Backbeat Bar, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Straight ahead

The Turtlenecks @ CJC Backbeat

Garden (1)In the late 1950s and early ’60s, anyone with an ounce of cool wore a coarse-knit black polo neck jersey. While they sat there feeling cool their necks would start to itch and angry red rashes would creep up to their chins. Chins made all the itchier by the regulation chinstrap beards or ‘hip’ goatees.  Then in act of blatant cultural appropriation, Playboy invited the middle class to co-opt some of that hipness. Along the way, ‘Hef’ sensibly revised the polo neck jersey requirement, which morphed into a white cotton turtleneck and slim white jeans. Anyone who has seen David Hemmings in Antonioni’s arthouse movie ‘Blowup’ (one of the best films ever made), will quickly realise that sleazy old ‘Hef’ got it right. The Beatniks, on the other hand, got it woefully wrong. The better option had us wearing scratch free cotton turtlenecks and ‘Hef’s’ crowd wearing the itchy coarse knit jerseys (they never kept them on for long anyhow). So, when I saw that a band called the Turtlenecks was appearing in a Jazz joint and in cotton, I yelled Hallelujah. At last a serious wrong turn is being corrected.

The band was formed by saxophonist Jimmy Garden, a musician who obtained his wings in Auckland, then flew away to join the Australian scene for a number of years. Upon his return he formed the ‘Turtlenecks’, aided and abetted by musicians from his cohort.  I recall his departure well, as a lot of gifted musicians left around then. Thomas Botting, Peter J Koopman, and Steve Barry to name a few. This cohort, be they ‘leavers’ or ‘remainers’, were a hothouse of improvisational experimentation and it is always good to see them back among us. A few of those friends joined him on the bandstand Wednesday night.  

The compositions, all by leader Garden, are catchy and with more than a nod to groove.  There is also a pinch of humour evident and this informed last weeks performance. Although they are competent musicians, they never tried to overwhelm with cleverness.  What was more evident was their joy of playing together and that bonhomie overshadowed all else. They did what (cotton clad) Turtlenecks should. They played without a hint of itchiness.

The band has a number of drum, bass and guitar personnel it can call upon, while the two horns remain constant.  The personnel at the CJC gig were leader Jimmy Garden – tenor saxophone (tasteful), J Y Lee – alto saxophone (always a pleasure to hear), Michael Howell – (a popular local guitarist), Cam McArthur (one of our finest NZ bass players), and Adam Tobeck (a versatile drummer, well-known about NZ). The gig was at Backbeat K’Road, CJC Creative Jazz Club, 20 March 2019

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CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Concerts - visiting Musicians

Reinier Baas & Ben van Gelder

Van Gelder BaasFrom a young age, I chose improvised music as my soundtrack. The harmonies, in particular, intrigued as they sounded like real life. Full of rich contrasts and polyrhythms. By comparison, the endless radio replays of popular songs offered diminishing returns. The miracle of improvised music is that it promises depth, and if done well it reveals more with each listening. This sets a high bar for innovation, so when I hear musicians described as compelling and original, I check them out. Ben van Gelder and Reinier Baas are so described and after attending their gig I agree without reservation. 

While theirs is essentially a European sound, it is also original. The compositions draw inspiration from identifiable sources but they also reach beyond the predictable. The music falling fresh to the ears and without a hint of over-reach. When musicians like this hit the road, a buzz proceeds them. Insightful reviews appear because the critics have something novel to pour over, and more importantly,  respected musicians put the word about; ’don’t miss these guys, they’re heading your way and they’re astonishing’.  Baas and van Gelder are a commanding stage presence, beguiling sound, musicality and something new to communicate. 

