Rob Luft UK Guitarist ~ Interview

One of the few pleasures of lockdown is that it has afforded me time to conduct long-form interviews. But while I had the time, the subject of this interview was back touring again and his hectic schedule meant that dates and time zones had to be navigated with precision. Consequently, our pre-interview messaging often occurred during gig breaks. Guitarist Rob Luft is a significant presence on the UK and European Jazz scene. He is articulate and a good storyteller and so transcribing our zoom call has been a pleasure. We talked for nearly two hours. 

It was basically a long-distance hang, and when Jazz people are interviewed they tend to intersperse the geeky stuff with funny asides. This was no exception. For my part, I couldn’t wait to hear about his ECM experience with Manfred Eicher, but the unexpected foray into the joys of Arab music and being alone with Tutankhamun were the icing on the cake. It was never in doubt that Luft’s star would rise and it has risen on the back of sound judgement and hard work. And in aligning himself with astonishing vocalists like Alina Duni he has broadened his horizons. It is unusual to hear a young guitarist embracing thoughtful minimalism but in doing this he has shown real maturity. Under his fingers, less is invariably more.

JL32: Hi Rob, nice to see you again man and thanks for agreeing to an interview when you are so busy gigging.  I know that you had a gig in Oxford last night and were at Ronnie Scotts much of last week, before that on tour in Europe.

Luft: Hi John, good to see you too after a long strange few years. It’s been a while since we last met up. 

JL32. Yes, after your trip to New Zealand in 2016 (see review) we got together in London, first at the Barnes Jazz Club for the launch of Luna Cohens ‘November Skies’ album and then, a year later at Ronnie Scotts where you were playing with Kit Downes.

Luft: And I have played with both since, with Luna on my recent album and with Kit on a gig recently.

JL32: According to your discography you have been very busy since we last spoke. There was your Riser album with Joe Wright (sax),  Joe Webb (keys), Tom McCredie (bass) and Corrie Dick (drums), and then, a follow-up album with the same lineup adding vocalist Luna Cohan and on ‘Flumpit’ Byron Wallen. And over that same period, you were sideman on around eight albums. 

Luft: Yes and other projects, but, 2020 was almost completely dry of gigs because of COVID. We had the inverse experience to New Zealand because the UK was hit early and we were not open like your country.  Especially gig wise.

JL32: The last time we spoke you told me that you and the Albanian Jazz vocalist Elina Duni had an ECM album under discussion, and of course that came to pass with the beautiful ‘Lost Ships’. Looking at the release date, that must have coincided with the arrival of restrictions in the UK.

Luft: Well in the rest of Europe, after the initial lockdown, there were still gigs happening, I was able to play gigs in France, Italy, Germany, Spain and Switzerland throughout the summer. In the UK it was very different.

JL32: I’d like to come back to that, but before we proceed further,  a few biographical details if you don’t mind. I know that you were born in the London area and that you went to the Royal Academy of Music where you won the Kenny Wheeler Prize. 

Luft: Yes, and I had a bizarre sort of experience at the Academy. The class groups for the Jazz Studies Bachelor’s course were very small and in my year there were only five, then later four of us. And in my group was Jacob Collier, so for the best part of four years, I was there with Jacob who was obviously a multi-instrumentalist. We had no drummer in our year and so usually you would have a full group playing with you, and so Jacob would play a different instrument when each guest artist came to visit us. There was John Abercrombie, Kenny Wheeler, Stan Sulzman and so on, and Jacob would be there playing a different instrument for each ensemble. There was no sense of continuity or band sensibility because Jacob was fulfilling so many roles, quite bizarre actually.  

JL32: So in some ways your studies forced you to forge your own path.

Luft: I guess because the Academy only took in pupils who had advanced abilities at the outset. Less teaching and a more autodidactic approach, they encouraged that. They would get these great artists like Jerry Bergonzi to come in and play with us rather than teach us in the traditional sense. It was amazing to have people like John Abercombie come in and I’d be with him for a couple of days at a time.

JL32: That must have been especially good for you as a guitarist.

Luft: For me it was optimal. And obviously, the people coming in with Kenny Wheeler, like John Taylor, Norma Winstone and that class of musicians. 

JL32: Abercrombie, Wheeler, Taylor, they are no longer with us. 

Luft: Yes, back then Kenny Wheeler’s Big Band would come in and rehearse, imagine, you’re eighteen years old and you watch these legendary Jazz figures come in and rehearse in your music hall, it was amazing. Kenny had a huge influence on me, on my harmonic and textural approach. And Stan (Sulzman), a lovely player, and Ray Warleigh, they were all in that band, Ray was originally from Australia I think (Sadly Warleigh is also no longer with us).  

JL32: Kenny was across every style huh.

Luft: He was eclectic, as was Stan, across everything from playing alongside English folk guitarist Nick Drake to playing free alongside Evan Parker. And I love that open eclecticism, the Academy was like that, never dictatorial or saying, you have to play like this. 

JL32;  The UK scene historically, appears to have possessed enough confidence to do its own thing, not thinking that they had to sound exactly like American players. It appears to have an original voice, much as the Scandinavian scene does. What do you think?

Luft: Yeah it’s very similar to the Scandinavian Jazz scene. You will understand, because we meet up in London, that it’s a melting pot, with influences coming from all over Europe and everywhere else. Afro Caribean musicians because of the connections formed way back in colonial times. Or the Indian community in North London creating a hub of South Indian music and by the same token, there is a huge West African community bringing their traditional music, Ghanain, Congolese for example.

JL32: Like Shabaka Hutchings?

Luft: Exactly, Shabaka comes from a Barbadian background and is influenced by Calypso music.

JL32: And earlier, Joe Harriot from Jamaica, who was world-leading in his free and world fusion explorations.

Luft: Yes, and that’s the melting pot of London. So many forms of music around and played at a high level. And you came to see us in Barnes with the Brazillian vocalist Luna Cohen and her band features Brazillian musicians. I played with them again recently and Luna is on one of my recent albums. 

JL32: She sung wordless vocal lines, I love that.

Luft: I especially love that as a guitarist, the Pat Metheney group of the eighties, and Kenny with Norma Winstone, I can’t get away from it in my head, the vocalese. And the psychedelic jazz of the seventies, Mahavishnu and Alan Holdsworth. One of the first gigs I ever saw was Holdsworth with Jimmy Haslip and Gary Husband (Gary playing the drums and not keyboards). For better or worse, seeing that trio changed my life. 

JL32: Is Gary Husband English (Luft nods) I had no idea? 

Luft: A few months after my New Zealand trip I met McLoughlin at the Montreaux Jazz Festival and he adjudicated in a competition I had entered. Then his band played with the two winning bands, I got second place, all of us jamming a blues together and doing solos. I had to pinch myself and say, is this happening (laughs). He’s lovely, just lovely, and he speaks incredibly good French, but I was slightly dismayed that his North Yorkshire accent has all but disappeared. 

