Last Wednesday’s CJC gig brought us a feast of truly adventurous music and it was beautifully executed. It was ‘free’ and ‘experimental’ and although within the improvised music spectrum, it is probable that many in the audience would not have encountered a prepared piano before. At the heart of the trio was the critically acclaimed pianist Hermione Johnson with drummer Chris O’Connor and reeds player Reuben Derrick. Anyone unfamiliar with a ‘prepared piano’ trio performance could not have wished for a better introduction. 

The beauty of experimental music is that you can put away the straight jacket of preconception and bring your imaginings to bear. New and unexpected worlds can be crafted out of the fragmentary detritus of the old. This is surely the ultimate purpose of improvised music. Freeing us from the tyranny of the obvious. 

This performance dove into the heart of sonority; creating sounds not generally associated with the instruments that made them. The piano had been prepared before the audience arrived and I wish that I had seen it. I have been lucky enough to witness this ritual on previous occasions, and ritual it is. There is a concentrated delicacy required in instaling the objects which muffle or extend the range of a piano. It is an installation and the precursor of new music. Items like chopsticks are inserted precisely between adjacent strings or perhaps a metal bowl is positioned. Few if any in New Zealand exceed the artistry of Johnson in this regard. 

Excerpts from concert

And it was not only the piano that reached for new sounds. No one thinks twice when they hear an instrument’s range extended by electronic means, nor should they when this is achieved acoustically. O’Connor, the drummer’s drummer is the most familiar to CJC audiences. He is one of Aotearoa’s best-loved and most adventurous drummers as he sits astride many genres with deceptive ease. During this performance, he added colour via fingers, mallets, sticks, gongs or rims, and no available surface or drum position was left unexplored. And he underscored the deep pulse emanating from the piano, tapping out some passages with surprising delicacy. 

Completing the trio was Christchurch based reeds player Derrick. The last time I saw him perform was in 2013 with his ‘Hound Dogs’. That particular unit performed a Monk heavy set that was well-received as I recall. Since then he has travelled extensively to places like Warsaw, Colombo, Vienna and Ljubljana. He is a noted composer and has collaborated across many cultural traditions. His fluency on the clarinet automatically singles him out, as the instrument is famous for punishing anyone who takes it up half-heartedly. On this gig, he doubled on tenor saxophone and his uncanny ability to locate the acoustic possibilities on both was evident. It’s a pity that he doesn’t live closer, I am up for more of what he has to offer.

Derrick, O’Connor, Johnson

This was music but it was also performance art of the highest order. It stretched us as improvised music should. It was wonderful. The only way that I can begin to do it justice is by abandoning written syntax. Filigree, texture, tropical thunder, raindrops, gamelan orchestra, quasar, delicate motifs, deep pulse, sighs, dance, hot tiles, exquisite, exotic. It reminded me of the first time that I heard Bley/Giuffre/Swallow’s Freefall.  My ears were realigned after that experience.     

Hermione Johnson (prepared grand piano), Chris O’Connor (drums, percussion), Reuben Derrick (clarinet, tenor saxophone). The gig took place at Anthology, for the CJC Jazz Club, 7 July 2021

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Dreamville @ CJC

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The Dreamville gig was aptly named for a number of reasons but not least because there were no defined sets, no breaks between numbers.  Like a dream, the gig moved forward under its own internal momentum.  Surreal themes constantly dissolving until exhausted, forms shifting without seeming to.  What made this journey so evanescent, but so compelling, was that certain motifs remained deep in our consciousness throughout; totems of sound embedding themselves.  Like the images in a dreamscape, the music stroked the chords of memory; familiar yet ungraspable.  As each new realty claimed the preceding one, you realised that musical osmosis was at work.  A band filtering its own ideas until only the essence remained.  This was especially evident with the recurring melodic themes.  It was best to let these themes be, to let them wash over you without over-analysing.

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For nearly 2 hours we sat transfixed, subsumed by a musical force quite unlike any other.   At times the sounds were primal, even brutal, then as sweet as a summer breeze.  I have put up a clip which encompasses two segments from the gig.  In the clip a theme developed by Henderson on C Melody Saxophone (the instrument and the melodic theme takes us straight back to Ellington, perhaps even further back to Trumbauer who played with Bix Biederbeck).   The C melody Saxophone, a non-transposing instrument, is a rare beast and in the right hands, it quickly reveals its earthy warm tones.  The vibraphone and guitar lay down simple repeating patterns, while the saxophone weaves its melodic way through the soundscape, expressing a deep soulful longing.  Even here all is not what it seems.  A surreal quality still pervades this section, the sixth sense as you edge towards the chaos that is to follow.  There is a Mingus ensemble like quality at first, then the bass solo unravels the theme, drawing you into a less certain world; you are suddenly in Zorn territory.  IMG_2972 - Version 2e

