Porter / Rozenblatt @ CJC

It is seldom that we encounter a critically acclaimed New York Jazz Trumpeter with an Auckland tour itinerary, but this week the drought was broken. Charlie Porter is a versatile musician and one with impeccable credentials. He is a Grammy-winning artist whose star is on the rise. When you check out his bio you learn many things of interest, for instance, that he has parallel careers in Jazz and classical. The inclusion of Auckland was partly down to bass player Mat Fieldes (and of course Roger Manins). Fieldes is a popular musician who has recently returned from a long stint in New York and he has worked with Porter previously. Sharing the top billing was Grammy-nominated New York drummer David Rozenblatt.  Rozenblatt is another musician who works across genres and like Porter, his Jazz chops are something to behold. 

Charlie Porter

I arrived early and watched the brief rehearsals, noting that Porter exhibited a focussed down-to-business demeanour on the bandstand. The sort of discipline you need to survive in New York. As soon as he was satisfied he smiled and thanked the musicians, then moving among those setting up the club, he introduced himself, friendly and relaxed. These are the hallmarks of the professional. Playing with an unfamiliar rhythm section may be commonplace in Jazz but pulling together a good performance while on the road, and with pick-up musicians requires a good leader. Porter and Rozenblatt share a history, performing together often. The remainder of the group were Mat Fieldes (bass) and Dixon Nacey (guitar). The latter was meeting the two New Yorkers for the first time.

David Rozenblatt

Porter possesses a fulsome clean tone (think Brownie), but his rich strong sound can change in an instant when he swoops to the lower register, his trumpet emitting a dirty growl and rises as the bell emits a cascade of fluttering squeaks.  While the growls and flutters are not dominant features of his playing they add vital splashes of contrast and colour. You can hear the deep south in his sound, and especially New Orleans, but on upbeat numbers, he can edge closer to the second Miles quintet. The elided phrases, the sting. His compositional strength was on show as well and although there were a variety of moods there was a logical arc to the setlist.  His eponymous new album has the same logical progression and on that, there is an even greater stylistic variance. He is not a slave to style or even genre and perhaps this why he sounds so fresh.

Dixon Nacey

When performing before an audience Porter exudes easygoing confidence, that belies his years. Such confidence is usually found in older musicians, but check out his story and all of the above makes perfect sense.  He was trained in classical trumpet and won a Fulbright scholarship to study in Paris, he was mentored by Winton Marsalis and is connected spiritually to the music of the deep south. During the evening he played one or two numbers which referenced New Orleans (particularly Rhumba for Sticky) and on his album, the tune ‘Morning Glory’ caught my attention. I have just returned from New Orleans and Morning Glory connected me back to Henry Red Allen.  

David Rozenblatt’s drumming fascinated me. It was joy-filled, wildly exuberant but purged of unnecessary clutter. Many of the younger drummers I hear are time tricksters, and while this is impressive it can also clutter up a sound canvas. Rozenblatt had something of the swing drummer about him, but overlaying that was a colourist sensitivity, the warmth of a great rhythmic conversationalist. Fieldes was also right on the money. His melodicism and lovely time feel filling out the sound without getting in the way. We export many great bass players from New Zealand, but having Fieldes back on home ground is our good fortune. Dixon Nacey needs no introduction to either Aucklanders or to wider New Zealand. He is rightly regarded as one of our finest guitarists and consequently, his work schedule is frantic. Because of the many projects he juggles, he has less time to perform in local Jazz venues but happily, he was available for this. He is a favourite with club audiences and a draw in his own right. We have come to expect the best of him over the years as his trajectory is ever upward. He has long been noted for his Sco-like credentials but as we saw last Wednesday, he can adapt to a variety of improvising situations with ease. 

I have posted a track from the gig titled ‘divergent paths’.  It was the first up and it set the tone for a crackling evening to follow. To purchase the album go to www.charlieportermusic.com (digital downloads, CD’s and vinyl available. The posted track was supplied by Charlie Porter. 

