Australian Musicians, Backbeat Bar, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs

Eamon Dilworth Quintet @ Backbeat Bar

DilworthTomasz Stanko died two days before the Eamon Dilworth gig and I was feeling the loss. I don’t know why this particular musician’s passing affected me so much but it did. Perhaps it was the untimeliness, a great artist gone too soon. It was as if a vital soundtrack to my life had been placed on pause. As I moped about the house, playing Wislawa and The New York Quartets, I remembered that Dilworth was playing soon and I cheered up immediately. I had reviewed the Viata album a month previously and loved it. I knew that it would be a balm and I knew that it would connect me to that place which Stanko took me. It did.

The Viata album had an astonishing array of gifted musicians on it, Dilworth, Alister Spence, Carl Morgan, Jonathan Zwartz and Paul Derricott. When Dilworth flew into Auckland he was only accompanied by the pianist Spence. The rest of the Auckland lineup would be local pick up musicians. Dilworth has a very distinctive sound and hearing his tunes played on different instruments or by other musicians was going to be interesting. Replacing Morgan on guitar was tenor player Roger Manins, on drums Andy Keegan and on upright bass Wil Goodinson. Manins needs no introduction to Australasian audiences and I was looking forward to hearing him in this context. People associate him with burners and that is his shtick, but Manins is also a master at blowing in these spacious atmospheric situations. I hadn’t seen Andy Keegan for a while but I rate his playing – he thinks through what he’s doing, listens carefully and responds appropriately.  The last of the New Zealand players, Wil Goodinson, is a gifted newcomer with big ears, a terrific sound and with great things ahead. Dilworth (2)

This was the first time that I have heard Alister Spence. He is truly an extraordinary pianist and I could hardly believe what I was hearing. A minimalist whose voicings gave power to the spaces – leaving behind in the wake of each note, a gentle otherworldly dissonance. There were long ostinato passages, often a single chord, which shifted the focus imperceptibly. He crafted minute changes without once losing the ostinato vibe. Floating arpeggiated chords, at times Debussy like – as if Terry Riley had appropriated a Debussy moment and made it airy as it floated heavenward. And all of this creating the perfect platform for Dilworth.

It is a brave musician who explores space with such lightness of touch. Dilworth is exactly the right person to do this. His playing and compositions create dreamscapes, warm interludes from the harshness of the post-truth world. This allows us to rise far above the mundane. It is as much about his worldview as it is about sound. He is a musician who thinks about life and then forges a sonic philosophy out of those musings. It is unmistakably, the sort of sound that ECM thrives on. It is time they profiled an Australian. Here, all is subordinate to mood, with the harmonies often implied; the tempos are measured, nothing is hurried and the melodies are miniatures; elided and markers on an interesting journey. Dilworth utilises the extended techniques in his trumpet playing but there is nothing ostentatious on display. Every whisper of air or long-held note is a story in itself.

We heard most of the album during the night and a tune from his earlier Tiny Hearts album. It was hard to decide which tune to post as a video, but I chose Toran which is the last track on the Viata album. To get the most out of it, sit down, slow your breathing and close your eyes. This is a masterclass in subtlety and well worth the effort. The gig took place at the Backbeat Bar, K’Road, Auckland for the CJC Creative Jazz Club.

 

 

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Big Band, Concerts - visiting Musicians, Swing, USA and Beyond

Basie Orchestra’s Auckland gig 2018

Basie (1)There are a number of things that should be on every music lovers bucket list. Experiencing a Basie Orchestra gig live is one of them. This band has the history of modern music in its DNA and after 83 years on the road, they are in their prime.  Goodman was always referred to as the ‘king of swing’ but in my view Basie was a better contender for that title. His brand of swing had it’s nascent stirrings in 1927 when Basie joined Bennie Moten. When that band folded he took many of the musicians with him to form the Basie Band in 1935. The Basie band possessed a unique sound, fueled by a nine-piece line up featuring legendary greats like Lester Young, ‘Papa’ Jo Jones and Walter Page. Johnny Hammond heard them in 1936 and invited them to New York where at his suggestion they expanded to become a thirteen piece jazz Orchestra. At this time they were joined by Freddie Green and others. Skillfully, they incorporated the nimbleness of the Kansas City small ensemble swing-feel into a new sound.