JL32: So moving to 2020 and your album ‘Life as a Dancer’, did you record that before or after the ECM album ‘Lost Ships’?

Luft: That was recorded six months before. I remember that session well because Byron had been held up. He needed to pick up his Flumpet which had a sticky valve. It sounds like a comedy sketch now (laughs), very Monty Python, me on the phone saying we need your Flumpet. We were recording and only had the studio booked for a limited time. When he arrived we only had time left for one take and he nailed it. 

JL32: I admire openness in writing, even after adding two extra voices (after Riser), that album still sounds spacious, and the palette creates a nice textural balance.   

Luft: I think you could say that the quintet was more inspired by textual, ambient ideas, perhaps Eno, more open and a washier sound, more open to explorations. We laid down a very simple progression and let the music go where it wanted to.

JL32: Are you drawn to open, model or spiritual jazz?

Luft: Yes, that new Coltrane album exemplified that, it blew me away. I am always inspired by that modal era, and when you add the electric guitar, electronics, which touches on those psychedelic influences, Eno, Byrne, then that whole world of sonic exploration opens. 

JL32: Jon Hassell?

Luft: Oh yeah, a huge loss. In 2019 I was on tour with Arve Hendrikson (Norwegian Trumpeter associated with Hassell), and I discovered Hassell after I had heard Arve, and I said to him, ‘hang on, there is so much in your playing that comes from Jon Hassell and I had no idea’.  

JL32: And guitarist Eivind Aaset, electronics improviser Jan Bang?

Luft: ‘Dream Logic’ is one of my favourite albums. The Norwegians are masters, they are like folk musicians. I met Eivind and Arild Anderson recently when I played at the Molde Jazz Festival, and I came to the realisation that these are deep folk musicians. Masters of sound, it’s about sound and the local roots. And Sidsel Endresen who is the biggest influence on Elina is astonishing. 

JL32: And last year, there was another album that was released. A trio with Norwegian bassist and vocalist Ellen Andrea Wang, You on guitar and Jon Falt on drums (Falt is the long time drummer with the ECM Bobo Stenson Trio). 

Luft: I’m a huge fan of Jon Falt and I love Bobo Stenson, a big influence across Europe, Here, he has an almost Jarrett-like status. 

JL32: Again that open airy free sound – like the American pianist, Marilyn Crispell,   minimalism and depth.

Luft: The trumpet player who appears on ‘Life is a Dancer’, Byron Wallen, has an album. I’m on tour with him at present. He plays trumpet, Flugel, Flumpet, piano, conch and reads poems. He’s of Belizian Descent and has this gorgeous dulcet voice, and while he reads a poem I play minimalistic triadic chords. A beautiful conversation, voice above the texture.  

JL32: Obviously, the thing I am keen to explore is your co-led album ‘Lost Ships’ and your impressions of recording with ECM. ‘Lost ships’ is the album that I am most likely to recommend to friends and your playing is a great example of less being more. You are understated, not all over the vocalist, but it feels so expansive. And all of you, relatively sparse instrumentation, Flugel, piano, guitar, vocals and not always at the same time, but a big sound.

Luft: I can tell you an amazing story about that recording. At that point, some countries like Italy were beginning to experience COVID but for us, it was a vague awareness of distant storm clouds gathering. We were there in the south of France and the days were mild. The studio Manfred had hired was in Avignon and the Israeli pianist Shai Maestro had just finished recording. And Manfred was there setting up the mics and desk levels, and then he had to return to Munich unexpectedly. So the set-up was complete and we had the engineer, but we were suddenly self-producing. 

I was initially gutted, but Alina who had recorded with Manfred before, said, this is an opportunity. His presence is everywhere in the studio, so we should draw on that and record as if he were here guiding us. We should play as though he were sitting on the other side of the glass. And we would do a take and listen and say to ourselves, how would Manfred view this, and it was kind of liberating because we had unexpected freedom and as a young guitarist, I might have been intimidated otherwise. 

JL32: Tell me more about the vibe.

Luft: I mean Manfred has produced some of my favourite albums like Metheney’s ‘Bright Sized Life’, John Abercrombie’s ‘Timeless’ with De Johnette/Hammer and many of my favourite guitar albums, so it took some of the weight off my shoulders to be imagining his presence. And as you pointed out, I felt able to play in a minimalist spacious way and I didn’t deploy all of my usual tricks and language.  I just told myself, be an ECM guitarist and it worked. I’ve been told that Manfred loves the album and that he plays it at dinner parties, so it’s a good sign. 

JL32: I would like to touch on the arranging, the writing, configuration etc. 

Luft: I did a fair bit of the arranging and we were lucky to bring onboard other musicians, Matthieu Michel on Flugelhorn, they call him the Kenny Wheeler of Switzerland, a mellifluous tone reminiscent of the Northern Europeans. Manfreds a fan of his playing and he’s featured on a few ECM albums, with artists like Susanne Abbuehl. And Fred Thomas who is a multi-instrumentalist. He went to the Academy about ten years before me, in the same year as Kit Downes (also an ECM artist). What I’m trying to say is that it is all very incestuous (laughs). It’s a beautiful thing that the entire Jazz world is so connected.

Getting back to ‘lost Ships’, it came out in November 2020, during the month that Europe called a circuit-breaker lockdown.  So right on release after the promise of clubs finally opening up again, lockdown. It was like a switch being turned off.  We were gutted that we could not promote our album and only one concert survived. We had a big release tour locked down and suddenly in my diary, everything had to be crossed out. 

The one remaining concert was the Cairo Jazz festival, Egypt! So in the middle of a lockdown, I showed up at Heathrow, guitar in tow, and boarded an Egyptian Airlines flight, without Matthieu. We were a trio with just Alina and Fred. But there was one gig on the way in Galicia Spain which was streamed and from there we flew directly to Cairo. (clip shown)

As we exited the Cairo terminal, the wafts of heat just swept over us, in stark contrast to wintery London. Taxi touts everywhere, shouting, and obviously no lockdown. We had two gigs at the festival and instead of live-streaming with no audience, we had a gorgeous venue and a full capacity audience. The Cairo Jazz Festival is amazing and we learnt an Arabic song for it, an ancient maqam from the 14th century. 

We met loads of great musicians and the director of the festival, Amr Salah said, why are you getting on a plane to fly into a lockdown? What will you do when there are no gigs? Why don’t you just miss the flight and stay in Egypt? It was a wine-fueled evening and we decided on the spot to do just that. We soon found ourselves exploring the wonders of upper and lower Egypt. There were no tourists and we had the ancient sites virtually to ourselves. I must be one of the few people to stand beside Tutankhamun without company. And it was just us inside the anti-chamber of the Great Pyramid of Giza. And one thing led to another and I stayed there seven months.

JL32: Did I hear you correctly, seven months?

Luft: I was there living my life as normal, learning a bit of Arabic, and I fell in love with the country. And for whatever reason, the desert or perhaps a lack of testing, but very few cases of the virus appeared. 

