CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Interview

Alan Brown interview & part one

IMG_3131 - Version 2

Interview with Alan Brown:  Leader, Composer Jazz/Groove Musician

Alan, thank you for agreeing to this interview – On behalf of Jazz Local 32 I would like to gain a few insights into your music and your primary influences.

Q. I have seen various configurations of your bands over the years but I would first like to concentrate on the ‘Between the Spaces’ album.   As the composer and leader are you able to reflect on just what this particular body of work means to you?

A. It’s the culmination and articulation of ideas that had been floating around in my head for a while. They didn’t really solidify until I decided on a format (i.e. the quartet and choice of musicians thereof). Once I had that sorted, a lot of the ideas took shape, as I could hear how they would work with this line-up and the particular strengths of each musician. It also represents a new freedom in my writing, that of allowing all my various influences equal voice. Previously I had felt a bit stifled in my writing as I was constantly aware of ‘trying’ to write in a more ‘jazz’ style (whatever that is).

I was often aware of feeling the (self-imposed) pressure to make harmonies more complex where, in many cases, it wasn’t needed and took away from the purely creative and spontaneous aspect of writing. I mean I know there’s always an editing and fine-tuning that happens but sometimes I found I was just trying too hard to be ‘jazz’. Upon hearing some of the younger generation of jazz composers who were not afraid to push the boundaries but also use rock, RnB compositional ideas and harmony, I discovered a new freedom in my own work, and allowed the classical and pop/rock influences which were an early part of my growth, to be heard – without fear!

Q. This has the feel a well-conceived album, which is largely built around finite concepts.   Is that just my impression or was there a compositional focus?

A. There was definitely a compositional focus, even though a few of the tunes were older pieces I had written. The new writing freedom, along with a strong picture of the quartet sound I had in mind, and especially what each player was bringing to it, gave me a focus that I hadn’t had for a long time. There is a strong odd-time and polyrhythmic element to many of the tunes, which was partly inspired by what I was listening to at the time, such as Avishai Cohen et al. However, I distinctly remember one of the first tunes I wrote for the quartet, Captivated (which sadly never made it to the album, but is available on-line), was built from an idea I had for a while but just couldn’t get anywhere with.

One day I thought to try the idea in 7/4 rather than 4/4, and basically the rest of the tune wrote itself! I guess the excitement and challenge of the odd-time signatures propelled the writing burst that followed, although I never tried to force odd-times etc to fit – it still had to feel right no matter what was happening in the tunes. I was also inspired by the writing of bands like Radiohead in terms of song structure and dynamics, so the inclusion of forms such as coda sections to my tunes are a direct result of that. However there are also techniques I have used in my writing since the Blue Train days (and earlier!) present in these tunes, hence the groove element especially.

Q. What are the primary influences behind the BTS compositions?

A. Artists such as Avishai Cohen, as I already mentioned, in relation to the fresh combination of Middle Eastern rhythms and classical influences in his writing; Aaron Parks in terms of sound, structure and the strong sense of melody; Radiohead with regards to structure as I mentioned, but also harmony and again, strong melodic ideas.

The emotion that is present in Radiohead songs is something I was searching for in presenting these tunes in the quartet form I chose; Classical music plays a big part in my upbringing so much of the harmonic sense comes from that, especially in tunes like Eastern and Tableau. The latter tune also includes an obvious nod to minimalist classical composer, Philip Glass.

Q. Those touches of orchestration where you added strings and flute sounded so good.   It put me in mind of the CTI label of Creed Taylor where expanded works and orchestrations by Don Sebesky were the norm.  How did it feel working with an expanded sound palette?

A. I loved it! It presented its own challenges in terms of writing and understanding how the textures work together but it’s something I definitely want to explore further and include in subsequent compositions. Again it’s a sound that has strong ties to my classical influences, and therefore presents an emotional canvas that really resonates with me.

