CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, emerging artists, Guitar

Emerging Artists Hwang & Tomacruz

Hwang (2)Two weeks ago the CJC Creative Jazz Club profiled two more emerging artists; Seungeil Thomas Hwang and Kathleen Tomacruz. Hwang and Tomacruz are both guitarists but with quite different approaches to their craft. Hwang leans heavily toward the fusion and rock end of the spectrum while Tomacruz, although adventurous, sits comfortably inside the tradition. Both underscore the value of the University of Auckland, Jazz programme; a programme which prepares musicians in the best possible way; fitting them for whatever musical path they choose. Hwang (1)

Some, go on to become high-skilled ghosts in the machine of popular music. Others follow their dreams and journey deeper into the sublime and multi-faceted world that is modern improvised music. They arrive on the scene ready to learn from the gig life, but with enough knowledge to make them adventurous. I see them in Indie Rock bands and I see them in the experimental avant-garde ensembles – I see them in audiences listening carefully to Dixen Nacey, Jonathan Crayford, Roger Manins or Jeff Henderson. Long may that quest for lifelong learning and the striving towards excellence continue. I can only hope that the current short-sighted obsession for pruning back the humanities, doesn’t touch the UoA Jazz Course; a programme that enriches us culturally and delivers well.Hwang (3)

Hwang finished his Masters at the UoA Jazz School in 2016 and this is his first gig with his fusion band Finesse. He is a formidable and ‘chopsy’ guitarist who makes fast and furious look easy. His set showcased his various musical interests and in spite of their divergence, he never looked phased at any point. With Crytal Choi, Wil Goodison and Adam Tobeck at his back he had the bases well covered.

During the second set, Tomacruz emerged as a thoughtful and confident performer. Her big personality overshadowing her physically diminutive presence. I have seen her perform in other’s lineups but this was a new and commanding Tomacruz. She engaged with the audience and joked with the band; turning on a well rounded and imaginative performance. Again we saw Choi on keys and the talented Goodison on bass – with the addition of  Lukas Fritsch on Alto and Ron Samsom on drums. Choi is such a delight to hear in these situations; so in-the-moment and adventurous. Keep them coming UoA Jazz course.

Finesse: Seungeil Thomas Hwang (guitar, compositions), Crystal Choi (keyboard), Wil Goodison (bass), Adam Tobeck (drums).

Kathleen Tomacruz Quartet: Tomacruz (guitar, compositions), Crystal Choi (keyboards), Wil Goodison (upright and electric bass), Lukas Fritsch (alto sax), Ron Samsom (drums).

The gig was at the Backbeat Bar, CJC Creative Jazz Club, May 16, 2018.

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Backbeat Bar, Bebop, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Straight ahead

Callum Passells – Flightless Birds

Birds (1)This is the second appearance of Flightless Birds at the CJC Creative Jazz Club and the audience flocked to hear them. The band is a history lesson to the initiated and an initiation to those unversed in Jazz history.  They presented a programme that was both clever and accessible and therein lay its charm.  The band specialises in contrafacts and especially those of the bebop and swing era. The inside joke is that many of those tunes were once contrafacts themselves; new and often frenetic tunes written over the changes of familiar ‘songbook’ standards. In the bebop era tunes like ‘Cherokee’ (Noble) became Ko-Ko (Parker), ‘I Got Rhythm’ (Gershwin) became ‘Dizzie Atmosphere’ (Gillespie).  Musicians like Charles Mingus took things a step further by introducing a wry political humour into titles, exemplified in his contrafact ‘All the things you could be by now if Sigmond Freud’s mother was your wife’ was ‘All the things you are’ (Kern). A throwaway favourite of mine is ‘Byas a Drink’ (Don Byas) which is ‘Stompin at the Savoy’ (Sampson). Birds (2)

The above examples are more than a play on words, they are fiendishly clever compositions and sometimes as famous than the tunes they arose from. This was not cleverness for cleverness sake but a bold in your face statement arising from the ongoing struggle of African American Jazz musicians who were tired of being sidelined for jobs, or sent to the back door of the hotel. Especially at a time when many of the inferior white bands cashed in doing the same material, often rising to superstardom. It was also about having fun and mocking the incredulity of the music press. They did it because they could and they were extraordinary musicians who used their intellect to brand a new music. This band is a modern antipodean successor, DNA intact.

