Andy Watts Quartet

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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.

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.

 

Callum Passells Quartet @ CJC

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I like the inventiveness of Callum Passells both as an alto player and a composer.  There is something of the risk taker about him and his instincts seldom fail him when reaching for fresh ideas.  His quartet was bristling with edge last week, a band without a chordal instrument and utilising the talented Chelsea Prastiti as vocalist.  Chelsea is always up for these types of sonic explorations and perfectly able to handle the challenge.  This was a gig crafted around a particular range of sounds, but more importantly it appeared to have particular musicians in mind.  On bass was Cameron McArthur and on drums Adam Tobeck.  The bass player and drummer handled the challenges confronting them perfectly, creating texture, nuance, colour and anchor points appropriate to the diverse range of music.  I often praise Cameron McArthur and in this situation his skilful bass lines were crucial.  I was pleasantly surprised by Adam Tobeck’s versatility, as I had only seen him in straight ahead gigs.  He is a tight focussed drummer, but in this situation he showed just how broad his skills base is.

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The set list was skilfully constructed, offering endless contrasts and explorations into a number of Jazz related subdivisions.  During the first set Chelsea sang the ballad ‘My Ideal’ (Robin/Chase/Whiting).  The intro was just vocals and bass, but when the alto and drums came in they took a minimalist approach.  The interesting thing is that the arrangement had a fulsome quality to it, almost orchestral.   This is a tribute to Chelsea and definitely to the arrangement.  IMG_9746 - Version 2

At the other end of the spectrum was a free piece titled ‘N+/-1’.  This was an extraordinary piece of music with all of the excitement and theatrics that you could wish for.  Callum had warned the audience that they were about to hear a free number and suggested that those who were queasy about such offerings could move to the bar area at the side.  I am unsure if anyone took him up on that, but in reality ‘N+/-1’ had the opposite effect.  Drawing people into the bands orbit; all of them smiling and whooping in delight.  While the piece followed its own internal chaotic logic it never-the-less communicated a strangely cohesive and exciting narrative.  There were distinct parts to the piece and each more marvellous than the last.  Voice, bass and drums weaving ever deeper, as if sucked into an alternate reality by the brilliance of the alto.  People watched transfixed, marvelling at the cascade of sounds and the flow of musical ideas.  This number was a tour de force for the group but there was no mistaking Callum’s influence.  Even though he gave the others plenty of space, his presence was always felt, guiding, cajoling and demanding that bit more.  As I watched and listened completely engaged I cursed that I did not have a movie camera on hand to record the moment.

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With a few exceptions Chelsea sang wordlessly and this style is definitely a forte for her.   She can sing a unison horn line so convincingly that you do a double take, scanning the bandstand to see if there is an instrument you have missed.  Her range, timbre and musicality enriched the group.  This was particularly evident on ‘Lennies Pennies’ (Tristano).  I love all Tristano compositions but especially this one.  As they negotiated the exciting fast paced, measured lines a special synthesis was evident.  This was innovative and original; adding something of value to an already rich Tristano-ite output.  IMG_9773 - Version 2

There were other original tunes such as ‘Tashirojima’, ‘Monte Cecelia’ ‘Sons Multiples’ ‘Indifference’ and a number of standards (‘Yardbird Suite’, ‘Mood Indigo’ and ‘Straight no Chaser’).  They were all captivating in one way or another but one original deserves special comment.   Sometimes there are layers of meaning in titles and ‘Indifference’ certainly qualifies in that regard.  Written by Callum in tribute to his father who is gravely ill.  The power of this composition and the delivery by Callum spoke to me deeply.  It is clearly not about casual indifference.  It felt to me like the struggle to view life in a wider context when faced with mortality.  Perhaps the indifference of the universe to our small world suffering and how to make sense of that.  The sound of the alto cut so deep that for a time nothing else seemed real.  This is what raw emotion sounds like.  The audience were quieter and as I looked up at the light show playing against the wall, I saw a brief skeletal picture flash up on the screen.  One brief frame in the play of an endlessly looped digital sequence.  While this fleeting spectral apparition was pure happenstance, it was strangely apposite.   This piece was so much more than elegiac; it placed a marker of just what it means to be human.

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Who: The Callum Passells Quartet: featuring Callum Passells (alto sax, compositions), Chelsea Prastiti (vocals), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Adam Tobeck (drums).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 1885 Britomart, Auckland – 5th March 2014

Natalie Dietz @ CJC

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We learned in late November that an excellent Australian jazz singer Natalie Dietz would be the featured artist for the last CJC gig of 2013.  She recently recorded with Aaron Parks and Mike Moreno in N.Y.C and the fact that she had connected with these heavyweights of the modern American Jazz Scene told me that we could expect something out of the ordinary.   She had toyed with bringing some Australian Musicians over with her but instead elected to use locals.   Not surprisingly these locals were drawn from among our finest musicians Kevin Field (piano), Dixon Nacey (guitar), Oli Holland (bass) and Adam Tobeck (drums).