I particularly love the modern orchestration on Brad Mehldau’s Highway Rider album in terms of the close harmonies and inner movement within the strings, creating a vibrant, sometimes dissonant, but compelling texture. I recently found out that Brad was influenced by the the work of Francois Rauber in his work with Jacques Brel, and Bob Alcivar in his work with Tom Waits. I am starting to check these orchestrators out myself now.

Q.The complex rhythms, counterpoint and multi textural nature of the tunes must add a degree of difficulty.   Every band member has to work a different groove while keeping in mind what is happening elsewhere.  Is that a hallmark of the Alan Brown sound?

A. Yes and no. I mean, it was definitely something I had in mind for this album but I’m always wanting to stretch myself and be open to other influences, so I don’t want to be confined to a particular sound or approach. However, every writer does have their own signature style which is something that should come through unconsciously, but the vehicle for expression should be open to whatever provides the creative ‘spark’ at the time. In saying that though, I do love the multi dimensional nature of what happens in these tunes, that there are elements that one can focus on and think “that’s cool”, but that they’re still part of the whole. In other words, it’s got to groove no matter how difficult or ‘clever’ it may appear.

Q. Is there a ‘Between The Spaces two’ planned?

A. I’d like to think so! I have been slowly writing some more tunes, at this stage with the quartet in mind, but as I mentioned, I’d also like to explore various palettes more, especially with strings. Some of the writing is with my Masters study focus, but is still very much what resonates emotionally with me.

Part two and a short review to follow in the next post:

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CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Concerts - visiting Musicians, Review

Steve Barry trio @ CJC – Album Release Tour

Steve Barry

Steve Barry the Auckland born Jazz pianist left New Zealand a few years ago and with him he carried our highest expectations.  That can be a distraction to an emerging artist, but Steve possesses a faculty that overrides distractions.  He is one of the better pianists that I have heard and there is a back story to that.  His focus is unwavering to the point of obsession and he is an artist that won’t be  hurried.  We impatiently awaited his first album, the eponymously named ‘Steve Barry‘; always urging him to record.  He resisted all entreaties, practicing and refining while an innate sense of timing guided him.

He was right and we were wrong – now is the perfect time.  The album launch at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) and the album itself fulfilled every expectation.

This is an artist who puts the integrity of the music before any rapid career path.  This is the right time for the album release, placed as it is firmly within the ambit of work being done by Aaron Parks, Matt Penman, Kurt Rosenwinkel and other ground breaking younger artists.  This new sound is gaining ascendency and with adherents like Will Vinson, Lage Lund and Mike Moreno it will continue to do so (‘James Farm’ are perhaps the epitome).  This music is mainstream Jazz but it references sources as diverse as Lenny Tristano, Indie Rock and even Hip Hop.  The fractured and complex rhythms are juxtaposed with soaring fluid guitar lines.  Against that are the textures and layers of melody.   Only the best musicians can pull this material off and only the best composers can write such material.

While Steve is clearly influenced by this ‘new sound’ he is no slavish imitator.   He has found something that often alludes younger pianists; a recognisable and original voice.Tim Firth

One listen to this album explains everything about this artist and this incredible band.  All of the tunes on the new album are composed by Steve Barry and the compositions are sometimes dense and multi-layered.  This is a musical journey of the profoundest sort.  One that demands your fullest attention and perhaps a little knowledge of what is happening in the Jazz world.  The highest rewards in Jazz occur when we understand something of what is going on.   This is not background music for cocktail parties.  This is up to the minute real.

Jazz musicians tell me that the ones who succeed are those with an almost monomaniacal focus; Steve is such a musician.  He works harder than most as do the band members.   These guys have been playing together for a number of years and they respond to each others every nuance.   If you close your eyes when Tim Firth is playing, you blink them open just to make sure that Eric Harland hasn’t jumped into the drum chair.  His ability to chop up rhythms and channel trip-hop beats is nothing less than astonishing.  I have seen drummers watch him in open-mouthed amazement.  He can also launch a flurry of quiet brush work which is never-the-less as propulsive as a whispering rocket.