JL32: And are there any projects underway, ECM or otherwise?

Luft: Well three months ago Alina and I received an email from Manfred asking us to do another record. The finer details of which are under discussion right now and we might be recording in March 2022. And although we suffered through missing the lockdown release gigs, all of those bookings are suddenly active again, with promoters wanting us to appear all over. Strangely, I am busier with gigs now than I have ever been. In a few days, we head for Paris for a week of gigs, then around France. And another factor is that Elina and I work perfectly well as a duo and promotors find that easier to plan for. (some European countries have numbers restrictions again).

JL32: And how is the album doing?

Luft: By modern standards well and the sales are constant with gigs opening up again.  Loads of Radio Play in Germany and Italy especially. ECM is essentially an old fashioned business and what they do is remarkably successful. Manfred is across it all and he uses only a small number of studios and a handful of trusted engineers. There’s one in the South of France where we recorded, there’s one in Lugano south Switzerland. Even the famous Rainbow Studio in Oslo is not used anymore because the room is different. He values spaces and forms high trust relationships with certain engineers, and he probably delegates more than people think. Including delegating to the musicians. I have been told by other ECM musicians that his presence is felt, but not inserted into the project. Not insisting, I want you to do this now.  

JL32: Any plans for a down-under tour in future? 

Luft: The Melbourne scene is an important Jazz hub and the Melbourne diaspora (of jazz musicians) is felt throughout the world. We have a good friend in Melbourne who keeps threatening to organise a tour. If we were to go to Melbourne we would certainly try to facilitate a trip to New Zealand.  And I would tour with Alina, it’s just a question of time. My mentality now, since we started touring again is, every concert is a blessing, a gift. Even if it’s stressful to get there with quarantine or with testing, we brush that aside and give the concert our all. I don’t want to lose that.

JL32: And I want to mention another name, someone you know. James Copus the Flugel player. I reviewed the recent Scottish National Jazz Orchestra album where they honour some free-jazz titans and James was playing in the orchestra. I loved his ‘Dusk’ recording.

Luft: Yes, James is one of my oldest friends, we shared a flat in North London, we drank too much, jammed too loudly and annoyed the neighbours. We would rehearse in our room with Balkan brass ensembles and the poor neighbours were incensed. We have known each other since we were fifteen as we were both in the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. And in the Royal Academy, we were in the same year with Jacob Collier. James and I are going to record together next year.

JL32: I see that you recorded as guest guitarist with the SNJO.

Luft: Yes one album. Tommy Smith is amazing, the UK Michael Brecker. 

JL32: A few final questions. On ‘Lost Ships’ there is no bass player and minimal drums. How did you approach that?  

Luft: Yes, it freed up space, but it also put a lot of responsibility onto my shoulders as a guitarist. So that’s why I used the electronics to give me an octave below and to fill out that space a bit more. And if there is a drummer they needed to be very aware. Play more with the lower toms and bass drum. I played bass lines sometimes while comping, it’s a flavour. You can’t talk about bassless jazz without thinking, Paul Motian Trio. In my head, that’s the textbook on how to do it. 

JL32: Current influences? 

Luft: I try to listen to new stuff all the time. Actually, Egypt was amazing for that. Being immersed in a whole world of Egyptian singers and musicians was great, I had no idea it existed. And now I hear that and it touches me deeply. It’s incredible the way the Oud players, singers and violinists improvise within a mode and often microtonally. No pianos anywhere. I’m a huge fan of Anouar Brahem, so to walk into a cafe, drink a really strong coffee and hear musicians doing what he does, magic, all of that drone-based modal music. 

It’s lament music. Alina often points out to audiences, that once you cross the Bosphorus and arrive in the Middle East, something fundamental in the music changes. So in the West, a major key song is a happy song and a minor key song is a sad song. Once you cross the Bosphorus, the minor key becomes the happy song. And Jazz gets that as it understands dancing the sadness away. 

JL32: So with Alina, you will have been exploring this type of music.  

Luft: Because she’s from Albania, an ancient cultural melting pot, the Ottoman Turkish influence is strong, but it’s also a Mediterranean country with Italian and other influences. So Turkish microtonality blended with an Italian folky balladesque. And touches of Rock and Pop. The Balkans region influences me more and more. So I have an Oud now and I am beginning to explore that. The Oud shops of Cairo are the Tin Pan Alley of the Middle East. We have to innovate to keep moving.

JL32: And the recent album by Norwegian bass player Ellen Andrea Wang that you featured on. That is a prime example of the forward-momentum of improvised music. I get quite a few albums from that region for review, and many are similar to ‘Closeness’ in that they blend pop sensibilities with hardcore Jazz. Like folksy ballads alongside tunes like Ornette’s Lonely Woman or some Americana like Wayfaring Stranger.  

Luft: All over London there are Jazz gigs in small venues featuring this exact type of music, so you get teenagers coming along in droves, and sometimes I do gigs like that. We will throw in a Radiohead or a Nick Drake number with Jazz harmonies.  I love the excitement on the faces of new audiences as they hear that mix but also relate to the straight Jazz content. Brad Mehldau led the way.  Many young Londoners are becoming tired of shallow formulaic pop music and they are searching. And they discover new stars like Shabaka Hutchings who is very popular. Myele Manzanza from Wellington is also very successful in London, he has real crossover appeal. 

JL32: I am interested in your work as an accompanist, your sensitivity and awareness of the vocalist. Not every guitarist gets that, many overplay, miss the nuances when comping. Although you have a number of instrumental albums, you also gravitate towards vocalists. Are you drawn to them or do they seek you out?

Luft: I’ve always been drawn to singers because I love the spoken word. A number of years ago I studied at University College London, a degree course in the science of language. Along the way, I managed to pick up two additional languages, with a degree of proficiency, French and Italian, and I’m fascinated with the connection between poetry and melody. Voice and guitar, that extra layer that can be added. So I am drawn to them, but maybe it works both ways as they call me back for more gigs.

JL32: It appears that we’ve been talking for nearly two hours so I’d better wrap up and let you get some sleep (it’s Midnight in the UK). Thanks, for giving me so much time man, it’s been a really interesting and fun catch-up.

Luft: And you too John. Let’s hope that our paths will cross sometime in the new year or very soon after. 

JazzLocal32.com is rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association, poet & writer. Some of these posts appear on related sites.

O’Connor/Derrick/Johnson

Last Wednesday’s CJC gig brought us a feast of truly adventurous music and it was beautifully executed. It was ‘free’ and ‘experimental’ and although within the improvised music spectrum, it is probable that many in the audience would not have encountered a prepared piano before. At the heart of the trio was the critically acclaimed pianist Hermione Johnson with drummer Chris O’Connor and reeds player Reuben Derrick. Anyone unfamiliar with a ‘prepared piano’ trio performance could not have wished for a better introduction. 