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In New Zealand, Baas & van Gelder appeared as a duo – the guitarist and alto saxophonist bathed in defused coloured light; their physical presence diminutive against the tower of amps looming behind. Calmly they adjusted their microphones, then Baas began. What followed caused jaws to drop, his voicing quite unlike anything we had heard before. A gently percussive and often discordant string of utterances which filled the room – winning us not by force but by persuasion. Then van Gelder began to play his alto – an altogether sweeter sound and contrasting perfectly with the guitar. When experienced as a whole the effect was quite extraordinary. It felt like a brand new dialect and one that was accessible, strangely beautiful also. Rarely, Baas would apply a pedal, but this music did not require electronic effects.  As hard I try I can’t bring to mind any duo quite like this.  The Jazz club was packed and many younger musicians sat upfront, eyes sparkling in delight as they took in every aspect of this exciting music. 

Their recent album ‘Smash Hits’ is a must purchase for those who love innovation and fine writing. The tongue in cheek title, a good clue to what follows. If you gained the impression that the music might be confronting then I will disabuse you. An intense melodicism and raw beauty inform all that they do. ‘Smash Hits’ has them fronting the renowned Metropole Orkest – the Grammy-winning premier Jazz orchestra of the Netherlands (a big band and a classical orchestra combined). I couldn’t count the number of instruments in the YouTube clips but they are many and varied.  Sometimes a large ensemble can muddy a composition, but not here. These charts are masterworks – the palette is clean and rich in texture – the pieces feeling incredibly modern. Yes, there are distant echoes of Gil Evans but these orchestrations stand strongly on their own feet.

The above clip ranks among the most beautiful pieces of arranged music that I have heard.  Reinier Baas (guitar, arrangements, compositions), Ben van Gelder (alto saxophone, arrangements, compositions) – Backbeat, CJC Creative Jazz Club, Auckland, 13 March 2018 

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CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Piano Jazz, Straight ahead

David Berkman – 2019 Auckland

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When David Berkman sits at a piano, any piano, he looks to be at one with the world.  In the parlance of Piano Jazz, the guy is a ‘beast’ and his mastery of the instrument is astonishing. Like all pianists of repute he is accustomed to high-end pianos but when he is confronted with an upright, he still makes it sing.  The last time he visited Auckland, the CJC Jazz club was located in the basement of the 1885 building. At that point, there was a Yamaha Grand on offer. Three moves on from then, the club is now in the ‘Backbeat’, a warm amenable performance space in Karangahape Road. The piano there is a Kawai upright. ‘Uprights are fine’, he said, ‘You just play more percussively’. I’m convinced that he could make a thumb piano sing or swing – and so it was on this night. 

The setlist was a mix of his own tunes and a few well-placed standards. Berkman’s tunes are strong vehicles for improvisation, always melodic and by default, they tend to swing like crazy. With one exception, the standards were Berkman arrangements, and while recognisable they came across as freshly minted masterpieces. Paring the flesh away from ‘All the things’ and giving those old bones a youthful lease on life; finishing wonderfully, gently, with the tag. His Cherokee while closer to the original was also a treat, a real burner. Who dares play that these days (more’s the pity)? Only a killer pianist is who, and contained therein was history, innovation and pure joy. With him were three local musicians who he fondly referred to as his regular New Zealand band. Roger Manins on tenor, Oli Holland on Bass and Ron Samsom on drums.

As I watched him throughout the night, I pondered where he fitted in the stylistic spectrum. Of course, he can range across many styles, but the name Cedar Walton sprang to mind. Later I ran into a musician who said unprompted, ‘This guy and his approach remind me of Cedar Walton’. A musician singled out his comping for high praise. “His comping goes beyond the usual, it is elevated to a high art form. Not just supportive but shepherding you into new territory, bringing out things in your own performance that surprise you”. So all of the above and more applies to him. A drummers pianist, a great comping pianist, a hard swinger. It is therefore not surprising that he shares the bandstand with Brian Blade, Joe Lovano, Billy Hart, Jane Monheit etc. He is also a well-respected educator. Anyone who follows the New York scene will already be a fan as he’s a regular performer around the New York Clubs. For the alert, he can sometimes be caught on the Australian and New Zealand Jazz circuit. If you snooze you lose down-under. Missing gigs like this would be categorised under high crimes and misdemeanors.

