Porter / Rozenblatt @ CJC

It is seldom that we encounter a critically acclaimed New York Jazz Trumpeter with an Auckland tour itinerary, but this week the drought was broken. Charlie Porter is a versatile musician and one with impeccable credentials. He is a Grammy-winning artist whose star is on the rise. When you check out his bio you learn many things of interest, for instance, that he has parallel careers in Jazz and classical. The inclusion of Auckland was partly down to bass player Mat Fieldes (and of course Roger Manins). Fieldes is a popular musician who has recently returned from a long stint in New York and he has worked with Porter previously. Sharing the top billing was Grammy-nominated New York drummer David Rozenblatt.  Rozenblatt is another musician who works across genres and like Porter, his Jazz chops are something to behold. 

Charlie Porter

I arrived early and watched the brief rehearsals, noting that Porter exhibited a focussed down-to-business demeanour on the bandstand. The sort of discipline you need to survive in New York. As soon as he was satisfied he smiled and thanked the musicians, then moving among those setting up the club, he introduced himself, friendly and relaxed. These are the hallmarks of the professional. Playing with an unfamiliar rhythm section may be commonplace in Jazz but pulling together a good performance while on the road, and with pick-up musicians requires a good leader. Porter and Rozenblatt share a history, performing together often. The remainder of the group were Mat Fieldes (bass) and Dixon Nacey (guitar). The latter was meeting the two New Yorkers for the first time.

David Rozenblatt

Porter possesses a fulsome clean tone (think Brownie), but his rich strong sound can change in an instant when he swoops to the lower register, his trumpet emitting a dirty growl and rises as the bell emits a cascade of fluttering squeaks.  While the growls and flutters are not dominant features of his playing they add vital splashes of contrast and colour. You can hear the deep south in his sound, and especially New Orleans, but on upbeat numbers, he can edge closer to the second Miles quintet. The elided phrases, the sting. His compositional strength was on show as well and although there were a variety of moods there was a logical arc to the setlist.  His eponymous new album has the same logical progression and on that, there is an even greater stylistic variance. He is not a slave to style or even genre and perhaps this why he sounds so fresh.

Dixon Nacey

When performing before an audience Porter exudes easygoing confidence, that belies his years. Such confidence is usually found in older musicians, but check out his story and all of the above makes perfect sense.  He was trained in classical trumpet and won a Fulbright scholarship to study in Paris, he was mentored by Winton Marsalis and is connected spiritually to the music of the deep south. During the evening he played one or two numbers which referenced New Orleans (particularly Rhumba for Sticky) and on his album, the tune ‘Morning Glory’ caught my attention. I have just returned from New Orleans and Morning Glory connected me back to Henry Red Allen.  

David Rozenblatt’s drumming fascinated me. It was joy-filled, wildly exuberant but purged of unnecessary clutter. Many of the younger drummers I hear are time tricksters, and while this is impressive it can also clutter up a sound canvas. Rozenblatt had something of the swing drummer about him, but overlaying that was a colourist sensitivity, the warmth of a great rhythmic conversationalist. Fieldes was also right on the money. His melodicism and lovely time feel filling out the sound without getting in the way. We export many great bass players from New Zealand, but having Fieldes back on home ground is our good fortune. Dixon Nacey needs no introduction to either Aucklanders or to wider New Zealand. He is rightly regarded as one of our finest guitarists and consequently, his work schedule is frantic. Because of the many projects he juggles, he has less time to perform in local Jazz venues but happily, he was available for this. He is a favourite with club audiences and a draw in his own right. We have come to expect the best of him over the years as his trajectory is ever upward. He has long been noted for his Sco-like credentials but as we saw last Wednesday, he can adapt to a variety of improvising situations with ease. 

I have posted a track from the gig titled ‘divergent paths’.  It was the first up and it set the tone for a crackling evening to follow. To purchase the album go to www.charlieportermusic.com (digital downloads, CD’s and vinyl available. The posted track was supplied by Charlie Porter. 