Mat Fieldes

Alex Ventling Trio (Switzerland)

The summer break seemed endless with its hot nights, warm breezes and parchment dry days.  Nature shrivelled as the birds stopped singing and the trip to the Hi-Fi became too onerous. There is something about a prolonged heatwave that makes you both lazy and restless at the same time. This is also the time of year when Aucklands premier Jazz club takes its Christmas break and so the resumption of the gigs was happily anticipated.  The first gig of the year was the Alex Ventling trio and what a great way to ease into February. Ventling is a New Zealand ex-pat, but one who settled in Switzerland many years ago. He and his fellow musicians are all from Basel, a part of the Swiss Confederation and speakers of a German dialect.  I passed through there once but all that I can remember was a recommendation from a friend. Stop there if you can, Basel is a jazz city.

This was Ventling’s first gig for the CJC Creative Jazz Club and it attracted a large audience. They poured through the doors escaping the evening’s heat; needing cool and finding it. The venues piano is not without its challenges but on this night it sang sweetly. Partly because it had just been tuned but it was mainly because of Ventling’s sensitive touch. Many pianists tend toward the percussive in a larger room, but this programme required subtlety, room to breathe. The set-list tunes were well crafted and with a heavier touch, the expressiveness would have been sacrificed.  We don’t get too many piano trios through and this trio operated as the best of them do. The musicians listening to each other, reacting, and playing as if they were one entity. It is almost impossible for this level of communication to occur unless a trio has been together for a time, and in this case, they were not only long term bandmates but on the last stop on the tour.

Most of the tunes were originals, but two were interesting reharmonisation of Jazz standards. For instance ‘All Blues’ which hinted at Mehldau Americana voicings;  the astonishing reharm of ‘Someday My Prince Will Come’; the latter truly delightful, surprising, and decidedly edgy. The original melody cast to the four winds as new joys were plucked from the changes. The originals were captivating and especially ‘Expecting the Unexpected’ and ‘Vorfreude’. The later title, one of those uniquely precise German words meaning the joy you feel when looking forward to something. Whatever the German word is for looking back with pleasure, that was the emotion the audience was left with at gigs end. The interactions throughout were impeccable, reminding me of a Pieranunzi trio. The bass player James Kruttli and the drummer Phelan Burgoyne were as riveting as the pianist. This was a trio where your eyes and ears moved constantly from one to the other. We watched in utter absorption and for two hours we forgot the swelter looming ominously outside.

A recent album by the Alex Ventling Quartet was on sale at the door and it is stunning. ‘Alex & the Wavemakers’ has a different lineup and features a vocalist Yume Ito. This is closer to the ECM esthetic and is Jazz Art Music at its very best. The fourth track ‘Trailblazer’ was to my ears furthering the blissful journeys begun by Norma Winstone, John Tayler and Kenny Wheeler. You can find Alex Ventling on Bandcamp or at http://www.alexventling.com.

JazzLocal32.com was rated as one of the 50 best Jazz blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association. 

Emma Gilmartin & James Sherlock

Gilmartin Sherlock.jpgI was barely off the plane and my brain was full of dense fog, no doubt a legacy of San Francisco Karl who had been circling me like a spectre for a good month. I gamely fought the malaise off and because I am a creature of habit, dutifully made my way down to Auckland’s CJC Creative Jazz Club. In my experience, it pays never to miss a live improvised music gig, because if you do, you risk bitter regret. Believe me, I often lie awake lamenting a missed chance to see John McLaughlin. 

Last week the Australian Duo, Emma Gilmartin and James Sherlock were on the bill accompanied by Christchurch Bass player Michael Story and Wellington drummer Mark Lockett. Lockett, who helped organise the tour, is a mainstay of the Wellington Jazz scene and offshore musicians like this arrive due to the skilful tour-on-a-shoestring wrangling of his ilk. We get to hear these Aussie, European and American bands in our New Zealand Jazz clubs, largely because of the work put in by a handful of dedicated musicians like Roger and Caro Manins (and Lockett). These organisers pitch in uncomplainingly as they lock down the events and we benefit as a result. Consequently, New Zealand has developed a rich improvised music circuit and a debt of gratitude is owed to the organisers (and to the volunteers who quietly assist). 

