CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Straight ahead

Alex Ward Quintet

Ward 15 pic (3)Alex Ward has been on the scene for a few years now and he has appeared at the CJC a number of times. This time he appeared with a group of formidable younger musicians; all respected about town. His programme was pleasantly challenging as it offered contrasting tunes. From the quirky Carla Bley composition ‘King Korn’ to the perennially popular Disney tune ‘Never never land’. Then, for the second time in as many weeks we heard a Cold Play cover – this time ‘Daylight’ (arr. by Taylor Egsti). Rounding off the set list were a number of his own compositions including the appealing ‘Rakino’ which I have heard before. Wards compositions have a definite melodicism about them.Ward 15 pic (4)I am a real Carla Bley fan and so it surprised and pleased me to hear ‘King Korn’. I also have a real liking for her ‘Ida Lupino’. Bley’s repertoire is not played anywhere near enough for my liking. Her tunes are often closer to the avant-garde, but still accessible to main stream listeners. Ward showed no fear in tackling the angular jerky rhythms of King Korn and the result was pleasing. He had surrounded himself with exactly the right musicians for the task. On bass was Cameron McArthur, a perennial favourite who must now be considered a heavyweight about town in spite of his youth. The drummer was Cameron Sangster and again a highly experienced and gifted musician. Sangster is a multi faceted drummer who can move between soul, big band and small ensemble work with ease. We recently saw him with the Auckland Jazz Orchestra where he put on a stunning performance. Ward 15 pic (5)Additional musicians came to the bandstand at various points; Kushal Talele on tenor saxophone and flute and Michael Howell on guitar. I had previously only encountered Ward playing in a trio format and this was a chance for us to see what he would do with an expanded ensemble. The diversity of material worked for them – none of it highly arranged but allowing for free-flowing interaction.Ward 15 picI had only heard Talele once before and he naturally sounded different on this gig. Here he was appropriately the competent sideman, not the hard-driving Coltrane referencing leader. I like both aspects of his playing. He is a musician that I am definitely keen to see more of – especially when he dives deep into that denser material he favours. The ever smiling Howell is well liked and respected as an up and coming young guitarist. He is seen to greatest effect in Roger Manins ‘Grg67’ band.Ward 15 pic (2)Whether by accident or design, Ward celebrates Carla Bley in an important year. 2015 saw Bley receive the highest public honour in Jazz, as she was the recipient of the NEA (National Endowment of the Arts) Jazz Masters Award.

The Alex Ward Quintet: Alex Ward (piano), Cameron McArthur (bass), Cameron Sangster (drums), Kushal Talele (tenor saxophone, flute), Michael Howell (guitar).

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CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Piano Jazz, Straight ahead

Matt Steele Trio/Alex Ward Trio 2014

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When you listen to Matt Steele, you quickly realise that he is in the middle of an interesting musical journey.   In a trio setting, there is not an ounce of hesitation about him, no sense that he is micro-analysing his performance; he plays for the joy of it.  This in-the-moment absorption has moved his playing to another level and best of all he carries the audience with him.  While Steele is still in his honours year at the Auckland University Jazz School, it is obvious that gigging about town has added something extra to his performance.  A wider awareness, an openness and a hunger for what is just out of reach.  You can’t develop those attributes merely from formal lessons.  The spade work for this ongoing development as an artist has been in the hands of competent teachers and foremost among those is Kevin Field.  Although the club was dimly lit, I could make out Field sitting quietly in the audience; after the set he moved forward to congratulate Steele.  There was an unmistakable look of satisfaction on his face.

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As Steele sat at the piano and counted in the first number you were immediately aware of movement.  Pianist, bass and drums, swaying and bending into the sound; moving as if governed by an unseen force.  When musicians are able to sync to the rhythms, move to the ebb and flow of the music, it can enhance a performance.  When a pianist moves well it is like watching a prize boxer; the keys stung by blows or else stroked teasingly.  Not all pianists move like this as approaches to the instrument are many and varied.  In this situation Steele was definitely more like Kenny Kirkland than Bill Evans.