He records on Palmetto and his albums are readily available. Recommended is his latest: Old Friends and New Friends – also, Self Portraits or Live at Smoke. For more information go to davidberkman.com. The gig was at Backbeat, CJC Creative Jazz Club, March 2019 – last photograph by Barry Young

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Straight ahead

Phil Broadhurst Live 2019

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We don’t know for certain what the album title is, but ‘The Phil Broadhurst Quintet Live’ seems a likely contender. As an award-winning artist, Broadhurst needs no gimmicky titles to get our attention. His name is enough recommendation. We had a tantalising glimpse of this latest offering last week when the public attended the live recording session at the KMC. In keeping with his recent preference for adding an extra horn, he added trumpet/flugelhorn player Mike Booth to an already talented lineup; Broadhurst on piano, Roger Manins tenor saxophone, Oli Holland bass, and Cam Sangster drums. After an introduction by his partner Julie Mason the session began – mostly new material, a few older tunes and a tune written soon after he arrived in New Zealand.  Unsurprisingly there was a good audience to enjoy the event – this guy is a legend. 

The arrangements were superb and as if to underscore that, the horn players were in top form.  So in sync during the head arrangements that it appeared as if they had been playing the charts for years. They hadn’t. The tunes were melodic and memorable as Broadhurst’s tunes often are. And like all good small ensemble writing, it came across as something more expansive. Experienced writers like this know a few tricks and among them, how to make full use of an available palette.  

Broadhurst put his all into this recent project and I urge Jazz lovers to keep an eye out for its release. Based on what we heard, it will add another milestone to an already impressive catalogue. As a key contributor to the quality end of the New Zealand Jazz scene and an important educator, we owe him a lot.

Phil Broadhurst: piano, compositions & arrangements – Roger Manins, tenor saxophone, Mike Booth, trumpet and flugelhorn – Old Holland, upright bass – Cam Sangster, drums. The recording took place at the KMC UoA theatre, Shortland Streets, Auckland. Recorded by John Kim and Steve Garden, March 2019 

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

Jay Rodriguez @ Backbeat Auckland

Jay 2019 (1)Anyone who saw Jay Rodriguez play the last time he was in town will have tripped over themselves to catch him again last week. Rodriguez is a talented and engaging improviser and when he steps onto the bandstand he wins hearts from the get-go. This seemingly innate ability arises from a keen understanding of what will work best with a particular audience. He picks ups on and feeds off the energies in the room. He is also a skilled technician, but he is not there to show off his undoubted chops. His purpose is to involve and to engage at the deepest level; offering musicians and audience alike an unforgettable musical experience.    

These days, dozens of talented musicians pour out of the prestigious Jazz schools and as good as they are, they often have a similar approach and sound. Over time the best of them shake this off, but it takes work and road experience to do so. While Rodriguez attended music school, he also gigged from a young age; cutting his musical teeth on the bandstand and learning his craft at the feet of masters (Tito D’Rivera, Phil Woods and Joe Henderson – playing lead alto with Tito Puente at 15 years of age). Those early days shaped his trajectory and enabled him to move effortlessly across the breath of the Jazz world – and later – traversing the wider music scene (Elvis Costello, Prince, Ribot etc).  You gain the impression that every day on the road added a certain something to his sound. He can channel a raw Texas tenor sound in the same gig as he has people swooning over a ballad.  Once this was a commonplace accomplishment, but as the old road warriors pass, we hear this stylistic breadth less and less.

Here I must offer a disclaimer; I was involved in this Auckland gig. Rodriguez had reached out and generously suggested that we could join forces, adding some spoken word into his show. We had a number of exchanges while he was touring with Marc Ribot (the Songs of Resistance project). Various ideas were canvassed – unlike many improvisers, he is experienced in working with poets as he has associated with many including the late lamented Amiri Baraka. From across the time zones, we explored possible rehearsal times and as is often the case, a quick rehearsal just before the gig was the only possible option. When it came to hiring the band, he made another generous suggestion; he was happy to have some younger and freer spirited musicians on board – in fact, he welcomed that. Crystal Choi and Eamon Edmundson Wells joined Ron Samsom as the core group, with special guests Jonathan Crayford and myself appearing on select numbers. 