Mat Fieldes

Alex Ventling Trio (Switzerland)

The summer break seemed endless with its hot nights, warm breezes and parchment dry days.  Nature shrivelled as the birds stopped singing and the trip to the Hi-Fi became too onerous. There is something about a prolonged heatwave that makes you both lazy and restless at the same time. This is also the time of year when Aucklands premier Jazz club takes its Christmas break and so the resumption of the gigs was happily anticipated.  The first gig of the year was the Alex Ventling trio and what a great way to ease into February. Ventling is a New Zealand ex-pat, but one who settled in Switzerland many years ago. He and his fellow musicians are all from Basel, a part of the Swiss Confederation and speakers of a German dialect.  I passed through there once but all that I can remember was a recommendation from a friend. Stop there if you can, Basel is a jazz city.

This was Ventling’s first gig for the CJC Creative Jazz Club and it attracted a large audience. They poured through the doors escaping the evening’s heat; needing cool and finding it. The venues piano is not without its challenges but on this night it sang sweetly. Partly because it had just been tuned but it was mainly because of Ventling’s sensitive touch. Many pianists tend toward the percussive in a larger room, but this programme required subtlety, room to breathe. The set-list tunes were well crafted and with a heavier touch, the expressiveness would have been sacrificed.  We don’t get too many piano trios through and this trio operated as the best of them do. The musicians listening to each other, reacting, and playing as if they were one entity. It is almost impossible for this level of communication to occur unless a trio has been together for a time, and in this case, they were not only long term bandmates but on the last stop on the tour.

Most of the tunes were originals, but two were interesting reharmonisation of Jazz standards. For instance ‘All Blues’ which hinted at Mehldau Americana voicings;  the astonishing reharm of ‘Someday My Prince Will Come’; the latter truly delightful, surprising, and decidedly edgy. The original melody cast to the four winds as new joys were plucked from the changes. The originals were captivating and especially ‘Expecting the Unexpected’ and ‘Vorfreude’. The later title, one of those uniquely precise German words meaning the joy you feel when looking forward to something. Whatever the German word is for looking back with pleasure, that was the emotion the audience was left with at gigs end. The interactions throughout were impeccable, reminding me of a Pieranunzi trio. The bass player James Kruttli and the drummer Phelan Burgoyne were as riveting as the pianist. This was a trio where your eyes and ears moved constantly from one to the other. We watched in utter absorption and for two hours we forgot the swelter looming ominously outside.

A recent album by the Alex Ventling Quartet was on sale at the door and it is stunning. ‘Alex & the Wavemakers’ has a different lineup and features a vocalist Yume Ito. This is closer to the ECM esthetic and is Jazz Art Music at its very best. The fourth track ‘Trailblazer’ was to my ears furthering the blissful journeys begun by Norma Winstone, John Tayler and Kenny Wheeler. You can find Alex Ventling on Bandcamp or at http://www.alexventling.com.

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

Albums to check out this Summer

My general rule is to confine my posts to New Zealand or Australian bands, or to local gigs by visiting musicians. Very occasionally, I post from further afield or review albums from the wider Jazz diaspora. In this case, my self imposed categories both fit and they don’t. The first album is Polish in origin, but the leader, Michal Martyniuk, has lived in both New Zealand and Poland. Each alternate track was recorded with Kiwi musicians. The second album is the astonishing New Yor-Uba ensemble and I have a story to tell about my brief but memorable online interactions with the leader, New York-based Michele Rosewoman. The next album is by the Italian born pianist Roberto Magris, who I narrowly missed catching up with when I was in Prague and Trieste. And lastly a heads-up. Jason Miles is about to release an album featuring Jay Rodriguez, a frequent visitor to New Zealand. Anything with Rodriguez will be worth checking out. 