At this point Henderson moved into the light, his C Melody horn put aside, a throaty baritone in its place.   Tah-tah ta ta, tah-tah ta ta, tah-tah ta ta–taa taa states the baritone and the volume and the intensity were swiftly increased.  The music had turned on a dime and everyone reeled back, momentarily overpowered by the mood shift.  Henderson sensing this, advanced toward the audience honking and squealing, carving up the room, not letting the moment pass.   This was musical theatre at its best and it served the purpose well.  One thing I have learned over the years; avant-garde music is always best experienced live.

IMG_4740 - Version 2There is a rawness and a primal quality to it, a strong sense of performance.  Who would prefer a recording of an Arkestra or an Art Ensemble of Chicago performance over a live show?  This was all jazz and all music decoded, not for the cocktail party.  The next day I was watching the 1956 Jean Bach film ‘Great Day in Harlem’ and there was Roy ‘Little Jazz’ Eldridge squealing out high note after high note on his trumpet.   Again and again, he pushed out a flurry of wild free multi-phonic sounds.  Even in the swing era, this had a great effect.

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I am always impressed by John Bell and he was superb in this quintet.  His approach to vibes is percussive and he avoids clichés.  He leaves plenty of space between his lightning runs and the accents and his improvisations have their own compelling logic.  The guitarist was quite a revelation.  I had not heard Phil Dryson before and he impressed me deeply.  Never once did he overplay (a failing of some guitarists), letting his unmistakable chops serve the collective purpose.   Once again the solid-body guitar earned its stripes in an improvised music setting.  It felt like he incorporated a fusion era approach with Marc Ribot’s.  Zorn favours edgy, open-eared guitarists like this; he would love this guy.  IMG_2989 - Version 2

On drums was Chris O’Conner (a favourite drummer of mine).  His kit was highly unusual but perfectly suited to the gig.  At times we heard him as a percussionist, extending the possibilities, clicks, bell-like sounds and a multitude of edgy beats from the various toms.  Ethnic polyrhythmic effects arose, especially when Henderson beat an oversized bass drum.   The bass player Eamon Edmundson Wells was great.  He fitted into this setting perfectly and it is surprising how quickly he has assimilated the vocabulary of diverse musical styles.  In Cameron McArthur’s absence, he has stepped up without equivocation.  Hard work and the Auckland University Jazz program have obviously set him up well.  IMG_2955 - Version 2 (1)

This was a sound super-nova created by dangerous visionaries.  There were no leaders identified in the blurb and the band acted as one entity.  All played to the peak of their ability and with unity of purpose  That said the powerhouse presence of Jeff Henderson and John Bell was quite unmistakable.  I could especially feel Henderson’s guiding hand throughout.  This is the space he occupies musically and he is the titan of this realm.  Although my ears rang for days afterwards I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

What: ‘Dreamville’ – Jeff Henderson (Baritone, C Melody, Alto saxophones), John Bell (Metalophone), Phil Dryson (solidbody guitar), Eamon Edmundson Wells (upright bass), Chris O’Connor (traps drums, percussion).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand, 24th September 2014.

Footnote: This is one of the last recordings of Phill Dryson RIP

Spoilers of Utopia / Ruckus@CJC

The way that music is interpreted by the human brain is understood up to a point, but there are many mysteries remaining. The topic interests neuroscientists, fans and musicians alike. While pattern recognition is one the of the main hooks drawing us deeper into a piece of music, we also become bored if the pattern remains relentlessly familiar. That doesn’t rule out repeated notes or a vamp as the points of variance are incredibly subtle; groove music or John Cage compositions bear this out. Whether subtle or overt, educated Jazz audiences prefer music that challenges, delights, reveals or amazes.

Good Jazz and improvised music does this despite the few fans who slavishly confine themselves to a single era or style. Live gigs will drag you out of your comfort zone and here’s the thing. Music is a language and we learn by hearing the unfamiliar and comparing it with what we know. Learning language is an innate skill possessed by all humans. As we listen to what we are unsure of, our tastes grow proportionally. These days Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Carla Bley and Zorn have a solid foothold in our consciousness; just as Jackson Pollack makes overwhelming sense when seen on a gallery wall. Jazz listeners should always want more than sonic wallpaper.

