Backbeat Bar, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Concerts - visiting Musicians, Small ensemble

Tales of the Diaspora – Mark Donlon

DonlonThe UK born Mark Donlon is an internationally renowned musician who joined the New Zealand School of Music as a senior lecturer in Jazz Piano in 2013. He has previously appeared at Auckland’s CJC, but never with a quintet. The small ensemble format is clearly a forte as it revealed his many skills. After hearing his recent recording and attending the CJC gig it was evident to me that this particular project hit a sweet spot. What we heard on Wednesday was something special.  An evocative programme built around stories of displaced peoples.

There is no separating a good musician from their musical origins and Donlon wears his origins on his compositional sleeve. I am not referring to nationality but to something more ethereal. That wellspring of melodic and harmonic invention that bubbles from the musical homeland and feeds sonic identity. If I didn’t pick it up before I certainly did this time, an unmistakable sound.  A sound manifest in John Taylor, John Surman and expat Canadian, Kenny Wheeler – perhaps it is strongest in Guildhall musicians. Wheeler was referenced several times and early into the first set the quintet played a superb version of his ‘Kind Folk’.  Donlon’s original compositions, the rest, also capturing that very English and often wistful vibe. That and the slick head arrangements setting the tone – perfect vehicles for the tales he told.  

This type of composition is sometimes characterised as sad (or dark), but I hear more than that in Donlon (or Wheeler). I prefer the word melancholy in its Shakespearian sense. “A melancholy of mine own, compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects, and indeed the sundry contemplation of my travels, which by rumination, wraps me in the most humorous sadness”.   Shakespeare knew that emotion is seldom one dimensional. 

The music also speaks of human dignity in the face of oppression, the titles traversing the sweep of history – of personal loss. There’s ‘Aleppo’, a lovely tune about a tragic city, trampled under the boots of sectarian and superpower violence – this, aptly told by juxtaposing dissonance and sweetness. There’s ‘Windrush’, the story of the Jamaican immigrants and their history of mistreatment – more recently at the hands of Brexiteer Amber Rudd. Then there’s ‘Zanj’, the old word for an African slave.  While the topic may be grim, the musical treatment is not devoid of hope. Good composers do not resile from such difficult topics; they aim to touch our hearts, offer up hope, and this did. Donlon (1)

That the album is so good is not surprising, given the New York heavyweights on board; Alex Sipiagin and Seamus Blake for starters.  Appearing at the CJC was a Wellington lineup; Mark Donlon (piano), Louisa Williamson (saxophone), Luca Sturney (guitar), Lance Philip (drums) and Seth Boy (bass).  It’s been a while since I heard Louisa Williamson and these days, she is everything that she is hyped to be. A stunning performer with a silky tone and a plethora of coherent ideas flowing from her horn. Her use of dynamics is minimal, but this is not a deficit.  She conveys her message through skillful phrasing and the delivery of imaginative lines.  I had not seen Luca Sturney before but his musical abilities are unmistakeable (what a nice sound and what solid solos). The same with Seth Boy.  Lastly, there is Lance Philip, who along with Donlon, is the veteran in the lineup. An incredibly able drummer who covers all styles and who lifts any performance. Donlon was obviously thrilled to have him on the tour, and no wonder.

The track I have posted on YouTube is from the CJC gig and titled ‘Zanj’ – ‘The NY album is available from fuzzymoonrecords.co.uk or from Mark Donlon, New Zealand School of Music, Victoria University Wellington – he has a facebook page – The gig took place at Backbeat, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, Auckland, 8 May 2019.

Album: Mark Donlon (piano, compositions), Alex Sipiagin (trumpet, flugelhorn), Seamus Blake(saxophone), Boris Kozlov (Bass), Donald Edwards (drums).

