and texture are maximised. The rich voicings of the horn line are also of importance, as they somehow manage to convey substance and airiness at the same time. Nick Van Dijk in particular, utilising the opportunity to shine through. Crayford and Callwood also have essential roles – Crayford creating a strumming effect, as Callwood did in the opening bars. Asturias is a region of northwestern Spain and also a Flamenco guitar style (a style often adapted to other instruments). Albeniz wrote in this style in the 19th century, The melody over a strummed pedal chord (the thumb playing the melody line).
When we listen to evocative music, we bring our imagination to the experience. Whether intended by Johnson or not, this album took me back to Spain. I have travelled extensively in Andalucia and rekindling those memories through this music was a pleasure. The artwork is also superb and that is credited to George Johnson. The best place to source this album is on Bandcamp or via the Lucien Johnson website. lucienjohnson5.bandcamp.com
It was a foolish oversight on my part – I hadn’t visited Melbourne in fifteen years. I had seen quite a few Melbourne improvisers perform in Sydney or Auckland but failed to track them back to their native habitat. The last time I was there, Bennett’s Lane was still a thing, but closed for two weeks. That was the week between Christmas and New Year; that arid Jazzless desert in the live music calendar. With family now residing in Melbourne, I decided to atone for my sins and I headed off while the Jazz calendar was over-flowing with tasty offerings.
My first stop en route was Sydney where I met up with Mike Nock. That evening we caught a gig at the Foundry 616 where Nadje Nordhuis and James Shipp were playing. When Nock enters a venue the room rearranges itself. You immediately become aware of people in the dark interior, gathering quietly to pay their respects. It was great to see him looking so well and to hear about his new projects. We miss him in Auckland as he has not played here for over a year. I had previously seen Noordhuis perform when the Darcy James Argue band came through Auckland. She is a member of both the Darcy Argue and the Maria Schnieder ensembles – Shipp is a vibraphonist percussionist and ‘synthesisist’ and well-known in New York. The gig opened the Sydney Women’s Jazz Festival and it was well received. I was also delighted to catch up with Thomas Botting who played bass for that particular gig. A robustly healthy and startlingly fit Botting. After a few days with my daughter and grandchildren, I headed to the domestic airport and Melbourne.
To my delight, I was greeted at Melbourne Airport by large signs reading – ‘Welcome Home from Jail Granddad’. Aussie humour is unique and often intentionally embarrassing. Hiding behind false sensibilities is not an option. If you don’t like good-natured piss-take humour – go elsewhere (Kiwis get this). It is no accident that our lost, lamented and beloved Kiwi comedian John Clarke and the actor/comedian Bruno Lawrence settled there. A larrikin world-view runs through the music as well. There is a unique openness about much of Australian improvised music. It is of course informed by the Jazz roots of America, but strangely unbeholden to it. The musicians are liberal-minded and many are unashamedly strident in their political views – this can feed the music as well. New iterations of the Liberation Music Orchestra are forming in Melbourne and that makes perfect sense.
There were quite a few Melbourne musicians on my list and at the top was Barney McAll. It is no secret that I am fascinated by the depth and scope of McAll’s music and interviewing him is always an interesting experience. Some musicians go to great lengths to hide from personal scrutiny, believing that their music is all you need to know about them. That is an entirely valid viewpoint, but a curse if you’re a biographer or reviewer looking for context. When I review, I try to avoid armchair appraisals; attending live music whenever possible; eager to know something of the musician, the thought processes, philosophical leanings; hoping to look behind the mask. Possessing a stubborn belief that an artist and the music are two sides of an alchemic essence.
McAll texted me his address and I ventured out into the heat, trying to make sense of the train system. I got off somewhere in the outer suburbs; prophetically, somewhere near Mooroolbark. There was a bing and I looked at my phone. The text read, ‘Round the back your grace – ignore the dog’. McAll greeted me warmly and we went inside for a Vegemite crumpet. As he was wearing military-style camouflage, I didn’t dare tell him that Kiwis only eat Marmite (look up the great Marmageddon debate which erupted after the Christchurch earthquake). It is always a pleasure talking to McAll, but unforeseen things occur when your guard is down. He played me some new compositions, showed me a video he was working on and we discussed the coming year’s projects. Then unexpectedly, I found myself the subject. Being interviewed about my poetry and the duty of creative artists to get their work out there. As we talked, and as if it were the most natural thing in the world, he handed me a grinning ventriloquist’s dummy and sat another in the next chair. The discussion continued, was filmed in real time; two child-sized puppets and me; and the McAll directing it Fellini fashion. For more about McAll’s recent ‘Hearing The Blood’ album or his catalogue, go to iTunes, Spotify or www.extracelestialarts.bandcamp.com – read my recent blog post, December 4, 2017.
While I was there, McAll phoned Julien Wilson to find out his gig schedule for me. There was a gig of his on in Northcote and so I dashed back to the Jazz Corner hotel before heading out into the warm Melbourne night. It was an auspicious night to be out and about in Melbourne as the divisive and ill-considered same-sex marriage plebiscite had delivered a resounding yes vote. Whole inner suburbs were closed as revellers partied. Adding to the celebratory mood, a significant World Cup qualifying match was underway (which the Aussies subsequently won to the chagrin of Kiwis who lost their qualifying match). All of the above spells happy chaos in an art and sports-mad city. And I had music happening – lots of it. A scarfed man sitting opposite me on the tram was laughing and crying in turns. He was so drunk that his eyes revolved in opposite directions. Someone asked him if he was anticipating a win and he nodded chuckling, then just as quickly he cried inconsolably – ‘Cats are bastards’ he mumbled – ‘I just fell over one and hurt my arm’.
Jules Wilson is a tall friendly man and he plays like he lives with his heart on his sleeve. I have followed his Facebook posts and listened to his music for years; no-one is ever left wondering what his worldview is. Like many musicians, he loathes injustice or inequality and you can hear this manifest in his sound. Not in an angry way but in an earnest cajoling way, demanding that humanity ups it’s game. Creating original improvised music taps into a deep well of experience and with mature players, their character oozes through the notes. A lot of modern saxophonists have a raspiness to their tone and often produce a vibrato-less sound. Wilson has a rich full-bodied sound and it touches on an era when the tenor giants ruled the world. Appropriately there is often some breathy vibrato at the end of a phrase. This is not to say that he is an old-fashioned player because he isn’t. It is rather that the history is in that tone – ancient to modern.
There is another factor which could influence his tenor sound – he doubles on clarinet. The clarinet is the first horn he mastered. While many saxophonists treat that horn like a difficult inlaw, Wilson perseveres, regarding it with a begrudging affection. I was stunned by the beauty of his clarinet playing and how modern the instrument sounded in his hands (he played a fast-paced bop classic, not a ballad). I asked him in the break how he felt about the horn – “it’s a punishing unforgiving instrument, but I can’t bring myself to abandon it” he told me.
Wilson came sharply onto my radar with McAll’s extraordinary Mooroolbark album but he has long been one of Australia’s most successful Jazz Musicians. Winning the National Jazz Award in 1994, The Music Council of Australia Freedman Fellowship in 2006, The 2008 Bell Award – Artist of the Year, a Bell Award trifecta in 2014 and the APRA Art Music Award for Excellence in 2016. I have recently been listening to his back catalogue which is available on Band Camp (some CD albums are also still available). His output is diverse and all of it interesting – an edgy album with Jim Black, Mark Hellas and Steve Magnussen – several recordings with his popular trio (Stephen Grant on accordion and Stephen Magnusson on guitar) – an extraordinary couple of albums featuring Barney McAll on piano, Jonathan Zwartz bass and Allan Browne on drums. There are around twenty albums in all. All are worth a listen but his ‘This is Always’ album is an absolute gem (the live ‘This Narrow Isthmus’ which followed, likewise). The former harks back to a specific era in the best possible way – not as a tribute album, but as a rekindling of a bright flame.
The story behind the album is instructive as it takes us to the heart of an in-the-moment creative process. The musicians wanted to capture the vibe and style of the famous Prestige Meeting Sessions. McAll and Wilson swapped a few charts but had no detailed discussions – no rehearsals were scheduled. On the day of recording, the four turned up at the studio with a ‘first-take’ approach. No baffles and no headphones were used. This allowed for a sense of immediacy and real-time heightened interaction. McAll reimagining the piano styles of the era in passing – some Evans like intros and even using the locked hand’s style briefly. Wilson sending forth a flurry of swoon-worthy fat warm tones. None of this sounded contrived – it sounded like the present and past fused into a cohesive whole. The album is an important milestone in Australian music and no antipodean Jazz lover should be without a copy. It should not be regarded as a trip down memory lane, but as a testament to the eternal now. The unsuspecting will believe it to be a loved classic album of the Prestige-era and scratch their heads to place it.
When Bennetts Lane passed into history, the Melbourne club scene rose to the challenge. The Bennetts management (or some of them but minus the name – it’s a complicated story) opened a new club in the industrial heartland of Brunswick. The JazzLab is a stunning venue. Situated in a basement, it has all that old-school Jazz Club vibe but not at the expense of good taste. It is comfortable but not over-decorated (I have seen some shockers in other countries, trying so hard to be cool that they end up as museums to kitsch). More importantly, the sight lines are good and the acoustics great. I attended the JazzLab with expat Auckland musician Matt Steele and my son Jeremy and the gig was a treat. It was the album release of ‘Finding The Balance’ by the Paul Williamson Quintet. This was a solid unit with an inexhaustible array of talented firepower and good tunes. All were new to me except Jamie Oehlers, who I see perform regularly.
The unit had swags of punch and plenty of textural contrasts. It was big enough to sound like a larger ensemble at times, but the writing allowed individuals to shine. Oehlers was on fire, hitting sweet spot after sweet spot during solos – carving his path through the air like a titan. Closer to earth, but equally attention-grabbing was the leader Williamson – his sound control impressive – his trumpet speaking a very human dialect. I had not encountered Andrea Keller before, but her tasteful minimalist approach also caught my attention – it contrasted nicely with the fulsome horns. The remaining musicians a six-string electric bass player Christopher Hale and a very tasty drummer James Mclean. It was a great launch in an interesting venue – what could be better.
Keller, in particular, intrigued me, so I looked through the gig guide to see if she was playing elsewhere. My luck was in as she was leading an interesting trio at the Uptown Jazz Cafe in Fitzroy. The next night, was a warm one, and I walked to Fitzroy, pausing to eat street food on the way. Finally, I stumbled up the stairs to a very warm Uptown Jazz Cafe. The venue was not air-conditioned and ill-lit, but the gloom and the heat added to the ambiance. As the band set up, a shaft of dim orange light beamed on them, illuminating the trio as ghostly orange specters – enlarging and distorting their forms as it projected them onto a screen. The music bordered on avant-garde and the setting was therefore perfect.
The trio of piano, violin, and electric bass didn’t disappoint. Keller’s serialist credentials were very much on-show as she spun out a filigree of wonderfully intricate patterns. At first, appearing to be repeating motifs, but a more careful listening revealing otherwise. Finely detailed changes to the underlying structure guided the ear into a finely wrought lace work of notes. In this, I detected the influence of Riley or other adventurous souls. The violin and bass meeting the challenge, adding colour, texture, and melodic contrast (I didn’t catch their names). I had recently been listening to Terry Riley’s ‘Lazy Afternoon Among the Crocodiles’, so this gig was very pleasing to my ear.
I saw other gigs during the week, but the standouts were those mentioned. Melbourne is a city of the arts and a very European styled city. It is therefore not surprising that Jazz flourishes there. I have traveled through many of the worlds great cities in the past year, but this city is as Jazz rich as the best.
Alargo has been around for several years now and Primacy is their second album. The first Alargo album, Central Plateau, was great, but Primacy has that real wow factor. It is a testament to the extraordinary imagination and musicianship of Alan Brown and Kingsley Melhuish. They have created a world just beyond our grasp, but palpable for all that. The idea that two musicians can create such a cornucopia of sound is astonishing. It is divine trickery; it is music that lives everywhere but nowhere; it is quite wonderful.
This fulfils every requirement of a good ambient album: it references many genres and many moods but never overemphasis one aspect over another. It floats and shifts like moments in a dream and above all, it invokes an etherial sensory imagery. The kaleidoscope of patterns may elude the conscious mind but the subconscious mind will form its own associations. This is the philosophy behind ambient music. Perhaps its most valuable attribute is its evanescence, that elusive quality where images fade shortly after they are fixed upon. This is the stuff of quantum physics and of good improvising musicians. This is the essence of Primacy.