The beauty of experimental music is that you can put away the straight jacket of preconception and bring your imaginings to bear. New and unexpected worlds can be crafted out of the fragmentary detritus of the old. This is surely the ultimate purpose of improvised music. Freeing us from the tyranny of the obvious. 

This performance dove into the heart of sonority; creating sounds not generally associated with the instruments that made them. The piano had been prepared before the audience arrived and I wish that I had seen it. I have been lucky enough to witness this ritual on previous occasions, and ritual it is. There is a concentrated delicacy required in instaling the objects which muffle or extend the range of a piano. It is an installation and the precursor of new music. Items like chopsticks are inserted precisely between adjacent strings or perhaps a metal bowl is positioned. Few if any in New Zealand exceed the artistry of Johnson in this regard. 

Excerpts from concert

And it was not only the piano that reached for new sounds. No one thinks twice when they hear an instrument’s range extended by electronic means, nor should they when this is achieved acoustically. O’Connor, the drummer’s drummer is the most familiar to CJC audiences. He is one of Aotearoa’s best-loved and most adventurous drummers as he sits astride many genres with deceptive ease. During this performance, he added colour via fingers, mallets, sticks, gongs or rims, and no available surface or drum position was left unexplored. And he underscored the deep pulse emanating from the piano, tapping out some passages with surprising delicacy. 

Completing the trio was Christchurch based reeds player Derrick. The last time I saw him perform was in 2013 with his ‘Hound Dogs’. That particular unit performed a Monk heavy set that was well-received as I recall. Since then he has travelled extensively to places like Warsaw, Colombo, Vienna and Ljubljana. He is a noted composer and has collaborated across many cultural traditions. His fluency on the clarinet automatically singles him out, as the instrument is famous for punishing anyone who takes it up half-heartedly. On this gig, he doubled on tenor saxophone and his uncanny ability to locate the acoustic possibilities on both was evident. It’s a pity that he doesn’t live closer, I am up for more of what he has to offer.

Derrick, O’Connor, Johnson

This was music but it was also performance art of the highest order. It stretched us as improvised music should. It was wonderful. The only way that I can begin to do it justice is by abandoning written syntax. Filigree, texture, tropical thunder, raindrops, gamelan orchestra, quasar, delicate motifs, deep pulse, sighs, dance, hot tiles, exquisite, exotic. It reminded me of the first time that I heard Bley/Giuffre/Swallow’s Freefall.  My ears were realigned after that experience.     

Hermione Johnson (prepared grand piano), Chris O’Connor (drums, percussion), Reuben Derrick (clarinet, tenor saxophone). The gig took place at Anthology, for the CJC Jazz Club, 7 July 2021

JazzLocal32.com is rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association, poet & writer. Some of these posts appear on related sites

Multiple Streams, Deeper Rivers

I have been absent during the last month as my computer was deliberately unplugged. I needed time to walk among trees, read and spend time with visiting family. None of the above kept me from checking out new music and it afforded me some time to reflect more on the global changes feeding Jazz. There is nothing quite like a pandemic to make us re-evaluate our place in the world and to make us value comity over isolation. These connecting threads lead us into every corner of the improvised music diaspora. 

Just in time for the holidays, I gave several Christmas presents to myself. The first was Keith Jarrett’s magnificent ‘Sun Bear Concerts’ box-set, recorded in Japan (which I had long lusted after). It was fitting in light of the news that Jarrett is unlikely to perform or record again due to a debilitating stroke. This boxset has often been overlooked. It is a musical statement of pure genius.  The second album was a recent release ‘Architexture’ by the German Jazz musician Florian Ross. ‘Architexture’ is an extraordinary album, sitting astride the broader traditions of ensemble Jazz. It is configured atypically and consequently it has a distinctly airy feel to it. 

The album features a traditional jazz quartet, augmented by a conducted seven-piece wind ensemble. Ross is a gifted composer (and pianist) and his music has often been performed by large jazz orchestras such as the WDR. In this case, a more unusual configuration has let in additional light, while at the same time offering a rich and diverse textural soundscape. Using this palate Ross has crafted a programatic and personal journey through the world’s architecture.   

The music speaks strongly of place, but not just Germany (where Ross lives). It speaks of the locations where his favourite architecture is found, and out of that comes an idiosyncratic chiasma. The streams that feed this album are plentiful and among them the twentieth century western classical tradition. The only composition not his own is an arrangement of Elgar’s Nimrod (var.9) for saxophone and wind ensemble. Elgar composed many of his works in a rented cottage and it is ‘Brinkwells Cottage’ in conjunction with Elgar’s works which inspired that particular arrangement.  

From start to finish, this is a worthwhile journey, an evocation of archtectural visions, the places and sounds that inspired their constructions, and of course of Ross’s connection to those places. Alvaro Siza of Portugal, Antoni Gaudi of Catalonia Spain, the incomparable Oscar Niemeyer who designed Brasilia and many more. His Developments 1-4 are short through-composed pieces dedicated to specific architectural spaces or forms; Brazilian Architecture, the floor plan of a cathedral, the suburban prefabricated house, Bavarian Rococo; and dear to my heart ‘Glebe Cottage’ the home of Jazz pianist John Taylor.  

The Album is out on the German Naxos label and can be accessed on streaming sites. I urge you to buy a physical copy as the booklet is a small masterpiece. Featured are some wonderful musicians, Florian Ross (piano, compositions) Sebastian Gille (saxophone), David Helm (double bass), Fabian Arends (drums), The Event Wind Ensemble, Susanne Blumenthal (noted conductor). The album can be ordered in stores or online. For more information check out www.florianross.de 

Just before Christmas I attended a concert by Auckland based Musician Ben Fernandez. The occasion was the release of his latest album ‘The Music Never Stopped’ but it also served as a homage to the spirit that was evident in the community during the New Zealand COVID lockdowns. Fernandez is of Goan extraction but was musically active in Mumbai before settling in New Zealand. He studied Jazz at several Auckland institutions and is a regular performer about town. He has also maintained a connection to the Bollywood Film industry. Along the way his musical influences have been rich and varied and he showcased many of those during his concert of mostly original compositions.  

There was a spontaneous improvised piano piece, A tribute to his former teacher Phil Broadhurst, tunes written for various family members and of particular interest to me, a duo involving Persian musician Rasoul Abbasi.  Abbasi played a Kamancheh which is an ancient-bowed instrument with a wonderfully mournful tone. The composition itself, and the contrast between piano and Kamancheh worked to the advantage of both (I have posed a sound clip). This ability to make strong and authentic intercultural connections is where Fernandez excels. It spoke to the universality of the improvised music traditions, and of empathy and the Jazz sensibilities. 