When we listened to the Orchestra in Auckland a few nights ago, every iteration of their 83 years was touched upon. Early and contemporary charts, the gorgeous highly arranged charts from Neil Hefti, Frank Foster and Quincey Jones ‘second testament’ era, some newly arranged material, plus a fabulous tribute to the Basie/Amstrong/Fitzgerald collaborations. Giving added weight to that celebration was the inclusion of vocalist Carmen Bradford. Bradford was originally hired by Basie himself and so she has a long association with the orchestra. Hers is a big voice and an instrument perfectly suited to Ella’s songbook. She is a Jazz vocalist in the traditional sense and it is no wonder that Basie gave her a shot.  At times she sang duets with various of the band members, but it was when she and Scotty Barnhart got together that the sparks really flew. Basie (3).jpg

Barnhart, a two times Grammy winner is the musical director of the Basie orchestra and a featured soloist. His Louis Armstrong tribute captured not just ‘Pops’ but the great man’s contemporaries, an often overlooked cohort who deserve to be examined more often than they are. Modern trumpet styles are a long way removed from the street rich dirty growls and blues-infused storytelling of those times. A sound which always communicated a world of raw emotion and deep humanity. As the tribute tunes moved through the era, we heard everything from the lighter-hearted ‘A Tisket a Tasket’ (a traditional nursery rhyme), to Gershwin classics like  ‘A Foggy Day in London Town’ or ‘Summertime’.  Some of the numbers predated the Basie bands like ‘Struttin With Some Barbecue’ (Armstrong 1927) while others were more contemporary like the gorgeous arrangement of Stevie Wonders ‘Ma Cherie Amour’.

Among the most enjoyable moments were the sensitive trio rendition of ‘Hello Dolly’ (Herman) and the ever wonderful and always compelling Hefti arrangement of ‘April in Paris’ (Duke/Harburg). Doug Lawrence the tenor soloist astounded as always (I was sitting next to a young tenor player and his jaw dropped in amazement during Lawrence’s solos). These musicians are so tight that an atomic blast couldn’t separate them and they swing like crazy.  I guess 84 years on the road will do that.  I have seen this orchestra before and with any luck, I will see it again and again.  There is only one thing you can say in summing up a Basie Orchestra performance; “ONE MORE TIME – please”.

The concert took place at the Aotea Centre, Auckland City, New Zealand, July 30, 2018

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

Steve​ Sherriff Sextet @ Backbeat Bar

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs

Alan Brown – Between the Spaces – 2018

Alan Brown (1)I have a special connection with this band and specifically with the recording that this gig was reprising. It felt like something of a milestone at the time, as the New Zealand scene was hungry for a fresh take on classic funk. This was a sound that many had been waiting for. Guitar and Rhodes rich with a punchy e-bass and modern drum pulse. A sound which hinted at classic prog-rock or the soaring fusion of Focus. Some listeners were reminded of the heady days of funk’s urban dominance while others felt reconnected with High Street of the nineties; a decade of danceable Jazz crossover. It was, however, considerably more than a glance into the past; it effectively leapt into the space opened up by the release of Aaron Parks, Invisible Cinema.  It scratched many itches at once and it was loved by forward-looking Jazz audiences, Funk aficionados and Rock audiences alike.

I will state my personal connection up front. After hearing the ‘Between the spaces’ recording and the band live, my partner and I hired them for a house party. It is not an event that I will forget in a hurry. We rolled back the carpets, chilled the beer, carved the roast and warned the neighbours. Seeing a band like this set up in your living room is a special feeling. It creates a deep connection on a very personal level. As they played into their first tune the air sizzled with electricity and everyone drifted in from the other rooms, the garden and the deck. One by one the neighbours started to turn up – some were definitely not Jazz fans but before long they were dancing along with the rest and feeling amazed that they had discovered a new genre of music. Some danced, most smiled, and everyone was mesmerised by the groove. Alan Brown (2)

My partner Darien was a Labour MP then and that attracted other MP’s to the gig.  The then recently elected back-bencher Jacinda Ardern (our current Prime Minister), Chris ‘Chippy’ Hipkins (now Minister of Education and house leader), David Shearer (then opposition leader and now a senior UN diplomat protecting the most vulnerable in Africa).  But most of all I remember that our dear friend Helen Kelly flew up for the party. She loved the band and purchased a copy of the album. We lost her a few years later – New Zealand lost her – so yes, these memories are very personal.