 

Screen Shot 2020-02-04 at 2.36.02 PM.png

Resonate (Michal Martyniuk)  

Resonate is an album that has shaped itself over time. The recordings took place in different countries and in three instances, the recordings were separated by more than four years. In spite of that, there is a remarkable cohesion throughout. I have reviewed Martyniuk previously and I follow his journey carefully. Anyone who has paid attention to his live performances and to his recorded output will understand why the spacial and time disparities are irrelevant. Martyniuk has an intense artistic focus and his mind-set is not to move on until he is completely satisfied. While it may not be a formula for producing albums in swift succession, it is a recipe which pays dividends for him. Like all strong leaders, he communicates his vision to the musicians and because of that, we get synergy and flow between tracks.

It is an album of beautiful pianism and an album that I would place firmly in the European modern jazz mainstream. I believe it is equal to the best coming out of Europe. He also has a keen sense of which musicians will work with his compositions and more importantly, which will react to the other musicians. His New Zealand trio is Martyniuk (keys) with Cameron McArthur (bass) and Ron Samsom (drums) (plus the Polish guitarist Kuba Mizeracki track two). His Polish quintet features Martyniuk (keys), Jakub Skowronski (tenor saxophone), Mizeracki (guitar), Bartek Chojnacki (upright bass) and Kuba Gudz (drums. Since reconnecting with his Polish roots and performing in Poland, Martyniuk has carved a strong niche for himself. With his career on the rise, we may see him less and less, but if you do get wind of a visit, grab a ticket. You can purchase the album through his Bandcamp site and if downloading I recommend the Wav option. 

https://michalmartyniuk.bandcamp.com      

 

cover.jpg

Hallowed: Michele Rosewoman. 

No matter how many times I listen to ‘Hallowed and I have listened often, my evaluation is always the same. This is an album of extraordinary depth and a testament to Rosewoman and her unique perspective on Afro Cuban music in America. Hallowed is the culmination of thirty-six years work, and of many successful and innovative collaborations. This latest album follows her acclaimed ‘New Yor-Uba, 30 Years: a musical celebration of Cuba in America’. Rosewoman deservedly garnered a Cuban Jazz Grammy for that. It was rated #1 by NPR in the Latin Jazz category. Although what she plays is always accessible, Rosewoman has long been regarded as an adventurous musician but she defies easy pigeonholing. Her early influences like Mingus informed her trajectory while her association with the likes of Greg Osby, Steve Colman, Julien Priester,  and Oliver Lake plus a plethora of gifted Cuban musicians set her final course. The bulk of this latest album was the result of a commission by Chamber Music America. Long ago when websites were new, I decided to check out some online Jazz sites. I was enthusiastic about Rosewoman’s Quintessence albums and I found her site and typed her name into a message box. Within minutes her reply came back and it astounded me that I could talk to a musician in real-time. In the mid-nineties that felt like magic.

In the wrong hands, a large ensemble, weaving intricate clave rhythms can overwhelm. On Hallowed, the charts are meticulously crafted, allowing the music to breathe naturally. The orchestration here is simply exquisite. Each track begins with a particular rhythm, moving subtly to other rhythms and moods as the listener is drawn into the essence of the music, which in spite of its intricacy takes you on an expansive and heartwarming journey. As you listen you feel the warmth and undulating caress of a Cuban breeze. The heart of the album is the commissioned work titled Oru de Oro (Room of Gold). This should be listened to following the track order and the 10 tracks enjoyed as a whole. As with most Cuban music, the rhythms of the Bata are the threads upon which all else rests and although the warp and weft pulse and change, the centre always holds. There are many master musicians on this album and it could be described as an amalgamation of worlds, a uniting of times past and present.  Although not prolific as a recording artist, this is Rosewoman at her best. It is hard to see how she could surpass this, but given her previous albums, she probably will. 

https://michelerosewomansnewyor-uba.bandcamp.com/album/hallowed-michele-rosewomans-new-yor-uba-featuring-oru-de-oro

 

Screen Shot 2020-02-12 at 10.52.52 AM.jpeg

Sun Stone: Robert Magris Sextet

To date Robert Magris has led or co-led around 30 albums and ‘Sun Stone’ is a recent offering from the Kansas City ‘JMood’ label. He is a veteran of the European Jazz scene and his consistent output has frequently brought him into contact with respected American Jazz musicians.  He travels widely, performing at festivals and gigs throughout the world. These fruitful collaborations have frequently taken him to America where he has cut some well-received albums in recent years. While a mainstream Post-bop stylist, he is never-the-less difficult to categorise precisely. Like many pianists who have been around a while, he has absorbed many influences and to these, he has added his own southern European voice. 