The Flightless Birds took this concept a logical step further and not only created contrafacts out of contrafacts but they hinted at or altered the embedded ‘quotes’ and references. It was done with a smile but it was also done with a certain reverence. The times that these tunes arose from were acknowledged, but the joy and eternal spirit of Dizzy et al shone through. Here are a few of the gig tunes and their origins: ‘Stephen Thomas’ (Tom Dennison) is over the changes of ‘St Thomas’ (Sonny Rollins). There is a world of referencing right there (posted as a YouTube Clip). Stephen Thomas is, of course, the gifted Auckland drummer. ‘Buy a Car’ (Passells) utilised the changes of ‘Take the A Train’ (Strayhorn), ‘J Y Lee’ (Passells) was naturally ‘Donna Lee’ (Parker), ‘The Punisher’ (Sinclair) was a great new arrangement based on the changes of ‘In a Mellow Tone’ (Ellington) and so on.  This was a fun night. Passells announcements were entertaining (as they always are) and above all the band looked as if they were enjoying themselves. We were also. Birds (3)

Flightless Birds: Callum Passells (alto saxophone, Compositions), Ben Sinclair (tenor saxophone, compositions) Tom Dennison (bass, compositions), Adam Tobeck (drums). The gig was at the Backbeat bar, K’Road, Auckland, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club on April 25, 2018.

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Post Millenium, Straight ahead

Tom Dennison Quintet

Tom D (6)Dennison is a first class musician and someone we don’t hear nearly enough of on the Jazz circuit. He rarely gets to the CJC but when he does it is always a treat. These days he is mostly found doing session work or backing visiting artists and it is hardly surprising that he is a bass player of choice. Whether on upright bass or electric bass he is equally proficient; always an engaging presence, always demonstrating a deep musicality. He has one more string to his bow which can’t be overlooked and that is composition. His tunes are often whimsical, but whatever the mood, a deftly crafted structure sits beneath every phrase. Never over done, bass driven and just right. There is also a thread of melancholia and wistfulness in his ballad writing: these are difficult emotions to evoke and anyone with knowledge of poetry will know, that only the most skilful poets do the moods justice. Dennison can.Tom D (4)Passels playing was another high point of the evening for me. He just gets better every time we hear him. He is also exactly the right person to interpret mood. I liked the way he approached the tunes, working his way inside them methodically. Sometimes angular, at other times teasing at the melody. During the ballads, he often began with sparse phrasing, establishing mood without overstatement; then, slowly telling his story as if looking at the theme from differing viewpoints. Although he plays decisively, he carefully modulates; generally without flourish or vibrato – pushing at a note until subtle multiphonic textures form – his paper-thin Konitz-like tone saying more than any honk. His versatility is also an asset. Any player who can comfortably move outside and inside while still maintaining a theme is a person worth listening to.Tom D (3)McAneny, who initially faced a cable problem, overcame it quickly and delivered a fine performance. Having a Rhodes and a guitar together can be problematical, but the charts and McAneny’s nimbleness enabled him to avoid crowding the space. Howell gave a nice performance and his lines are terrific; He knows what he’s doing but I’d like to hear him bite into his solos a bit more. Drummer Adam Tobeck was on solid ground with this group, he obviously enjoyed the company and reacted well to whatever was thrown his way. After not playing here for a few years, he is now a regular on the bandstand. I like his drum work very much.

Dennisons post-Zoo material is terrific. Fresh, adventurous and deeply appealing. I hope this gig presages a ‘Zoo Two’ album (or ‘Zoo Two by Two’?).  From Zoo we heard ‘The Cat’ – of the newer material there were many great pieces – I loved ‘Unkindness’, also the punkish take on the Beatles ‘Day Tripper’ and ‘J Y Lee’ (a contrafact of ‘Donna Lee’ which in turn is a contrafact of ‘Indiana’).

Tom Dennison Quintet: Tom Dennison (5 string electric bass, compositions), Callum Passels (alto saxophone), Connor McAneny (Rhodes), Michael Howell (guitar), Adam Tobeck (drums). CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, July 5th 2017.

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

Vivian Sessoms (New York)

