Jazz on Lockdown ~ Hear it here series

My normal weekly post has been sitting in my ‘drafts’ folder for over two weeks. Since writing it,  my attention has been focused elsewhere.  Although in isolation, I am not referring to my personal situation but to the J JA ‘Jazz on Lockdown’ project which has rallied Jazz Journalists from every corner of the globe and asked them to respond collectively to the pandemic. My colleagues and I are now working together using an online workspace and our individual blogs may be delayed. Those who are able to have volunteered to join an editing working group as we grapple with the challenges of a fast-moving situation. This is a Jazz Journalists Association project aimed at keeping improvised music current and to get updates to and from countries on lockdown. 

Because of that, Spain first captured our attention. When the virus hit, a popular Jazz musician succumbed and soon every resident was under lockdown. As the virus spread, so did our focus and within days the problem had reached every country. One by one the great Jazz centres like New York closed and the iconic and much-loved Jazz clubs closed with them. When the city that never sleeps locks down, you know that you have urgent work to do. Jazz Journalists are not going to sit around moping; nor will we restrict ourselves to watching another era’s YouTube clips. It is the current musicians who need us the most. We are learning new ways of working and it is our intention to direct you to live gigs or the gigs of working musicians where we can. 

We need Jazz fans and Improvised alternative music fans to keep buying current albums. If there is a live-stream concert with a tip-button give them a few dollars. This is a new version of the pass-the-bucket tradition which goes back to the earliest days of Jazz. Many of the live-streamed concerts will be free, some could be pay-per-view. Buy their music and on Bandcamp or their website if possible. ‘Jazz on Lockdown’ will inform you of the links.  

Barry/Metheny/de Clive-Lowe/Alchemy/Smirnova/Martyniuk

The week before the virus arrived was a week of plenty in Auckland, but the above-named artists did not all appear in the same band. Nor at the same gig. They probably won’t mind if you think that though. Attending Ronnies a few years ago, I caught English pianist Kit Downes at the late show. This followed a sold-out earlier show featuring Kurt Elling. I informed Downes that my write up would begin ‘Elling opens for Downes at Ronnie Scotts’. He liked that. 

Arriving in a rush, as if waiting for the cooler weather came Pat Metheny, Steve Barry, Mark de Clive-Lowe, Alchemy, Callum Passells, Trudy Lyle, Simona Smirnova, and Michael Martyniuk gigs. As always, painful choices were required. 

Steve Barry Trio: Barry left Auckland many years ago; settling in Sydney and returning yearly to perform. Each time he visited there were new directions on offer, highly original material and each iteration offering glimpses of lesser-known composers. His recent albums have taken him into deeper waters still, moving beyond the mainstream. For those of us who like adventurous music, they have been compelling. Two albums were released last year. The first is on Earshift Music and the second on Rattle; both available on Bandcamp.  

‘Blueprints and Vignettes’ trod a path reminiscent of 60’s Bley; boldly striking out for freer territory and edging its way confidently into the classical minimalist spaces. That album was followed by ‘Hatch’ which is an astonishing album of stark pared-back beauty. It is an album pointing to new possibilities in improvised music. This concert felt more exploratory, with denser compositions and jagged Monk-like moments. He played one Monk tune halfway through and this reinforced the connection. 

Mark de Clive-Lowe: It was barely six months ago since de Clive-Lowe passed through Auckland during his ‘Heritage’ album release tour. He attracted capacity audiences then (and now). After years of living away from his home city, he is now reconnected to the Auckland improvised music scene and we hope that he will maintain that link. Having a room like ‘Anthology’ certainly helped, as its capacity is significant. During this tour, he treated us to a wider range of his innovative music; especially his Church Sessions. Showcasing the genre-busting underground gigs that he began in LA and which spread like wildfire throughout the world; giving fresh impetus to the improvised music scene and the endless possibilities looking forward.  