‘Sunstone’ the album features the respected multi-instrumentalist Ira Sullivan and the rest of the sextet apart from Magris hail from either Florida or Chicago. The first number and title track is a crackling energised number which sets the tone for much that follows, but there are also some reflective numbers. On several of the later tracks, Sullivan is heard to great effect on flute.  Magris is from Trieste and he often performs in nearby Prague with the MUH trio. It was in those two cities where I almost caught up with him a few years ago. Trieste appeals to me greatly, so perhaps next time?  

http://www.Jmoodrecords.co

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. 

 

Cover Art and Rattle Jazz

 

 

a1207369113_2

Rattle Records stands out from the pack for a number of reasons and not least because of the label’s presentation. Most independent labels like Rattle run on a shoestring and to hold their own in a difficult market they need a strong identity. While the music and the technical aspects are paramount, the cover art is also important. So, the recording artist is the expert when it comes to musical content, but seldom so when it comes to cover art design. Fortuitously, Rattle has an over-arching concept when it comes to cover design, much like ECM does.

a0548687390_2

The guru interpreting the musician’s desires while at the same time remaining true to the broader design concept is UnkleFranc. With his (or her) help the artwork is shaped. Rattle Records occupies a unique position in New Zealand contemporary music and the visual brand is clearly a factor. Someone purchasing a pop playlist on Spotify may not care about design, but the arts-minded folk who love Rattle certainly do. 

a3303598937_2 

With the arrival of music streaming, the interconnectedness of music and the visual arts largely faded into obscurity. What began as grand theft under Napster became petty theft under the various digital models and what passed for cover art morphed into pixilated blobs the size of postage stamps. Audiophiles cared but the average music consumer did not appear to. As the old model faltered, the race to bottom gathered pace. The proliferation of new platforms like Apple, while nowhere near as bad as Napster paid risible royalties to the recording artists.

a2644488156_2

There were other consequences as well, the downloading and streaming industry had effectively severed the relationship between the consumer and cover art/liner notes and high fidelity music. In a newsletter to new recording artists, a major label pointed out that liner notes and recording details were no longer compatible with music presentation. Statements like that are woefully disrespectful as the creation and marketing of music is a collaborative enterprise. It matters who the musicians are and where the album was recorded or mixed. The presentation also matters.

a1027052021_2

Throughout this period the CD and the newly revived LP were the hold-outs and it is worth noting that no analogue or digital medium has lasted as long as the Compact Disk. The fault for the decline in CD sales does not lie with the streamers or the disruptor technologies, the fault lies with the industry, who failed to adapt. The industry answer was to demand a bigger share of a shrinking pie and the ship sank slowly under its own inertia.

a0680072302_2

If the good news has been slow in coming, the rise of the independent labels and the arrival of artist-friendly digital platforms like Bandcamp has offered hope. These are mostly run by musicians or committed curators (unlike the big three who own 80% of the industry, Sony BMG, Universal, Warners). On Bandcamp, you can buy an LP or CD and download or stream in HiFi. The artist also gets a better percentage, control is localised and cover art and liner notes are available. 

a2026093533_2

I urge anyone reading this to visit Rattle on Bandcamp. If you don’t already own a copy and you like the look of the album cover, check it out. All of the information is there underneath the cover art. Listen to samples, read the liner notes and then buy in whatever form suits you. For me, this experience recaptures the lost lamented joy of browsing in record stores and then rushing home to try out the album out on your HiFi. All of the album covers I have posted here are attributed to UnkleFranc with the exception of ‘The Troubles’ cover which was designed by Fane Flaws. 