Vivian SessomsWhen Vivian Sessoms sings, she takes you deep inside the music. Whether singing the American Songbook, or her own compositions, her storytelling resonates. She sings of American life with all its contradictions; joy and pain both laid bare. Her rendering of Herbie Hancock’s ‘Butterfly‘ tender: the rendering of her own composition, ‘I Can’t Breathe‘, a song referencing the ‘black lives matter’ struggle – raw.  As she sang ‘I Can’t Breathe‘, people brushed tears away; feeling the loss, the injustice; sharing in the incomprehension. She sang it for the families of the young lives so senselessly snuffed out; dying at the hands of those sent to protect them – she sang it for us, a people located an ocean away. We listened and understood the message. Art is at its best when it is fearless and truth-telling – Sessoms gets this.Vivian Sessoms (6)Sessoms is Harlem born and bred; an activist, the niece of Nancy Wilson, the daughter of musicians and a gifted performer with a long string of credits to her name. She was raised in the Jazz world but found early acclaim as a soul singer. Now she is returning to her Jazz roots with her ‘Life‘ album. The tour reviews have been overwhelmingly positive and no wonder; At age 9 she opened for Marvin Gaye, later working with Michael Jackson, Cher and Stevie Wonder. As a performer she is simply riveting; her voice a miracle  – to have her here in an intimate Jazz club setting, a rare treat.Vivian Sessoms (5)What we were hearing was counter-intuitive. A voice of incredible power, but a voice filled with subtlety: A voice that dominated a room, but never at the expense of nuance. Although powerful, her instrument never strained, a voice which flowed as naturally as breathing. These are rare qualities when considered together in one package. Her material was also well thought out; The standards timeless but each one interestingly reinterpreted: ‘Tenderly’, ‘Love for Sale’, ‘Round Midnight’, ‘Never Let Me Go’, ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ and others.

Sessoms New Zealand pick-up band was assembled at short notice and credit must go to Caro Manins for organising this. She chose well, but with Jonathan Crayford on keyboards, it was always going to work out fine. Just days after winning the New Zealand Jazz Tui album of the year, he stepped in as an accompanist, giving us a truly magical performance. His solos often stunning us with their brilliance, especially so the extended solo on Nina Simone’s ‘Feeling Good‘.  The others in the rhythm section were Mostyn Cole (electric and upright bass) and Adam Tobeck (drums). They were every bit the professionals an artist like this deserves. Sessoms looked about her at one point and asked the audience; “Just what do you put in the water here – your musicians are amazing”?Vivian Sessoms (7)Sessoms is a generous entertainer, happy to mingle with the audience, comfortable enough to tease them a little; posing for endless selfies and promising faithfully to return.  She even shared the microphone with several first-year students. That is the common touch – a thing Kiwis love; she read our love of informality well. For details about her ‘Life‘ album go to the website link below. If we support the album, it might just hasten her return.Vivian Sessoms (1)She departed New Zealand the next morning on an early flight; arriving in the USA to be greeted by the news, that yet another jury had acquitted a police officer of killing an unarmed black youth. In these troubled times, more power to her.

Vivian Sessoms (vocals, composition), Jonathan Crayford (keyboards), Mostyn Cole (electric bass), Adam Tobeck (drums). CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, Auckland, June 14th, 2017 – viviansessoms.com

Bebop, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Post Millenium

Flightless Birds – Callum Passells

Passells 254Callum Passells’ newest project was an exploration which took us to the outer edges of Bebop. The title ‘Flightless Birds’ a wordplay; a pebble tossed into the pond, suggesting many possibilities. The obvious Jazz reference is a comparison  between flightless New Zealand birds and Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker – his musical descendants especially. A cohort that tried and often failed to catch his musical coattails. For a time after his death, alto saxophones were laid aside in favour of the tenor; only a brave few risked comparison with the troubled prodigy. As his legend grew he seemed unassailable. Attempts to demystify, to separate the legend from his musical  legacy came later. In the post millennium era few such sensitivities remain. Parker is deeply admired for his genius, then deconstructed unselfconsciously. The gifted altoist Rudresh Mahanthappa immediately comes to mind.

As the Wednesday CJC gig progressed the flightless birds theme was teased out with self-deprecating humour and clever asides. If the aim was to challenge us to view Bebop in fresh ways, while stripping away some of the worshipful churchy reverence, then it succeeded. Passells is able to strike that rare balance between irreverence and devotion, and all the while delighting his audience. He makes the outlying and complex accessible and this is his gift. His music makes us think, it makes us laugh, but never at the expense of enjoyment.Passells 256The two things that draw me to Passells are his tone and his communication of ideas. For a musician who leans toward the avant-garde he has a remarkably clean tone. This works well for him when he heads into uncharted choppy waters, cutting though the turbulent air incisively. There is obvious precedent for this in Albert Ayler (who strove to sound like Desmond or Konitz while tearing at the very fabric of harmony and form).Passells 254 (1)