The first track opens with a drone which pulses gently. As the modulation shifts the rhythms shift with it – subtly at first, and then as more voices are added you find yourself lost in the journey. This is an Alice like a dreamscape, but there are no bad-tempered queens down this rabbit hole. The sensation of floating is constantly enhanced, as snippets of music come and go; disembodied voices hinting at places as far-flung as the Himalayas, an old European cathedral or the South Pacific; mesmerised we follow. This piece and those after taking you into deep space (or an interior somewhere very much like it). Anyone who enjoyed Kubrick’s ‘2001 A Space Odyssey’ will love this. The sound clip I have posted is the first track titled ‘Vocale’.
If you are a fan of ambient improvised music you should rush to grab a copy of Primacy. If you are unsure, then listen to the sample clip, close your eyes and let your imagination guide you. This album is as good as the best of the Nordic Ambient Albums and I’m sure that Manfred Eicher could not have improved on the mixing and mastering. Two Nordic Jazz Musicians visited New Zealand recently and we spoke about artists like Eivind Aarset and Jan Bang. This form of live improvised music is very popular in Scandinavian countries and Jazz audiences are on board with it. I hope that Primacy reaches the European continent. I am certain that it would do very well there.
Kingsley Melhuish features on: vocals, trumpet, Ocarina, Koauau, Tuba, Conch Shells, Percussion, Loops, iOS effects. Alan Brown is on: Keyboards, Synthesizers, Loops, iOS synths/effects. The album is available from Primacy-Alargo-Bandcamp.
The Roberto Magris albums came to my attention some years ago as I have an interest in Italian and Mediterranean Jazz forms. While his albums fall into the straight-ahead Jazz category, a careful listening reveals his strong Mediterranean and Latin influences. His latest album ‘The Roberto Magris Sextet live in Miami’ is his most recent release and it has a distinctly international feel. This is partly down to the classy lineup but more to its edgy Latin-tinged hardbop vibe. Magris is a pianist in the classic mould – wearing his influences on his sleeve and unashamedly so. In interviews and in previous albums he has cited pianists like Horace Silver, Elmo Hope, Duke Jordan and Sonny Clark. He has an abiding fondness for the bop and hardbop swingers but stylistically he incorporates much of his own journey as an Italian pianist. He is extremely well recorded and has been a sideman for luminaries like Kai Winding, Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis and Sal Nistico. Of interest to me is his association with the west coast alto saxophonist Herb Geller. Magris is flawless in his articulation of ideas and his albums and his compositions don’t disappoint.
Given the above, it is unsurprising that Magris chose Brian Lynch in a leading role. The American born but outward looking Lynch is a significant presence in the Jazz world and particularly so on Latin projects. He has recorded extensively, has travelled everywhere and is a Grammy-winning artist. His solo’s here are impeccable, and like Magris, he favours a hardbop approach. This gives him an air of real authority.
On tenor saxophone is Jonathan Gomez, on bass (the renowned) Chuck Bergeron, on drums John Yarling and on percussion is Murph Aucamp. Magris is the musical director of a Kansas City based label ‘JMood Records‘ and this album and others can be sourced from there. I have put up a short clip ‘Blues for my sleeping Baby’, which reminds of the earlier East European pianist, Krzysztof Komeda. Magris is from Trieste, a once important free port on the Adriatic; a haven for great poets like Rilke and Joyce and now nestled quietly on the edge of faded empires. I visited there once and loved the place – I will certainly go again and when I do I will endeavour to track down a Magris gig.
This post and all on this site are by John Fenton, a photographer, videographer and professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association.
It is rare to have a Viking encounter in New Zealand as our Geographical isolation makes it difficult. A foolish few, claim, that Eric the Red visited here after he sailed to America. That is as fanciful as Trump’s claim to possess genius IQ. I have had four significant Viking encounters in my life. The first was when I visited Yorvik in York. The second occurred in a crowded hall when a booming female voice hushed everyone by proclaiming – ‘Lookout a Viking has entered the room’ and pointed directly at me. Wives were gathered close as all eyes turned nervously in my direction (the embarrassment subsided after extensive counselling). The third occasion was when my DNA revealed that I was 21% Viking (the woman was right). A few nights ago, I had another Viking encounter and this one was perfect. A descendant of Eric’s finally made it, with a baritone battle horn and batterie in tow.
It was 10 degrees below when John Pal Inderberg left Norway and 40 degrees above when he and Hakon Johansen landed in Sydney. By the time they visited Auckland, there was only a 38-degree temperature differential. This gig, was as unexpected as my previous Viking encounters – coming out of nowhere. Jeff Henderson had pulled it together at short notice and those who attended will be eternally grateful that he did. Henderson and Inderberg go back some way. Baritone saxophone gigs are extremely rare; baritone chordless trio gigs like hens’ teeth. Inderberg opened with a long intro; a beautiful Norwegian folk-influenced melody – the deep resonant notes bubbling up from the depths – pleasurable from the first instance. His rich tone, northern European, his ideas as he improvised, an endless stream of Nordic sagas. I have only heard one baritone player who sounds like that – John Surman (who also lives in Norway).
The setlist was a mix of originals and standards – the standards sounding wonderfully original, as breathy stories were unpicked. Woven into the tunes, were snatches of multiphonics – between the tunes, a cornucopia of humour. This was Nordic humour and extremely funny. At one point, he told us that a particular tune was difficult and required a lot of rehearsal. “This tune has a lot of de-crescendos and Vikings are very crescendo orientated. Loud shouting is embedded in our DNA after all of that pillaging”. He later explained that the band were enjoying their new uniform (although no one was dressed the same). “Not one of us is wearing underpants on stage,” he added. “In Norway at 10 below, our underpants stretch from here to here,” indicating his chest and ankles. In this heat, they are not welcome.
Inderberg has an impressive resume. He has toured and recorded with Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Chet Baker, Gil Evans and Bob Brookmeyer. He teaches at Trondheim, is a multi-award-winning musician and a key member of many ensembles and Jazz orchestras. He has definite Tristano leanings and this shows in his approach to improvisation. We discussed Warne Marsh’s sad final performance – dying as he played ‘Out of Nowhere’. We call it ‘Out of Norway’ he told me.
We were extremely lucky to have both Inderberg and the trio drummer Hakon Mjaset Johansen in New Zealand. Johansen was also extraordinary – whether as a colourist or laying down a steady pulse, he showed himself to be the perfect partner (the percussively finicky Lenny would have approved – no kick drum bombs). On bass was the Auckland musician Eamon Edmundson-Wells. Was the Nordic-sounding name an X-factor? It may have been as he played as if he had been with the trio for a long time. It is always gratifying when our local musicians kill it alongside the greats.
Inderberg has over 30 albums to his credit. He will likely return before too long. Watch out for that, as his gigs are not to be missed. The Trio recorded an album in 2016 titled ‘Linjedalsleiken’ and it is superb. I have embedded two gig clips, just case people need further convincing and a sound clip from the album.
The above album is recorded for Ponca Jazz Records and is available from that site, or from iTunes. Also available, are a number of recordings of Inderberg with Lee Konitz – ‘Steps towards a Dream’ is astonishingly beautiful. Well worth the download if you have a fondness for the post-Tristano movement as I do.
There are a finite number of notes in a scale or colours in the visual spectrum, but an infinite number of possibilities arise. Embracing the latter, multi-instrumentalist, multimedia sculptor and composer Finn Scholes constantly scans the landscape for new material. When he locates something shiny, he appropriates it as a magpie might, storing it in memory until he can bend it to a new purpose. A musician with few boundaries; a disruptor of complacency, his open ears and pioneering disposition equipping him well for his musical explorations. The genius of this music is that the listener will find any number of references, and each according to that persons taste. Any attempt to narrow the music down to a specific range of source materials, or to the prime influences, will, therefore, fall short; there is no correct answer.
There is an innate human urge to catalogue, look for pattern recognition and to compare and as I am a compulsive assembler of odd lists, I will offer up mine. This was: Bowie, Spaghetti Western movies, Surf guitar, Pink Floyd, a Mexican Soap opera, William Burrows, Lounge music, 70’s Jazz Space Funk, Bill Frisell and above all John Zorn (‘The Big Gundown’, ‘The Dreamers’). It was also Hokusai, psychedelic poster art and Crum The Bum comics. In my ears, it had Jazz sensibilities and in my eyes, it was the psychedelic Kings Cross of my youth.
The Wine Cellar is the perfect venue for such a launch. Down Karangahape Road you go, past the revellers and the sirens, past Shanghai Lils with its delightfully dissipated vibe, along to St Kevin’s Arcade, down the wide staircase and through the narrow door (surprisingly not the entrance to a broom closet). Into the bar, through the bar and under the arcade itself. A true home of the Avant-garde and of underground music. It is a vibing place where the sound of music-past leaks out of the air conditioning unit months later. It is so alternative, that the word ‘genre’ gets you chucked out by a hipster bearded bouncer. On this night it was jam-packed with sweating bodies and raised swaying arms; the temperature, so hot that you could fire porcelain. There was no room to swing a cat, but if you did, you would fell several hipsters. It was dark as a nun’s habit at the back while the front pulsed in dancing light. Multicoloured cartoons appeared and vanished just as quickly, playing on the instruments and the faces of the band. And meanwhile, the excitement grew – it had no means of escape.
Up front, washed over with film and comic strip characters, the Carnivorous Plant Society; an organic entity with technicolour tendrils; the core band plus a steady procession of guest artists waiting for their cues. Finn Scholes the leader, on a bank of analogue keyboards, an ancient vibraphone, a trumpet and a tuba. At the rear, his brother Tam on guitar, Tam’s partner Siobhanne Thompson on fiddle and vocals. To complete the family involvement, Jeff Scholes, the father of Finn and Tam, read improbable parables, parables which may or may not have had a deeper meaning. The rest of the core line up were Cass Basil (bass and vocals) and Alister Deverick on drums. On vocals during the live performance were Hayden Eastmond, Ed Casterlow and Hollie Fullbrook. Additional instrumentalists were Tim Stewart (trumpet), Nick Atkinson (saxophone) and Lisa Crawley (recorder). .
The Carnivorous Plant Society has been around for a while. I first reviewed them at a CJC gig in 2015 and liked the way they appropriated media; above all, I liked their vision. Now, two years later, after festival appearances and many gigs, they stand as a fully formed and highly compelling unit; living at the heart of Auckland’s alternative music scene, where the cross-over between bands and styles enriches everyone. Scholes plays with bands like Hopetown Brown, Audrey’s Dance, Swamp Thing, Avalanche City and the Zestnicks. He is also an occasional presence in Jazz studies student performance ensembles and in experimental or avant-garde music lineups. Scholes lives where music is evolving and where genres bleed into each other. A Jazz musician as the ghost in a bigger machine. His Jazz background will remain our secret.
The album will officially be released around March 2018. Additionally performing on the album are Lawrence Arabia, Don McGlashan, Hollie Fullbrook, Hayden Eastmond, Tiny Ruins. The band’s website is www.carnivorousplantsociety.com
My son and his girlfriend were home for Christmas, so I took them to the gig. Both live in central San Francisco and they are therefore familiar with the alternative music and experimental media scene in the Bay Area. The gig resonated strongly with them and they felt right at home. Buy the album, support alternative music and get along to the release gig if you can.
The Carnivorous Plant Society performed at The Wine Cellar, 183 Karangahape Road, St Kevin’s Arcade, Central Auckland on 22 December 2017.
Just before the Aria winning Mooroolbark album was released I travelled to Australia and interviewed Barney McAll. He had not long returned from New York to take up his year-long Glanville Hicks Residency and at some point during the morning, he played me a few pieces he was working on. Some of that material has ended up on ‘Hearing the blood’. Listening to McAll developing a tune is not something that you forget. His preternatural fluency leaves images hanging in the air, where they linger long afterwards. As he worked through ideas, each one appeared as if fully formed and I wondered; how can these phrases possibly be improved on? The finished album answers that question. The act of creation is never fixed in time. A good composition opens up possibilities and lives on in the minds of those who receive it. The virtuous triangle of creator, music and listener.
Everything McAll does is eagerly anticipated and this album is no exception. The palette is broader than anything he has done before and unlike its predecessors, it is mostly an Australian affair. Albums like this are often referred to as a journey and while that can be an accurate descriptor, the term is hopelessly clichéd. Hearing the blood is more than that, it is a vast and interesting landscape. A place evoking fleeting memories and above all hope; the raw energy of life and landscape distilled. It is also a commentary on the human condition, honest but never judgemental, stories in chiaroscuro. At times the flow of tunes is interrupted by something surprisingly different, but the atypically juxtaposed tracks never detract from the overall impact. Hearing the Blood is also littered with coded messages. The landscape it portrays while ancient to modern is somehow eternally present. Where musical genres or subgenres are referenced, they are just as casually brushed aside; the exploration of ideas being more important than barriers. The listeners are invited to step outside of their comfort zone and some will baulk at that. Jazz listeners are all too inclined to swaddle themselves in the familiar and in doing so they can lose connection with the now. In a year when dialogue has been debased beyond recognition by a petulant child President, we need other forms of communication. Hearing The Blood is a refreshing place to start in our re-evaluation of the world. For those who have the ears to hear they will find a subtle humour and a joy pervading every corner; as with Mooroolbark, the trickster lurks at every turn.