a4123783996_2

Footnote: An odd research study was undertaken to investigate the relationship between music and the visual arts. The study wanted to see if personality traits were a determinant of musical preference. A questionnaire using the ‘Arnett Inventory of Sensation Seeking’ was used and the results were as follows: The majority of study participants identified themselves as liking either Classical or Popular Music and most of those indicated a preference for paintings with landscape images. The majority also indicated low preferences for Heavy Metal, images portraying violence or for world cultures (?). Classical music listeners related positively to all visual art images. Heavy Metal lovers liked all visual art images except for landscapes. Popular music lovers identified most positively with visual art religious images (? Madonna) and Jazz Lovers were cool with all visual art images except religious images (attribution, Sage Journals).

a0836339790_16

RAT-J-1044+Shuffle

The albums in the order of appearance: (1) Zoo (Tom Dennison) (2) Secret Islands (Jim Langabeer) (3) Ace Tone (Ron Samsom) (4) Good Winter (antipodes) (5) UM… (yeahyeahabsolutlynoway) (6) The Troubles (7) Fiddes vs Tinkler (Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra) (8) East West Moon (Jonathan Crayford) (9) Edge of Chaos (Dixon Nacey) (10) Shuffle (Manins, Samsom, Benebig, Lockett)

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. 

Australian Improvisers 2019

 

Aust Improvisers (1).jpg

The number of quality Jazz albums coming out of Australia these days is impressive and considering the lack of support from the mainstream music industry, surprising.  I have met a number of Australian improvisers over the years and the best of them have one thing in common, a burning desire to reach beyond the mundane. They communicate this passion in spite of the obstacles and they do it convincingly. The best of these are respected across the wider Jazz world. They are a cohort that brings joy to those hear them and the least we can do is pay them our fullest attention. In November 2019, I became aware of four recent Australian albums: Andrea Kellers ‘Transients, volumes 1 & 2,’  ’This World’ (a collaboration between Mike Nock, Julian Wilson, Hamish Stuart and Jonathan Zwartz) and ‘Stock’ by Julien Wilson. A common denominator linking the above recordings is Wilson, who appears on all four albums (and is the founder of the Melbourne based Lionshare Records). Christopher Hale appears in three of them.

This World: Anyone who has followed pianist Mike Nock over the years will always be hungry for more of his artistry. He never disappoints. A few years ago Wilson confided that he had been planing a collaboration with Nock but that prior commitments always seemed to get in the way. Then in 2018 disaster struck when Nock was hit by a car on a pedestrian crossing. Many feared that his injuries could curtail his career and his fans hoped for a swift recovery. Not long after he left the hospital (and against the odds), he joined Wilson, Stuart and Zwartz for a standards gig. They sounded so good together that they agreed to record an album of originals (with each contributing compositions). Next, Zwartz obtained an arts council grant, and they headed for Sony Studios.

While the results of the two-day session are a testament to their compositional skills, it is their tasteful interplay that remains with you. The album is a thing of soulful beauty, with the compositions coexisting in happy juxtaposition. For example, the cheerfully reflective tune Old’s Cool (Nock) is followed by the moody In The Night Comes The Rain (Zwartz). If you follow the tracklist in chronological order you could be forgiven for thinking that the album is about Nock’s accident. In the Night Comes The Rain – Home – The Dirge – Aftermath  – We shall Rise Again; perhaps that is not the case at all, but whatever the motivation the album is an essential addition to any Jazz collection. What musical heavy-weights these musicians are and how effortlessly they weave their magic. There is a hint of ECM about this recording and not least due to the amazing cover artwork by the Icelandic earth photographer Polly Ambermoon. 

