Australia & Pacific gigs, Review

The Foundry 616 Sydney – 2nd Anniversary

Vince 072Sydney means two things to me; family and music. I get there as often as I can. One sultry night about two years ago I was listening to Mike Nock playing the blues (as only Mike can). It was a catchy new tune titled ‘Start up Blues’. I collared him during the break and asked him about it. “I composed it for the Foundry opening” he said. “Do you know about the Foundry 616”?  I didn’t and so he filled in the details. He spoke warmly of it so I determined to visit the next time I was in Sydney.

The Foundry 616 is located in Ultimo on a stretch of Harris road, almost lost between a maze of under and over-passes. It is (or was) the newest addition to Sydney’s Jazz scene. The difficulty in locating it is amply rewarded the minute you step inside. It is spacious, it serves tasty food and the acoustics are surprising good for such a large uneven space. It is also a friendly place, tolerant of visiting Kiwi photographers and reviewers like me. I always feel welcomed.Foundry 616 (2)During my first visit I caught the amazing New York based guitarist Mike Moreno. Attending a gig featuring Moreno had long been on my bucket list and I was not disappointed. He was happy to allow non-flash photography and I had a seat at the front table; perfect. For his Australian tour he employed two gifted local musicians: Ben Vanderwal drums and Alex Boneham bass (both familiar to New Zealand audiences). I have many recordings featuring Moreno, but what really struck me was that his best on recordings, is exactly how he sounds in person. Given the sound control in modern recording studios and given the expanse and quirky shape of the room, this is surprising.Foundry 616 I was later to experience the same clarity at other Foundry 616 gigs. The venue sound technician and the sound system get a big tick. Sound quality matters and especially with artists of this quality. To my thinking Moreno is the most lyrical of modern guitarists. Clean flowing lines, fresh ideas and an astonishing clarity of tone. As moves through the pieces, often at breakneck speed, and even when glissing, his fluidity is unbroken. There is a hint of mournfulness to his tone which is most attractive. I hear many gifted Jazz guitarists, but to date this gig remains the highlight. His set list traversed recent albums as he played a mix of lesser known standards and originals; ‘I have a dream’ (Hancock) being the standout. While his demeanour is quiet, perhaps even a little serious, his playing denotes unalloyed joy and exuberance.Vince 081My second visit was to see premier Australian Jazz vocalist Vince Jones. I have a deep liking for male Jazz singers but sadly there are not that many to choose from these days. Our younger selves do not sound like our older selves and in Vince Jones this sits extremely well. His is a lived in voice, full of rich life experience. An honest voice and above all a true Jazz voice. He can make you smile and cry in turns and his lyrics are like no one else’s. If you listen carefully the realisation comes; Jones is jazz protest singer. He is closer in sentiment to Gil Scott Heron or perhaps Billy Bragg and Bob Dylan than to any torch-song crooner. His recordings while marvellous don’t prepare you for the experience of hearing him in person. He has a compelling stage presence, exuding the vulnerability that Chet radiated. Unlike Chet he also exudes real human warmth and empathy.Foundry 616 (4)As he tells personal stories about his grandparents, his budgerigars, women deserving of respect, his environmental concerns, you feel deeply connected. When he shakes his fist at the ‘big end of town’, calls for kindness towards refugees and gives voice to your innermost feelings, you shake your fist along with him. Since that visit I have transcribed some of his lyrics. I would now add gifted poet to the list of his accomplishments. Jones writes most of his own material (often in collaboration with his accompanists like Matt McMahon or Sam Keevers). Both were present that night as was an old friend, bass player Brett Hirst; James Hauptmann was on drums. Fine musicians and great company. Earlier in the day I caught up with Barney McAll and interviewed him regarding his stunning Mooroolbark album. He was to premier that at the Foundry in a few weeks. I was sorely tempted to delay my departure, but work called me back to New Zealand. McAll was once an accompanist to Jones as well.Foundry 616 (10)My third and most recent visit naturally brought me back to the Foundry. A pianist/singer Rodric White was on the bill. White was unknown to me, but again I enjoyed the gig. He opened with a few tributes and it surprised me to hear him announce a Keith Jarrett number. Even more so when he played an extract from the Koln Concert. That took guts and he did it well. Later he played some of his own compositions, plus Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, the Beatles and several Sting numbers. He was disarmingly dismissive of his vocal abilities but he sang well. Stylistically he is close to the classic Jazz singers. Accompanying him was Hugh Fraser (bass), Steve Ley (drums) with guests Paul Cutlan (tenor & soprano saxophones) and Jenny Marie Lang (guitar & vocals). Paul Cutlan was the only name I knew, a well-respected session saxophonist. During the second half White called for pianist Chris Cody to come to the bandstand.Foundry 616 (3)  I first met Cody in New Zealand and we are now friends. I have a deep respect for him as an artist and as a human being. This rounded out the evening nicely. Cody an internationally recognised artist, is back in Sydney for a while. There is something about his approach and his innate sense of pulse that sets him apart. He understands the importance of leaving space between notes; easily moving inside and out during a solo. He oozes Paris cool. With Cody on piano and White on keys the enjoyment was complete.Foundry 616 (8)There are any number of excellent improvising musicians in Australia and New Zealand and we are lucky that they are so accessible. There are also thousands of people who love improvised music, but here’s the rub. The enthusiasts don’t always make the effort to attend gigs. The consequences of taking the local Jazz scene for granted are too dreadful to contemplate. If we support local Jazz we need to commit. In spite of the many world-class musicians in Australasia the music is more precarious than we think. Running clubs like the ‘Foundry 616’, the ‘505’ or the ‘CJC (Creative Jazz Club)’ is high risk and if the clubs struggle, so does the music. It is quite possible that I’m a fanatic, but I’ve attended more than 250 Jazz gigs in the last four years. If you read this, it’s because you love this music with all its variability. Value what you have people and make a point of supporting your local Jazz clubs and gigs. Some amazing musicians depend on you.