Alex Boneham is another stellar musician and he has long been a favourite with New Zealand bass players and Jazz fans.  He is the glue holding these often complex compositions in place and he does so with unwavering certainty.  As the charts unfold the musicians pull away from the known – taking different routes as they stretch against the boundaries.  In spite of the complexity and the risk taking, the implied centre always holds firm.   One musician said to me that he had never heard a band hold such a tight centre while reaching so far into the unknown.  Alex Boneham

The program was nicely balanced and to do this the band deviated from the album on occasion.   There were three lessor known standards performed on the night and the one that stood out was Wayne Shorter’s achingly beautiful ballad ‘Teru’ (from ‘Adams Apple’).   There were two Shorter tunes and that did not surprise me.  Shorter’s works are deceptively complex and they fitted tidily into the repertoire.   As nice as the Shorter was, Steve Barry’s own compositions are the most deserving of praise.   Many of us in Auckland are familiar with these as he has been refining them over several years.  Each time I hear a tune like ‘Parks’, Unconcious-lee (yes referencing Tristano) or ‘Clusters’, I find that the works have evolved.   This is what good Jazz is about.  A restless exploration into the heart of the music.

The highlight of the evening came at the beginning of the second set.   The trio launched into a spirited up-tempo number ‘Changes’ which segued into a long probing introduction.   The solo introduction was of a quality that we seldom hear – no one breathed as the piece unfolded delicately.  The new tune was ‘Vintage’ (also from the album).  At a point so delicately balanced that no one saw it coming we suddenly became aware of the pulse of brushes.  The moment was so perfectly executed  that a gentle gasp arose from the audience.  There were fleeting glances left and right as everyone acknowledged the moment they had witnessed.  The brushes played a solid 4/4 groove over the tune which is in 7/4.

An older woman next to me had tears of joy in her eye; “It was so wonderful that I dared not breathe” she said.  “I was his original piano teacher and as a pupil he was one in a thousand.  He worked harder than most and was relentlessly passionate about music”.  This confirmed the source of the magic, hard work endless commitment….and chops.

There is an additional member on the album who did not make the New Zealand leg of the release tour, Carl Morgan.   His work is also extraordinary and very much in the style of Lage Lund, Kurt Rosenwinkel and Mike Moreno.  The album deserves to do well and if it’s distributed widely enough it will.   Don’t just take my word for it; buy a copy and judge for yourself.   Be quick because the copies will go fast.  This is a must for any Jazz Lovers stocking whether you’re from Oceania or further afield.     CD Art - Front Cover

WHAT: ‘Steve Barry’ Cd  Jazz Groove Records, http://www.stevebarrymusic.com

WHO: Steve Barry (piano), Alex Boneham (bass), Tim Firth (drums), Carl Morgan (Guitar 3,4,9)

WHERE: Launch tour at CJC (Creative Jazz Club)

WHEN: November 28-11-2012

Australia & Pacific gigs, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs

Steve Barry – PJ Koopman Quartet

We had been expecting the official release of Tom Dennisons ‘Zoo’ album but instead we got two musicians from that group in a new and exciting configuration.   While we were saddened that the ‘Zoo’ date was postponed, we could not complain as we were treated to a slice of Jazz heaven under the skillful co-leadership of Steve Barry and P J Koopman.

I make no bones about my enthusiasm for Steve Barry’s piano as I have heard him and reviewed him twice before.    Steve was back in town for two gigs only and the first of them under the leadership of premier Australian drummer Andrew Dickeson, had been a success by any measure.   This time Steve was appearing as co-leader and so many of his own compositions got an airing.  He and the much respected guitarist P J Koopman were also able to stretch out on some well-chosen and seldom heard compositions gleaned from the Jazz song book.

The other two quartet members were Oli Holland (bass) and Ron Samsom (drums).    This dream lineup gave us our moneys worth and a whole lot more.