Aust Improvisers.jpg   

Transients volume 1 & 2: Late last year I came across the Transients albums by the multi-award-winning pianist and composer Andrea Keller. I first encountered Keller two years ago while I was visiting family in Melbourne. Her compelling stylistic originality intrigued me and I made a point of attending several of her performances in a row; resolving to keep an eye on her output from then on. On the first night she was decidedly minimalist and embedded deep within an ensemble; the second night a fearless explorer in a serialist vein. These two albums offer variety, innovation. The Transients project began in 2016 and since that time a series of interlinking trios have appeared, culminating in these extraordinary 2019 albums.

Aust Improvisers (3).jpg

This is music that requires your engagement and it is deeply rewarding when you listen properly. It is clear evidence that Australian music is developing its own distinct voice. The opening track on the first album is titled Musings and it is the perfect hook to draw you deep inside an intriguing world. As the tracks unfold you realise that you are listening kaleidoscopically. Phrases form and change along with mood. It is an interesting approach as the various trios sound like a band that could be playing as a larger ensemble. less is more. It is as if it is a bigger unit but with instruments redacted to achieve greater clarity. In spite of the contrasting moods and instrumental configurations, there is a unified heart; so much so that you can easily imagine how each piece would sound if the alternate trios played the piece. On volume two this is realised. On volume 1 you experience the journey while on volume two you are invited to examine it afresh. Many of the tunes like Saint Misha and Sleep Cycles are later reimagined, familiar but not familiar.

 

It is hard to praise the Transients albums enough and while it is obviously Keller who deserves the lions share of the accolades, the individual musicians excel themselves under her guidance. Wilson on tenor saxophone, clarinet and bass clarinet has long been a favourite of mine. He and the astonishing Stephen Magnusson have previously stunned us when appearing on recordings (notably with Barney McAll). With the addition of James Macaulay on trombone, Sam Anning or Christopher Hale on bass, James McLean or Leigh Fischer on drums and Flora Carbo on Alto, Keller has found the right mix of colours for her masterwork. 

Aust Improvisers (2).jpg

Stock: Like This World, Stock was released by Julien Wilson’s Lionshare Records. It is a joyful, freedom embracing, open-hearted exploration of sonic possibilities. It enhances sound, but the electronic effects which it utilises to good advantage are tastefully deployed. This is an album which immediately brings a smile to your lips, exuding as it often does the sounds of a perfect summer (a happier summer than Australia is experiencing at present). It was recorded in 2019 and released by the artists on New Year’s Day 2020. It is the sound of now and I was delighted to hear in the new decade with this gem. Some, wrong-headedly, think that post-millennium Jazz like this has abandoned past learnings; they are mistaken. These artists have no need to look over their shoulder because the past has been absorbed into and informs everything they do as they move the music forward. While Stock is Wilson’s concept it is clearly a collaborative effort. No one creates at this level unless they are inside each other’s heads. The quartet has performed a while but this was a time to share their vision with a wider audience. The tracks cover many moods – here I have posted a joyfully ‘out’ track.

Wilson is noted for his skilful articulation; an artist who can wring new tears out of old ballads and carve scorching pathways through an up-number; one of the few Australasian reeds players who maintains his clarinet chops at this level. This feels like a fruitful direction for him as the step change has a rightness about it. As the album progresses, moving from the filmic to the elegiac, you marvel at the inventiveness. Yes, guitarist Craig Fermanis has a Metheny vibe, but this is an original offering and beholden to no one. He is magnificent throughout and able to create nuance out of controlled chaos, and Christopher Hale’s electric bass work and Hugh Harvey’s drums or percussion are so integrated that the band presents as a single fluid entity. It is the integration of the voices and of ideas within a free-flowing framework that worked for me. It plots an interesting path forward and in doing so brings us along with it.   