Another tune of Fernandez which captured a pan-global essence was a piece written for a beloved family member ‘Chuchi’.  I have included that as a video clip. The line-up was varied and featured many of the musicians he had studied with such as Andrew Hall (who gave a great saxophone solo on the heartfelt tribute to Phil Broadhurst). The musicians on the trio number were Jo Shum (bass) and Ron Samsom (drums).  The concert finished up with Auckland vocalist Maria O’flaherty singing a great rendition of the much-loved standard ‘What a Difference a Day Makes’. In light of the pandemic, the tune had added resonance. ‘The Music Never Stopped’ features Ben Fernandez (compositions, arrangements, piano), Jo Shum (bass), Ron Samsom (drums), Warren Mendonsa (guitar), Rasoul Abbasi (Kamancheh), Jess Rogers (vocals), CeleBRationChoir conducted by Alison Talmadge. The album is available from benfernandez.com 

While writing this, a number of interesting review copies and new releases hit my inbox. Among them, a soon to be released album from a Lebanese Jazz bassist Makram Aboul Hosn titled ‘Transmigration’. This wonderfully inventive musician has released his first album under extremely adverse conditions. As well as facing the devastation of COVID19 in Lebanon, there have been ongoing violent political upheavals, Banks froze the artists touring money, and if that were not enough, there was a devastating Port Explosion. The recording of ‘Transformation’ went ahead anyhow only three days after that last mentioned cataclysm. His is an album well worth checking out and to top off the stelar ensemble performances there are a number of guest artists like Joe Locke (who appeared remotely). The album will soon be available from all major streaming platforms. This is proof that high-quality Jazz exists everywhere. The artists are Makram Aboul Hosn, Nidal Abou Samra, Christopher Shaheen, Khaled Yassine, Joe Locke, Tariq Amery, Sima Itayim. Release date 18th February.

The last album to be mentioned is an ECM offering by Norwegian Kantele player and folk/Jazz vocalist Sinikka Langeland. The cut I will post is from her last release and it is so measured and so beautiful that it sends a shiver down the spine. Langeland is accompanied by Jazz Nordic legends in this album. She performs with the likes of Arve Henriksen, Trygve Seim and Anders Jorman. The YouTube track posted is ‘Deep in the Forest’. Available from all music stores and from streaming sources.  

All of the above demonstrate the multiplicity of influences feeding Jazz. From multiple streams come deeper rivers. 

JazzLocal32.com was rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association. Many of these posts also appear on Radio13.co.nz – check it out.

Dr Tom Botting Rediscovers Aotearoa

Bass player Tom Botting recently returned to Aotearoa and his first Auckland gig was well received. Even as a gangly student he impressed, and the regular attendees at the CJC hold fond memories of those Britomart Jam Sessions where he featured so prominently. Soon after that, he moved overseas, gaining a doctorate at the Sydney Conservatory. Like many of our musical exports, he returning annually, and many of the tunes that we heard last Wednesday were first showcased during those back-home tours. 

His compositions are always memorable and often evocative. Now, he has returned to weather out the pandemic, bringing with him some new tunes, and updated arrangements of older ones. They are no longer isolated in a disparate setlist but are played sequentially and in geographical alignment. While the tunes are not presented as a suite, they nevertheless evoke a strong sense of place. And whether intended it or not, they present a cinematic journey across our landscapes. Here, Botting has achieved what locals often cannot. His yearning from afar for our landscapes and archetypes has led him to create something sublime. 

The tune titles in these sets speak of mountains or the places immediately in their shadow; Mitre Peak, Mt Aspiring, The Remarkables, Hamner Springs, etc. I have posted a YouTube clip titled Hidden Waterfall and it is one of his more recent compositions. It begins with a pedal tone on piano, around which the bass introduces striking motifs, and then, a new line is introduced by the alto. 

The piece is simply captivating and clarity is achieved by ensuring that no instrument gets in the way of another. It’s not easy to strike that fine balance and it’s extremely clever writing. Each segment stands on its merits, and yet, sits comfortably within the arc of the overall composition. It is a good example of less being more or to put it another way, as something complex rendered into ear-grabbing approachability. 

Botting is a superb bass player and he poured everything into his tunes. He was always one to absorb himself in his playing and that has not changed. As he plays you see nothing but hair and fingers, but what you hear is the essence of the man. Beside him was Callum Passells on alto and he pulled out a great performance. An approach at times reminiscent of Shorter, and always with that gorgeous tone.  Partially hidden on the left of the stage was guitarist Michael Howell, and again a good performance from him. His newfound confidence is reaping dividends. To complete the quintet were Kevin Field and Jono Sawyer. Both are consummate professionals and they maintained the standard of playing that we have come to expect of them. Pick up bands of this quality make a visitor happy to return.     

There is a rich tradition of pastoral music in Aotearoa, most notably Douglas Lilburn. There is also the extraordinarily beautiful Ondas Album (ECM) by our premier Jazz Export Mike Nock. It is good to see a body of work of this quality adding to that tradition. Botting had already performed a concert in Wellington prior to reaching Auckland and a recording from that gig may soon be in the offing. The Auckland concert was recorded by RNZ and those unable to make the gigs should watch out for the broadcast. This music will appeal to most Jazz lovers, whatever their preferences. 

Tom Botting (upright bass, compositions), Kevin Field (piano), Michael Howell (guitar), Callum Passells (alto saxophone), Jono Sawyer (drums).  The gig took place at Anthology, K’Road for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, 5 August 2020

Joe Kaptein / Ben Gailer

The gigs introducing young emerging artists are a time-honoured tradition at the CJC Jazz Club. It is one of the reasons why Carolyn and Roger Manins formed the cooperative well over a decade ago. It is a vital part of club programming, as it tests the metal of emerging musicians by exposing them to a seasoned Jazz audience. The gigs also give us a glimpse of the future; they reveal who has yet to shine, and who will soon be nipping at the heels of seasoned musicians.

Both Joe Kaptein and Ben Gailer are students at the University of Auckland Jazz school.  Kaptein is in his third year of studies and Gailer has recently completed his honours studies. Stylistically, the musicians presented very different offerings and the contrasting approaches gave us a unique insight into the breadth of teaching available at the Jazz school. It was a showcase for the band leaders and a showcase for their tutors, with many of the latter hiding in the shadows and beaming throughout. 

First up, was the Joe Kaptein sextet. The band was a mixture of former and current Jazz students (plus two tutors), with Kaptein leading on keyboards, Michael Gianan on guitar, Roger Manins on tenor saxophone, Will Goodinson on electric bass, Elijah Whyte drums and Ron Samsom on percussion. The compositions were all Kapteins and it was immediately obvious why he chose keyboards over the piano. I have heard Kaptein perform as a sideman on several occasions, and his preferred palette is that drawn from the older analogue keyboard instruments. On this occasion, he had a Render Rhodes as his primary keyboard and a variety of augmentations (one machine in an intriguing case, the knobs and dials reminiscent of the moon landing console). 

The first time I heard Kaptein was like hearing 70s Jazz reimagined. I have always thought that the era deserved further appraisal, as the journey back then was curtailed by the Jazz police. It is possible, that Kaptein found this style without reference, but nevertheless, he has encapsulated a modern version of that older trippy explorative vibe. His compositions are mature and packed with surprise.  In typical post-bop fashion, there were references to the waypoints of the jazz journey; but above all, these numbers spoke of joy.  