The first number was the 1935 Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein classic ‘I’ve Told Every Little Star’.   It started with the bones of the melody and swiftly evolved into a swinging medium tempo number.  The composition should perhaps be credited to a small melodic bird, as it came to Kern when he heard a rare finch with a beautiful name singing on his windowsill (Melospiza Melodia).  It was also the last thing Kern sang from his death-bed.   In the hands of this band both bird and composer could not have failed to appreciate the updating.

The next number was a rendition of the moody atmospheric ‘Mantra’ by Kendrick Scott.   This is the perfect vehicle for guitar and piano and its deep penetrating lines were used to advantage by the band.    It is also a number where the drums (with mallets) and bass can be brought right up in the mix and this was certainly not a band to miss such an opportunity.  As they moved through the set list the audience were transfixed.  The guitarist PJ Koopman was at his best that night and it was a joy to see how well he and Steve Barry interacted.    An imperative for piano/guitar configurations is for each to keep out of the others way and they did that instinctively as they have played together over many years.   With a tasteful drummer like Ron Samsom and a skillful bassist like Oli Holland underpinning the chordal instruments, it was never going to be anything but satisfying.

As the set progressed they played two of Steve’s compositions – ‘Untitled 3’ and ‘Unconscious-Lee’.    The latter composition was dedicated to Lee Konitz and his tune ‘Subconscious-Lee’ which he so famously played with Warne Marsh.   It was here that we saw Steve’s writing skills come to the fore and above all experienced the fluidity of P J’s guitar.   I have often been told by guitarists how difficult this Lenny Tristano stuff is to do.   Long unison lines performed to metronome like timing (Tristano hated flashy drummers and famously said that his preference was for a metronome as time-keeper – he would not have minded Ron I’m sure).  There are real subtleties in this music and in lessor hands the message could have been subsumed in the detail.  P J and Steve ran their lines perfectly and when I closed my eyes I could hear an echo of Billy Beaur (g) and Lenny Tristano (p).

The last set begun with ‘Parks’ (Steve Barry) and I have heard him play this before. The tune had stuck fast in my head from the first time I heard it and so I had always wanted to know more about it. It was composed as a tribute to Aaron Parks during a period in which Steve had been listening to a lot of his music (you can find Aaron on the ‘James Farm’ albums along with top rated ex-pat kiwi bassist Matt Penman – sampled on Sound Cloud). Once again Ron Samsom used his mallets to great advantage with Oli Holland’s bass lines weaving skillfully throughout. I will never tire of hearing this complex but satisfying tune.

It was probably the penultimate number of the night which will linger longest in the minds of the audience. A friend commented on how utterly beautiful it was and cursed the fact that her bus was due to leave before the number was finished. The tune was a medley beginning with ‘Iris’ (Wayne Shorter) and segueing into ‘Clusters’ by Steve Barry. It was a good choice on so many levels as it was a more reflective number; allowing the band to showcase their melodic skills, improvisational skills and mastery of the Jazz vocabulary. This was a tune where the subtlety of the exchanges between guitar, piano, drums and bass was paramount. To maintain subtlety while stretching out is always a hard ask but they managed it perfectly. Of note were PJ with his stunningly beautiful chord work and Ron Samsom with his colourist mallet work. Ron is one of our best Kiwi drummers and certainly my favourite. Like all good drummers he understands that less is sometimes more and he is extremely tuneful. I watch his moves closely on gigs and to see him use all parts of the stick or mallet (and even use a beer bottle rolled across the cymbal) is fascinating.

Steve Barry has just been awarded a scholarship and so he will be extremely busy in Sydney over the next three years. What with that and giging his timetable will be full but we hope that he will remember his home town and visit as often as he is able. P J Koopman next returns to NZ to perform at the Tauranga Jazz festival and we look forward to that.

Other tunes performed were ‘P J B’ by Sean Wayland, ‘Cyclic Episode’ by Sam Rivers and ‘Cheryl’ by Charlie Parker.

As our best and brightest move offshore others step up in their place – Sam, Eli (and friend Rachel) gave us a taste of that in the late night Jam session following the gig.

Oli Holland & Ron Samsom (all photography by John Fenton)