The quartet had no chordal instrument and adding one would have subtracted from, not enhanced the performance. Accompanying Passells were tenor player Ben Sinclair, Bassist Tom Dennison and drummer Adam Tobeck. As tempting as it is to compare this to the Marsh/Konitz quartets, or even the piano-less Mulligan quartets would be superficial. This project was firmly grounded in the Bebop tradition and interpreted in an honest Kiwi way. Sinclair was the ideal foil for Passells, also possessing a clean tone and delivering pleasing and inventive solos. The warm harmonies struck between the two horns and the bass were at times spine tingling – more bebop than cool and often bookended by edgy heart stopping unison lines.  It’s been ages since I’ve seen Dennison on the bandstand and that was a treat in itself. He gets such a fat warm sound from his instrument and his time feel is great. This is the second week in a row that drummer Tobeck has played a CJC gig. He had different duties to perform on Wednesday and he obviously warmed to the challenge.Passells 255The tunes were all ‘contrafacts’ and cleverly constructed. I am crap at working out the mother tunes – a job best suited to musicians fed a rich diet of standards’ changes. The pieces had titles like “The Punisher” (Sinclair), or ‘Buy a Car’ (Passells).  The Punisher was written over the changes of ‘In a Mellow Tone’ (Ellington) and ‘Buy a Car’ over ‘Take the A Train’ (Strayhorn). After each tune the original was announced, then people got it immediately, cursing themselves for not getting the connection quicker. The tunes were close enough to hint at familiarity, but far enough away from the original to cause some head scratching. One tune needed no guesswork. “I’ve got it bad and so I’m obliged to notify all previous sexual partners” (Passells) – no prize for attributing that one.

My favourite contrafact of the night hands down, was ‘Parkers Dead'(Passells). This title was a double word play – referencing ‘Parkers Mood’ and the graffiti that arose in and around North American cities immediately after Bird’s death; ‘Bird Lives’. This tune was the purest Bebop, with a powerful unison line and hooks so strong they could snag a Great White. Because of a passing superficial similarity, I initially thought it to be based on Parkers ‘Bloomdido’ (my bad).  As is always the case with Passells gigs, I came away musically satisfied and challenged to dive deeper into the music I thought I knew.Passells 257

Flightless Birds: Callum Passells (alto saxophone, compositions), Ben Sinclair (tenor saxophone, compositions), Tom Dennison (upright bass, compositions), Adam Tobeck (drums). CJC (Creative Jazz Club) – Thirsty Dog, 08 March 2017

 

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Straight ahead

Andy Watts Quartet

Andy Watts 129

I missed the earlier Jazz gigs at the Backbeat Bar and was pleasantly surprised by the venue. A steep staircase rises directly from the busy pavement, ascending sharply until you find yourself in a pleasant oblong room; bar on one side, soft lighting and a surprisingly generous stage at the far end. This was a temporary venue but a good one. Since losing the atmospheric but sonically challenging Britomart basement, the CJC has become peripatetic. It currently has a number of homes and pleasingly, the audience seems happy to follow. Importantly, this particular venue has good acoustics.Andy Watts 132

The first of March brought a treat in the form of the Andy Watts Quartet. Watts has worked in London for ten years and this was his first trip back to New Zealand since leaving. He is that rarity, an active New Zealand trumpeter bandleader, a cohort you could count off on the fingers of one hand. Like Mike Booth and Lex French he was schooled here, but left to hone his skills elsewhere before returning. His years of performing in and around London have gifted him an air of confidence, one born out of wide and diverse musical experience.Watts has been busy in London, appearing on numerous albums such as the ‘Afrobeat Collective’ (which he helped form), ‘6 Day Riot’ and ‘Running Club’. This year he recorded an album with his country group Blue Mountain Rockers titled ‘Turn the lights out’. It is not just Jazz guitarists who effectively mine this seam (Trumpeter Mathias Eick’s ‘Midwest’ is a masterpiece of country Jazz invention). Also cut this year was his album ‘Otherwise fine’, tonight’s gig is the local release gig for that London recording.Andy Watts 128

His New Zealand quartet is largely made up of old friends from his Auckland University days. On guitar was Ben White, with Jo Shum on bass, and Adam Tobeck on drums. Six of the compositions were by Watts and three were White’s. These were juxtaposed between some seldom heard but great compositions by Roy Hargrove and Jerome Sabbagh. Rounding off each set was a standard. Many of Watts compositions are muscular, and at times you can detect his influences. Dave Douglas, Wheeler and others like Hargrove are clearly in his pantheon. I particularly liked ‘Smoke and mirrors’ and ‘Mr Cornelius’ by Watts, also ‘The Moment’ by White. The bands opening number in the second set was Hargrove’s lovely ‘Strasbourg/St Denis’ and it was a delight. To hear such a fine composition performed so well was worth the entry price alone. In this piece especially, the contrast between trumpet and horn was perfectly balanced.