It is hard to single out just one track for posting so I will embed two sound clips. The first clip is ‘Nock Code’ (a tribute to the admired Jazz pianist Mike Nock). The tune begins with the opening bars Nock’s composition ‘The Sybiline Fragrance’. Many will recognise the tune as it featured on Nock’s ‘Hear & Know’ album (and other earlier albums). In McAll’s hands, the homage is perfection. He does what he did in ‘The Mother of Dreams and Secrets’ and in his trio rendering of ‘Why did I Choose You’. He slows everything down and from out of the altered space, emerges an essence that drips through the consciousness like honey. As the tune unfolds he makes other references including his earlier recorded self. When the body of the tune is given to Morgan on guitar it soars wonderfully. The second sound clip is ‘Sorrow Horse’; a tune which showcases his skilful arranging. There is an ABC film Clip of ‘Dog Face Now’ which is hard to find. That track is an altogether wilder ride; at times more of a conduction, complete with flashcards, worth hunting for.
From the earlier Mooroolbark album are bassist Jonathan Zwartz and Hamish Stuart on drums. Also on this album are Mike Rivett on tenor saxophone, Carl Morgan guitar, Adrian Sherriff trombone and Scott MCConnache alto saxophone – Daniel Merriweather vocals on ‘Love is the Blood’, ‘That Which Provides’, Jade Talbot vocals on ‘Sorrow Horse’ with McAll – on the outro of ‘Love is the Blood’ is Ben Vanderwal on drums, Jenn Gavito is on Flute in ‘Nock Code’ and on ‘Echoless Shore’ are: Gian Slater, Ben Monder, Maeve Gilchrist and the Invenio Singers: Miriam Crelin, Louisa Rankin, Allra Wilson and Edward Farlie. On Piano, Keyboards, vocals and Chucky – Barney McAll (most of the compositions and arrangements are his).
McAll is a significant creative force on the planet. When his name comes up among musicians he is spoken of in reverential tones. The album liner notes by Kurt Rosenwinkel reinforce this point nicely. Another New York musician who had worked with him put it this way. “With Barney McAll you get creativity and musicianship of the highest order, but there is something profound behind that. He somehow rises above the workaday aspects of the industry, all of the scuffling, and he lives his life as a creative artist should. He and the people around him value the creative spirit beyond all else and that is exceedingly rare”.
To buy the album or to hear a few streamed clips, go to McAll’s Exracelestialarts Bandcamp site. It is also available on iTunes and Spotify. I urge everyone to sign up for Bandcamp and order CD’s or downloads directly. On that platform, the artists have better control of the revenue stream. I saw him again a few weeks ago and he was preparing for an album release at Birds Basement on the 8th December. You really should get yourselves there Melbourne people. Magic is in short supply this year.
Rob Luft is one of those rare musicians who has seldom put a career foot wrong, first coming to attention at the age of fifteen in the (UK) National Youth Jazz Orchestra. From then on he has regularly come to notice and although still in his early twenties he is now a musical force to be reckoned with. Anyone who has heard him play will know that the growing number of accolades are well deserved. As each year passes he garners fresh awards, last year, second place in the Montreux Jazz guitar competition and recently receiving the coveted Kenny Wheeler Award.
A little over a month ago, Luft released ‘Riser’ and it is hard to believe that this is a debut album. While incorporating a variety of Jazz guitar styles it is definitely forward-looking. Like many post-millennial improvisers, Luft reaches across styles and genres with ease. Mike Moreno and John McLaughlin are obvious reference points, but the album moves beyond such comparisons. His innate skills and good taste have enabled him to craft beautiful charts and out of this comes a unique sound. The first number of the album,’Night Songs’, is a cornucopia of wonders, a lesson in virtuosity, a seamless but ever-shifting voice of the London streets. The organ adding warmth, the rest of the band texture and heart, and Luft soaring above like a patrolling night-hawk. ‘Slow Potion’ has a dreamy surf guitar vibe, other tracks bubble with street life (Jamaican and African influences in evidence), while ‘Riser’ and ‘Different colours of silence’ invoke the more ambient hued Nordic Jazz. While the influences are varied the album has a strong cohesive feel, nothing is out-of-place here. Luft’s project has also benefited from his choice of band mates and from deft hands in the studio and the mastering. When he played in New Zealand last year, he wowed the audiences. Rumour has it that he will return next year. For updates keep an eye on JazzLocal32.com CJC Creative Jazz Club or Wellington Jazz Cooperative.
The artists: Rob Luft (guitars, compositions), Joe Wright (tenor saxophone), Joe Web (Hammond organ, piano, harmonium), Tom McCredie (bass), Corrie Dick (drums).
Behind the doors of the beautiful Kauri villa, down the long corridor and the wide descending staircase, past the crush of people eagerly awaiting a significant and unique musical event, we edged forward; shuffled by the crowd, finding ourselves in a surprisingly large room; large enough to hold seventy people, a gorgeous warmly lit room with mirrored walls – an old dance studio brought back to life. As we crossed the room Jay Rodriguez greeted us, behind him, Jonathan Crayford shuffled through sheet music; both framed by an elegant grand piano and an array of horns on stands. I had interviewed Rodriguez earlier and had attended his sell out gig at the CJC Creative Jazz Club. There was never any doubt that this night, like the one a few nights earlier would deliver something special.If ever two musicians were destined to play duo format, it is these two. It is a challenging format as the safety nets are gone; it is deep level communication and frighteningly intimate. It requires deep listening and empathy as much as storytelling; it requires conversational dexterity. This was a night never to be forgotten, a night when great music became sublime. Rodriguez and Crayford have been friends for a long time, meeting up in New York in the late 90’s and forming an instant connection; Rodriguez’ ‘Groove Collective’ and other projects the meeting ground. They refer to each other as musical brothers and their communication during the last three days underscored that. The first time I saw them together was around eight years ago. The gig stuck in my mind for many reasons, but especially because of one tune; Bob Dylan’s ‘I pity the poor immigrant’. It spoke directly to me as it oozed with humanity. When I interviewed Rodriguez I teased out this a theme; pointing to the set lists, the tunes which cut to the heart of the human condition, tunes communicated with deep empathy. For example, their rendition of Keith Jarrett’s ‘The rich (and the poor)’, Coltrane’s ‘Alabama’. The former, a blues, reminding us that the blues is more than just a musical form. In their hands, it informs us about inequality, discrimination, hurt and hope. The human condition again. The latter, ‘Alabama’, moved me to tears. Jazz lovers know this story, but it has seldom been told so well. The piece is based on the cadences of a Martin Luther King speech, a speech given immediately after four little girls were killed as they worshipped, murdered by an unrepentant KKK. The musicians dived straight into the emotion of this awful tale; the incomprehension and anger, then a plea for humanity, an exhortation to do better, the hope; it was all in there.
In answer to the question about humanism, Rodriguez pointed out the realities of American life. “We are living through hard times back home and the blues is about reality. Expressing life from the heart is something that can’t be taught in Jazz school. Jazz school gives you the basics, but your voice is something else, you have to search; some never find it”. He told me that he had been lucky enough to find his own musical voice early on and he was comfortable with it. He can play in many styles with ease and the key to this is the man himself. He is intelligent, open-minded and well-informed, but it’s his friendliness and warmth that impresses most. The man and his music are one.He is a multi-reeds and winds player and his command of each instrument is strong. I asked him if he favoured one horn over another or had been tempted to double less? This was prompted by a similar discussion with Bennie Maupin. Maupin’s answer had cut to the point, “It’s mostly about dedication, hard work and five times the amount of practice”. Rodriguez answer was a little different. “Man, I love these instruments, every single one of them, and I couldn’t abandon any of them”. It is impressive to hear an artist sounding so strong and so individualistic on so many instruments; bass clarinet, tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, flute (he also doubles on alto and baritone saxophone). His bass clarinet is rich and woody with a tone production like John Surman – his tenor can range from low down raspy bluesiness to the light vibrato-less sound of ‘Pres’; and all of this in a clear authentic voice.
Crayford is an extraordinary musician, but last week he pulled out something extra. This was about personal chemistry (or perhaps alchemy). It was largely down to him that the project was conceived and he certainly made the most of it. He is the New Zealand ‘Tui’ Jazz artist of the year, a respected international troubadour, a pioneer reaching beyond the stars. The CJC quartet gig was a satisfying and joyous occasion but there was even better to come. When I interviewed Rodriguez a few days later he and Crayford invited me to a private event; the mysterious duo gig: so here I was in this amazing space, the mirrored dance studio, an oasis hidden in deep suburbia. As soon as they began playing the conversation deepened, each revealing new subtleties and wearing their hearts on the sleeves; … humanity. As far as I know, none of it was recorded and while that is sad, perhaps it is only right. Sometimes magic should be left well alone – left untrammelled, lest it changes like Schroedinger’s cat. During the dance studio gig, their song choices delighted and astonished. For example, Monk’s ‘Epistrophy’, A Puccini aria, Michel Legrand’s ‘You must believe in spring’, McCartney’s ‘Long and winding road’; all in all an improbable and extraordinary journey. The CJC set list included Yusef Lateef’s stunningly beautiful ‘Morning’, Victor Young’s ‘Golden Earrings’ Keith Jarrett’s ‘Rich (and the poor man)’ – from the Dewey Redman/Jarrett/Haden Impulse era, John Coltrane’s ‘Alabama’ and a lovely original by Rodriguez (I think it was titled ‘Your Sound’). Mostyn Cole and Ron Samsom were amazing as well. They are both fine musicians and a good choice for this line-up.
When you look at the Jay Rodriguez discography or bio, it is no wonder he is so comfortable in such a variety of musical spaces. He started on saxophone as a child and soon came under the tutelage of the greats. His mentors along the way included Paquito D’ Rivera, Phil Woods, Sir Roland Hannah, Barry Harris, Kenny Werner, George Coleman, Joe Henderson, John Gilmore, Gil Goldstein and so it goes on. It reads like the history of Jazz. I can think of few players who have worked with both Doc Cheatham and John Zorn (yes he evidently played Cobra and has performed at the Knitting Factory). He is Grammy nominated and has guested on the Jimmy Fallon show.
Music is a universal language, but its primal source is often overlooked. Scientists tell us that it is, the original and most profound form of communication; it is the lingua franca of our polyglot planet. All too often we focus on the scaffolding or the dialect; all too often we marvel at technical skills or frown at the lack thereof. The older I grow, the more I desire something different; the sound of the human spirit; communication straight from the heart. While Jay Rodriguez and Jonathan Crayford possess a grab bag of wizardry, they also transform notes into an unforgettable life experience. Long may this collaboration continue.
Rodriguez/Crayford Quartet: Jay Rodriguez (tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, Flute), Jonathan Crayford (Rhodes, electronics), Mostyn Cole (upright bass), Ron Samson (drums). 30th August 2017, CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, Auckland.
Rodriguez/Crayford Duo: Jay Rodriguez (tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, flute) – Jonathan Crayford (piano). 1st September 2017, Grey Lynn.
Since ‘Songbook’ was released three months ago the accolades have come pouring in and it’s no wonder. This is a superb album and destined to remain forever embedded in the Jazz songbook lexicon. The worldwide release was timed to coincide with Broadbent’s seventieth birthday; opening to an enthusiastic audience at Ronnie Scotts; then touring the major clubs and festivals throughout Europe and New York. Much about ‘Songbook’ is classic Broadbent; warm, lyrical, and intimate; not to take anything away from the co-credited Georgia Mancio, a highly acclaimed UK-based vocalist. This pairing of voice and harmony, lyrics and melody could hardly be improved upon: it is therefore unsurprising that comparisons are made with the classic songbook era. Here, Broadbent has found the ideal foil for his engaging brand of lyrical Jazz, and as a first, every one of his tunes has accompanying lyrics crafted by Mancio. In Songbook, Broadbent’s Quartet West classic, ‘The Long Goodbye’ has become ‘The Last Goodbye’; a moving reference to the passing of Mancio’s father. Tunes like that have long begged such lyrics and it’s nice to see them penned so beautifully. Back in New Zealand, we watch Broadbent’s ever unfolding story with wonder. We are proud of him here in his hometown, understanding that his many projects keep him busy; so busy that so we seldom see him these days. As long as we have his albums it is enough, they all have a generous portion of New Zealand buried deep within them. Last month he recorded a new album in the Abbey Road studios, an album with former Woody Herman band mate, drummer Peter Erskine and the amazing bassist Harvie S – plus the London Metropolitan Orchestra. These arrangements could only be Broadbent’s – lush and achingly beautiful. Could there be more Grammy’s on the way?