Emma Gilmartin is a Melbourne based vocalist, composer and teacher and it was her first time performing in Auckland. She has received praise from the Australian music press and is one of an increasing number of gifted vocalists emerging out of the Australian Jazz scene. She is pitch-perfect and her appealing voice finds the corners of a room with ease. Like all good Jazz vocalists, she imparts a mood of engaging intimacy. Her co-leader on this tour, was guitarist James Sherlock, a notable musician and the perfect foil for a vocalist. An accompanist who understands how to enhance vocal performance by offering challenges and he knows how to comp without getting in the way. He is a gift to any vocalist.  On solos, he also excels, at times bringing to mind earlier greats like an Oscar More (behind Nat Cole). Christchurch Bass player Michael Story rounded off the quartet nicely and it was obvious that he was enjoying himself. Again, he was the right person for the ensemble.

The program was a mix of tasteful standards and interesting originals. I have put up a clip which demonstrates the strengths of the quartet – witness the tasteful musicality of Lockett’s drum solo as the band digs into a swinging version of ‘Nica’s Dream’ by Horace Silver.  Gilmartin appeared to be relishing her time in New Zealand and she announced that she would try and return next year. We hope so.

Emma Gilmartin (vocals), James Sherlock (guitar), Michael Story (bass), Mark Lockett (drums). The gig took place at Anthology, K’Road, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, 4 December 2019

Ocelot

OcelotA while ago the program director of the Creative Jazz Club, Roger Manins mentioned that he had booked a great young group from Christchurch to appear in the emerging artist’s slot. He went on to say that many of these young emerging artists were so good that he was considering renaming the slot, something like ‘young guns’. He was right. Ocelot exuded easy-going confidence, uncommon in younger players and by the second number they owned the bandstand; navigating some slippery lines with disarming ease and swinging. This was a tight unit and it was obvious that they had put in the necessary work beforehand. That gave them the freedom to relax into the music and the results were evident.

While a little hesitant at first, they progressively engaged with the audience. This has been a theme of mine in recent months, a desire to sense the person behind the instrument. It is not about exhibitionism but about something infinitely more subtle. Something that tells a live audience that they are an essential part of a performance triangle, instrument, musician and audience. Seasoned Jazz audiences are fine-tuned to detect enthusiasm on the bandstand and likewise, they can detect disengagement.  Ocelot got that and was well received. 

The setlist was nicely thought through as it balanced originals with tasty tunes by established and lesser-known artists. Bravely, and to their credit, they played a Jazz arrangement of Prokofiev’s (Concerto No 2). These forays can be fraught with danger, but this interpretation was handled with ease as was Jonathan Kreisberg’s ‘Strange Resolutions’. The latter required them to navigate some tight Tristano-like unison lines in the head and emerge swinging. They did, and to see a young band do this with apparent ease was pleasing.  I have posted Strange Resolutions in the YouTube clip.

 

The originals in the setlist were penned by the bass player and guitarist and a tune which took my fancy with its danceable Klezmer vibe was titled ‘Rakia Nightmares’ (Jonah Levine Collective). The bar is being lifted all the time, as our various Jazz Schools flourish, but what is most encouraging about this, is that they are not producing clones. 

Ocelot: Finley Passmore (drums), Mitchell Dwyer (guitar), Finnzarby Richwood (piano), Callum McInnes (bass), Cheena Rae (alto saxophone). The gig took place at Anthology for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, K’ Road, Auckland CBD, 23 October 2019

  

 

Keith Price ‘Upside Downwards’

coverCanadian Jazz guitarist Keith Price is a welcome addition to the Auckland scene. He brings with him fresh ideas and a musical connection to his hometown. Manitoba is associated with Lenny Breau and Neil Young who both grew up there. Perhaps it’s the proximity to the open spaces which echo in the music, that wide-open sound (and in Young’s case an overlay of dissonant melancholia)? Whatever it is, it certainly produces distinctive musicians. Lenny Breau is an important Jazz guitarist and one who is sadly overlooked, Hearing Price’s respectful acoustic homage on Wednesday, cast my ears in that direction again.  