On tour with de Clive-Lowe was the respected LA drummer Brandon Combs. A drummer who can hold down a groove beat while working it every which way; able to interact intuitively with the electronic beats generated by de Clive-Lowe as he dances across the multitude of keyboards and devices. Together with locals Nathan Haines and Marika Hodgson, they created wizardry of the highest order. This artist is the wizard of hybridity and we are happy to remind people that he came from this city. Live re-mix, dance, groove beats, jazz, whatever: it has all been captured, mined for its essence and released for our pleasure.

Alchemy Live: This was the first live performance of the ‘Alchemy’ project. It followed the successful release of the eponymous album which got good airplay and deserves ongoing attention. The concept was the brainchild of producer Mark Casey and its realisation by the musical director and Jazz pianist Kevin Field. The pianist has created some truly fine Jazz charts and the assemblage of musicians he brought into the project brought it home in spades. The tunes have been selected from the New Zealand songbook. Perennially popular and chart-busting classics like ‘Royals’ and ‘Glad I’m not a Kennedy’. Artists as diverse as Herbs, Split Enz and Phil Judd. Because of mounting travel restrictions, several of the artists on the recording were replaced for the live gig. New to us, was Jazz student vocalist Rachel Clarke and she won us over that night.

Pat Metheny: This concert had been long anticipated and it was only the second time that he has appeared in New Zealand. In spite of the looming health scare, the town hall was packed. This was a retrospective of sorts as it featured his best-known tunes. Who would not want to hear a fresh version of Song for Balboa or the joyous ‘Have you Heard’? I loved the concert but two quibbles. I didn’t like the way the piano was miked and mixed except for one number. Gwilym Simcock is a great pianist. It would be nice to hear him in a trio and with an acoustically mic’d up Steinway. The star of the show (Pat aside) was bass player Linda May Han Oh. How stunningly melodic and how sensitive she was in each situation she encountered; solos to die for.

Simona Smirnova: This was Smirnova’s third trip to Auckland. By the time she had arrived in the country, people were becoming cautious about attending crowded gigs. She still attracted a good audience and those who did come were delighted with her show. The setlist was similar to her last year’s show but in the bigger Anthology venue, it sounded stronger. Smirnova interacts extremely well with audiences and they respond in kind. Her beautiful ballads (accompanied on the Lithuanian Kanklas) and her upbeat Slavonic styled scatting were the highlights. Her material is delightfully exotic, being an original blend of Jazz, Lithuanian folk music and beyond. Her voice is simply beautiful and her zither playing beguiling. She was accompanied by Auckland veterans Alan Brown on keys, Cam McArthur on bass and this time, Jono Sawyer on drums & vocals). I have some nice footage which says it best.

Michal Martyniuk: The last gig I attended before isolating myself was the Michal Martyniuk Trio. I did not have video equipment with me but I captured the concert in high-quality audio. I will post on that shortly and will be adding sound clips. You can purchase Michal Martyniuk’s albums at michalmartyniuk.bandcamp.com His ‘Resonance’ album review can be viewed on this site if you enter his name in the search button.

Jazz On Lockdown‘ posts will now move to the principle page and the Jazz on Lockdown page will feature information and links from around the world as the information comes in.

The lockdowns won’t stop jazz! To assist musicians who’ve had performances canceled, get their music heard around the globe. The Jazz Journalists Association created a Jazz on Lockdown: Hear It Here community blog. For more click through to
https://news.jazzjournalists.org/category/jazz-on-lockdown/.

The artists featured were:

Steve Barry (piano), Jacques Emery (bass), Alex Inman Hislop (drums),

Mark de Clive-Lowe (keys), Brandon Combes (drums), Marika Hodgson (bass), Nathan Haines (saxophones).

Marjan Nelson (v) Allana Goldsmith (v) Chelsea Prastiti (v) Lou’ana Whitney (v) Rachel Clarke (v) Kevin Field (piano), Roger Manins (saxophone), Mike Booth (trumpet), Mostyn Cole (bass) Ron Samsom (drums), Stephen Thomas (drums)

Pat Metheny, Gwilym Simcock, Antonio Sanchez, Linda May Han Oh

Simona Smirnova (v, Kanklas) Alan Brown (piano, keys), Cameron McArthur (bass), Jono Sawyer (drums).