In keeping with Roger Manins enlightened approach as program director of the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), he had booked two very interesting groups to play on the 17th October 2012. First up was ‘Ruckus’, a quartet that was anything but run of the mill. The second was the out-brass ensemble (+ four), ‘Spoilers of Utopia’. What we got was joyful, challenging and outrageously humorous music. Music that was fiendishly clever without once resorting to introspective navel gazing.

‘Ruckus’ led by David Ward, a fine guitarist who has assimilated a dozen guitar styles and then stepped free of them. He composed the tunes Ruckus played and they were a metaphor for the inventiveness and vibrancy of the New Zealand Jazz scene. The set list was interesting and the group showed real guts in their interpretations. No one cruised through this material and consequently the collective pulse was quickly amped to a point of high intensity. Some of this material was reminiscent of a Fellini soundtrack, while still managing to evoke real-time global references. It was modern in the best possible way while hinting at its musical origins. I like musical surprises and this music surprised me.

Club goers recognised two well-known locals in ‘Ruckus’, Chris O’Connor (d) and John Bell (vibes). I do not recall seeing the bass player Rui Inaba before but this unit really did come together. Chris and John had double duties this night as they were not only in ‘Ruckus’ but in the ‘Spoilers of Utopia’ as well.

Chris is a drummer that I am very familiar with as his multifaceted approach to traps and percussion makes him a favourite on a number of scenes. He is one of the most talented, open and interesting drummers in New Zealand and it is always fascinating to watch how other drummers flock to hear him. Chris never rushes to fill any void as he understands how complete an implied or missed beat is. He has such a well honed sense of time that he can push at the fabric of reason without losing momentum . He also knows how to remain relaxed at the kit and how to say more with less. The fact that he is one of the nicest cats on the music scene is an added bonus.

John Bell is an extraordinary vibes player and he generally favours the free over the straight ahead. In Ruckus he showed that he is comfortable moving between both worlds. He can swing like ‘Hamp’ then merge that groove seamlessly into an irregular pulse. The one thing that stands out however is his musical courage. John shows an integrity that few vibists do. While a lovely ringing vibrato is what we most often associate with the vibes (early Gary Burton or Bags), the instrument is capable of more besides. He is recapturing the history of the vibraphone while showing us a possible future path. The vibraphone is a percussion instrument and that can easily be forgotten.

The Spoilers of Utopia (also ‘Tparty Spoilers of Utopia’) are a brass heavy ensemble and they are marching resolutely into new territory. While the charts are initially familiar they are never quite what you think. The genius of this music is its kaleidoscopic quality, as it reflects a thousand fractured images while somehow keeping the whole intact. We feel that we can almost grasp the essence; only to find the familiar deconstructed. A pack of travelling Jesters has skilfully woven a new cloth from the old and what was once orderly descends into a pleasant chaos. We follow the twists and turns and just as we fear we are lost…. a disciplined brass band marches out of the haze. This is a new take on tension and release and it really works for me.

The ‘Spoilers of Utopia’ are usually a nonet and as anyone who knows me will verify, I just love a nonet. They are big enough to create to create the illusion of a larger unit but small enough to leave a sense of airiness. To balance out the five brass instruments there was Vibraphonist (John Bell), guitarist (Neil Watson), bass player(Darren Hannah) and drummer (Chris O’Connor). The Brass section were Kingsley Melhuish, Ben Ziber, Finn Scholes, Owen Melhuish, (Don McGlashan absent that night).

I know Finn Scholes having been wowed by his facility on the trumpet (or flugal horn) before. Neil Watson is also a familiar figure at the CJC and I noted how well his solid-body guitar sound fitted the brass dominant ensemble. I liked his contributions enormously and knowing his quirky offbeat take on life and music, it must have been a no-brainer to include him in the mix. There was also a degree of unison playing and with the unusual instrumental configurations, the timbre of the instruments merged to create a richer sound. George Shearing and Tristano grasped this long ago. Having Piano, vibes and/or guitar playing unison lines changed the sound. Putting vibes and guitar with brass was to produce a wonderful contrast. As the ensemble moved from order to chaos and back again I could feel the guiding spirit of John Bell at work: the demented dance instructor shimmering in darkness.

The track that I have selected from the ‘Spoilers of Utopia’ set is so good that I have watched it over and over. The tune is a hymn beloved of the Salvation Army bands, ‘We’re Marching to Zion’ (Sankey). Someone decided on the spot that a drum solo should occur in the middle. As the band proceeded the overall effect of this anarchic but strangely reverential wizardry brought us to our feet? The audience showed wild enthusiasm (and if you peered into the darkness and listened carefully, I swear you could hear Sankey laughing).