Auckland gig: Mark Donlon (piano), Louisa Williamson (saxophone), Luca Sturney (guitar), Seth Boy (bass), Lance Philip (drums)

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Backbeat Bar, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Review, Small ensemble

Umar Zakaria Fearless Music – Review – Kang/Lockett/Zakaria

Fearless MusicI 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. Zakaria

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. Zakaria (3)

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. Zakaria (1)

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Zealand Jazz Gigs, Small ensemble, Space Jazz

Aldebaran Quartet @ Wallace Arts Trust

Bell Aldebaran (1)While pop music briefly looked up and saw satellites and Rock music headed for the dark side of the moon, Jazz musicians lifted their vision further, aiming beyond Voyager and reaching for the farthest corners of deep space. Exploring those regions is the beautifully realised Aldebaran Quartet, an ensemble which pleases me greatly. It’s not often that I encounter a band like this and I can’t wait for them to record.  Bell Aldebaran (2)

I first reviewed them in March of this year, hoping that this would not be a one-off project and thankfully it wasn’t. They are fresh, modern and original while conjuring up memories of an era that I am still passionate about. 70’s Modal Jazz – Space Funk, Alice Coltrane, Bobby Hutcherson, Bernie Maupin and Eddie Henderson. This was an era of space dreams and old analogue machines. It stretched the imagination beyond known horizons and in so doing, encapsulated the true ethos of improvised music. Happily, this band is true to the original mission directive; reach beyond fearlessly.Bell Aldebaran

Aldebaran is an Arabic word meaning follower and it refers to the giant orange star Aldebaran which follows the Pleiades Constellation into the night sky; sitting somewhere to the left of Orion’s Belt. It has long exited the human imagination. The Egyptians, Greeks Persians and others were particularly fascinated by its presence as it is the largest entity in the Taurian configuration. It is a mere 65.3 light years away from Earth and 7 billion years old. It is therefore entirely fitting that an improvising unit pays reverent homage to the ‘Watcher of the East’.Bell Aldebaran (3)

We caught a piece of luck when vibist John Bell returned to our shores and that was reinforced by the return of drummer Steve Cournane. It also coincided with the return of the pianist Phil Broadhurst who had been sojourning in Paris for a while. Add in either Eamon Edmundson-Wells or on this gig Cameron McArthur on bass, and you have a winning combination. At the Wallace Arts Trust gig, we heard new compositions by Bell and one each by Broadhurst and Cournane. We also heard the premiere of a new Bell composition ‘Corona’, a suite in four parts. I have posted the last two parts as the entire suite nears 20 minutes in length. It is so beautifully composed that ‘Corona’ could easily be extended even further without ever taxing an audience.

If you get a chance to catch this band, do so. The journey that they will take you on is very worthwhile. This was only their second public performance and judging by their form to date, we can look forward to what follows with happy anticipation. The Aldebaran Quartet on this gig was: John Bell (vibraharp), Phil Broadhurst (piano), Steve Cournane (drums) and Cam McArthur (bass). The gig was held at the Wallace Arts Trust 19 August 2018.

 

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

Steve​ Sherriff Sextet @ Backbeat Bar

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Backbeat Bar, Beyond category, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Fusion & World, Small ensemble

Jonathan Besser @ Backbeat Bar

BesserThere is an inescapable charm surrounding any Besser performance and Wednesday’s Zestniks gig at the Backbeat bar was no exception. While his music has many strands feeding it and although it can be hard to categorise, it is never the less rooted in the Jewish musical traditions. Besser is somewhat of an icon in Arts circles and deservedly so. The arc of his work has a momentum that few could emulate. As it alights on various styles or genres it borrows their raiment, and seemingly without compromising what lies at the music’s heart; gathering what is necessary and no more. Over the years he has collaborated with leading conceptual artists, filmmakers, symphony orchestras, electronic adventurers and Jazz musicians. The Zestnics performance reflected much of this fascinating journey.Besser (2)