My last word is about the presentation and the sound quality of the above albums. The recording and mixing standards here are very high. All have eye-grabbing artwork but in the case of the Lionshare albums, the standard is extraordinary. Wilson has an eye for great cover art, intuitively understanding that the relationship between the eye and the ear is important. Music is about more than just sound. I know that he gives careful consideration to such matters, whether it’s the eerily atmospheric work of the Icelandic earth photographer Polly Ambermoon or the marvellous creations of Dale Cox. The albums are all released on Bandcamp. We should all purchase whatever we can through the Bandcamp platform as the artists share is considerably greater there. In addition, we get streaming at Hi-Fi quality and the albums and other merch can be accessed directly. The two Lionshare Albums are also available in 24bit/96kHz audiophile quality and are downloadable for burning. If you have a high-end audio system you should grab the 24bit versions as these are the best quality available to us.  

This World: Mike Nock (piano), Hamish Stuart (drums), Julien Wilson (reeds) Jonathan Zwartz (bass). Transients 1&2: Andrea Keller (piano), Julien Wilson (tenor saxophone & clarinet), James Macaulay (trombone), Stephen Magnusson (guitar), Floro Carbo (alto saxophone), Sam Anning (double bass), Christopher Hale (bass guitar), Leigh Fisher (drums), James McLean (drums). Stock: Julien Wilson (reeds, effects), Craig Fermanis (guitar), Christopher Hale (bass guitar), Hugh Harvey (drums & percussion)

https://julienwilson.bandcamp.com    https://andreakeller.bandcamp.com

‘Alchemy’ Album Review

Alchemy2 (1)Have you ever heard one of New Zealand’s iconic pop songs and wondered how it would sound reimagined as Jazz? The journey from popular song to Jazz piece is a well-trodden path. Many tunes that we now refer to as ‘Jazz standards’ began their life as tunes written for broadway musicals or for the popular music market. For a tune to successfully cross that divide it needs to be well constructed and to lend itself to reharmonisation. With ‘Alchemy’, this elusive symmetry is realised.

In the late twentieth century, classic Beatles tunes or those of Michael Jackson, Prince and Stevie Wonder were effortlessly adapted as Jazz vehicles. If you hear Uri Caine, Brad Mehldau, Herbie Hancock or the Kiwi Jazz pianist Jonathan Crayford playing ‘Blackbird’ you might conclude that Blackbird was written with a Jazz pianist in mind. These crossovers are a tribute to the composer and to the transformational skills of arranging Jazz Musicians. Alchemy2 (3)

A few years ago the award-winning New Zealand writer/director/producer Mark Casey embarked on an ambitious project to recast a number of New Zealand’s best-loved pop songs as Jazz tunes. It was a significant and perhaps a risky undertaking but gradually the project gathered momentum. In mid-December, ‘Alchemy’ was released and immediately, it rose up the NZ music charts. This is a significant achievement but it is not down to Casey alone. His masterstroke was engaging leading New Zealand Jazz Pianist Kevin Field as the Musical Director. Field is not only a gifted Jazz Pianist and acknowledged Warner recording artist, but his skills as an arranger and vocal accompanist are beyond question. Creative New Zealand came to the party and backed the proposal.

As the project moved forward a variety of Kiwi Jazz musicians were approached, some working in New York, most local, and one by one they came aboard. When the album was about to be recorded, I was asked by Field and Casey if I would be interested in witnessing the recording process. I was. I seldom pass up a chance to become a fly-on-the-wall during recording sessions and this project fascinated me. Being an embedded observer in such situations is always intriguing. It affords a writer the opportunity to gain insights that would otherwise be invisible. As the musicians turned up to rehearsals and to recording day there was a palpable sense of enthusiasm. No one questioned Fields guidance as he tweaked the charts and made suggestions. And any sense of disconnect between the pop and Jazz world evaporated swiftly. This was not pop Jazzed up. It was Jazz, and although there were reharmonisations and Jazz rhythms, the integrity of original tunes remained intact.