This comes from where Jazz began; brass marching bands and random instruments merging to form a new and riskier sound.

Thank you to Jen Sol for providing the video material (as I stupidly forgot my camera bag on that night)

The Silhouette of Mr Pink @ CJC

On the 25th July 2012 the Christchurch band ‘The Silhouette of Mr Pink ‘ fronted the CJC.   I had heard Roger Manins speak enthusiastically about the ‘New Music Collective’ and of Tamara Smith, but I had not yet encountered her music (I don’t think that Tamara or the band have recorded although they featured on Colette Jansen’s ‘Jazz Footprints’ program earlier in the year).

It is becoming commonplace for small groups to omit chordal instruments and this group was essentially a flute led trio/quartet.   The variety of instrumental configurations popping up around the country tells me that New Zealand Jazz audiences are increasingly open to adventurous and quirky Jazz.

Tamara is a real presence on stage and her personality and chops leave you in no doubt that she could play solo flute and still hold the attention of an audience.  

The band opened the first set as a trio, with Tamara on C & Alto flutes, Andrew Keegan on drums and Mike Story on bass.  Tamara’s compositions were reworked for the gig and they emanated from a long sojourn in Paris when she was younger.  The compositions sounded fresh and in many ways unexpected as they tallied perfectly with the stories that Tamara told.   Her musical and verbal vignettes spoke of exotic locations and they reminded me of haiku.  Perfectly contained miniatures – pebbles of sound hitting a pond and spreading like ripples.  It was up to us to interpret and we did; this drew the audience nicely into the creative process.

As the evening progressed the fourth member of the band Chris Burke (tenor sax) joined in.  In keeping with the smaller group he tended to favour unison lines unless either he or Tamara were soloing.

The track that I have put up “Cheeky Monkey” was composed by Tamara and it gives a good account of the group’s dynamics.   It begins with her playing unaccompanied (although you would hardly know that, so full is the sound).   Many of the modern flute techniques can be heard such as her singing in parallel harmony and in producing a multitude of extended flute techniques too numerous to mention.  The multi-phonic effects added real depth the sound.  


‘Troubles’ hit the CJC

John Rae exhorting everyone; call & response

It has always been said that troubles arrive in pairs.   In this case the old adage was woefully awry as ‘The Troubles’ arrived in nonet form.  Their arrival may have ‘Rattled’ us somewhat, but we are built of stern stuff in Auckland.   We fortified our ourselves with strong liquor and pep talks, adjusted our parental lockout settings to allow for some serious swearing and settled in for the realpolitik of John Rae’s and Lucien Johnson’s crazy-happy Jazz.     ‘Oh Yeah’, we told ourselves, ‘We are ready to handle anything a Wellington band can throw our way’.

The Troubles-  call & response

There are bands that I like, bands that I respect and bands which drive me wild with pleasure.   ‘The Troubles’ are of the latter kind.   I’m besotted with this band and their deliberately ragged, madly political, quasi-serious satire.    This band digs deep into the well-springs of life and what bubbles up is a joyous lake of barely controlled madness.   The anarchic overtones are deliberate, but there is a scream-in-your-face humour that overshadows all else.   This is about chiaroscuro; a bunch of opposites vying with each other for attention.

This band is about plunging us without warning into the troubled spots of the world and then showing us humour where we thought none existed.  The overt political messages were a joy to me as I have never quite understood why this space is not filled more often.   The history of Jazz is intensely political and to describe ‘The Troubles’ music as a continuation of the work done by Carla Bley, Charlie Haden and especially Charles Mingus (even Benny Goodman) is not too far-fetched.    This band is a talented group of clowns shaking us by the scruff and saying; laugh or cry but for god’s sake look at the world about you.   There is no solace for Lehman Bros, Merrill Lynch, Barclay’s or John Key here.  For Jazz lovers with big ears there is joy aplenty.

This band is about call & response; not just between instrumentalists, but by the band vocally responding to John Rae’s trade mark exhortations.  Although he leads from the drum kit, that doesn’t prevent him standing up and shouting at the band (or the audience) to elicit stronger reactions.  During one of the middle Eastern sounding numbers (which appeared to lay the Wests hypocrisy bare), he shouted in what I can only assume was faux Arabic.  A flow of equally Arabic sounding responses flowed back .   It was the string section verbally responding as they wove their melodies around the theme.