The band at the Backbeat Bar featured most of the original core band, Alan Brown on keys (playing an Arturia KeyLab 88), Andy Smith (dusting of a semi hollow-body for the occasion), Jono Sawyer (drums) and David Hodkinson (electric bass). Hodkinson often appeared when the original band performed live, but Marika Hodgson was the bass player on the album. The Backbeat Bar CJC gig was right up to the mark, as the band had lost none of their spark. You could tell that they still loved playing this material and the audience, a mixture of old and new fans, were clearly delighted with what they heard.  While the gig reprised many of the older numbers we also heard some interesting newer material. I have it on good authority that Alan is seriously considering a Between the spaces two. I certainly hope so – the original album was long ago integrated into my life’s soundtrack.

The gig took place at the Backbeat Bar for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, July 18, 2018. For copies of the original ‘Between the spaces’ album or for subsequent Alan Brown albums, you could try your local record store, but the best place to purchase is through Brown’s Bandcamp site, which is at AlanBrownBandcamp.com

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

Takadimi @ Backbeat Bar

TakadimiKarangahape Road and the precincts around it are a natural home for adventurous and alternative music. If you walk the length, you are assailed by sights and sounds at variance to each other. Taken in their entirety they are oddly compatible. The jumble of colour and the bursts of noise as you pass a Karaoke bar or an uber cool eatery is counterbalanced by the languid notes from Shanghai Lils or the soft chatter emanating from Hookah smoking Kebab shop doorways. Woven into this oddness of streetwalkers and urban cool, are the alternative music joints. Down in basements, under the street or up narrow stairways. Thirsty Dog, Anthology, Audio Foundation, Wine Cellar. And at the top end of the strip, next to the old Jewish graveyard is the Backbeat Bar.  High-quality alternative improvised music resides here on Wednesdays. Takadimi (4)

Takadimi is the brainchild of the gifted tabla player Manjit Singh and the CJC featured his band last Wednesday. This is a fusion band in the very best sense of the word as it fuses styles and complex rhythms with apparent ease. The music’s origins are clear but the tunes are not unduly anchored to them. We are living in an age when classical forms are not nailed down and in the west, the whole notion of musical purity is frequently overstated. The higher purpose of music is to connect on a human level and not to impress by showing off technical prowess. Takadimi connected deeply and spoke directly to our senses. They played improvised music but worked into the complex structures of Indian Talas. It felt as if both forms were respected.

The tunes were all introduced by the leader Manjit Singh, who would establish the rhythm by chanting a tala (or taal); then he would guide the ensemble into the open and freer air of jazz harmonies where collective (or solo) improvisation occurred. I have seen this band before and this felt like a step up. The soloists, in particular, showed a readiness to work with and enjoy the challenges presented by the complex polyrhythms. All of the musicians held the line and made it appear easy – it certainly was not. Takadimi (3)

Underpinning everything were the rhythms and colours provided on the Tabla – an instrument long embedded into the Jazz repertoire. Anyone who has heard John McLoughlin, Jean Luc Ponty and Zakir Hussain together will understand how profound the association can be. It is therefore great to have such a fine tabla player in our midst and it our good luck that he is up for cross-genre collaborations.

The last time I heard Takadimi was at the Thirsty Dog; way down the other end of K’ Road. On that gig the lineup was different, this time the band had no guitar and the pianist Alan Brown had joined them. Singh could not have chosen better. Brown is well versed in the output of East European wunderkind Tigran Hamasyan. Hamasyan often counts in with talas and his beautiful Armenian styled rhythms are at times, very close to Indian forms. Brown is a master of complex rhythmic structures and capable of executing them without ever losing the groove. There were many fine performances but a standout was from Lukas Fritsch. His alto danced expertly through the tunes and for a young musician, he handled the complexities like a veteran.  Takadimi (2)

The clip that I have posted is a beautiful composition by the guru Ustad Fazal Qureshi and arranged by Manjit Singh. The Taal is Mishra Jaati – rendered as a polyrhythmic 7 over 4/4 time. On this track, Brown plays a synth instead of piano.  

Takadimi: Manjit Singh (leader, tabla, arrangements), Alan Brown (piano, keyboards), Lukas Fritsch (alto saxophone), Denholm Orr (bass), Daniel Waterson (drums). The gig was at the Backbeat Bar, K’ Road, Auckland, CJC Creative Jazz Club, July 11, 2018.