Where: The Foundry 616, Harris Street, Ultimo, Sydney

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Australian and Oceania based bands, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Piano Jazz, Review

Steve Barry ‘Puzzles’ Tour NZ

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Steve Barry recorded his new ‘Puzzles’ album back in February and after his very successful first album ‘Steve Barry’, there were high expectations for its successor.  In ‘Puzzles’ Barry has returned to the winning combination of Alex Boneham on bass and Tim Firth on drums and he could hardly have done otherwise.  When musicians work this well together and have more to say, the journey should continue.  While essentially a trio album, the gifted alto saxophonist Dave Jackson joins them for three numbers.  There is a sense of shared vision here as the four have worked together extensively.  While familiarity can sometimes breed complacency there is none of that in ‘Puzzles’.  The communication between band members is intuitive, but there is an element of surprise and freshness about the interactions.  All of these musicians are at their peak and while they impress deeply, there is no escaping the fact that it is the strength of compositions that gives this album its edge.

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Barry’s life is an extremely busy one.  He is in the final stages of his doctrinal studies (focussing on composition) and he gigs regularly around Australia and New Zealand.  Last year he won the prestigious Bell Award and was the runner-up at Wangaratta.  Guiding his impressive work ethic is more than just academic or professional considerations; he possesses a deep quest for knowledge.  If you follow Barry’s physical travels you understand something of what motivates him.  He is never a casual tourist.  His engagement with and questioning of the world about him informs his work.   The compositions in ‘Puzzles’ reflect this as they are carefully crafted improvisational vehicles, complimentary in relation to each other but clearly reflecting the learnings gained by Barry along the way.   The sound quality on the album is also superb and the album nicely presented.   ‘Puzzles’ was recorded at the ‘Pughouse Studios’ in Melbourne by Niko Schauble and the cover design is Barry’s.

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I saw Barry on his way through Auckland to perform in Queenstown.  Reports from that gig were positive and over the week he worked his way back to Auckland’s CJC, where he performed with Roger Manins on tenor, Cameron McArthur on bass and Ron Samsom on drums.  The CJC band are highly rated musicians, but you inevitably get a different feel from any band less familiar with the material.  While the numbers on the album sound effortless, the charts are obviously complex.  We heard many cuts from the album and a few new numbers that have not yet been recorded.   In the past Barry’s compositions tended to favour a degree of density, but many of his new tunes have a lighter feel.  They are probably just as complex but like all evolving musicians Barry is mastering the art of making the complex sound simpler.  It would be hard to pick between the tracks on ‘Puzzles’ but for beauty and emotional depth I like ‘Forge’ and for groove the fabulous ‘Heraclitus Riverbed’ (anything involving the ancient philosopher Heraclitus draws me in).  It was interesting to compare Manins (live) with Jackson (on the album).  Manins on tenor was the passionate story-teller while Jackson on alto has a drier sound and evokes the feeling of an intrepid pugnacious explorer.