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Most of the set were original compositions by Steele, some new, some reworked.   All sounded fresh, as an equal vigour infused the older numbers (like ‘Holy Moly’) and the newer ones (‘So Retitled’).   Steele has brought several trios to the CJC and this time his band featured Richie Pickard on bass and Andrew Keegan on drums.   His instincts were spot-on as Pickard and Keegan dug in and delivered for him.  They worked well together and Steele’s insistence on approaching each gig as a democratic exercise worked.  His second number (and probably the only non original) was a piece by Sun Ra.  This was bound to please me, as I love Sun Ra in all his out-crazy glory.  It was brave and it worked well as a trio piece.

 

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The second set was the Alex Ward Trio.   Ward (an Honours graduate from the NZSM) has been on a scene for a few years now and his Aero Jazz Quartet, formed over a year ago, often performs about town.  He recently completed a stint on a cruise ship with Trudy Lile and reports from that gig were overwhelmingly positive.  He is the Jazz Programme Coordinator for the NZ School of Music (Albany Campus) and involved in music Education in the private sector.

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Wards set showcased interesting material.  Some of the tunes he drew from lessor known Jazz sources, while his own compositions also featured.   It was good to hear him playing Tigran Hamasyan’s ‘Leaving Paris’, an engaging waltz.  It is from Hamasyans’s ‘New Era’ album and it is surprising that it is not heard more often.  Ward executed this gently swinging piece perfectly.  Another standout number was a tune by the Welsh pianist Gwilym Simcock.

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On bass was the always pleasing Eamon Edmundson Wells.  He is a capable player able to shine in diverse settings.  On drums was Ivan Lukitina-Johnston.   I have only seen Johnston on two previous occasions and find his approach on traps thoroughly workman like.  The one blight on the evening was the sound from a loud upstairs band which bled through into the quieter moments.  It made counting-in and the quieter intros a challenge for the musicians.

Who: Matt Steele (piano), Richie Pickard (bass), Andrew Keegan (drums)

Who: Alex Ward (piano), Eamon Edmundson-Wells (drums), Ivan Lukitina-Johnson (drums)

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand    www.creativejazzclub.co.nz

 

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Post Millenium, Straight ahead, vocal

Emerging Artists Series: Alex Ward / Allana Goldsmith

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Two or three times a year the CJC reserves a gig night for emerging artists. On Wednesday there was a double billing and while they could legitimately be termed emerging artists, they showed a confidence and polish that bespoke experience. In fact both have been performing about town and in Allana’s case for some time. This was a moment to show a discriminating Jazz audience what they are about and they delivered.

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First up was pianist Alex Ward. He has recently graduated with honours from the NZSM Massy campus. I last saw Alex play just over a year ago and he showed real promise then. Now the hard work and years of study are bearing fruit. He appears to play with even greater confidence and this obvious self belief has influenced his performance. His set was mainly a showcase for his own compositions and they were interesting and varied. There were ballads, uptempo burners and a (new) standard on offer. Standards always give us points of comparison and his rendering of Robert Glasper’s ‘Yes I’m Country (and that’s Ok)’ from the Blue Note, Double Booked album did just that. It was flawlessly executed and delivered with real heartfelt exuberance. Among his own compositions I really liked ‘Litmus Test’ for its edgy hard bop feel and the more reflective ‘Lighthouse Keeper’ (a recently written tune). There was also a reharmonisation of ‘Beautiful Love’ but with dark voicings and with an oblique approach to the melodic structure. These tunes while all quite different, hung together well as a set.

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On Bass he had the gifted Cameron McArthur and on drums Ivan Lukitina (who I had heard about but not seen before now). They both provided solid support for Alex and delivered good performances during solos. Cameron was particularly energised during ‘Litmus Test’ and Ivan was right there with him. Ivan excelled on ‘Yes I’m Country (and thats OK)”.