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

Jonathan Besser @ Backbeat Bar

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

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

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

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

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

Australian Musicians, New Zealand Jazz Gigs, Piano Jazz

McAll @ Freida Margolis

Barney Freidas (3)The pleasure of experiencing great music in small venues is inestimable. Sure, we love it when the famous cats blow through town, rush to get our tickets for the town hall concerts, pay the hefty price tag gladly and listen; watch the tiny figures way, way down on stage.  I have attended many such concerts over the years and regarded them among life’s high points, but now I am not so sure. As great as these concerts are and as amazing as the visiting musicians are, the experience is filtered through layers of complexity and as a result, one essential ingredient is often missing, that feeling of warm intimacy.

I have heard road-wise musicians talk of a virtuous feedback loop, the way artist and audience feed off each other until the music becomes bigger than the sum of its parts. Large civic venues are by their very nature redactive and the end result is often a performer facing a passive sea of listeners. Anyone who has been tapped on the shoulder during a performance and been told by an usher to sit still will get my point. Sitting still and mute is difficult for seasoned Jazz lovers. We know when to hold our breath and we know not to chatter, but we also understand when to vocalise our joy or when to exhort a soloist to greater heights. And bodies will sway and feet will tap – that’s the fine point of engagement. When the music is visceral it radiates a life force and even at the most fundamental level of existence, atoms collide and shift. If it lives it moves.Barney Freidas (4)

Some of us, the lucky ones, have experienced an artist of international stature performing in a small cosy club. If it’s a pianist and if a very good piano is located in the venue, then it’s a recipe for unbounded enjoyment. A few days ago Barney McAll played at a sold-out venue at the Wellington International Jazz Festival. Thanks to his close friend Jonathan Crayford he stopped off for a day in Auckland on his return journey. There had been some discussion about this possibility a few months ago and JC assured me that it would happen. Because I had a prior warning I waited and when the tickets appeared I swooped like a hawk. Only the lucky few got to attend this gig.

The eye-catching online notification featured an attractive sketch and a poster which read; ‘Barney McAll plays Gospel solo piano at Freida Margolis, limited tickets available’.  In the fine print was the word, Steinway. Together this spelt seismic. When you hear McAll you experience more than just music, you experience dreamscapes and multiple histories. The first thing to grasp about McAll is that he can reference many styles and genres and while this is disconcerting to some, it is an essential part of his output. Cutting edge contemporary improvised music, Orchestral Jazz, alternative popular music, standards, soul, free or Gospel. While his projects can feature any of the above styles, each is laid down with the utmost integrity and each bears his unmistakable hallmark.

Barney Freidas (2)

What we heard were mostly Gospel hymns – the sort you would hear in a Harlem church. They were hymns, but not presented in the way you’d hear them in a New Zealand or Australian church. They were improvisational vehicles and the voicings of some old-time Jazz greats shone through. I have heard such voicings from the likes of Hank Jones and this is hardly surprising. Musicians like Jones came up through the black gospel church experience. What is uncommon, is to hear this from a white Australian musician.  His eight years of playing in American Gospel churches left its mark of authenticity on him.

During the night he invited Jonathan Crayford and Bella Kalolo to join him. Crayford accompanied on piano, free improvising, while McAll played an unusual guitar-like instrument, imparting a sitar sound or prepared piano sound. Kalolo was obviously delighted to be accompanied by McAll and even though she was unamplified and therefore low volume the two of them had strong chemistry. While they approach the tunes differently, Gospel is clearly something both artists understand.

McAll also played Necter Spur from his ‘Mooroolbark’ album and ‘The Nock Code’ from his recent ‘Hearing the Blood’ album.  Both albums garnered multiple awards and significant praise. Unencumbered by a band, he ranged freely over the numbers and found exquisite asides to explore in-depth. This was music to be experienced from three metres away. This was a love letter to the classic Steinway ‘D’ series and Freida Margolis was the perfect backdrop. I had mounted the camera up high and it was surrounded by tiles which brightened the sound – but that piano – those tunes and those musicians found the magic and gave us a gig to remember.

Barney McAll (Steinway D, stringed instrument), Bella Kalolo (vocals), Jonathan Crayford (Steinway D) – for McAll albums visit Extra Celestial Arts on Bandcamp.