This album had me from the first listen. The vibe is very much in the vein of Robert Glasper’s 2012 album ‘Black Radio‘; but while the comparison is inescapable, this tells a very Pacific story; one based on our own urban grooves. Anyone who has ever walked the black-sand beaches of Auckland’s west coast or chilled out with friends on a long summer evening will feel that this album is just for them. While Jazz rich it is beyond category; a Neo-soul, Jazz Funk, Hip hop album with a pinch of Disco groove thrown in. If you browse the credits you will immediately be grabbed by the line up; many are important figures from the New Zealand or European Jazz/Soul scene, but having such an international cornucopia of talent has in no way spoilt the broth. The album works all the better for it. It is beautifully mixed, the tracks flow together like a dream and the quality of the production is immaculate.
The project was the brainchild of Jazz keyboardist Michal Martyniuk, with the assistance of percussionist, multi-instrumentalist and producer, Nick Williams. If there was ever an album that oozes urban cool from start to finish, this is it. Along with the talented Martyniuk and Williams are instrumentalists Nathan Haines, Miguel Fuentes, Mike Patto, Karika Turua, Adam Cabacinski, Andy Smith, Jacub Skowbonski and others; on vocals Sharlene Hector, Keven Mark Trail, Matt Nanai and Angie Saunders. It took a while from conception to finish but the wait was well worth it. Martyniuk is at present in his native Poland and the album was well received there – last month it was featured as album of the week on a Polish radio station. This is an album that really deserves to do well. ‘After ‘Ours Odyssey’ is out on Studiozone and can be found in leading record stores, @afteroursnz – also at Bandcamp, Apple Music or iTunes
When Glasper was asked why he blended Soul Funk and Jazz he replied: “It was a slap on the arse of Jazz”. This album is more like a long kiss on a sultry summer evening
A review copy of the album ‘Studies in Tubular’ arrived in my letterbox a few days ago and it is vintage Neil Watson. It was recorded in 2011 and left to mature like a fine wine; it was worth the wait. I haven’t asked Watson why he titled the album ‘Studies In Tubular’, but the title feels appropriate. My first thought was that it might reference Mike Oldfield’s trippy minimalist classic ‘Tubular Bells’, and then I recalled that the word ‘tubular’ was once surfer slang for ‘exceptionally good’. Whatever the reason, this is exceptionally good music. The surf reference is not such a great stretch either when you listen carefully. This is deliciously eclectic music and although it touches on many sources, it is an original and highly satisfying offering. Referencing many things but never beholden to any of them.
Watson’s influences are seldom mainstream, but in spite of his touchstones like Sonny Sharrock, Bill Frisell and Marc Ribot, he always brings fresh ideas to the music. His trademark humour is always present in abundance and the ability to avoid taking himself too seriously is a gift that more musicians could adopt to advantage. This is an album made for a long drive, a lazy day at the beach or a sultry summer evening. Track two ‘Wes da Money’ opens with a nod to Wes Montgomery, then deftly takes us into very different territory, this without losing the essence of the opening bars. Guitar surf music (the Atlantics), Jimi Hendrix (Band of Gypsies), early Rock, & Roll. It’s all in there – wonderfully overlaid, motif upon motif.
The beautiful track ‘Kerala’ starts as folksy Americana, evoking a vibe reminiscent of Bill Frisell or Greg Leiz. On ‘Five Bye Blues’ he adds organist Grant Winterburn and what a treat that is. While drummer Ron Samsom lays down a groove beat and bass player Olivier Holland locates the heart, Winterburn comps tastefully behind a lovely guitar line; this reminiscent of the groove merchants like Pat Martino. There is Booker T, Boogie, Zorn and more in this package. This is a music of heart and soul and it brought a smile to my face. The weather has been a problem this month but with this album you can dispell that memory and lock in an endless summer vibe. Purchase a copy from www.neilwatson.co.nz or alternatively come to the launch at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) which has relocated to the Thirsty Dog, Karangahape Road, 8pm, 15th Feb 20017
Watson was accompanied on all tracks by Holland and Samsom – Winterburn added his grooves to 2,3,& 5 – additional guests Lewis McCallum and Roger Manins played on tracks 6 & 7 respectively. With a lineup like this, Watson was in good company, but so were they.
Studies in Tubular: Neil Watson (electric, acoustic & synth guitars, compositions), Olivier Holland (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums and percussion), guests; Grant Winterburn 2,3,5, (organ & Wurlitzer), Lewis McCullum (alto saxophone), Roger Manins (baritone saxophone) – (disclaimer: the album rear photograph is mine)
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.
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.In 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.
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.
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. Her 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.The 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. 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. Lastly 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.
Isabel Rivera Cuenca was born into a family who lived Flamenco. When her parents moved from Seville to Barcelona they took the music with them; opening an Andalusian cultural centre. Wonderful musicians soon filled their Barcelona home, dancing, playing guitar and singing day and night. Among Isabel’s earliest memories is feeling the rhythms of Flamenco seeping through the walls of her bedroom. Flamenco was the breath of her young life. As a little girl she began to dance and she never stopped.
“The dancing filled me with joy and it put a big smile on my face. When I took my first proper dance lesson my Gitano Flamenco teacher saw me smiling and said, ‘You mustn’t smile during this particular piece because it is about loss and suffering’. As I grew, I learned to express the emotions appropriate to the piece, but the joy never left me. My teachers were all dancers and musicians but there was no academy as today. When I was old enough I boldly declared to my father that I had only one goal in life. To embrace La Baile Flamenco and live the life of a dancer. He looked at me for a while and said, ‘this is a hard life with little financial reward’. I told him that I understood that better than most, because I had lived this music since birth”. He knew that she would not be deterred and he did not stop her.“To this day, every time I dance the happiness and passion returns; that is what I want to share. When I was older I decided that I must travel the world to share this happiness with people who cannot go to Spain. Since making that decision I have travelled almost continuously. Out of this I learn from other musical cultures (especially Jazz) and many collaborations and experiments are possible. With good musicians the traditions are always respected while experimenting. I have met many fine musicians in New Zealand like Jonathan Crayford and Chris O’connor. At the beginning of my travels I simply drew a map and from that I decided the countries to visit, especially those very far away from the home of Flamenco. New Zealand felt like a good place to go. It was 20,000 kilometres from my home and so I thought, if I can succeed there it will work in other places. Now I have returned with some guitarists and a singer and we will share our passion.
I like New Zealand very much as the people are warm and friendly. The climate is also nice and the natural areas are vast and beautiful. There are similarities in the way the Kiwi’s speak and act as well. When I travel in Mexico or South America people say to me, ‘You speak Spanish in a very direct way – without formality – unlike us’. If someone says, would you like this or that, I look them in the eye and say yes or no. The older polite forms of answering such a question are still evident in the Latin Spanish-speaking countries. They might say, ‘we are grateful for the offer and it would please us to accept’. I found this comment interesting because Isobel is an extraordinarily gifted communicator. Her expressiveness exceeds that of anyone I have met. She is a wonderful talker, but the breadth of her expressiveness is particularly found in her hands and eyes. Her hands gesture endlessly and her eyes sparkle like fire when she is enthusiastic about a topic. It is as if the Flamenco dancer in her occupies the facility of speech. She is certainly a direct speaker, but there is an unusual fluidity, warmth and depth to everything she communicates. I have seen this before in improvising musicians and recognise it. It is a proof that they live in a world where their art matters beyond everything else. They have swum so far from shore that the coast is mundane and irrelevant.
We talked for hours about the forms, history and evolution of Flamenco. We shared a view that the Moors were a profound and benign influence on the world (and Flamenco) – the Vandals of the reconquista Espanola not so much. Flamenco history was not recorded in print until the late 18th and 19th centuries and there is conjecture about its origins. What appears certain is that cante (singing) came first. This was soon accompanied by rhythms beaten on the floor by a cane. The toque (guitar) and Baile (dance) came later. The music is ancient and mysterious and most strongly associated with the Spanish Gitano (Gypsy or Romani – originally from India). Into that mix add the displaced Morisco (Moors) as a prime influence. Also the music of the Jewish Sephardic diaspora. It is possible that the Gitano may have picked up Greek and Turkish influences on their way out of India. After the reconquista the persecuted minorities dropped out of sight and developed a culture in their isolation. Flamenco was not shown as a public performance until the late 19th century.There are many Tonas (families of song), most derive in some way from Cante Jondo (deep song). The last element is Jaleo (hell raising by means of hand clapping, foot stomping and like Jazz, yells of encouragement). When we talked of the Tonas Isabel always put her hand over her heart and said. “Whatever the moodIt is always about expressing and communicating deep emotions, passion”. She demonstrated some rhythms for me using hand-clapping.
There is a common 12 beat rhythm in Flamenco which accents the 2nd and 4th beats for three bars and then finishes with a surprising ending on the 3rd beat of the fourth bar. Like Jazz, the music is all about tension and release and the way she described the Buleria (to mock) illustrated that particularly well. The Buleria is fast and has 12 beats. There are a number of ways of counting the beats and one form goes 123, 456, 7 8, 9 10, 11 12. She describes this as a friendly conflict between equals. The participants constantly challenge the others to do better or sometimes they just cause the other participant to back off. Out of this ritual comes a lot of tension and release. There is a high degree of improvisation allowed and the foot tapping here is intricate and complex. Of the 50 Palos or Styles around 20 are in common use. There is a distinct Flamenco scale which is the Phrygian Mode (Modo Frigio).Isabel expressed a particular liking for the Saeta, possibly of ancient Jewish or Aramaic origin and widely used during Holy Week processions. The date of its entry into the Flamenco repertoire is uncertain. It is a mournful form with great power and emotional intensity. On Miles Davis ‘Sketches of Spain’ he performs much of this over a drone. As the drone has a particular association with Indian music I discussed this with Isabel. It was not a concept (in English) she was familiar with, but upon further examination she decided that there are certainly implied drones or ostinato passages in Flamenco.
Before going to the interview I watched a You Tube clip of her performing and I asked if her performance was closer to Classical Flamenco than the Flamenco Puro of the Gitano. She declared her self not a rigid purist. “A dancer can interpret and mix forms to a point. In my view some experimenting is OK as long as you treat the traditions with respect”.
There are a number of interesting fusions of Flamenco and Jazz; some being closer to one genre than the other. The ever lovely ‘Maids of Cadiz’ (by Delibes), later performed by Benny Goodman and Miles Davis may hint at Flamenco but it is not an example. It is actually an old French tune. ‘Flamenco Sketches’ from a kind of blue is closer to the spirit of the music and the ground breaking ‘Sketches of Spain’ even closer. More recent explorations such as those by the Jazz Flamenco pianists Chano Dominguez and Alex Conde have a more authentic feel. Dominguez replaces the leading guitar with piano and creates space for piano improvisation. The Cante (song), Baile (dance) Palmas (hand clapping) and Toque (guitar) otherwise remain. I also like the Jazz/Flamenco fusion group ‘Jerez Texas’ who come from Jerez in Western Andalusia (where the famous Arab horses and the Bulerias come from). Both Cadiz and Jerez are stunningly beautiful, as is all of Southern Spain.Once I was lucky enough to spend time in the Flamenco regions. The Moors called Southern Spain Al Andalus. Nowhere has more light and colour and nowhere feels the weight of history more keenly. Over thousands of years many ethnicities have passed through and the residual beauty remaining is mirrored in their arts. Architecture, songs and dances; speaking of beauty and suffering – in equal parts
The first thing I noticed when I watched the video clip was just how musically aware the troupe was. They exploited musical space as a collective and in the way a Jazz combo does. Conversing, pausing, reacting; then unleashing the power again. Behind the singer you could hear the guitar – those voicings – filled with a beautiful dissonance like the history of the music.
On this tour she has Albert Cases ‘El Gatto’ Flamenco singer, Paul Bosauder on Guitar plus NZ Artists Ian Sinclair (yes the well-known investigative reporter) and Claire Cowan on guitars.
Like Jazz, Flamenco was recently classified by UNESCO as a cultural heritage treasure for the world. In UNESCO’s words ‘a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’. No argument there.
Book for the shows at the Q Theatre or at Tickefinder – 23rd & 24th February at the Q Theatre Queen Street Auckland (above the Town Hall). The pictures are mine except for the poster.
It is not very often that an album like this comes along and more’s the pity. This is an album for those who are properly engaged, who listen deeply; offering ample rewards to those who pay due attention. While there is a hint of the freedom of the 1961-62 Giuffre/Bley/Swallow albums, this is an album of the now. It tells a modern Australian story while claiming a portion of the space occupied by the sparse Nordic improvisers. People might find this darker approach unexpected as the Australian landscape resonates bright light and pastel colours. While not the norm there are recent precedents such as the astonishingly atmospheric ‘Kindred Spirits’ by Mike Nock. Pianist Luke Sweeting shows us from the first few notes that he truly understands form and dynamics. As he moves about the piano his fingers tease out endless shades of colour; the sort found in the shadows. The name Grey Wing Trio is apt too, because the subtlety of the shadings are endless here. Like the wing of a sparrow, what appears as mono-toned becomes multi-hued upon closer examination.