The second set featured a sixteen-piece ensemble led by Ben Gailer and what he presented wowed everyone in the room. Arranging and composing for an orchestra is a complex task, but to bring such an orchestra to a Jazz club on your first gig there is beyond brave. All of the charts had been arranged by Gailer and many of the compositions were his own. His own material stood up very favourably amongst the standards ’There will Never be Another You’ and a fresh sounding take on Hancocks ‘Maiden Voyage’. That speaks for itself.

It’s hard to know where to start in evaluating a set like this as it covered so much fertile ground. There was his energised conducting, somewhat reminiscent of Darcy James Argue with its expressive flourishes as he urged the sections on. There were the finely textured arrangements which balanced dissonance with melodicism in a precise and pleasing measure, and then, there was his pianism which shone through all of that. That is a lot to bundle together but he did so with real class. I can’t wait to hear where his journey takes him next.

Ben Gailer

Because of the sight-lines and the seating, I could not set my video up for that set and I cursed that I had not brought audio-recording equipment with me. What I did, was record it on my phone as an aid in evaluating the performance. Posting iPhone capture is not ideal, but with luck, a better recording of this large ensemble may become available at a later date. I certainly hope so.

Joe Kaptein Sextet: Kaptein (keyboards, effects), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Michael Gianan (guitar), Will Goodinson (electric bass), Elijah Whyte (drums), Ron Samsom (percussion)

Ben Gailer Orchestra: Ben Gailer (compositions, arrangements, piano, Fender Rhodes), Lukas Fritsch (reeds), Cameron Kelso (reeds), Felix Hayes-Tourelle (reeds), Daniel McKenzie (reeds), Charlie Harmer (reeds), Jake Krishnamurti (Trumpet), Jack Thirtle (trumpet), Nick Curry (trumpet), Caleb Probine (trumpet), Jono Tan (trombone), Esther Simpson (trombone), Zachary Lim (trombone), Michael Gianan (guitar), Hank Trenton (bass), Rhohil Kishore (drums).

The orchestra was a mixture of present and recently graduated UoA Jazz school pupils.

Italy & New Zealand ~ Lockdown Releases

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.

Tui (Baxendale)

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.

Jake Baxendale (saxophones, compositions),

Alexis French (trumpet)

Matthew Allison (trombone),

Chris Buckland (saxophones)

Callum Allardice (guitar, compositions),

Daniel Millward (piano, compositions)

Nick Tipping (bass),

Shaun Anderson (drums)

www.jakebaxendale.com

‘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. 

Ferdinando Romano (bass, compositions)

Ralph Alessi (trumpet)

Tommasso Lacoviello (flugelhorn)

Simone Alessandrini (alto, Soprano sax)

Nazareno Caputo (vibraphone, marimba)

Manuel Magrini (piano)

Giovanni Paolo Liguori (drums)

https://ferdinandoromano.bandcamp.com/album/totem-feat-ralph-alessi

‘Giulia’ (Francesco Cataldo)  Italy

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. 

Levante (Cataldo)

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. 

Francesco Cataldo (guitar, piano, compositions)

Marc Copland (piano)

Pietro Leveratto (bass)

Adam Nussbaum (drums)

AlfaMusic

https://www.francescocataldo.eu/prodotto/giulia-francesco-cataldo/?lang=en

Jazz On Lockdown ~ Florian Ross

Florian Ross ~ Reason and Temptation

The German musician Florian Ross is accustomed to working around the globe, but like the rest of us, he is now confined to home and studio. A prolific artist with more than 25 recordings to his name and a musical interconnectedness with countries as far-flung as Scotland and New Zealand. A few days ago he released a new album titled Reason & Temptation and releasing an album in these conditions is a challenge. There is no possibility of a live release tour, but happily, this album reached escape velocity and found us. It is a beautiful album and it will surely be grabbed up by improvised music lovers everywhere.  

I first came across Ross when his first album was released on Naxos. Since then he has constantly moved forward, listening carefully to the world about him and reflecting it back in his recorded output. His style while unmistakably European, draws on many sources, sometimes evoking a crystalline melodicism, at other times the jagged and joyful lines of Monks post-bop successors. His works are often composed for larger ensembles where the deftly woven textures are the first thing that come to mind. This album is about intimacy and space and the accompanying video gives it that context; manicured forests, vivid snowscapes, and comfortably distant cityscapes.

The album was recorded in a single day in July 2019 following a large ensemble recording. There is such clarity in these conversations and consequently, they bring a deep calm to the listener. In tunes like ‘Celeste’, the musicians interact without impeding each other’s space. One instrument becomes another and I found myself holding my breath so as not to spoil the magic.  In contrast ‘Teriyaki Terrier’ moves us closer to the profound otherness of Bley/Swallow/Giuffre’ in ‘Freefall’. Again, beautifully realised. ‘Shallow’ evokes snow falling through fir branches, ‘Swish’ is counter-punctual but as one voice, and so the album progresses. While these tunes offer differing moods or viewpoints, the whole ties together perfectly and the compositions rhyme as one. 

This is music to lose yourself in, to savour, so find a quiet place and take an inner journey. Perhaps there has never been a better time to do that with the traffic and aircraft all on mute.  You can purchase the album at www.florianross.de or the usual online outlets. The best way to support musicians is to buy their albums and to recommend them.

 

The musicians: Florian Ross (piano, compositions), Sebastian Gille (saxophone), David Helm (bass), Fabien Arends (drums), Recorded in Köln.

The lockdowns won’t stop jazz! To assist musicians who’ve had performances cancelled, get their music heard around the globe. The Jazz Journalists Association created Jazz on Lockdown: Hear it Here community blog. for more, click through to https://news.jazzjournalists.org/catagory/jazz-on-lockdown/

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

 

 

Jazz on Lockdown ~Hear it Here ~ John Rae

John Rae Wellington Musician

With humankind and their dogs confined to home, I set up a Zoom call with an innovative Wellington-based Jazz musician, John Rae. I knew instinctively that he was the right musician to initiate the lockdown interview series with. Rae is an important musician; here and well beyond these shores. He is a natural storyteller. 

Born in Edinburgh to a musical family, he began gigging at age sixteen. Accompanying him on those youthful gigs was his friend, saxophonist Tommy Smith. Later Rae worked with Smith in the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra. Rae’s recording output is prodigious and there is much to bring a listener joy among those offerings. I will add links.

While those in Scotland or England will associate him with his two BBC albums of the year or his ‘Herald Angel Award’ from the Edinburgh Festival,  New Zealanders will love him for his work with The Troubles. A Joyous anarchic Mingus like ensemble telling it like it is. Rae’s compositional work looks out toward the world and it frequently blends with ethnic music; Celtic, Japanese Koto, Middle Eastern. As a drummer he exhorts the band, standing up and urging them on, while his beats roil beneath them like a gathering storm cloud supporting the sky above. I was not surprised to learn that he had frequently visited New Orleans (and played there). I can hear that unique influence in his drumming. The perfect cushion and always conversational.