On another occasion John Rae announced that we would be celebrating an often ignored trouble spot.   “I will now express solidarity with the North Americans”, he announced.  “The Sioux, Cherokee, Iroquois, Apache, Mohave etc”.   He began with a corny war dance drum beat which quickly morphed into a tune from ‘Annie Get Your Gun’.   As the melodic structure unwound into free-Jazz chaos we all understood the history lesson and laughed at the outrageousness of the portrayal.

Another Tango melody written by Lucien gradually reached a joyous fever pitch.  During the out-chorus the instruments dropped out one by one and as each instrument stopped playing the musicians raised a closed fist in a revolutionary salute.   Although it was quite dark in the club we had all picked up the cues.  This was a musical night beyond glib definition.

Like life, the music gave us lighter and then more thoughtful moments.  Musically it was amazing fun and after a difficult week I was suddenly glad I was alive.

Mission accomplished I think John and Lucien – keep shaking us up please.

John Rae (drums, co-leader, co-writer, co-arranger).  Lucien Johnson (sax, co-leader, co-arranger, co-writer).  Patrick Bleakley (double bass).  Daniel Yeabsley (Clarinet). Jake Baxendale (saxes). Hanna Fraser (violin). Charley Davenport (cello), Tristan Carter (violin). Andrew Filmer (viola).   Buy a copy of ‘The Troubles’ today at Rattle Records Ltd.  Venue – CJC Jazz Club Auckland.

Motif – (Norway)


We get a number international acts breezing through Auckland and a few of them play at the CJC.  On Wednesday 6th June we were lucky enough to have the Norwegian ensemble Motif at the club and they lived up to their considerable international reputation.   This is a band which plays highly original but accessible improvised/composed avant-garde music .   They are a killing band and above all they are highly entertaining.

Motif played in America a few years ago where they received excellent reviews in the New York Times (Nate Chinen), Jazzwise and in All About Jazz.  They have been around since 1999 in one form or another and were founded by the seriously out-cat Ole Morten Vagan.

Ole & Atle

It is obvious that this group has big ears as their compositions contain the distant echoes of American and Euro-centric Jazz while still sounding fresh and original.   This is as far from a covers band as you could get, because they gather in the myriad of sounds about them and fashion these into a fresh and exciting soundscapes.  The band may have achieved critical acclaim but they are certainly not above poking fun at themselves.  Ole Mortan Vagan joked several times about their earning potential.   This is a group of musicians who do what they do well and primarily perform for the love of the music.

Havard Wiik

The music was often rambunctious, but the band always drew you back to a collaborative theme after their stratospheric flights of fancy.   The magic woven by individual performers during solos was never at the expense of the ensemble.  It was organised chaos in the best possible way.

I was also delighted to discover that Norwegian humor translates perfectly for a New Zealand audience.  The music was leavened with countless jokes which had us in fits of laughter.   Ole Morten Vagan said that his father had recently accused him of being a bohemian.  When he asked his father to explain he was told, “A bohemian is someone who regards the rent as an unforeseen event”.

The band members were all incredible musicians whether playing as an ensemble or exploring the edge of reason.

The band was: Ole Morten Vagan (bass, jokes), Atle Nymo (saxophone), Eivind Lonning (Trumpet), Harvard Wiik (piano), Hakon Johansen (drums).

At the end of the second set they filed off the band-stand to the sounds of loud enthusiastic applause.  The clapping eventually subsided, but a few determined souls carried on until the band reappeared for a last number.    “That was strange”‘ said Ole.   “At first we heard clapping followed by what sounded like half a dozen potatoes rolling down the stairs – then clapping again.

Roger Manins summed it up perfectly in a recent Face Book post: “Just a heads up for those in Sydney Tomorrow.  MOTIF will be at SIMA– and seriously worth checking out. They were at CJC in Auckland last week and were great– very funny guys too”.    I concur.

The ‘Troubles’ – John Rae & Lucien Johnson interview

The Troubles Nonet

This e-interview was conducted over the 7th and 8th May 2012 – interviewer John Fenton for Jazz Local 32.    Those interviewed were John Rae (drummer, composer, arranger) and Lucien Johnson (alto & soprano saxophones, flute, composer, arranger).  ‘The Troubles’ is out on ‘Rattle Records‘ and was supported by Creative New Zealand.

Question: Time and place are important to both artists and audience and the interplay between them. I know that Wellington’s ‘Happy Bar’ has been a place to hear free improvised and experimental music for some time. The location and the vibe seem to be connected in this recording?