The lightness of Sweeting’s touch gifts him the opportunity to cycle through one crystalline moment after another and the echoes of each chord hang in the air with delicate subtlety. The music has dynamic richness – this in spite of the dominance of quieter moments. Trumpeter Ken Allars excels in this space. Few trumpeters play as he does and few have his tonal or dynamic diversity. He can say as much with a breathy whisper as he can with his gentle flute-like notes or sudden squalls. This references the territory of the Nordic improvisers like Arve Henriksen and Allars does it convincingly. The less is more approach has always served Jazz well and this is another proof. I am familiar with Sweeting and Allars as I have seen them perform on several occasions. The drummer Finn Ryan is new to me. Again he is perfect for the job in hand. A true colourist and able to match the others in subtlety. His use of mallets and fluttering brushwork contrasting nicely with the stick work.
Running through the tracks is an over-arching thread of minimalism. Themes emerge, then evaporate into floating motifs. Realities form and dissolve as if mirages. What remains is deep evanescent beauty. (The sound clip from the album is Chords).
I knew of Matt McMahon long before I met him in the Foundry 616. Australian and New Zealand Jazz lovers respect him as an artist and his name often comes up when improvising musicians talk. In 2008 I picked up a copy of his Ellipsis album during a visit to Sydney. My album collection then as now, was out of control and so after listening to it, I filed the album with the intention of obtaining more by the artist later. Because my cataloging skills are poorly developed it soon slipped out of sight and did not resurface until 2015. That was the year I met McMahon at The Foundry. His gig was as the regular pianist and arranger/co-composer for the Vince Jones band. I liked his playing and noted my impressions of man and pianist on the back of my program; ‘friendly, of quiet demeanour – a pianist with a deft touch – uses beautiful crisp voicings. The perfect accompanist, serving the singer and the song and never his ego‘. We talked for some time after the gig and before I left he handed me a copy of his ‘The Voyage of William and Mary’ album.
As soon as I got back to New Zealand I played the album and loved its depth and scope. Solo piano albums seldom achieve this themed narrative quality. While all of the tracks appear to describe a journey experienced by his Irish ancestors William and Mary, the narrative is deeper and wider than that. It acknowledges McMahon’s Irish roots in subtle ways, but more particularly it outlines a musical journey experienced by the artist. This is the wonder of deep improvisation, a place where all is not what it seems. Each note here is a revelation; not just to the listener but perhaps to the artist as well. Solo albums are the hardest to pull off, as the musician must search deep within. In doing so there is often the risk of unapproachable introspection or worse still self-indulgent noodling. McMahon has convincingly avoided those traps.
Each time I listen to ‘Island of Destiny’ thoughts of my own seafaring ancestors overwhelm me; their imaginings, hopes fears. So much is encapsulated in a piece that somehow transcends itself. What ever the images this beautiful music evokes it is a tribute to McMahon. He shares his vision in a way that allows us to become absorbed and to feel like participants. That is no mean feat.
Matt McMahon (solo piano, compositions) PathsandStreams Records
While it is easy to feel discouraged by the state of the music industry and to agonise over the plight of long-form investigative journalism, there are pathways through the morass. Better alternatives, however tentative are forming and the emergence of more equitable models a possibility. These debates are worth having and the creative sector needs to become more vocal and activist. Everything of value is at stake here and the market rationalists will happily plunder the creative sector if artists and consumers leave them to it. As we ponder the challenges it is tempting to think of the music world as being too broken to fix. Acquiescence and inertia are the antithesis of creativity. The artists and journalists who care about this must do what we do best – confront, shock, overwhelm stupidity, dispense joy, start revolutions; throwing in the towel is for those devoid of imagination and banality produces nothing worthwhile. I recently watched two thought-provoking documentaries on the fate of the book and of in-depth journalism. ‘Out of Print’ and ‘Stop the Presses’. The first threw up a lot of intriguing questions, while the second provided some answers. Every new media platform brings with it a multitude of doom sayers and the invention of the printing press was no exception. Books have been with us for over four thousand years and while there are few local book-shops left in 2016, there are more books being printed than ever. The ability to record data and preserve it is the greatest of human achievements and the modern world rests upon it. In spite of determined efforts throughout history to burn books or to shut down the information flow, knowledge and information proliferates.
The tablets and engravings of antiquity are the most durable as the oldest texts known to us are readable today (the Hittite Linear B clay tablets). While a surprisingly large number of ancient books and texts survive, some modern attempts to ‘save the book’ have fallen flat on their face. Recently libraries rushed to put their catalogues into the CD Rom format. This marvel of modern technology was the answer to saving the printed word and so encyclopaedias and written texts were laboriously digitised. As suddenly as it appeared the platform vanished and a technical museum is now the only place where you can find a CD Rom reader (or a floppy disc). The ways of storing music, although covering an infinitely smaller time span have a comparable history. Platforms that seemed forever solutions came and went while the music migrated to newer formats. This process will continue and the new formats are not the problem.
The player-piano was a real threat to live music as was the Edison cylinder. Live music survived and recorded music morphed into the 78/EP/LP/tape/CD/Digital download and cloud streamed content. The changes will continue, probably accelerate, but we have learned that the best of the older formats can co-exist with emerging forms. The printed newspaper will survive with the digital for many years to come. It will likely become prestigious; a symbol of quality like the re-created LP. Platforms will come and go as music good and bad is created – this will continue until the end of time. The eternal conundrum remains.
Who will reap the benefits, who will pay the piper and how will distribution occur.
The second documentary ‘Stop the Presses’ featured interviews with forward-looking media identities. There was a deliberately left/liberal bias and the programme did not feature the likes of Murdoch. Those of Murdoch’s ilk are part of the problem and not the solution. The Editor of the New York Times, Guardian reporters, leading investigative journalists (such as those from the now defunct Rocky Mountain News) and a number of important European print media spokespeople gave their views. In spite of the carnage and catastrophic job losses there were glimmers of hope.
Immediately after World War Two ‘Le Monde’, the premiere French evening paper created a new model. Their charter ensured that no media barons like Lord Beaverbrook, Randolph Hearst or Rupert Murdock could ever exert editorial control. The paper ran along the lines of a worker collective and only the journalists (who had tenure) could choose the editor – elections were held for the post. Investors could invest but they could not exert influence. Sadly Le Monde ran into financial difficulties as the digital revolution bit harder and during a recent bailout new financial investors strove to exert editorial control – the staff refused and that situation has yet to play out.
One digital news-media outlet ‘Mediapart’ is particularly interesting. The editor (a former editor of Le Monde) Jerome Calhuzac puts up convincing arguments for a model better suited to the digital age. This digital only outlet has a rapidly growing circulation and it is successful by any measure. The business model is similar to the early Guardian and Le Monde – managed and owned by the reporters and the editor – the creators of content. It has a strict pay-wall, contains no advertising and employs the highest quality investigative journalists. Mediapart offers in-depth opinion pieces and makes no apology for having a point of view. It rejects advertising outright as that can influence editorial integrity. It does not see its role as outlining the broad sweep of daily events. It focuses instead on the important news stories, examines them in-depth and is beholden to no-one. Investors are welcome to a point, but they have no influence. Fifty percent of the cost of getting out print newspapers was in the distribution. Under a digital model that cost is infinitesimal and efficient high quality newspapers are now possible (more on distribution later). The only remaining obstacle is a generation of readers who expect quality information without having to pay for it.
Calhuzac sees the enemy as being the ‘entertainment’ model; driven by the relentless neo-rationalist imperatives of the marketplace. Mediapart’s mission is simple. ‘We are a cornerstone of democracy and as such independence and fearlessness is everything. We do this because it is our duty to humanity and to the fabric of democracy. It is not just about the journalists, the editors or the readers but a commitment to the principles of democracy’. Crucially the paper determined that quality has never come free of charge and that everyone must contribute a fair share – this is a public good – it has a price just as democracy has a price’. The subscribers agreed and have responded extremely well. ‘Trying to provide quality content for free has never worked and we avoid that trap’. Free content funded by advertisements is a flawed approach leading to a once-over-lightly product – an overload of fragmented information of undesirable quality. In short news as sound-bite entertainment.
Giving content away free was a bold but flawed experiment. It was a recipe for dumbing down and the new aggregated sites like the Huffington Post pillaged the content from other newspapers. When doing this they not only steal but they close down the very newspapers they steal from. As the aggregator websites don’t pay investigative reporters (to replace those being laid off by their actions), that content will eventually vanish. Musicians, independent labels and informed music consumers will see the parallels here.
This is exactly what is occurring in the music world and the equivalent of the Huff Post and to a lesser extent Buzz Feed are the digital streaming platforms. Most are parasitic and return nothing of value to the creators of the music. You Tube is a little different as it can act as a feeder to artist run websites, independent labels and offer teasers. Some users go too far and put up whole albums without the artists permission. It is popular but as a business model it struggles.
To bring this full circle, I received my copy of Maria Schneider’s latest album, ‘The Thompson Fields’ yesterday. The album won the best of category in the prestigious NPR poll and is receiving accolades from the various music industry papers. It was not produced by a major label and yet it is one of the most beautiful albums you will ever hear(or see). The label is ‘Artists Share’ – a cooperative run by musicians and their associates – interacting directly with the consumer. ‘The Thompson Fields’ is a rich convergence of the arts as it features fine art prints, poetry, extraordinary photographs, old maps on art paper and well written prose. It is also stakes out a strong environmental position without being preachy. This is an album of rare beauty and it even smells like a rare book (the album booklet has aged patterned end papers). Schneider’s album gives us extraordinary music (performed by nineteen of the improvising worlds best) but it also has detailed liner notes, credits for the musicians, various collaborations with artists, poets, photographers and a connection to like minded community organisations.If such an extraordinary album can rise to the top utilising a fan-funded artist controlled model there is hope. Progress is painfully slow but these projects can work. The Artist-Share label is not a recent innovation and the model doesn’t yield quick results. If better focused and more equitable distribution models developed then the high-end independents could gain a significant foothold in the market. There is a feel good factor in associating ourselves with models like this.
The New Zealand equivalent is Rattle Records. Like ECM it knows what it stands for and provides a consistently beautiful product. This is surprising given its reach. Like Schneider’s album (and ECM albums), Rattle has retained either liner notes (or quality photography) – even poetry appears on occasion. I declare a vested interest in this as my photographs, liner notes and poems have featured on a number of Jazz albums.
This convergence of music journalism, compelling art and high quality musicianship provides for a richer experience. It is possible for the digital download format to deliver liner notes, musicians credits and artwork but it seldom does. I would happily pay a few extra dollars to get such an enhanced version. Above all it is grossly disrespectful to the musicians when their names are excluded from download information. As the old models fail and the greedy few extract the lions share of revenue (without permission), the consumers of music need to become better informed. This is the point that Jerome Calhuzac of Mediapart makes. The listening public needs to grasp the fact that quality offerings have a cost. Lets get behind Rattle Records and other labels like Artists Share – where ever possible we should become ‘commissioners’ (a term used by Schneider for fan-based contributors).
The missing piece of the puzzle is distribution and as with Mediapart subscribers have a role. Buzz Feed gives us some clues here. Powerful algorithms can detect trends and this has a multiplier effect when an album is noticed. Those observing a trend then recommend the album to those with similar tastes. At present those algorithms serve the big players like Amazon but there is no reason why the technology could not work across the non Amazon Indie Label spectrum. New (albeit clumsy) distribution models utilise platforms like Facebook, Twitter and other vehicles.
It is often commented upon that I am a ‘busy’ Facebook user and blogger. There is a method in my madness. I have a respectable readership on my JL32 blog site. I also host a small Facebook group page and have a Twitter account. The people who follow my sites often take up my recommendations and hopefully this assists distribution. The consumers are increasingly a key factor in distribution and everyone should tout their musical recommendations to like-minded friends. Leaving it up to disinterested money men is not an option.
Lets ramp up the dialogue around streaming and the problems arising from free content. Paying a fair price for quality music is our duty to the creative arts. Support the independent musician run labels, recommended albums online and sponsor (crowd fund) a musician that you respect. We are all in this together.
Due to the timing of the Chris Cody album ‘Not My Lover’, some jumped to the conclusion that his Jazz love letter to Paris was in response to the recent atrocities. In fact Cody recorded it well before those tragic events and much to the relief of family and friends he was safely in Australia at the time. The City of Light has the strongest of Jazz associations and Cody captures that intimate relationship perfectly. You can feel the ebb and flow of the city’s life running through his fingertips as he plays. The beauty of the architecture, the elegant Seine, the mad driving through the twisted maze of streets. Through his perceptive lens we gain a sense of the city which for hundreds of years has welcomed visiting creative artists to its heart; regardless of creed or colour. We also catch a fleeting glimpse of the harsher realities hidden behind the gorgeous facade.