Before moving to New Zealand, Price recorded a collaborative album in his home state of Winnipeg and that material formed the basis of what we heard last Wednesday. While the album features Canadian musicians, it was released on our premier Kiwi label Rattle. ‘Upside Downwards’ is a terrific album and from the first track, you become aware of how spaciousness informs the compositions, a note placement and phrasing which allows the music to breathe deeply. This feeling of expansiveness is also underscored by a certain delicacy. In the first track especially, you marvel at the touch; the skilfully deployed dynamics grabbing your attention, but it is the artful articulation of Price’s playing that is especially evident. Listening through, it impossible not to feel the presence of the open plains and of Lenny Breau. 

The co-leaders are perfectly attuned to each other throughout; playing as if one entity. There are no ego-driven flights here and in that sense, it reminded me of an ECM album. I had not come across either the pianist or the drummer before but they impressed deeply. From Jeff Presslaff, that delicate touch on the piano and the ability to use a minimalist approach to say a lot. The drummer Graydon Cramer a colourist and musical in the way Paul Motian was.  

Wednesday’s gig was in part an album release, but Price also traversed earlier albums and played a short acoustic set. The album was a trio, but this time he brought four of Auckland’s best to the bandstand. The quintet format worked beautifully and his bandmates were clearly enjoying themselves. These guys always sound good, but it felt like they there were especially onboard for this. In the acoustic set, Price played what looked like a Martin (a Breau and a Young tribute). The other standard was a killing arrangement of Wayne Shorter’s Ju Ju. Why do we not hear that more often?

When setting up my video camera I made the mistake of locating myself near the bar and because of that, there is bleed-through from the air conditioners (the curse of all live recordings). The sightlines are also poor from that end. Never-the-less, I have put up a clip from the first set titled ‘Solstice/Zoom Zoom’. It was worth posting in spite of the defects. I have also posted a sound clip from the album titled ‘6 chords commentary’.  

Album: Keith Price (guitar), Jeff Presslaff (Piano), Gradon Cramer (drums)

Auckland Quintet: Keith Price (guitars), Kevin Field (piano), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Olivier Holland (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums). Anthology, CJC Creative Jazz Club, K’Road, 09 October 2019. Recoding available at Rattle Bandcamp.

Reuben Bradley ~ Shark Variations

SharkPost Trump’s inauguration, improbability is the new normal and in keeping with the mood of the times Wednesday’s gig emerged from improbable beginnings. It began with an international cat rescue mission, an attempt to thwart a ‘catricidal’ former neighbour. Before the mission had even been concluded a subplot had emerged; one involving the inhabitants of three cities, two countries, and assorted sharks. Those familiar with Reuben Bradley will not be surprised at this turn of events as he’s known for his humour, good nature and above all for his ability to turn improbable adventures into really good music. ‘Shark Varieties’ is a drummer led trio and a vehicle which showcases a bunch of the leader’s original tunes. It also showcases a joyful reunion.

The Shark Variations album was released by Rattle in 2017 and it followed a successful tour by the band a few months earlier. Bradley was in the process of moving to Australia at the time and he was keen to record with longtime collaborators Roger Manins and Bret Hirst. He needed to do this while they were all in the same place and this was his best window of opportunity. Hirst is an expat Kiwi who lives in Sydney, Manins is based in Auckland and Bradley was at that point, about to head for the Gold Coast. Because of their shared history, the musicians knew exactly what they were aiming for; an open-hearted collaborative and spontaneous expression of their art form. That they realised this vision will be apparent to those who listen to the album.