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Natalie is the complete package, as she not only has a fabulous voice and an appealing bandstand presentation, but she is a gifted writer.  It is common to see charts laid out for bands, but these were especially well written and complex charts.   Not simple lead sheets.  The standards had been slightly reharmonised or re-interpreted and the original numbers voiced in such a way as to maximise her vocal lines.  These were not numbers belted out, but well crafted tunes which required subtle interplay.

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Natalie’s own compositions were pleasing and especially ‘The Mood I’m in’.   This gorgeous tune is reminiscent of Sara Serpa’s output and this is no accident.  Natalie mentioned a number of influences and Sara Serpa is one of them.  The piece opens with Natalie singing wordless lines in unison with the guitar.   Dixon Nacey’s Godin sings anyhow and the blend was beautiful.   This lovely tune reinforces my bias towards wordless vocalisation in an ensemble.   As much as I enjoy lyrics, adding the human voice as an instrument feels archetypal and so right to my ears.

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There were a number of standards as well and I was initially surprised to see ‘Body and soul’ (Green/Heyman/Sour/ Eyton) in the set list.  This is one of the most recorded songs in history and perennially popular.  It is hard to look at such a well-travelled tune from a new angle but Natalie did just that.  Her take on it was slightly dark and brooding and it sounded tantalisingly fresh.  Among the other standards was Skylark and a few Jobim tunes.  Natalie was well received by the CJC audience and she appeared to appreciate that.

Who: Natalie Dietz (vocals), Kevin Field (piano), Dixon Nacey (guitar), Oli Holland (bass), Adam Tobeck (drums)

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 1885 Britomart, Auckland – 11th December 2013

Aaron Blakey (Sydney) @ CJC

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Aaron Blakey is someone you warm to instantly.  He communicates with ease and has a relaxed manner about him.  The same applies to his approach to music.  I have heard pianists who feel that they must astound with every note and while that is all well and good, it can be exhausting for everyone.  The more experienced musicians understand that performance is not only about original ideas, but also about communication.  The latter involves working with an audience while you tell an interesting musical story.  I would place Aaron in that category.

Aaron left Auckland for Japan in 2008 and he gigged regularly around Tokyo.  After a few years he returned to study in Auckland before moving to Sydney in 2011.   On this gig his accompanists were Roger Manins on tenor saxophone, Cameron McArthur on bass and Adam Tobeck on drums.  Roger Manins is at the peak of his powers and after his very successful stint with the JMO in New Zealand and Australia, he is more on fire than ever.   He is one of the best saxophonists in Australasia and so having him in any group lifts their game.  Putting him with a fine musician like Aaron Blakey produces especially rewarding results.  IMG_7746 - Version 2

Anyone who has read these reviews or spent some time at Auckland Jazz gigs in the last six months will know just how swiftly Cameron McArthur is rising through the ranks.    He is one of a small handful of must-have bass players when visitors come to town.   Adam Tobeck is fast becoming a regular at the CJC and his abilities were evident at this gig

With two notable exceptions Aaron played his own material and the compositions were all named after people he knows.  With each song, we were ushered into Aaron’s private world.  A world peopled by close friends, eccentric waiters, babies and delightful dancing children.  At the end of the two sets I felt that I would recognise these people if I saw them; so convincing was the imagery.  Live improvised music creates shapes and forms which you can almost grasp, but which evaporate and dissolve in unpredictable ways.  What remains is a series of impressions, a filigree journey imprinted on the ether.  IMG_7759 - Version 2

A good example of this was a tune called ‘Sinclair’s Routine’.  Aaron named this after a waiter who worked at a  busy Surrey Hills restaurant.  He was using the establishments piano to practice one morning and trying out a few ideas, when the waiter said, “I like that, it helps me to go about my routine” .    Not your usual musical commentary but it ended up as great tune and gave us a window into that particular moment in time.   It worked for me on several levels but primarily because I could picture and hear the event in my mind’s eye.   There was a song ‘Jonathan B’ dedicated to an old friend from New Zealand.  As Aaron was explaining the origins of the tune he looked up and said, ” Oh there he is, he just walked in – hi man”,  Once again we connected the song to time and place and this gave added weight to the number.

The track that I have recorded on video is “One for Steve”, which is a dedication to the much admired Steve Barry.   This was certainly a connection that hung in the air as the band played through the number.  Steve (another ex-pat Aucklander) had been playing that very piano only a few weeks earlier and the echo of his gigs was relived through the tribute.