Rodriguez is proficient on multi-reed and wind instruments and he frequently travels with most of them. This time he arrived with one flute, a soprano, and a tenor saxophone. When rehearsal time came he unpacked dozens of charts and spread them around clock fashion. My favourite author does this, slowly walking among short stories until an order is fixed. So it was with Rodriguez. We had been pre-warned that what was rehearsed would not necessarily be what was played, as he often changed things around as he read an audience (and often mid-tune by way of signals).

The setlist had a few well-chosen standards and of course, tunes from his critically acclaimed ‘Your Sound’ album.  Although he amended the setlist as the gig progressed and extended numbers, fusing the tunes into a heady new amalgam, the performance had a flow that was preternatural. Working with a musician like this and trusting his instincts to guide you forward is exhilarating. I know that the band enjoyed themselves – the gig became bigger than the individual musicians and that how good gigs should work.    

I have posted a longish clip from the gig, one which demonstrates the energies flowing between the musicians. The clip reminded me of the early Alice Coltrane projects. Deeply spiritual and unafraid to move with the vibe. Choi delighted the audience with her wholehearted engagement, moving from minimalist figures to crystalline arpeggios as the moment demanded. Edmundson Wells, like Choi, often appears on the avant-garde scene and was perfect for the gig.  Samsom, the other experienced hand, offered solid support, creating a cushion and a heartbeat. Last, but not least was Crayford, a generous enabler, a mentor to musicians like Choi. He would normally have appeared as the listed keyboardist, as he and Rodriguez have a deep friendship and they collaborate when they can. This time he was heavily engaged in a project of his own and arrived back in town hours before the gig. He waited out the first set, respecting the established line-up, joining the band with keys for the second. This added a whole new dimension to an already great gig – creating the broader palette that Rodriguez thrives on. The capacity audience reacted to every facet of the gig with enthusiasm and Rodriguez return is eagerly anticipated.

In my case, the overall experience was particularly rewarding – a true learning experience – note to self – let my spoken lines breathe more at the start. When you fit words around live music quick decisions are required, Sometimes you have mere seconds to judge the rhythms of an unfamiliar tune. An opportunity like this is rare and precious and I’m glad I took it.

Jay Rodriguez: (tenor & soprano saxophone, flute), Crystal Choi (piano), Eamon Edmundson Wells (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums, percussion), – guests Jonathan Crayford (keys), John Fenton (spoken word) – at ‘Backbeat’, CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 27 February, 2019 – Jef Rodriguez recent album ‘Your Sound’ is available on Amazon, through record stores or go to jayrodriguez.com

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Concerts - visiting Musicians, experimental improvised music

Simona Minns, Auckland 2019

Simona (1)This was New York artist, Simona Minns second visit to the CJC, her appearances occurring one year apart to the day. Her 2018 show ‘The Hunger Games’ referenced a Kafka short story. This tour was billed ‘My Urban Spells’, expanding her ever-evolving themes of universality and free-spirited improvisation.  Minns musical education and life, have gifted her with many powerful themes to draw upon and out of these, she has crafted a powerful synthesis. Her initial training as a classical Lithuanian Zither player is never far from what she does, but neither are the Jazz and Rock worlds she discovered when she emigrated to America.

Minns is a compelling performer and this underpins her shows. There is always an engaging theatrical element to her stage presence; something akin to an off-Broadway show. When you factor in her vocal chops, fine compositions, and originality you get an enjoyable whole. It is more than a mere cobbled eclecticism, it is well-judged performance art. Simona

Like last time, she was accompanied by Alan Brown on Keyboards, Cameron McArthur bass and Stephen Thomas on drums. Because this was the bands second time around (and because they can), they stretched out more and Minns let them, confident in their abilities.  Brown in particular is accustomed to reaching into new musical spaces. His beyond Jazz explorations into ambient and ethnic music equipping him perfectly.  Some of the tunes were standards reinterpreted, others were Jazz/Rock mash-ups with electric guitar (Minns). It was though, when she sang her own compositions in her own mother tongue that she shone brightest.  Her ethnically fused Jazz, enormously appealing.