Cody is a man of great charm and warmth and the compositions echo his urbane humanity. The album he has crafted is more than a collection of tunes loosely referencing Paris. When you listen carefully you realise that it is a soundtrack for the city; sonic impressionism. His deft pointillism revealing a Paris with its exotic and often troubled connections to North Africa, the complex realities of its political life, its restless intellectualism and the almost mythical sophistication of its women.
On tenor is Karl Laskowski, an important Australian saxophonist who was heard to such great effect on Mike Nocks ‘Hear and Know’ album. Cody albums typically feature the trombone prominently, but this is an exception. The textures are therefore different and in writing for tenor saxophone the piano and horn form an interwoven intimacy. Whereas the trombone is a voice calling up from the streets, the tenor speaks of cafe’s and basement night clubs. On bass is Brendon Clarke who I know best from his association with the Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra and tenor player Roger Manins. Lastly there is James Waples on drums. Another highly respected musician and one who regularly features in Nock lineups. This band is the business.
There are ten tracks on the album. Eight by Cody plus ‘I Love Paris’ (Porter) and La Javanaise (Gainsburg). I have heard Cody play ‘I love Paris’ a number of times and the way he voices it and swings puts me in mind of the mature Hampton Hawes (Clarke, Waples and Cody interact so well here). The title track ‘Not My Lover’ is fabulous, with its sensuous moody introduction overtaken by a lively fast-paced segment which dances and moves delightfully. It is not a big leap to imagine it as the soundtrack for one of those timeless gritty neorealist French movies. Laskowski and Cody stand out here. Lastly I must comment on Cody’s composition ‘For Satie’. Satie is variously described as the father of modernism, the first minimalist etc. Which ever way people choose to remember him, his avant-garde approach caused a seismic shift in music. In this piece Cody has respectfully captured his essence. Capturing Satie, a man of few notes and delicate sensibilities required good taste and deft touch. That is Cody in a nutshell. Below is the title track ‘Not My Lover’.
Chris Cody (piano, compositions), Karl Laskowski (tenor saxophone), Brendon Clarke (bass), James Waples (drums). – purchase from www.chriscody.com
By the time the second week of the Auckland Jazz Festival arrived, I began to feel my age. I had already experienced a number of late night gigs and a further week of music stretched ahead of me. This was no time to flag, as some interesting and innovative music lay ahead. The festival programme structure provided audiences with variety. The depth and breadth of the improvising scene was on show and I wanted to see everything possible. The week started well with the Meehan/Griffin/Manhire poetry project (see earlier review for this). That gig brought a new audience and I was still buzzing come Tuesday.
On Tuesday night the AJO (Auckland Jazz Orchestra) shoehorned into the CJC for the release of their ‘Darkly Dreaming‘ album. The AJO have a growing fan base and this was an eagerly anticipated event. Having earlier witnessed the actual recording session and a pre-taste performance of the suite, I was happily expectant. With charts as demanding as this, a thoroughly rehearsed band is essential and I knew that they would be. It was clear that this would be the definitive live performance so I couldn’t wait to hear that first swell of sound and to get my hands on the album. I had volunteered for door duty that night, turning up early to help. I enjoy the Jazz orchestra set-up process – in this case nineteen musicians and a conductor configuring a behemoth in an impossibly small space. It was like witnessing Nasa scientists beginning the launch sequence. Instruments and gauges checked, tapped and rechecked, cabling run out; each adding a layer to the criss-cross tangle of shoes, stands and chairs. Soon there were rows of brassy instruments standing in an (almost) orderly line, with the odd human interloper spoiling their symmetry. Random buzzing sounds came from warming up lips; and all punctuated with honks and plucked notes from far-flung corners of the room. this is the counterfactual of the sounds that follow. Band leader Tim Atkinson composed and arranged the suite. He has carefully shaped this ground breaking project as befitting a work of this importance. This is a modern piece of music in the mould of Darcy James Argue. Richly textured, evocative of the title and especially in the warm multi layered dissonance that swells out of the quieter passages. The work has captured a mood and an orchestra going places. This is a moment which benchmarks the growing maturity of the Auckland Jazz scene and I am truly glad to have witnessed it. The overall performance on the night was flawless, but if anyone stood out it was altoist Callum Passels. His solo on ‘The Dark Passenger’ was wonderful. it was a feat of story telling, of mood and it oozed freedom – as if he had somehow escaped the confines of room and orchestra. Importantly, he managed this without once deviating from the logic of the composition. I urge people to purchase this album and I guarantee that you will play it over and again. On Wednesday I spent time with the Benny Lackner Trio. A popular USA/German (French) trio who seldom passed up an opportunity to playfully ambush each other and often along the lines of nationality. Their mock combative banter acting as a counterweight to the cohesion they showed on the bandstand. I have seen this trio three times as they have a long association with New Zealand. In my view they are the true successor to Sweden’s lost lamented EST, but there is more to them besides. Their approach is similar but additional elements inform their music. The influence of Lacker’s former teacher Brad Mehldau is discernible but the band is forging a new sound. This is the confident face of post millennium European Jazz. Never compromising, unafraid to appropriate elements from their native culture, and done without a hint of self-consciousness. These guys are heavyweights and we are bound to hear a lot more of them in years to come. The trio’s set list was a mix or originals and some very interesting covers. What was not composed by Lackner or by the drummer Chazarenc, were often unexpected tunes; Brahms, Cold Play, David Bowie, Rodriguez and Jimmy Hendrix. ‘If Six were Nine’ was simply stunning. Warmly familiar to those of us who remembered the rock original. Taking the bones of a 1960’s tune and infusing it with edgy lines and modern harmonic conceptions. I have long-held the view that the new standards will come from material exactly like this. None of the band were alive when this acid blues classic was cut in 1969, but their joy at performing it was evident. Jimi would have loved it. The bass player on this trip was Bruno Schorpe. When offered an upright bass he declined – choosing to remain on electric bass throughout. I’m glad that he did because the instrument had the bite to act as counterweight. Balancing out well the electronics and various effects of Lackner’s keyboards. Then there was drummer Matthieu Chazarenc. He has accompanied Lackner on previous trips and to my ears he is directly out of a great tradition. French Jazz drummers have a sound that is distinct. Like many of his compatriots Chazarenc’s sound is crisp, even dry; utilising dynamics in ways that younger drummers are often incapable of. A label like ACT must surely pick the trio up sometime soon. They would be a perfect fit – much as they would for ECM.
Thursday brought us ‘The JAC‘ from Wellington. A delightful octet shortlisted in the 2015 New Zealand Jazz awards for their ‘Nerve’ album. This project is clearly one that will remain with us for some time and if any band deserves to become an institution it is this one. A brassy octet with an orchestral yet airy sound and one which I am particularly enthusiastic about. This was the release gig for their newest album.
‘The Green Room‘ (out on Rattle.) Rattle has an uncanny Knack of locating the best of new Zealand music and presenting it in ways that even the big labels seldom manage. The album is beautifully recorded and live the JAC simply sparkle as they weave texture and into their shape shifting grooves. In many ways it is a band of equals as almost everyone stands out at some point. While there is an incredible tightness to their performance, they manage to loosen up enough to create rub and textural complexity. It is almost overkill to single out soloists with a cohesive group like this as every one is notable in some way or another. Altoist Jake Baxendale is their nominal leader and three of the compositions on the album are attributed to him (including the title track). If any number captures the essence of the group it is this. The solo on his tune Andalucia also captures a strong sense of place. I know Andalucia well and this is a convincing testimony.
It is hard to know where to start with Callum Allardice; he grows as a musician every time I hear him. His compositions are stunning and his guitar work so fluid and exciting that it defies belief. These are performances that stop you in your tracks and few New Zealand guitarists capture that particular sound. Lex French is another spectacular performer and we would hardly expect otherwise. He is now the leading local voice on that horn. Perhaps the most experienced player is Nick tipping who never puts a foot wrong. On the new album we hear him at his best. Convincing contributions by the likes of Chris Buckland, Matthew Alison and Shaun Anderson reinforce the view that this is an all-star band. Lastly there is pianist Daniel Milward. He has recently moved to Melbourne and his voice is particularly strong on the recording; more so than on the first album. Not a showy pianist but an extremely tasteful one who gets it just right. I have put up a sound clip of the Allardice Composition ‘The Heist’, as I have loved it since first hearing it (probably at the Tauranga Jazz Festival).
On the 24th I attended another Rattle Jazz album release. This time at the Auckland University Jazz School in the Kenneth Meyers Centre. The Chris Mason Battley Group were performing the album DIALOGOS; this arising from the music of celebrated New Zealand composer John Psathas. The project is exciting and while very much in the moment, a careful crafting is evident. If that sounds like a contradiction it is not. Improvised music is forever reaching beyond imposed structural limitations; the boundaries of convention. Without that restless outreach the music would wither on the vine. This is an example of the new music that you might find on ECM (or Rattle), it is minimalist and references the ethos of John Cage or perhaps even Zorn; it reaches the outer limits of the known. In Psathas words, “it is not arranging or adapting…(rather) a continuing of the composing process”. There are works or arrangements which re-imagine and examine a work from an outside perspective. That is not the case here. This is part of a developing story and the Psathas vision remains at its heart. I recently read a trilogy by a famous and highly respected author. He had intended to write a fourth volume but died before he could proceed. A year later another author picked up where the original author left off and achieved something extremely rare. He added to the body of work seamlessly; continuing the narrative in ways that were his own and entirely consistent with the original. Although a more serious work, DIAGOLOS was an unmitigated triumph. Mason-Battley is a thoughtful gifted musician, but we don’t see him perform about town very often. Any new project gets his undivided attention and that was the case here. Counter intuitively, it is his careful preparation which affords him the extraordinary freedom he demonstrates on the bandstand. During this performance he took us right to the edge; you gained the sense listening that he was pushing himself a little further with each phrase. It is at times like this that great music emerges. While adventurous with electronics, he evokes a classic Coltrane sound on his Soprano. There are a number of local musicians who double on soprano but few (if any) sound like Battley. The Chris Mason-Battley Group has been around for some time and the original group set New Zealand records for the number of downloads and albums purchased. For this project core members David Lines, Sam Giles and Mason-Battley remain with the addition of drummer Stephen Thomas. Unlike earlier configurations, there is no guitar. Bringing Thomas into the mix has worked extremely well. The drummer of choice for many gigs and a gifted percussionist in the fullest sense. Psathas music calls for sensitive drum work and Thomas has exactly the right approach. His understanding of subtle dynamics, time awareness and overall sensitivity to the project were very much on display. I also appreciated David Lines piano. Lines early classical training was evident in places and again this made him a very good choice for the project. The work required a pianist with a particular chordal approach. At times he was minimalist and with a particular approach to voice leading. Lines like the other four were indispensable to the project. Lastly there was Sam Giles – an electric bass player I wish I heard more often. Giles often leans towards the avant-garde and innovative projects. That is where he shines. The Last Auckland Jazz Festival gig I attended was the Alan Brown/Kingsley Melhuish Alargo project at the Golden Dawn. The Golden Dawn is the perfect place to wind down and a very good place to hear laid back grooves and experience deliciously exotic ambient adventures. This music creates a world we wished we lived in. A world of exotic grooves and shifting realities. Seeing and hearing is believing with Alargo, their sound as wide as the ocean and as deep (a little songbook reference there). What Brown and Melhuish are crafting is terrific. Sound shaped, altered, looped and all guiding you inexorably toward that fantasy world of improvised/groove Jazz/electronica. As wonderful as it is to watch, it is essentially a place in which to abandon yourself. As you dive in you feel the buffeting of warm grooves all about you, as the tiredness of a busy fortnight evaporates. I thought that I was an early discoverer of improvised ambient music but Brown was way ahead of me. We have often discussed this genre and we see it as a local space worth claiming. Melhuish was always going to end up beside Brown on this project; trumpet, pedals, programming, percussion and shells swimming around the keyboards. An otherworldly magic evoked by Browns deft fingers. I like to think that I gave this music a slight nudge along the way. This has been an interesting Jazz Festival and although it is cliched, there was something for everyone. From manouche through to the avant-garde. I loved that it retained the feeling of local and of intimacy – even when showcasing offshore bands. The CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Rattle Records, 1885 Britomart, Auckland University, Golden Dawn, Portland Public House, Hallertau, Ostro, Lot 23, One2One, Hotel DeBrett, Lewis Eady, The Refreshment Room, the Vic, The Wine Cellar and other venues deserve our heartfelt thanks. Above all its Ben McNicoll who we must acknowledge as he lost sleep and carried the heaviest load. We are also in the debt of Caro and Roger Manins for the part they played. The vision belongs to these innovators and what ever happens along the way, I hope that the Auckland Jazz Festival continues as the fine fringe festival they envisioned.