This should be a right of passage for Alex and he will surely become a fixture about town if he continues performing at this level.

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Allana Goldsmith has appeared in a number of bands and her musicality and stage presence are pleasing to ear and eye. I have heard Allana a number of times now and on those occasions her role as ‘part of a lineup’ gave me a brief taste of what could be. She has performed with various sized bands but most often as part of a duo with guitarist.

She is a current member of the ‘Sisters of Swing’, which is an Andrews Sisters tribute band and co-member Trudy Lile speaks highly of her abilities. I recently saw her with Peter Scotts ‘Bad Like Jazz’ project and I was very impressed; especially as she sang a stunning rendition of ‘Freedom Jazz Dance’ (Eddie Harris). It is this preparedness to take on challenging projects and to do them well that sticks with you. Her voice is strong without being loud and in many ways she is reminiscent of the great singers of the past. What is not redolent of past singers however, is her preparedness to tackle adventurous modern projects. IMG_8310

For this gig Allana had selected a few well-known and some lessor performed standards and to stamp her own mark on them, sung often in Te Reo Maori. While Whirimako Black has already moved into this territory, Allana has her own unique approach to the music. Hers is an original voice. It is tempting to think of songs sung in Te Reo Maori as being different or apart from European traditions. In Allana’s case that is not so as she has maintained the integrity of both traditions. The best illustration of this was her brilliant rendition of the Miles Davis tune, ‘In a Silent Way’. This was the first tune of her set and she used it as a Karakia or blessing. The notion of using this open, spiritual number to unify us all and to call down blessings was a perfect beginning.

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Her band was Ben McNicholl (tenor sax), Dave Fisher (guitar), Cameron McArthur (bass), Jason Orme (drums).

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I have always rated Ben highly on ballad material. His concise soloing and the atmospheric vibe that he created behind Allana worked well. When backing a singer on a ballad, tasteful minimalism trumps busy, every time. This sort of restraint is counter intuitive to a musician, but the balance between Ben and Allana was pitched just right. I know that he took care to select just the right reed for the job in hand.

I thought that I knew all of the Jazz guitarists about town, but clearly I don’t. Dave Fisher has played with Allana for some time and he picks up on her every nuance. The voicings that he uses are those of the skilled accompanist and the warmth of his tone caresses and underpins her vocals perfectly. This was mostly chordal work, which shifted, swung and shimmered like the guitarists of an earlier era. It was an effect deliberately aimed for and it was easy on the ear. His guitar is an Epiphone Hollowbody of the sort used by Joe Pass and that made sense as well.

Cameron McArthur was also the bass player on this second set. Because he works so often about town he has developed a keen ear and had no trouble fitting into this different groove. Unlike the earlier piano trio gig, with challenges thrown down and returned in kind, he needed to keep more out-of-the-way here. Seeing him perform so well in such a variety of situations certainly increases my respect for him.

The remaining band member was drummer Jason Orme and I am very familiar with his playing. Oddly though, I had never seen him playing in this sort of situation, which at times required a very nuanced approach. His skills in such a setting were immediately apparent and his brush work was especially fine. Like the guitarist and the tenor he focused on the singer, enhancing every inflection of voice or following every whispered line. Each accent delivered with a quiet flurry on the snare or a tap on a muted cymbal.

Allana is currently studying performance at the NZSM Massey and this was her first CJC gig. She will certainly be back.

* Thanks to Dennis Thorpe for the high quality video material

Wh0 (first set): Alex Ward (piano), Cameron McArthur (bass), Ivan Lukitina (drums).

Who (second set): Allana Goldsmith (vocals), Ben McNicholl (tenor sax), Dave Fisher (guitar), Cameron McArthur (bass), Jason Orme (drums).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 1885 Brittomart Building, basement, Auckland

When: 11th September 2013