Michal Martyniuk (piano), Cameron McArthur (drums), Ron Samsom (drums).

‘Alchemy’ Album Review

Alchemy2 (1)Have you ever heard one of New Zealand’s iconic pop songs and wondered how it would sound reimagined as Jazz? The journey from popular song to Jazz piece is a well-trodden path. Many tunes that we now refer to as ‘Jazz standards’ began their life as tunes written for broadway musicals or for the popular music market. For a tune to successfully cross that divide it needs to be well constructed and to lend itself to reharmonisation. With ‘Alchemy’, this elusive symmetry is realised.

In the late twentieth century, classic Beatles tunes or those of Michael Jackson, Prince and Stevie Wonder were effortlessly adapted as Jazz vehicles. If you hear Uri Caine, Brad Mehldau, Herbie Hancock or the Kiwi Jazz pianist Jonathan Crayford playing ‘Blackbird’ you might conclude that Blackbird was written with a Jazz pianist in mind. These crossovers are a tribute to the composer and to the transformational skills of arranging Jazz Musicians. Alchemy2 (3)

A few years ago the award-winning New Zealand writer/director/producer Mark Casey embarked on an ambitious project to recast a number of New Zealand’s best-loved pop songs as Jazz tunes. It was a significant and perhaps a risky undertaking but gradually the project gathered momentum. In mid-December, ‘Alchemy’ was released and immediately, it rose up the NZ music charts. This is a significant achievement but it is not down to Casey alone. His masterstroke was engaging leading New Zealand Jazz Pianist Kevin Field as the Musical Director. Field is not only a gifted Jazz Pianist and acknowledged Warner recording artist, but his skills as an arranger and vocal accompanist are beyond question. Creative New Zealand came to the party and backed the proposal.

As the project moved forward a variety of Kiwi Jazz musicians were approached, some working in New York, most local, and one by one they came aboard. When the album was about to be recorded, I was asked by Field and Casey if I would be interested in witnessing the recording process. I was. I seldom pass up a chance to become a fly-on-the-wall during recording sessions and this project fascinated me. Being an embedded observer in such situations is always intriguing. It affords a writer the opportunity to gain insights that would otherwise be invisible. As the musicians turned up to rehearsals and to recording day there was a palpable sense of enthusiasm. No one questioned Fields guidance as he tweaked the charts and made suggestions. And any sense of disconnect between the pop and Jazz world evaporated swiftly. This was not pop Jazzed up. It was Jazz, and although there were reharmonisations and Jazz rhythms, the integrity of original tunes remained intact.

In the recording studio were Auckland’s premier Jazz and Soul singers and a selection of experienced Jazz instrumentalists. On vocals were Caitlin Smith, Lou’ana Whitney, Chelsea Prastiti, Allana Goldsmith, Bex Peterson and Marjan Nelson. On piano and keyboards was Keven Field, Roger Manins was on tenor saxophone, Richard Hammond on electric and acoustic bass, Michael Howell on acoustic and electric guitar, Ron Samsom and Stephen Thomas on drums and percussion. In addition, there were two special guests, Michael Booth (trumpet) and Nathan Haines (soprano saxophone). This was serious firepower and thanks to the arrangements, all well deployed. The NY based ex-pat bass player Matt Penman had arranged tracks 7 & 12 and Marjan co-arranged tracks 4 & 8 with Field. Alchemy2

There are six vocalists on the album and they sing two tunes each. Careful thought had obviously been given to who would sing each song because the strengths of the individual vocalists were well matched to the tunes. For example, the warm but wistful lyricism of Chelsea Prastiti paired with ‘I’m glad I’m not a Kennedy’ (Shona Laing), the heartfelt reflectiveness of Caitlin Smith with ‘I hope I never’ (Tim Finn) or the engaging bell-like clarity of Marjan singing ‘Brown girl’ (Aradhna Patel). Together the musicians delivered something unique. This is a project which works and the more you listen to it the more you are beguiled. It is Kiwiana and it could be the perfect soundtrack for your summer.

‘Alchemy’ the album is available in New Zealand stores or from online sources. 

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