Simona Minns (vocals, compositions, guitar, zither), Alan Brown (keyboards), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Stephen Thomas (drums) – Backbeat, CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 20 February 2019.

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Concerts - visiting Musicians

Matt Penman & Will Vinson

The year has barely begun but musically 2019 is proving to be auspicious. Having survived January’s mid-summer improvised-music drought, we were anxious for the gig season to resume.  Then, as if by magic, the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) was back in business again. With February the gigs came thick and fast. The first week brought us Chisholm/Meehan/Dyne/Dyne and two days later there was a special CJC event at the KMC. The event was titled Matt Penman & Will Vinson (with New Zealand friends).  Matt Penman is one of the worlds premier Jazz bass players and because he hails from our city, we claim him as ours to anyone who’ll listen. We speak of him with the same pride that we do when we mention the likes of Mike Nock or Alan Broadbent.  These are sons of Auckland and they rank among the finest of improvisers anywhere. A New York musician who I spoke with recently put it this way; there are a number of very good bass players in New York and then there are those like Penman who stand above the rest. Penman

The CJC gig was doubly special as Penman brought with him the London born altoist Will Vinson. Those who follow the Jazz Press or visit New York clubs will be familiar with this musician. He and a few of his compatriots are reviving the popularity of the alto saxophone and elevating it to new heights. Like Penman, Vinson has a number of well-received albums to his credit and the company he keeps on those albums and the quality of the offerings talks volumes. His tone is never harsh but it never-the-less has a particular bite to it. As the notes flow, and the ideas develop you sense rare confidence. It is the sort of confidence that can only emanate from a musician completely at one with his horn. Even the way he holds the horn is instructive. A saxophonist sitting next to me put it this way. ‘You can’t get a unique sound or flow of ideas like that unless body and horn are as one’.  The friends were, Kevin Field (piano), Steven Thomas (drums) and for one number Dixon Nacey (guitar). Field is no stranger to performing and recording with New York musicians (including Penman), Nacey is highly rated on the New Zealand music scene and the up and comer Thomas is eating up the competition as he rises like a rocket. The New Zealand cohort also have an interesting musical connection. The majority including Penman went through Avondale college. The far-reaching influence of gifted music teacher Paul Norman is astonishing. Together the band blazed like a perfect summers day and the gig was definitely one out of the bag.

The tunes played were from Matt Penman’s recent album ‘Good Question’, Will Vinson’s repertoire and to my joy the Tristanoite classic by Lee Konitz ‘Subconscious-Lee’. There are very few tunes that I like as much as that one and with the exception of Konitz’s own renditions, this version is truly the business. Subconscious-Lee’ was pianoless and rightly so – freeing Penman, Vinson, and Thomas to open out and enjoy the space. IMG_7562

Penman’s album ‘Good Question’ is a must purchase for all Jazz lovers. It is an in-the-moment testament from the New York scene and replete with the best of band mates. Penman has long been associated with Aaron Parks and on this album, Parks soars. Like Penman, he has an uncanny knack of making every voicing or phrase sound fresh. In this supportive role, he is also unafraid to fall back on delicate comping and minimalist painterly abstractions. The album also features tenor heavyweight Mark Turner, Obed Calvaire (bass), Nir Felder (guitar), Will Vinson (who was persuaded to exchange his alto for a soprano on track three) and Rogerio Boccato (percussion). There is so much to like about this album that I hardly know where to start. The track ‘Copeland’ is dazzling – a painting of a vast landscape, Big Tent, Little Tent is a deeply satisfying exploration of interplay. My favourite track, however, is ‘Blues & the Alternative Truth’ – a reference to the Oliver Nelson album ‘Jazz and the Abstract Truth’. To my ears, it also gives a gentle nod in the direction of Claude Thornhill’s 1941 standard Snowfall. This track like the album itself is a sonic journey and from start to finish, a pleasurable one.

‘Good Question’ was released by SSC Sunnyside Communications: To purchase go to www.mattpenman.bandcamp.com  – The gig was at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) Auckland, Feb 2019.