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After listening to him live and replaying the album for days on end the conclusion is inescapable; Barry is a major talent on an upward trajectory.  I would urge people to hear him live when the opportunity presents itself and above all to support his art by buying the albums.

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The Album: ‘Puzzles’ – Steve Barry (piano, rhodes), Alex Boneham (bass), Tim Firth (drums), Dave Jackson (alto saxophone).  www.stevebarrymusic.com

The CJC Gig: Steve Barry (Piano), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Cameron McArthur (bass), Ron Samsom (drums) on the 29th October 2014   www.creativejazzclub.co.nz

Australian and Oceania based bands, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Post Bop

Steve Barry Trio@CJC November 2013

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I have watched the career trajectory of Steve Barry for sometime and with each passing year the acclaim grows.  Just over a year ago he won the prestigious Bell Ward.  More recently he obtained second place in the ‘Australian Jazz artist of the year’ awards at Wangaratta 2013.  After winning a generous grant, enabling him to concentrate on his writing, he took time out for wood-shedding and further study.  He also travelled extensively.  He made use of this time by studying under piano masters like John Taylor.  From the outside his rise has the appearance of an effortless ascendancy, but the success of Steve’s trio arises from dedication and hard work.  His years of intensive study and relentless practice are now paying off.  As a result he plays with a maturity that is rare in younger artists and his unique approach to form is especially evident in his own reworked compositions and the often obscure but well-chosen ballads that he plays.

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There are two equally valid Jazz traditions around forming up combo’s and both can produce in-the-moment music.  At one end of the spectrum are groups formed just prior to a gig.   Hasty truncated rehearsals take place if time allows, but in some cases the musicians do not meet each other until they hit the bandstand.  At the other end are the groups like Jarretts Standards Trio, who are so familiar with each other that communication becomes intuitive.   Both situations have their pitfalls as the overly familiar can produce a certain complacency (Evans was sometimes guilty of this), while the seat of the pants line-ups can result in cues being missed.  Even good musicians fall at these hurdles but not so this trio.  The Steve Barry Trio has been together for over two years and they deliver royally.   The music sounds incredibly fresh each time we hear them and there is no lack of invention.   This is a special group with a unique ability to react to and challenge each other.   They are one of the finest piano trios in Australasia.

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I have heard Steve’s compositions many times, but on Wednesday it all seemed new.  They were the same familiar tunes with their complex time signature and moments of intense ostinato but they had somehow evolved.  Steve Barry is not an artist to rest on his laurels or to recycle old licks.  The most obvious changes occurred with the intro’s, which probed new pathways and took us on compelling journeys until we were again on familiar ground.   His intro’s and outro’s are something I look forward to, as they balance the pulse and swing.

I loved every note but the piece that really stood out was the seldom heard standard ‘More than you know’ (Vincent Youmans -1929).  This was covered by Teddy Wilson, Billie Holiday and others.  It is not heard much these days.  This slowly paced intensely beautiful ballad proved a good vehicle for improvisation and in the hands of this trio it was wonderful.  Steve stated the melody upfront and the richness of his voicings took my breath away.  There were subtle asides as the tune progressed, like a fine filigree partly obscuring the form.  Then about five minutes in a gentle swing section.

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You could not wish for better collaborators than Alex Boneham on bass and Tim Firth on drums.   Both are truly exceptional musicians.  There is a rich fatness to Alex Boneham’s tone which is all the more surprising as he was playing an old upright bass from the Auckland University School of Music.  In the hands of a master bassist, even an average instrument sounds rich and full toned.  His feel for time and note placement is perfect; deeply engaged and listening with big ears for every nuance.

Tim Firth also creates a buzz when he is in town and local drummers especially love to hear him.  Few can handle complex time signatures like he does and while he can play high octane tunes with edginess and fire, he can also execute brush work perfectly.   His brush work on ‘More than you know’ was understated (as it should be on a ballad) but as the tune progressed you were in no doubt about the value of his contribution.

This was one of those nights that gives Jazz a good name.

Who: The Steve Barry Trio – Steve Barry (leader and piano), Alex Boneham (upright bass), Tim Firth (drums)

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 1885 Britomart, Auckland on the 27th November 2013

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