The first of two standards was ‘My Song’ (Keith Jarrett).  It amazes me that ‘My Song’ is hardly ever performed.  There is a view that Jarrett’s three recorded versions are so contained, that musicians shy away from it.  More is the pity because most jazz lovers rate it highly.  During the introduction Roger Manins helpfully suggested that Aaron would actually be doing the Elton John “My Song’.   This was a solo performance and you could have heard a pin drop.  It was great to hear it done and great to hear it done so well.  IMG_7719

The second standard was the Cole Porter tune ‘I Love You’ from the musical Mexican Hayride, placed squarely in the Jazz Lexicon by John Coltrane (Lush Life album).  While Coltrane’s version was with Saxophone, Bass and drums, The version on this night was a duo featuring piano and tenor saxophone (Manins and Blakey).   That these two have been friends for years and that they have worked together many times before, became evident on this number.   The sensitive interplay between them was truly extraordinary and although they took quite different approaches to the task in hand the synergy was uncanny.  It was one of the wow moments which Jazz audiences live for and to my annoyance I had run out of HD video-tape just a moment before it started.   I am sure that they will play it again sometime, as Aaron has promised to return. We hope that he will not leave it two and a half years this time.

For those wanting more there was a Roger Manins gig down at Frankie’s Bar in Wyndom Street two nights later.   This was a similar lineup, but with premier drummer Ron Samsom at the kit.  For this gig Aaron had brought his Fender Rhodes along.  They swung mightily and as I listened I could hear Ron pulling back on the beat.  There is some fine music around Auckland.  All it needs is our continued support.

Who: Aaron Blakey (piano) with – Roger Manins (tenor sax), Cameron MacArthur (bass), Adam Tobeck (drums).

Where: The CJC (Creative Jazz Club) Auckland 3rd July 2013

Rosie & The Riveters@CJC

Rosie & the Riveters

Rosie & the Riveters

The name ‘Rosie & The Riveters’ grabbed my attention immediately as I come from an activist family. The derivation goes back to WW2 when women had to work on the production lines while their men were away fighting. When the men returned after the war they were expected to return to obedient domesticity but many resisted and the ‘Rosie’ symbol became a potent feminist statement. Roseann Payne understands this history as she referred to it in her introduction but she also had a more prosaic explanation on offer. “My name is Rosie and I hope we will be riveting”.

Rosie Payne had graduated from the Auckland University Jazz School on the day of the CJC gig and her upbeat mood reflected this achievement. She had assembled her support band mainly from fellow students and alumni: Ben Devery (p), Cameron McArthur (b), Adam Tobeck (d), Callum Passells (alto & baritone sax), Asher Truppman-Lattie (tenor sax) and Elizabeth Stokes (trumpet & flugal). It was a night of celebration and the cheerfulness communicated itself to everyone present. IMG_7072 - Version 2

The set list alluded to the time-honoured influences such as Ella Fitzgerald but mainly it spoke of the forces that are shaping young singers post millennium. The influence of Sera Serpa and Esperanza Spalding were evident in the source material, interpretations and compositions. Along with Gretchen Parlato, these are the new influences on Jazz singing and they bring a vibe that is modern and in some ways quite nuanced. At times there is a hint of Blossom Dearie in this new way of singing and I make no judgement about that (I like Blossom Dearie and her ability to poke subtle digs at the male hegemony while singing in that wispy girlie voice). Jazz singing is as much a journey as jazz instrumental playing and good improvisers should dive into the sounds about them for fresh inspiration. Interpretation and authenticity is everything and while it is important to acknowledge the past it is not necessary to dwell there permanently.

I have put up a You Tube Clip from the night, which is a slightly reharmonised version of ‘Body & Soul’ sung in Spanish (probably influenced by the Spalding version). This interpretation ably illustrates the juxtaposition between past and present. ‘Body & Soul’ (Johnny Green Edward Heyman, Robert Sour) is one of the oldest jazz standards and for a long while it was the most recorded song in the history of music. Standards survive because they have depth and subtle hooks. Just possessing a hummable melody will not cut the mustard as many a pretty tune has fallen by the wayside. There must be an ‘X’ factor and in Jazz the tune needs to be a good springboard for improvisation. It was the great tenor player Colman Hawkins who again elevated it from obscurity and its wide appeal caught him by surprise (1940). “It’s funny how it [body & Soul] has become such a classic” he mused. “It is the first and only Jazz record that all the squares dig as much as the a Jazz people”. Hawkins hadn’t even bothered to listen to it after the recording session and it surprised him to learn that he had such a big hit. His version only briefly toyed with the melody which makes it all the more surprising. The song was written in haste by the relatively unknown Johnny Green; commissioned by Gertrude Lawrence who quickly rejected it. Whiteman, Goodman, Tatum, Hawkins, Holiday and a thousand others are glad it survived (source references Ted Gioia). IMG_7053 - Version 2

Young musicians like Rosie are acknowledging the history while giving us their own perspective and that is as it should be. The band was right for her and as they moved through the sets we heard flashes of brilliance. Callum on Baritone sax really stood out, especially when you consider that this is not his principal horn. Adam Tobeck is a drummer that engages the attention and Cameron McArthur is fast becoming a fixture at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club). New to me was Pianist Ben Devery and tenor player Asher Truppman-Lattie. Both did well by Rosie. Lastly there was Liz Stokes who had also graduated on that day. Her skills gave an added dimension to the line up.IMG_7061 - Version 2 (1)