I am always drawn to performers who leaven their gigs with an appropriate portion of banter and Besser’s comments and asides were delightful. They were delivered with a deadpan expression and consequently were nicely understated. As with music, timing and delivery are everything.  Many of the tunes were from his ‘Gimel Suite’ and a quick investigation of the word leads you to a cornucopia of meanings. It is the third letter of the Hebrew alphabet, it is a letter imbued with special qualities and it this case it is a footing or foundation for composition. This is an ancient to modern music and I suspect that those listening will have conjured their own associations. Because I have recently travelled through eastern Europe, I heard the warp and weft of Polish or Czech street music.   Besser (1)

The other ensemble members came from a variety of disciplines and this was fitting. Caro Manins on vocals with her deep knowledge of ancient Sephardic Ladino music; Nigel Gavin, an adventurous ‘World music’ musician who ignores artificial boundaries; John Bell, a Vibes player from the free to groove or ‘World’ end of town; Eamon Edmundson-Wells on bass, a versatile bass player and also frequently seen in avant-garde settings; Alistair Deverick on drums, navigating those exhilarating rhythms. Lastly were two from the expanded Black Quartet; Peau Halapua on violin and Sophie Buxton on viola – popular classical musicians and sometimes seen with Jazz or ‘World’ ensembles. Besser, of course, was on piano.

Some of the tunes were nostalgic or even mournful, some were brimming with joy – all were enjoyable.  The tunes never strayed too far from the notation, but there were some brief improvised sections which balanced things up nicely. I have posted the last number of the gig and while I am not sure of the title, I know that it brought the house down.

The gig took place on the 4th of July, 2018 at the Backbeat Bar, K’Road, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club.

Australian and Oceania based bands, Big Band, Post Millenium, Review, Small ensemble

Viata (Dilworth) + Zephyrix (McAll)

IMG_0434Viata: 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.

IMG_0435Zephyrix: 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.

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Post Millenium, Small ensemble

Emerging Artists – Orr / Fritsch

Orr (1)In keeping with the longstanding CJC tradition of keeping twice yearly slots open for emerging artists, late March featured two such sets.  First up was a group led by bassist Denholm Orr.  Orr has appeared in lineups a number of times, but this was his first appearance playing his own material and as a leader. His recent compositional work has placed increasing focus on arco-bass and consequently, the charts reached into that territory. Arco is not the default style for Jazz bassists but I am seeing a lot more of it lately and I welcome that.

Orr opened with a piano trio and as the set proceeded more players were added.  The larger formations tackled ambitious arrangements and this is a hopeful sign of things to come. Emerging artists should reach beyond their comfort zone – being challenged is where growth happens. On piano was the ever-reliable Nick Dow and on guitar Michael Gianan (who wowed us all with his first CJC gig a few months ago). Misha Kourkov was on tenor and new to me was Charlie Isdale on alto and Jack Thirtle was on trumpet. Daniel Waterson was on drums. Kourkov is shaping up to be a presence on the scene and Fritsch is grabbing attention with each fresh appearance. As most are still studying and given their ages and experience, it was a good start. Orr

Lukas Fritsch headed the second set and again this featured ambitious material. Fritsch’s set had a tighter focus and perhaps because he had a few seasoned musicians in the ensemble ranks, the set sang joyously from start to finish. When Fritsch completed his finals, a buzz quickly circulated; that the recital performances had been something special.  I had not attended, but my attention was certainly piqued. The arrangements were superb and the musicians well focused, but the inclusion of Chelsea Prastiti and Crystal Choi gave the set that special something that lifted it beyond the ordinary.  Orr (2)

Choi is fascinating to behold as her trajectory is pointed ever upwards – a pianist who understands how to get inside the music and make it part of her story.  Prastiti likewise is an innovative trailblazer, who takes the path less ordinary.  The front line was Fritsch on Alto, Asher Truppman-Lattie on tenor and Kathleen Tomacruz on guitar.  On bass was Wil Goodinson and on drums Tom Leggett. Fritsch writes interestingly and his performances are well thought through and engaging.

The gig was the last at the Thirsty Dog for the CJC (Creative Jazz Club, It took place on March 21, 2018.