In the recording studio were Auckland’s premier Jazz and Soul singers and a selection of experienced Jazz instrumentalists. On vocals were Caitlin Smith, Lou’ana Whitney, Chelsea Prastiti, Allana Goldsmith, Bex Peterson and Marjan Nelson. On piano and keyboards was Keven Field, Roger Manins was on tenor saxophone, Richard Hammond on electric and acoustic bass, Michael Howell on acoustic and electric guitar, Ron Samsom and Stephen Thomas on drums and percussion. In addition, there were two special guests, Michael Booth (trumpet) and Nathan Haines (soprano saxophone). This was serious firepower and thanks to the arrangements, all well deployed. The NY based ex-pat bass player Matt Penman had arranged tracks 7 & 12 and Marjan co-arranged tracks 4 & 8 with Field. Alchemy2

There are six vocalists on the album and they sing two tunes each. Careful thought had obviously been given to who would sing each song because the strengths of the individual vocalists were well matched to the tunes. For example, the warm but wistful lyricism of Chelsea Prastiti paired with ‘I’m glad I’m not a Kennedy’ (Shona Laing), the heartfelt reflectiveness of Caitlin Smith with ‘I hope I never’ (Tim Finn) or the engaging bell-like clarity of Marjan singing ‘Brown girl’ (Aradhna Patel). Together the musicians delivered something unique. This is a project which works and the more you listen to it the more you are beguiled. It is Kiwiana and it could be the perfect soundtrack for your summer.

‘Alchemy’ the album is available in New Zealand stores or from online sources. 

Emma Gilmartin & James Sherlock

Gilmartin Sherlock.jpgI was barely off the plane and my brain was full of dense fog, no doubt a legacy of San Francisco Karl who had been circling me like a spectre for a good month. I gamely fought the malaise off and because I am a creature of habit, dutifully made my way down to Auckland’s CJC Creative Jazz Club. In my experience, it pays never to miss a live improvised music gig, because if you do, you risk bitter regret. Believe me, I often lie awake lamenting a missed chance to see John McLaughlin. 

Last week the Australian Duo, Emma Gilmartin and James Sherlock were on the bill accompanied by Christchurch Bass player Michael Story and Wellington drummer Mark Lockett. Lockett, who helped organise the tour, is a mainstay of the Wellington Jazz scene and offshore musicians like this arrive due to the skilful tour-on-a-shoestring wrangling of his ilk. We get to hear these Aussie, European and American bands in our New Zealand Jazz clubs, largely because of the work put in by a handful of dedicated musicians like Roger and Caro Manins (and Lockett). These organisers pitch in uncomplainingly as they lock down the events and we benefit as a result. Consequently, New Zealand has developed a rich improvised music circuit and a debt of gratitude is owed to the organisers (and to the volunteers who quietly assist). 

Emma Gilmartin is a Melbourne based vocalist, composer and teacher and it was her first time performing in Auckland. She has received praise from the Australian music press and is one of an increasing number of gifted vocalists emerging out of the Australian Jazz scene. She is pitch-perfect and her appealing voice finds the corners of a room with ease. Like all good Jazz vocalists, she imparts a mood of engaging intimacy. Her co-leader on this tour, was guitarist James Sherlock, a notable musician and the perfect foil for a vocalist. An accompanist who understands how to enhance vocal performance by offering challenges and he knows how to comp without getting in the way. He is a gift to any vocalist.  On solos, he also excels, at times bringing to mind earlier greats like an Oscar More (behind Nat Cole). Christchurch Bass player Michael Story rounded off the quartet nicely and it was obvious that he was enjoying himself. Again, he was the right person for the ensemble.

The program was a mix of tasteful standards and interesting originals. I have put up a clip which demonstrates the strengths of the quartet – witness the tasteful musicality of Lockett’s drum solo as the band digs into a swinging version of ‘Nica’s Dream’ by Horace Silver.  Gilmartin appeared to be relishing her time in New Zealand and she announced that she would try and return next year. We hope so.

Emma Gilmartin (vocals), James Sherlock (guitar), Michael Story (bass), Mark Lockett (drums). The gig took place at Anthology, K’Road, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, 4 December 2019