Sydney means two things to me; family and music. I get there as often as I can. One sultry night about two years ago I was listening to Mike Nock playing the blues (as only Mike can). It was a catchy new tune titled ‘Start up Blues’. I collared him during the break and asked him about it. “I composed it for the Foundry opening” he said. “Do you know about the Foundry 616”? I didn’t and so he filled in the details. He spoke warmly of it so I determined to visit the next time I was in Sydney.
The Foundry 616 is located in Ultimo on a stretch of Harris road, almost lost between a maze of under and over-passes. It is (or was) the newest addition to Sydney’s Jazz scene. The difficulty in locating it is amply rewarded the minute you step inside. It is spacious, it serves tasty food and the acoustics are surprising good for such a large uneven space. It is also a friendly place, tolerant of visiting Kiwi photographers and reviewers like me. I always feel welcomed.During my first visit I caught the amazing New York based guitarist Mike Moreno. Attending a gig featuring Moreno had long been on my bucket list and I was not disappointed. He was happy to allow non-flash photography and I had a seat at the front table; perfect. For his Australian tour he employed two gifted local musicians: Ben Vanderwal drums and Alex Boneham bass (both familiar to New Zealand audiences). I have many recordings featuring Moreno, but what really struck me was that his best on recordings, is exactly how he sounds in person. Given the sound control in modern recording studios and given the expanse and quirky shape of the room, this is surprising. I was later to experience the same clarity at other Foundry 616 gigs. The venue sound technician and the sound system get a big tick. Sound quality matters and especially with artists of this quality. To my thinking Moreno is the most lyrical of modern guitarists. Clean flowing lines, fresh ideas and an astonishing clarity of tone. As moves through the pieces, often at breakneck speed, and even when glissing, his fluidity is unbroken. There is a hint of mournfulness to his tone which is most attractive. I hear many gifted Jazz guitarists, but to date this gig remains the highlight. His set list traversed recent albums as he played a mix of lesser known standards and originals; ‘I have a dream’ (Hancock) being the standout. While his demeanour is quiet, perhaps even a little serious, his playing denotes unalloyed joy and exuberance.My second visit was to see premier Australian Jazz vocalist Vince Jones. I have a deep liking for male Jazz singers but sadly there are not that many to choose from these days. Our younger selves do not sound like our older selves and in Vince Jones this sits extremely well. His is a lived in voice, full of rich life experience. An honest voice and above all a true Jazz voice. He can make you smile and cry in turns and his lyrics are like no one else’s. If you listen carefully the realisation comes; Jones is jazz protest singer. He is closer in sentiment to Gil Scott Heron or perhaps Billy Bragg and Bob Dylan than to any torch-song crooner. His recordings while marvellous don’t prepare you for the experience of hearing him in person. He has a compelling stage presence, exuding the vulnerability that Chet radiated. Unlike Chet he also exudes real human warmth and empathy.As he tells personal stories about his grandparents, his budgerigars, women deserving of respect, his environmental concerns, you feel deeply connected. When he shakes his fist at the ‘big end of town’, calls for kindness towards refugees and gives voice to your innermost feelings, you shake your fist along with him. Since that visit I have transcribed some of his lyrics. I would now add gifted poet to the list of his accomplishments. Jones writes most of his own material (often in collaboration with his accompanists like Matt McMahon or Sam Keevers). Both were present that night as was an old friend, bass player Brett Hirst; James Hauptmann was on drums. Fine musicians and great company. Earlier in the day I caught up with Barney McAll and interviewed him regarding his stunning Mooroolbark album. He was to premier that at the Foundry in a few weeks. I was sorely tempted to delay my departure, but work called me back to New Zealand. McAll was once an accompanist to Jones as well.My third and most recent visit naturally brought me back to the Foundry. A pianist/singer Rodric White was on the bill. White was unknown to me, but again I enjoyed the gig. He opened with a few tributes and it surprised me to hear him announce a Keith Jarrett number. Even more so when he played an extract from the Koln Concert. That took guts and he did it well. Later he played some of his own compositions, plus Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, the Beatles and several Sting numbers. He was disarmingly dismissive of his vocal abilities but he sang well. Stylistically he is close to the classic Jazz singers. Accompanying him was Hugh Fraser (bass), Steve Ley (drums) with guests Paul Cutlan (tenor & soprano saxophones) and Jenny Marie Lang (guitar & vocals). Paul Cutlan was the only name I knew, a well-respected session saxophonist. During the second half White called for pianist Chris Cody to come to the bandstand. I first met Cody in New Zealand and we are now friends. I have a deep respect for him as an artist and as a human being. This rounded out the evening nicely. Cody an internationally recognised artist, is back in Sydney for a while. There is something about his approach and his innate sense of pulse that sets him apart. He understands the importance of leaving space between notes; easily moving inside and out during a solo. He oozes Paris cool. With Cody on piano and White on keys the enjoyment was complete.There are any number of excellent improvising musicians in Australia and New Zealand and we are lucky that they are so accessible. There are also thousands of people who love improvised music, but here’s the rub. The enthusiasts don’t always make the effort to attend gigs. The consequences of taking the local Jazz scene for granted are too dreadful to contemplate. If we support local Jazz we need to commit. In spite of the many world-class musicians in Australasia the music is more precarious than we think. Running clubs like the ‘Foundry 616’, the ‘505’ or the ‘CJC (Creative Jazz Club)’ is high risk and if the clubs struggle, so does the music. It is quite possible that I’m a fanatic, but I’ve attended more than 250 Jazz gigs in the last four years. If you read this, it’s because you love this music with all its variability. Value what you have people and make a point of supporting your local Jazz clubs and gigs. Some amazing musicians depend on you.
Michel Benebig visits New Zealand once a year and we anticipate his visits with Joy. His authentic B3 groove journey didn’t start in East Philly, but in tropical Noumea; a South Pacific Island north of here. After honing his craft he travelled widely and in consequence his star steadily rises. The more North American audiences hear him, the more they embrace him. He is now regarded as a B3 master. The B3 greats who inspired him are all but departed and he deservedly steps into their shoes. His travels in the USA have brought him into frequent contact with a number of well-known musicians. As good musicianship and a pleasant disposition are the highest recommendations possible, the musicians he worked with recommended him to others. That is how he teamed up with Carl Lockett.
I was in San Francisco in 2012 and as I had been tracking Benebig’s latest tour, I saw that he was gigging in the Bay Area. I said to my son, “Kid you need of piece of this, it will gladden your heart”. It did and I will always remember the smile on his face as the sound of the B3 floated up the stairs from the Academy Francaise auditorium. That was the first time I saw Benebig and Lockett together. I was over-whelmed by the warmth and groove they created. Around that time Michele recorded ‘Yellow Purple’ in California with Carl Lockett on guitar, James Levi on drums and his partner Fabienne Shem Benebig on vocals. Released in 2013 and the album brought him many new fans. The new album ‘Noumea to New York’ is his finest to date (and true to label, recorded in New York). Again Lockett features on guitar, Lewis Nash lays down the drum grooves and special guest Houston Person appears on tenor saxophone. What a marvellous line up this is and what an album they turned out. This album alone will secure Benebig a place in the pantheon. It has modern B3 classic written all over it. All compositions are by Benebig, with one tune co-credited with his partner Shem. There are so many treasures on this album that it is hard to single out one particular tune, but if pressed I would say ‘Noumea To New York’. A medium paced groove track with enough warmth to melt the ice in your drink. The flawless interplay between Benebig, Nash and Lockett is in strong evidence here. With Nash creating a solid cushion of groove, it is no wonder that Benebig and Locket sound so marvellous. The tour down under was minus Nash and Person; Locals filled those gaps. In Auckland we had Roger Manins on tenor and Ron Samsom on drums. This was also a perfect fit, as both had accompanied Benebig previously. The set list in Auckland was partly material from the album and partly marvellously quirky tunes from classic TV shows. How often do you hear the theme from ‘The Pink Panther’ or the theme from ‘The Naked City’ played by a groove unit? More common in Jazz circles is the Johnny Mandel standard ‘Suicide is Painless’ from Mash. When people think of that last number they think Evans and seldom the B3. To show what skilled groove merchants can do with such material I have uploaded a clip. While Benebig is very much in command here his groove collaborators preached just as hard from their respective pulpits. Lockett in particular was astonishing. Gasps of delight erupted as he utilised his finger picking blues-guitar credentials. Moving seamlessly from lightning quick double-time to a steamy groove; often leaning slightly back on the beat. His comping was equally delightful as he does what Pat Martino does. There is either a slight vibrato or he pulls gently down on the strings with each comping-chord; creating simultaneously a warm but slightly mournful effect. Whether on fast single-note runs or octave chords, its hard not to think of Wes Montgomery. His extensive use of thumb and fingers and his fluidity evokes that comparison. Manins was clearly in his element here. Happy among friends and happy to find himself back in the groove space. The same went for Samsom. Both are highly regarded straight ahead Jazz musicians but both have released great groove albums in the previous year. Their joyous abandon added to the quantum of happiness; every note making us smile.
In the end it was the leader Michel Benebig who stole the show. He set the tone with his groove-worthy compositions and his utterly authoritative old-school B3 style. He is a monster of the organ and a real showman. What also impressed was his ability to manage the Hammond SK2; reputedly a little tricky if you play the real beast. If the lack of pedals and the different touch troubled him, it certainly didn’t show. A B3 master can tame any beast and do it convincingly. It sounded perfect from where we sat.
Michel Benebig Quartet Album: Michel Benebig (B3), Carl Lockett (guitar), Lewis Nash (drums), guest – Houston Person (tenor saxophone). (New Zealand tour – Roger Manins replaces Houston Person – Ron Samsom replaces Lewis Nash)
The postie brings more music to our house than he does bills and so I always welcome the sound of the small motorbike pausing outside. This time she delivered a wafer thin parcel with the sender identified as Glen Wagstaff; Firefly had arrived. Looking back over my blog posts revealed that I first encountered the Glen Wagstaff Project in October 2013. At that time we heard several compositions now on the album and in particular to the title track ‘Firefly’. The first Auckland lineup was an eight piece ensemble, all Christchurch musicians. I was only familiar with two of them, Tamara Smith and Andy Keegan. The ensemble impressed and especially notable were the compositions; well constructed charts which magically exceeded the limits of eight piece instrumentation.
The other memory of that visit was the evocation of Kenny Wheeler. Few other New Zealand ensembles worked in that space. A year later in November 2014 Wagstaff appeared again. This time engaging the seventeen piece Auckland Jazz Orchestra. Bigger charts, more complexity and additional compositions, this was a precursor to the album. ‘Firefly’ was a Kickstarter project and many of us around the country were keen to pitch in. When a project has strong enough bones Kickstarter is a reasonable way to proceed. Wagstaff had sewn the seeds well The ease in which he reached his target was ample proof that he had found a solid support base. As we reach for new workable distribution models, this tool is worth considering; if like Wagstaff you can deliver the goods. Road testing and winning over a solid core of contributors is essential.
Sound Clip: Escape Artist (featuring guest saxophonist Manins)
The tracks have a number of moods but the album flows beautifully. The cohesion comes from the writing and the sense of vision imparted. As good as the various artists are, it is the writing that grabs you. The rich orchestral voicings in ‘Maylie’ reach deep and send shivers down the spine. There is a sense of nostalgia evoked, a longing for what is just of out of reach; even of pleasurable melancholia (The melancholic voice is often invoked by poets and it is nice to see it explored in this context. In earlier centuries this mood included pleasurable feelings ‘Pleasing myself with phantasms sweet, methinks that time runs very fleet, all my joys to this are folly, naught so sweet as melancholy’). In the title track ‘Firefly’ the mood is light and airy. Once again Wagstaff has found the right voice; a dusky sense of joy prevails. The tune Sakura based on a traditional Japanese melody follows a well trodden path among improvising musicians; again well done and showcasing Wagstaff on guitar. He is soft toned and his sound lovely. In this piece subdued orchestration allows the melodic aspects of the piece to unfold without clutter.
The Symposium Orchestra is a nineteen piece Jazz orchestra and with guest artists and doubling it swells to twenty-three instruments. Wagstaff utilises this rich palette well; avoiding the pitfall of over-orchestration. No mean feat with that firepower behind you. Roger Manins guested on tenor saxophone and Elen Barry added wordless vocal lines.
Writing orchestral charts is a monumental task and when you consider that this is a young musician’s first album, the respect for what he achieved deepens. In the USA there is much angst over the dearth of support for Jazz. In New Zealand we have never had that support and so artists create for the joy of it. When albums like this emerge, the New Zealand Jazz scene grows in stature. Wagstaff has put an important marker in the ground, his future now assured.