As a leader, Bradley never shies away from an opportunity to leaven his gigs with humour. He tells jokes against himself (the trademark of all good Kiwi humour) and as you peruse his tune titles you find a plethora of throwaway lines and in-jokes. During live gigs, the titles become hilarious stories and his delivery is always pitch-perfect. Improvising musicians frequently tell an audience that the title came after the composition and that they struggled to name tunes. In Bradley’s case, I suspect the reverse is true; that a series of off-beat incidents have stimulated his already vivid imagination and the incidents become the catalysts for his compositions. ‘Wairoa or L.A.’ ‘Wake up call’ Makos and Hammerheads’ are all examples, the latter giving rise to the title, in spite of the fact that he could only name two shark types (which he felt was more than enough). 

Humour aside, this is seriously good music. Bradley is a gifted and popular drummer and musicians love having him alongside. It is therefore not surprising that he would choose these collaborators. Manins is undoubtedly the best known contemporary New Zealand saxophonist and a musician whose formidable abilities are attested well beyond these shores. Hirst left New Zealand many years ago and is regarded as a bass heavyweight on the Australasian scene. He is frequently found performing with Mike Nock and his resume includes playing alongside James Muller, Greg Osby and other notables. 

The reunion gig took place on a cold wet Auckland night and many gladly braved the chill to get a piece of this. I have put up a video from the gig titled ‘Wake up Call’, which Reuben assured the audience had only the thinnest connection to an actual wake up call. In keeping with the ‘spirit’ of the gig, I miscalibrated my camera and the resulting shot turned Bradley and Manins into ghosts. The album is available from Rattle Records. The gig took place at Anthology, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, 02 September 2019. 

Footnote: The cats were rescued safely and after an unfortunate travel accident they both found asylum abroad.

Louisa Williamson Quintet

Louisa Williamson (1)Louisa Williamson is a gifted young tenor saxophonist who has visited Auckland on previous occasions. This time, and for the first time, she visited as a bandleader, showcasing her beautiful compositions. I have always admired her tone and improvisational abilities, but this was a step up. Freed from the comfort of a band she knew well, she cast herself among an array of experienced Auckland musicians. Stephen Thomas on drums, Tom Dennison on bass and Michael Howell on guitar. The only Wellingtonian (besides Williamson) was pianist George Maclaurin and together as a band they delivered. This was engaging straight-ahead Jazz. 

In the history of this music, only a handful of female tenor or baritone saxophonists have received their due. If Williamson keeps playing like this she will surely inspire others and that is how the music grows. She has already come to international attention when she became the first New Zealander to join the JM Jazz World Orchestra in 2016. She is at present working towards a Masters in composition at the NZSM. After hearing her compositions on this date, the outcome should prove interesting. Her tunes possess an appealing melodicism while underpinned by an unfussy harmonic cushion. It is post-bop mainstream but there is nothing stale about it.  Afterwards, a band member from among the Auckland pick-ups remarked how well the charts were constructed.Louisa Williamson

I have put up the first tune from the first set titled ‘Slightly run-down’.  A tune where the underlying motifs are opened up as the theme develops. It is a story with a beginning, middle and ending and it is told without artifice. Everything felt in balance, the short phrase of arco bass during a changeup, the staccato restatement of the theme on the guitar, and above all the horns careful parsing of the melody.

The keyboardist Maclaurin was familiar with the leader’s tunes and consequently, he was the perfect harmonic anchor point. He also delivered some nice solos. The Auckland contingent of Howell on guitar, Dennison on upright bass and Stephen Thomas on drums took no time in establishing their credentials. I was particularly happy to see Dennison on the bandstand as he is seldom seen at the club these days. A fine bass player who always finds the best notes; a melodicist and a musician who has an impeccable feel for time. Howell and Thomas we see regularly and both are deservedly popular with audiences. I look forward to Williamson’s continued journey as she is learning to show more of herself. Being the leader, she spoke and told stories and I hope she does more of that. Jazz is at its best when it shows some emotion and in live performance, the artist’s engagement with an audience is the X factor lifting the music ever higher.

Louisa Williamson Quintet: Louisa Williamson (tenor saxophone, compositions), George Maclaurin (keyboards), Michael Howell (guitar), Tom Dennison (upright bass), Stephen Thomas (guitar). The gig was at Anthology for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, 25 September 2019Louisa