The good news is, that he has a number of albums ready for release or re-release. The re-releases include his ‘Best of John Rae’s Celtic Feet’ from the 1990s and amongst his newer offerings, a Troubles album ‘KAPOW’ (live at Meow).  His website is johnrae.biz  His current recording labels are: Thick Records at www.thickrecords.co.nz, Rattle Records at Rattle-Records.bandcamp.com  Please buy these albums and keep this important original music alive. Check out the samples on the website.

John Rae: composer, bandleader, arranger, educator, drummer, Celtic Fidler ~ improviser in all styles from swing to free.  

The lockdowns won’t stop jazz! To assist musicians who’ve had performances cancelled, get their music heard around the globe. The Jazz Journalists Association created Jazz on Lockdown: Hear it Here community blog. for more, click through to https://news.jazzjournalists.org/catagory/jazz-on-lockdown/ 

 

Noveltones & Knotted Throats @ AF

Noveltones (7)There is a world of interesting music happening at the Audio Foundation and this three-set gig exemplified the foundations imaginative ahead of the game programming. The evening featured a cross-section of music from the fully arranged to the unconstrained and free. From the open dialogue of the Knotted Throats to the carefully crafted texturally rich four-piece voicings of a jazz ensemble. Then, and perhaps this is the essence of the programming, the two groups merged and out of that came a declaration. Sound exists without boundaries. The borders and demarcation lines as we organise or sculpt sound are only human constructs and beyond these artificial barriers, the various languages merge. When that occurs music is the richer for it. Improvised music is always on the move and just as post-bop moved seamlessly between free, fusion, hard bop, bop and groove, so the journey continues. Noveltones (3)

The Noveltones are an assembly of gifted equals, collectively shaping sound while expressing individual voices. Soprano saxophonist Jasmine Lovell-Smith, who studied in the USA is at present working toward a doctorate in composition at the NZSM. Bass clarinettist Blair Latham who spent years in Mexico is fluent with many horns. Bass player Tom Callwood (mostly playing arco), who we saw recently with the Melancholy Stinging Babes (a formidable figure on the avant-garde scene), and Tristan Carter, a violinist who rounds off the ensemble sound beautifully. The music initially reminded me of Gunter Schuller’s third stream pieces, but this ensemble is in no way time locked. The principal composer for the first set was Lovell-Smith and her compositional experience was especially evident in the harmonic concepts. There were also compositions by Latham. The pieces often balanced a spiky beauty with voice-led passages. There was also an appealing textural quality. The current ensemble hasn’t yet recorded, but I hope that they do. I have put up a Noveltones sound-clip from the gig.

The second set was another aural feast as it featured Jeff Henderson, Hermione Johnson and Tom Callwood. Henderson (on baritone saxophone) is the heavyweight of the New Zealand avant-garde scene and he never disappoints. There are few musicians who can muster such authority or draw you in as deeply. He taps into the primal essence of sound itself. Johnson is a renowned experimental musician, the foremost voyager with prepared piano, a noted composer and an organist. She is particularly known for her bold originality. Callwood, who we heard earlier, is exactly the bass player you would want in this situation. His gift for adventurous arco and extended technique was put to good use. What we heard were essentially reflective pieces; pieces tailor-made for deep listening and wonderfully mesmerising. As the motifs repeated a brooding presence hung over the room, the voice of unquiet spirits released from constraint. Happily, this is a zone located well beyond the reach of the music police. I found this set profoundly engaging and I count myself lucky to have caught it.

The last set brought both ensembles together and this time with the addition of the gifted drummer and percussionist Chris O’Connor. A great evening of music.

Noveltones (6)

For those keen to hear more of Henderson’s explorations, they can’t go wrong by accessing an album he recorded with Clayton Thomas (bass) and Darren Moore (drums). It is titled, ‘For a Clean Cut – Sharpen the Blade’. This gem was recorded in the basement of an old Auckland Church and it is a cause for rejoicing. If ‘free’ music scares you then this may not be your bag; but if it does, why? Sculpting sound is what musicians do. 

The album is on Bandcamp at iiiirecords.bandcamp.com 

The gig artists were Jasmine Lovell-Smith (soprano saxophone), Blair Latham (bass clarinet), Tom Callwood (upright bass), Tristan Carter (violin), Jeff Henderson (baritone saxophone), Hermione Johnson (prepared piano), Chris O’Connor (percussion) IMG_1256

10th October 2019 Audio Foundation, Auckland Central.

Daniel Waterson / Wil Goodinson

How we hear and process music is the result of endless debate. When a resonant voicing or melodic fragment is freed from the wood, wire or chip, the vibrations refract; entering our consciousness through individualised prisms, and each note coloured by preference, mood and previous exposure. What I heard last Wednesday I can only process through my own lens and how I heard it may not be how it was conceived. The opening number took me directly to a place that I visit often. A warm and familiar place situated in a time before these musicians were born. That place was the early electric Jazz fusion era (I love that shit) and in the second set, to the atypical small ensemble arranging by the likes of Carla Bley, Jimmy Giuffre or French horn player John Graas.

I am not saying that either band were reprising those eras because they weren’t. What they played was freshly minted, modern and innovative. The connection and the intense pleasure both groups afforded me was that meeting place between my point of reference and what they created. This is the eternal triangle of improvised music; musician, instrument and listener. A cycle with an endless feedback loop, which brings me to a second point. The players communicated their passion well; something of themselves. It manifested in the leader’s smiles of delight or in the shouts of mutual encouragement. As young, as they were they had cracked a vital code of musical communication. It is not just chops or clever compositions that push you over the line, but putting yourself at risk, exposing a glimpse of the human being and the joy feeding the music. 

The musicians were mostly from the UoA Jazz Studies programme and the sets were interesting contrasts. First up was the Daniel Waterson Quartet with drums, keys, guitar and bass. The first number was titled ‘Not enough Lithium’ and it was this piece that contained embedded echoes of 70’s fusion. It had various motifs but as it developed, mood predominated. This enabled me to make my own emotional connection to the music. The piece didn’t tell us how to engage but it invited the listener in and I believe that that is important. Some tunes are so nailed down that they feel like a lecture. This was not. All of these musicians are a credit to the Jazz School and I was familiar with everyone except the keyboards player (more on him later). Michael Gianan showed how far he’d come since we last heard him at the club. I last heard Waterson when he played in the Indian Jazz fusion group Takadimi. He is an engaging and innovative drummer and it was good to hear his own compositions.