Lucien: I would say that Happy has been a largely supportive place and it’s nice to play on a stage, which is quite rare for jazz gigs in Wellington. Other than that though, since Happy stopped being a musician run place and turned into a business the vibe wasn’t quite the same – except for our Sunday nights! John may see things differently as he didn’t know it before, but I would say that any place that we have the capacity to virtually take over for the night we would see the same result. (A regular crowd of 50-80 enthusiastic and attentive listeners).

John Rae: All the above are true. Time and place are important. I’d been playing at Happy since I arrived in Wellington three years ago as the composer in residence at Victoria University and The Troubles are a part of a lineage. If there had been no Happy, Lucian wouldn’t have sat in with the group I was playing with, I may not have met Patrick, Dan or any of the other musicians who now make up The Troubles. But things move on. We now have another regular gig at Meow in Wellington and it’s going fantastically well. On a wider note, in Scotland we had a similar gig called Henry’s that ended up being an art’s council funded venue for jazz. We all know the financial difficulties of running a jazz gig and it is shameful that we have no problem funding classical venues to the tune of millions of dollars but can’t find what would be relative peanuts in comparison to support a jazz venue!

Question: While comparisons can be odious I was put in mind of an iconic and (at the time) controversial album that came out in 1969 “The Music Liberation Orchestra” Charlie Haden. Is that a fair comparison?

Lucien: I’m a big fan of the Liberation Music Orchestra, and the latter-day “Dream Keeper” is a personal favourite. I don’t know how aware John is of it though.

John Rae: It’s a wonderful comparison but purely accidental….

Question: You have no Carla Bley or Sam Browne on chordal instruments. Was that deliberate or happenstance?

Lucien: It was definitely a conscious decision. For a start there are no pianos at any venues in Wellington and we didn’t feel that there was anyone on piano or guitar who quite fit the bill anyway. We thought it would be more fun to have the strings acting as harmony players and/or have more open improvisations. I have avoided chordal instruments in my acoustic jazz groups except when I play with Jonathan Crayford.

John Rae: Yes it is. We like the freedom of not having a fixed harmonic instrument like guitar or piano.

Question: With a Nonet the sound palette and textures can have a big band feel. I sense that there has been serious writing and arranging done here. Is that my imagination or are there some well-arranged charts involved?

Lucien: There is very precise notation going on most of the time. The illusion of anarchy is due to familiarity and comfort with the material and the group.

John Rae: Lucian and I put a lot of thought into the writing. Personally I like my music to have a life of its own after my initial bit. So it’s important to write music that has an opportunity to breath and grow the more the musicians understand it. Or in other words, to treat the music with the contempt it deserves!

Question: How much of what we hear is free or changes based improvisation?

Lucien: A mixture, although when it’s free there is usually a tonal center present.

John Rae: A bit of both. I like musicians to dictate their own harmonic structures whilst soloing. Not always though and I have written tunes with changes but I hope that the improvisational aspects of my music allow the soloist to expand the harmonic possibilities as far or as simple as they want.

Question: I loved the way the band hinted at serious political topics but then appeared to instill humour and even an element is piss taking. Can you comment on that?

Lucien: John is quite political in this sense and contributes much of the humour (although musically Anthony’s percussion also adds this element). I prefer to leave both these things alone in music, without being extremely serious about it either. That’s just the way the group went with John’s personality present and I’m up for a laugh.

John Rae: I am a political animal but it’s important for me that people enjoy themselves whilst hearing my music. I’ve been around and played with ‘serious’ musicians most of my life and to be honest they now bore the pants of me. That’s not to say what I’m doing isn’t serious. It’s just that I’m over all the bullshit and let’s face it, in the current political climate if you didn’t laugh you’d cry.

Question: Is there anything you want to add?

John Rae: I love the jazz community here in New Zealand. It has some wonderful musicians and a lot going for it. On the other hand though it is really shit. No one seems to be asking the big questions. There is a lack of co-ordination, organization and vision. I look at what’s going on in Scotland and can’t help but compare it to here. No national jazz orchestra, no national jazz federation, jazz touring schemes, international profile etc and yet you can’t move for degree courses! As Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen the Danish jazz bassist said many years ago with regard to the Danish jazz scene, ‘it won’t improve until we stop making excuses’. The life of a jazz musician in NZ is incredibly hard. I believe it needn’t be soooo hard. It’s never going to be easy but through vision and togetherness we could make the living condition for jazz musicians a lot better. Ask any of the salaried brothers playing in any of the state funded orchestras if it’s possible!!!! I plan to have a gathering later this year of jazz musicians and people with an interest in the music to discuss some of the above and come out of it with a strategy on how to move the New Zealand Jazz scene forward. All together for the good fight….