‘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. 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. 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. 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). 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.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.
I am a Marc Ribot enthusiast so when local musician Neil Watson sent me a message to say that Ribot was coming to New Zealand I whooped for joy. My first thought was, wow, this will be the good shit. My next thought was, oh yeah I want to interview that cat about his musical and social activism. Watson was to open for him which pleased me. Watson was a good fit for this gig. An iconoclast multi genre improviser himself.
I put out a few feelers to people connected to the tour, letting them know that a local Jazz Journalist was keen to interview Ribot. I heard nothing back and assumed that the tour would be whistle-stop; this is often the case when a single New Zealand concert follows an Australian tour. I let it drop with some regret.
Because I keep an eye on the wider improvising scene, I was aware that Ribot toured Ceramic Dog the previous month. I love that band. Ribot with band mates Shahzad Ismaily and drummer Ches Smith are a force ten hurricane. Wild and free-ranging but subtle at the eye of the storm; Jazz infused while taking few prisoners from the past. They are the music of everyman and all time. I learned at the venue that this was not a Ceramic Dog concert but Marc Ribot on solo acoustic guitar. He is known for the diversity of his projects and I would turn up to a Ribot gig if he was just whistling.
My partner and I arrived early as we wanted good seats. Amazingly we found seating in the front row and this proved a blessing and a problem. A blessing because we could see and hear Ribot with crystal clearly. A problem because of what happened next. A rotund bearded man clumsily took the seat next to us. As he seated himself heavily I could smell the booze on his breath. Fucking drunks. This guy had been pre-loading for at least a decade. He struggled to focus and said, ‘I can’t believe that Marc Robot is here; this guy plays with Zorn’. He was right to disbelieve because his drunken buffoonery denied him the entire experience.My first act on arriving at the venue was to approach the Tuning Fork floor manager and ask about photographs. He told me of a request from Ribot for absolute quiet. It was solo acoustic guitar, not Ceramic Dog and at Ribot’s request the venue turned off the air-conditioning and fridges. Camera clicks were obviously out of the question unless between numbers. I respected that and took photographs unobtrusively during moments of applause. This was a special gig that required a womb of engaged silence. Audience and musician locked into an embrace of sound.
Because of the above, what happened next was all the more appalling. The drunk, who was so excited about hearing Ribot fell into a deep stupor at the first note. It was a stupor with sound effects and alarming floor-wards lurches. At first his awful wheezes were low volume, but as the concert progressed they became multi-phonic.
After carefully arranging himself, foot on his guitar case, hunched over his ancient acoustic guitar, Ribot dropped into the performance zone. Balanced gently on his knee was an incredible 1937 Gibson L-00; a simply wonderful instrument. When he plays solo he prepares by withdrawing from outside influences. Before a concert he examines a plethora of possible tunes, weighing up musical ideas and searching for new and often oblique ways to tell stories. He seldom has a set list in mind and lets the music and the moment take him where it may. This is a frightening high wire act and only a master improviser would attempt it. Putting yourself in such danger is fraught with risk and an unexpected audience distraction could be fatal. Ribot is more than up to such a challenge. He is one of the worlds greatest improvisers and an acknowledged master of his instrument.
The guitarist was deeply absorbed throughout his astonishing performance. creating an orchestral sound and telling stories free from ego and constraints. In Zen like fashion he examined the various tunes, turning them upside down or examining them from an oblique angle. Although lightly miked, the sound was fatter than an 18 piece orchestra. The subtleties all astonishing micro journeys, complete in themselves. Naked improvising at its best. The journey took us into the classical Spanish or Cuban guitar world, it traversed standards, Delta blues, Coltrane; I could even detect the all but forgotten vibe of Eddie Lang and Carl Kress. At times avant-garde and at other times pastoral. This was a night that I will never forget. Everyone there was spellbound…….except for one fool.
I will now relate my communication moment with the great man. I value it even though I wish it had been other than it was. There were two moments when Marc Ribot looked up and engaged directly with me. I know that I didn’t imagine it. My partner Darien had left her seat long before to sit elsewhere. The fumes and lurching were doing her head in. (Reprise) Fucking drunks. During one particularly drunken wheeze Ribot looked directly at me. Although only a few feet away, I tried to make myself invisible. My superpowers deserted me. Shit, shit, shit I thought, he must think it’s me. I quickly inclined my head sideways towards the drunk, hoping that he could see my gesture in the gloom. Then I lunged out and jabbed the man hard in the ribs.
Ribot caught the gesture and gave me the hint of a smile and a brief nod. That last gesture confirming that my desperate telepathic signal was received; an acknowledgment that it was the fool disturbing the force and not me. This was better than an interview; my superpowers were back and we were communicating by telepathy. Emboldened I reached across again and again to jab the fools ribs. I am not an aggressive man, but the great Marc Ribot had given me permission.
And all the while the music flowed unabated, wonderful music. The art music of everyman.Footnote: Neil Watson acquitted himself well and added to the enjoyment of the evening. He played three types of electric guitar plus his pedal steel guitar; his set list ranging freely across genres. A Nirvana tune, a Hendrix referencing ‘Hear my train a comin’, a nice tune composed by his partner and the Kiwiana classic Blue Smoke as high points from his set.
Marc Ribot: Solo acoustic guitar at the Tuning Fork, Auckland, New Zealand, August 2015 – supporting act Neil Watson (guitars) with Rui Inaba (upright bass).
A few weeks ago I received a review copy of the Nock/Manins ‘Two-Out’ duo album. As it was late I put it straight into my work bag ready to play in the car. When the morning came, the distractions of the work day overtook me and I forgot it was there. It was not until a week later that I found it and listened.
Placing the album into my Hi Fi changer I started to open the mail; what I heard stopped me in my tracks. This was chill down the spine stuff and I hardly noticed the mail slipping from my fingers to the carpet. Man this was so beautiful. Elegant, unadorned thoughtful standards, played by musicians who understood every nuance of the music. Memories of earlier albums immediately came to mind. I found it impossible not to recall the duo albums of Art Pepper & George Cables or the Maybeck Hall duos. Many of the above mentioned albums were piano and alto saxophone, but the vibe here was the same. Heart warming, thoughtful, mature explorations of Jazz standards in duo format. The tune in the clip below is ‘Black and Blue’ (Waller/Brooks/Razaf)
The choice of tunes is impossible to fault and I particularly loved ‘Black and Blue’, ‘It’s the Talk of the Town’ and ‘Golden Earings’. Mike Nock’s deft hand is detectable in the selection. He has a happy knack of finding tunes that we had almost forgotten. Tunes that we once loved but carelessly forgot about. This album is special and perhaps it’s because I am an old dog with a lot of good music in my head that it triggers such happy memories. This is an album that could only be realised by established musicians with nothing to prove. Mature artists comfortable in their musical skins. Each track communicates the joy of exploration and speaks to us of companionship.
The less is more approach serves the album well. It is interesting how different Manins sounds here. His gentle and slightly thinner sound while unusual for him, is just right for the project. This is a side of him that we seldom hear; light airy minimalism. Nock is also light of touch, allowing the music to breathe and speak for itself. Maybe younger listeners will not make the connections I have, but I am confident that it will resonate with anyone who listens with care. It will resonate because some wonderful tunes were paid the respect they deserve. This is an album to treasure and play over and again.
Review: “Two Out’ Mike Nock (piano), Roger Manins (tenor Saxophone) – the album can be purchased from FWM Records or from any of the artists gigs.
Ron Samsom’s Neutrino Funk Experience ‘Ace Tone’ album has so much up front punch that that a warning is needed on the label. It is an album that grabs you by the lapels and demands your attention. As you listen it transports you to a world of joy. The album and the live band exudes a vitality that enters through your pores, pulsing through your body like the wild blood of extreme youth. Try as you may, it is impossible to keep still as the rhythms consume you limb by limb. While the album brings historic musical references to mind, it is very much of the present. This is Jazz Funk at its very best.There is cleverness aplenty in the album, but that’s not what it’s about. The pulse, punch and danceability are the draw cards. The tunes let each listener glean their own references. During the album launch someone said, “Oh wow that takes me back to Deep Purple”, while others talked of the Jazz funk gurus like Herbie Hancock, Eddie Henderson and Jimmy McGriff. What ever references people heard, one thing is for certain. This band updates 70’s Jazz Funk as few other albums do. A lifelong fan of the classic genre observed, “few classic 70’s funk albums actually sound as good as this”.
There is a hackneyed saying that states; good Rock music is simple music made to sound complex and good Jazz is complex music made to sound simple. That brings me to Samsom’s compositions. Samsom joked that the tunes were so simple, that anyone who couldn’t learn them in minutes was wrong for the band. While the heads are often simple, the weave of the music is not. These tunes are skilful constructs and the subtle shifts and turns are deeply nuanced. The writing allows for open-ended improvisation and soloing, while never letting the over-arching themes subside (e.g. the single bass note and organ chord dominating ‘Simple Facts’ or the catchy closed loop melody line played on bass in ‘Other Brother’). Driving everything like a powerful locomotive is that amazing back beat. There is no mistaking the leader. Samsom is authoritive.Material like this needs highly skilled and experienced musicians in order to extract the maximum advantage and that is exactly what Samsom got. This is an alignment of talent that works so well that they must surely build on their success. The Neutrino Funk Experience formed in 2014 and started doing regular gigs at Auckland’s Albion in the central City. The word soon got around and one by one we drifted down to see them. The band stood-out from the first day and the disbelieving expletives from experienced musicians confirmed what our gut told us. These guys were total ‘muthas’.Roger Manins always sounds great but he has excelled himself here. This brand of earthy down-home funk is a natural place for him and his own funk albums reinforce that view. Manins just tears the place up on these sessions and it would be hard to find his equal. There are times when he apparently defies gravity, rising to his toes and abandoning self to move inside the music. These are moments of pure Zen and I watch for them now. Man and instrument becoming one and out of the bell streams a cornucopia of sound, distilled from the human experience. From the otherworldly wails to the gentlest urgings you recognise Manins uniqueness. Organist Winterburn said of him, “Working with Roger is perfect for me. He’s such a rhythmic saxophonist”. Coltrane, old school funk, ballads and modern edge; it’s all there in the sound.
Grant Winterurn is another extraordinary talent and a fully formed musician. He can talk engagingly on anything musical; complex theory, Bill Evans, Kieth Jarrett, Rick Wakeman, Brother Jack McDuff or Schoenberg. Securing him for this unit was a masterstroke. He is a busy working musician and consequently we don’t see enough of him on the scene. When he does appear an audience follows; he has admirers everywhere. He is not only the consummate organist, pianist and keys player but a great showman. When a C3 or B3 player sits at the keyboards lumpen it feels plain wrong. There is no chance of levelling this criticism at Winterburn. He is delightful to watch and to listen to. Few keyboardists are better able to co-ordinate limbs, groove and flourish like him. Like all improvisers he creates maps of sound in his head and the logic of his solos draws on his wide musical knowledge.On the album we have Cameron McArthur on upright bass. Even before leaving the UoA Jazz school Cameron was punching well above his weight. I would describe him as an instinctive player. Knowing where to place his lines and always strongly supportive of other band members. He quickly became a fixture in quality rhythm sections and visiting artists praised him. After a trip to New York to check out the scenic he picked up some work in cruise ship bands. By happy coincidence they had cut the album prior to him leaving. So punchy are his bass lines on ‘Ace Tones’, that you think he is playing an electric bass. In his absence Samsom hired Karika Junior Turua for the launch gig. Again this was a good choice. This time we did hear an electric bass and as Turua has experience with Jazz funk, the transition from upright to electric bass was seamless.Lastly there’s the album art work and the recording credits. Who ever created the cover design and layout must feel pleased; they did an amazing job. The presentation tells the ‘Ace Tone’ story perfectly. My friend Iain Sharp and I were involved in the project as liner notes providers. As requested we contributed poems. It is rare (but not unheard of) for an album to use poems instead of the standard liner note blurb. I really hope that this trend continues for selfish reasons. Contributing something to an album like this is pure pleasure. The recording and mixing took place at ‘Roundhead Studios’ in Auckland and the mastering at ‘Turtle Tone Studios’ in New York. The album is out on Rattle Jazz where the best of original New Zealand music lives.
Having documented the band from their first gig, I have long felt a stake in this project. The finished album is surely not where this story ends; music of this quality deserves a sequel. Ron Samsom is an intuitive multi-faceted drummer and gifted composer. He is program coordinator at the UoA Jazz school. (if you haven’t already done so check out his and Manins contributions on the award-winning DOG album).
The Neutrino Funk Experience: Ron Samsom (leader, compositions, drums), Grant Winterburn (Hammond organ, Nord Stage, Wurlitzer electric piano, acoustic piano), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Cameron McArthur (acoustic bass) – live Karika Junior Turua (electric bass).