The second set up was the Wil Goodinson Septet and it was unusual in that it featured bassoon, bass clarinet, cello, bass, guitar and piano.  Goodinson is well thought of as a bass player and it is not unusual to catch him in others lineups. This was a chance for him to showcase his arranging skills and his charts were quite exceptional.  Apart from the first tune by Joe Henderson, all of the rest were his own compositions. All arrangements were his. This was an interesting ensemble and they navigated the charts with ease. The bassoon and bass clarinet were complimentary and their textural possibilities were well utilised (Asher Truppman Lattie demonstrated his skills here and I applaud his work on this lovely under-utilised horn). The guitar, while not dominant in the mix, was essential as it gave brightness, a gently articulated voice to contrast the bass-rich sound. Holding everything together was the bass. We could not see the leader but his cues were evident as he guided the others through the charts.

The drums and piano contributed with accents, pulse and solos and both were well placed in the mix I also have a fondness for cello in Jazz and the instrument was well deployed. When bass and cello played unison arco, the air vibrated as the low notes tugged at the senses. It was the sort of ensemble that ECM might feature, but the originality made it hard to pigeonhole as just that. 

For a few months now, people have asked me, have I heard Joe Kaptein play. Until last Wednesday I had not and after hearing him on Wednesday I admit to being caught off guard. What I heard was a high degree of pianistic maturity; unusually so for a Jazz Studies student partway through his second year. He leaned on no particular style and was as much at ease playing in a freer percussive mode as he was where gentler minimalism was called for. His comping was notable, as was his sense of time. He understood when to play and most importantly when not to; he could lay-out or enter a groove and milk it for possibilities. It felt good to be in on this at ground level and I will watch his journey with great interest. Kaptein and Goodinson played in both sets

.

Daniel Waterson Quartet: Daniel Waterson (drums, compositions), Michael Gianan (guitar), Joe Kaptein (keyboards), Wil Goodinson (bass).

Wil Goodinson Septet: Wil Goodinson (bass), Joe Kaptein (piano), Kathleen Tomacruz (guitar), Asher Truppman Lattie (bass clarinet), Karen Hu (cello), Monica Dunn (bassoon), Tom Legget (drums) 

@ CJC Creative Jazz Club, Anthology, K’Road, Auckland New Zealand 31 July 2019

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)

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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.

 

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.

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.

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.

 

 

Brian Smith Quintet

SmithBrian Smith is a legendary figure in New Zealand Jazz, achieving career highs that few others attain. Normally artists of this stature settle overseas and are seldom seen after that. It was our good fortune that Smith moved back to New Zealand and in consequence, we get to hear him perform locally. It’s a moot point whether good musicians ever truly retire (luckily, the answer is seldom). Not so long ago he formed a quintet and since then he has been performing at venues around town. While Smith is a regular at the CJC, this is the first time that we have seen the current quintet in action.  The event was predominantly a standards gig and a band of veterans is the right vehicle where standards are concerned. When you bring a selection of loved tunes back into orbit, comparisons are inevitably made. Therefore it pays to choose well and to perform them well and that’s exactly what the Brian Smith quartet did. Smith (1)

Smith possesses an authoritative air on his horn, the end result of considerable experience and his well-acknowledged chops. Consequently, he always sounds great and always looks comfortable on the bandstand. Behind him in the darkness was Frank Gibson, Jr on drums. Gibson and Smith go back a long way and he is exactly the right drummer to lift these warhorse tunes to glory; most of them coming from the hay-day of Jazz. While Gibson has many strings to his bow, this is his forte. Up front was multi brass and reeds player Chris Nielson. It was good to hear Nielson again and especially on trombone, a horn that has sadly been disappearing from small ensembles since the 60’s. Nielson also brought other horns with him, favouring an American cornet, an instrument which in his hands, produced a strong rounded tone. On bass was Bruce Lynch, a highly competent electric and acoustic bass player who is well-known as a music producer and as a former member of the Cat Stevens band.  Almost hidden on the right side of the bandstand was Dean Kerr on guitar. His guitar work was strongly chordal and supportive of the others, providing well-placed contrast for Smith and Neilson as he comped. Smith (2)

Among the standards were ‘In Walked Bud’ (Monk), Stolen Moments (Nelson), There is no Greater Love’ (Jones), Freddie Freeloader and All Blues (Miles), Killer Joe (Golson), St Thomas (Rollins).  I have posted a clip of the perennial favourite ‘Softly as in a Morning Sunrise (Romberg/Hammerstein). There was also a nice tune by Smith which think is titled ‘Short Shift.

The gig took place at the Thirsty Dog for the CJC Creative Jazz Club on March 7, 2018. Brian Smith (leader, tenor saxophone), Frank Gibson Jr. (drums), Chris Nielson (trumpets, flugelhorn, trombone),  Dean Kerr (guitar), Bruce Lynch (upright bass).

Oli Holland’s Jazz Attack

Oli (1)Oli Holland is one of the leading bass voices in New Zealand. He formed Jazz Attack just over a year ago and since its inception, he has been writing new charts and expanding the lineup. Holland writes interesting charts; often complex but always compelling and his last gig showcased a number of these. This was an expanded lineup – adding three of Auckland’s heavyweights for a quartet segment in the first set. His bass is a powerhouse presence and his ringing melodic lines always distinctive. During solos, his vocalised unison lines fleshed out the tone, drew us deeper in – perhaps even influencing his improvisational choices. It is well established that vocalising while improvising on an instrument, fires up the human brain in new and interesting ways.   Oli

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is predominantly a young band but nicely balanced by two seasoned regulars (Holland as leader and Finn Scholes on trumpet). Adding a segment featuring  Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Kevin Field (keys) and Ron Samson (drums) provided an interesting contrast. When Misha Kourkov joined Manins in the first set we saw this exemplified. After the head, the two tenors each took solos, Kourkov’s was thoughtful with a nice sense of space while Manins dived in and let his long years of experience and no prisoners approach guide him. The two solos worked very well together and it was nice to see a two-tenor spot which avoided the formulaic line-for-line battle formation.

Oli (3)

While the Holland, Manins, Field, Samsom, segments stung with intensity, the core band used the charts to flesh out the compositions. Nick Dow on the piano was interesting in this regard. His solos short but perfectly formed and his often understated comping lightening the density of the ensemble. Michael Howell on guitar also took a thoughtful approach – both chordal instruments providing depth due to their approach. The two main horns were Kourkov and Scholes (foundation members). Kourkov is rapidly maturing into a fine player and I really enjoyed his contribution. Scholes is always interesting and capable of a great variety of expressions. On this night, his solo’s achieved edge and warmth in balance.

As always with Holland, there were a number of funny stories preceding the tunes, improbable seques which hinted at his motivation in naming them but inviting us to fill in the gaps for ourselves. Holland is widely recorded and has recently recorded in Europe with leading musicians. Any gig featuring Holland is well worth attending and this was no exception. Oli (2)

I have posted a clip titled ‘Van Dumb’.  The gig took place at the Thirsty Dog for the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) on the 28th February 2018.

 

Lucien Johnson + 5

a2788670674_16.jpgThe 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