Thanks guys that was an incredibly worthwhile exercise.

John Fenton – Jazz Local 32

‘The Troubles’ – Review

This is part one of two posts on ‘The Troubles’; An interview with John Rae and Lucien Johnson to follow in a day.

When I received a brief email from Steve at Rattle Records informing me that he was sending me two very interesting disks I sensed that he was excited about what was on offer.  When the tightly wrapped package arrived I wrestled ‘The Troubles’ from its box.  Putting it straight on, I was stunned by what I heard and I played it through twice, letting the sound wash over me.  Steve was right; this was special.

Jazz is supposed to be fresh and to convey the ‘sound of surprise’ and this was bloody surprising.  It immediately put me in mind of ‘The Liberation Music Orchestra’ or even Charles Mingus in the various incarnations of those bands.  Having said that this is very much a New Zealand sound.

The Troubles is performed by a Nonet with the instrumentation hinting at the albums context.  Adding a texture to the music; its wild but perfectly placed brush strokes marking it apart.

There is a string section of violin, cello and viola (Tristan Carter, Andrew Filmer, Charley Davenport) which contrasts nicely with the winds and reeds.  Lucien Johnson plays tenor sax, soprano and flute – Nick Van Dijk doubles on trumpet and trombone while Daniel Yeabsley plays alto, baritone and clarinet.   Add to the above the insistent drumming and shouts of John Rae, the bass of Patrick Bleakley and especially the percussion of Anthony Donaldson and you have a band that is capable of much.

The band had been playing at ‘Happy’ (a Wellington Bar renowned for experimental music) for some time and for a number of reasons this proved to be serendipitous.  What came together during those months is perfectly captured here.  This was recorded on one particular night and due to the exceptional musicianship of the band, the skillful writing and connectedness of everyone involved (including the loyal audience) we have a very special album.

Against the odds New Zealand Jazz is rapidly becoming identifiable as a separate and interesting entity.  Perhaps a subset of the Australasian-Pacific Jazz sound.  On the best Kiwi albums and in the clubs I hear this certain something and I want to confront the musical establishment and say, “Are you freakin deaf…can’t you hear this”?    This thing is ours, it can be wonderful and it is certainly worthy of proper attention.  New Zealand music is very diverse and this is a healthy thing.   Original and exciting bands are continually being formed, but in order for this vibrancy and originality to flourish the music must be better supported.     Here is an album that exemplifies this diversity and it says something unique about us and our place in a sometimes troubled world .

Support the band, buy the album but above all relax and enjoy it.  I defy anyone to dislike this roller-coaster ride through the worlds troubled spots.  It is a journey undertaken with deep humanity but also with a liberal helping of humour throughout.   A warm echo derived from the cacophony about us and filtered through an anarchic but sharply focussed Kiwi lens.

Purchase from Marbecks, JB HiFi, Real Groovy, or leading record stores – otherwise purchase directly from Rattle Records.

Ottignon Bros Tour – Crazy in the moment

Ottignon band @ CJC

Matt, Eden & Dan

Seeing the Ottignon Brothers perform is to be put in mind of a very clever vaudeville act. There may have been more gags in a vaudeville act (well that is not strictly true) but the interaction between band and audience was honed to perfection.  The jokes were often of a musical nature and none of them missed the mark. This was great fun, highly inventive music and above all top class entertainment.

I first saw the Ottignon brothers when they were living in New Zealand and again some years later after they had moved to Australia. Aron was regarded as a prodigy on piano and I recall seeing Matt performing high wire saxophone acts somewhere. The brothers are now scattered around the globe, with Aron living in Paris and Eden & Matt based in Sydney (but gigging all over). The Australasian tour gave us a chance to connect with their new music and for the brothers it was a chance to play together again after 8 years.   The audiences responded by packing out their gigs.

Watching them communicate on stage was fascinating because they didn’t appear to need the cues that others rely on.   This apparent telepathy was advantageous to them as they responded to each other with lightning speed. The spontaneous twists and turns of the gig required them to be fleet-footed.


The way they had arrived at their set list was fairly post-modern and to lesser musicians it would have been challenging.  Only days away from the first gig in Australia they had put up a Facebook post; requesting ‘friends’ to nominate the tunes they should play. To be selected, each tune needed to attract at least two votes and predictably the suggestions were quirky. ‘Black and Crazy Blues’ (Roland Kirk), ‘Eden’s ukulele Song’ (Eden singing with ukulele, composed days before the gig), ‘African Mailman’ (Nina Simone), ‘Running Up That Hill’ (Kate Bush), a Medley of Sly & The Family Stone numbers, The poem ‘Trees’ which had been suggested by their Grandmother (Edwardian war poet Joyce Kilmer), ‘God save the Goat’ etc.  You get the idea.