White has a warm sound with lots of bottom to it. This contrasts nicely with Watts horns, who can swoop with heart stopping daring off the upper register or reach for impossible notes al la Wheeler. We see the reliable Tobeck often but less so Shum.  It was good to see both on this bandstand. I am still having problems with uploading to You Tube but I have clips. I will post the missing clips when it is sorted. In the meantime I have loaded an earlier clip of the Andy Watts London Quartet.

For a copy of ‘Otherwise fine’ visit any digital outlet or go to andywattstrumpet.bandcamp.com  .

Andy Watts Quartet: Andy Watts (trumpet, flugel), Ben White (guitar), Jo Shum (upright bass), Adam Tobeck (drums). CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Backbeat Bar K’Rd March 01 2017.

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Concerts - visiting Musicians, Post Millenium, Straight ahead, vocal

Briana Cowlishaw & Gavin Ahearn

Briana C 092The Briana Cowlishaw/Gavin Ahearn gig is the second CJC gig featuring international artists in a month. For those who follow Australian improvised music, these are familiar names. Both have rock solid credentials as both have traveled extensively with their music and attracted glowing critical reviews. This is a fortuitous musical pairing, and it is particularly obvious during duets. There is a mutual awareness of space and nuance and an understanding of just where interplay works best; neither over-crowding the other. There are a lot of pianists who accompany vocalists convincingly, but the true art of accompaniment is rarely seen. Ahearn is a fine accompanist and soloist. Unusually, you could say the same for Cowlishaw – an aware musician who watches and listens to her collaborators carefully – works with what she hears. Never greedy to hog the limelight and making every line count.Briana C 088For an artist barely past her mid twenties Cowlishaw has achieved much. Performing at festivals all over the world and being nominated for prestigious awards along the way. She has studied with top rated teachers in three continents and it shows (including Gretchen Parlato, Aaron Goldberg, Kurt Elling). Her confidence, compositional abilities and musicianship shine through on the bandstand. Hers is a modern voice and more importantly a fresh young voice. What worked so well so well for Gretchen Parlato also works for her; a clean delivery, imaginative interpretations and an interesting approach.Briana C 094The first set saw Cowlishaw and Ahearn performing as a duo. This format gifts artists with a degree of freedom and it was well utilised. As they took us through a mix of standards and originals, we saw just how attuned they are. The Cowlishaw compositions are particularly interesting, with words, wordless vocalising and interesting harmonic underpinnings from Ahearn – a subtle weave, blending threads to create evocative soundscapes.Briana C 091Both have visited Norway and the sparse honest northern sound was particularly evident in their first set. A recent collaborative album recorded in Norway arose out of an earlier trip there. More recently they performed at the Hemnes Jazz Festival in that country. As Cowlishaw said of these compositions, “After spending a lot of time on the road and in big cities, I found myself in the Fjords. The wild lonely freshness was so appealing that the thought arose – was this a place that I would want to live in one day”? Arising from that proposition came the compositions on their ‘Fjord’ album. Cowlishaw is obviously keen on the outdoors. She told an audience member that she intended to explore a few of New Zealand wildness places as the chance presented itself.Briana C 090The second set swelled the bands numbers to a quintet – joining the duo were Mike Booth on trumpet, Cameron McArthur on bass and Adam Tobeck on drums. All fine musicians and well able to rise to any challenge. The expanded unit gave her much to work with and Ahearn in particular jumped at the opportunity; utilising a more aggressive hard-swinging style. There were more standards in this second half and Cole Porters wonderful 1943 composition from ‘Something to shout about’ – ‘You’d be so Nice to Come Home to’ stood out as a rollicking swinger. The other memorable standard came from the duo – Michel Legrand’s 1932 composition ‘You must believe in Spring’. To Jazz audiences this means one thing – The achingly beautiful Bill Evans Warners album of that name. The rendition was remarkably beautiful – Cowlishaw tackled the number as Norma Winstone might, while Ahearn stamped his own authority on the ballad while allowing Evans to shine through.

I strongly recommend ‘Fjord’ – it is simply exquisite and the delicate renditions of the originals and standards will stay in your head long after the last note is played – as well as the rarely heard ‘Estate’ (Bruno Martino) there is a version of Herb Ellis’s ‘Detour Ahead’ which won me over completely. For the ‘Fjord’ and ‘Detour Ahead’ tracks alone, the album is worth double the asking price.

Briana Cowlishaw & Gavin Ahearn – Cowlishaw (vocals, compositions), Ahearn (piano), Mike Booth (trumpet & flugel), Cameron McArthur (bass), Adam Tobeck (drums). performing at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) Britomart 1886, Downtown Auckland 24th February 2016.