The diversity of the material held the audience’s attention throughout, but it was their good humour and the solid musicianship which clinched the deal.Eden & Dan

Each number was a little crazier than the last but there were a few numbers which will linger in my memory for quite some time.  When Matt played the ‘Sly and the Family Stone’ medley the tone on his tenor morphed into a deep breathy rich sound.   On ‘Its a Family Affair’ he reminded me of Pharaoh Sanders and I asked him about that after the gig.   He told me he had been taking an interest in some Ethiopian tenor players of late and that they cultivated that particular sound.  The other number that I liked was more of a novelty and that was when Matt played his iPhone using the ‘Gyro Synth’ app.   This looked easy but it is not (I know because I have the app).  Matt has played with Lou Reed, Brain Wilson and Mike Nock among others.

Throughout Aron laid down solid percussive grooves on the piano and lived up to his considerable reputation.  In Europe he fronts a group called ‘Aronas’ and is featured in a number of well-known bands.   Eden showed his chops on double bass and electric bass, but also ventured into song and ukulele as the set list demanded.   Eden is the leader of the ‘Sun Searchers Collective’.  Dan Kennedy was on drums for the New Zealand leg of the tour and Kiwi’s are familiar with his tight propulsive, energetic style.    Dan is a favourite at the CJC and they could not have picked better for this gig.

Matt performing on iPhone.

Aron pleasing large crowds in the South of France

Astral Surfers – Murray McNabb Band @ CJC

Murray McNabb

I have seen Murray McNabb perform many times over the years and it has often been said that he plots a course at variance to the mainstream.   If this is true it could also be said of many top Jazz musicians; they understand that Jazz audiences seldom want to hear endless note-perfect repetitions of previously played music.   Improvisation demands musical bravery and the Murray McNabb band has this essential quality.   The sharp-witted Zoot Sims summed up the sentiment when he said, “Jazz is the music where you never play the same way once”.

Auckland has of late been experiencing an explosion of Jazz creativity and the ‘Astral Surfers’ album is a fine example of this.   The album came out over a year ago and for some reason I had never located a copy.   I should have tried harder because the album is marvelous.  It gives a nod to the best Jazz of the 1960’s but the album is also very contempory.   This is a musical narrative (like ‘Zoo’) and the overall vibe is essential to the journey which unfolds. It is exactly as the title and track list suggests; a journey through exotic and often surreal landscapes. I am always up for this if the music is good and it is.

The album was created with a much larger pallete than the live band used at the CJC.   Apart from the core band of Murray McNabb (keyboards), Frank Gibson (drums), Neil Hannan (bass) and Stephen Morton-Jones (saxophones), additional members were present on the album.  Martin Winch (guitar), Basant Madhur (Tabla), William Yu (dulcimer) and Tanya Li (erhu).  All of the compositions are Murray McNabbs.

For me, there is a powerful presiding spirit hovering over this album and that is guitarist Martin Winch.   His passing late last year was felt deeply in the Auckland Jazz community and to have him recorded to such advantage here, makes the album a treasure for that reason alone.

The first two tracks on the album are ‘Marco Polo’s Return’ and Sub Continental’ .    These tracks draw on the shifting sounds and colours of the silk road.    Stephan Morton-Jones weaves engagingly in and out of a solid groove laid down by Murray, Frank and Neil, occasionally extracting microtonal effects from his soprano as he traverses foreign sounding scales.    The richness and diversity of the musical palette does not divert us from the core theme and that is as much down to Murray’s writing as to the musicianship of the band.   Adding tabla, dulcimer and erhu into the mix works, as they fit in well and enrich without overpowering.

The title track ‘Astral Surfers is also brilliant with Frank Gibson putting his experience and chops to the best possible use.   He makes sure that he does not overshadow the tabla while never-the-less blending in a few percussive tricks of his own.

It is the track ‘Snake’ that I like best.  It has a solid bass line and a nice melodic hook while providing a vehicle for improvisation.   Martin Winch can be heard playing against Murray’s engaging vamps while Stephen extracts alto gold from the deep groove.  Martin and Murray also provide convincing solos.

Many of Murray McNabbs compositions are modal or give the impression of being so.   He has developed the art of extracting profound messages from apparently simple progressions and the fact that they are so satisfying is due to his writing skills.

The band that fronted the CJC gig was the basic McNabb, Gibson, Hannan & Morton-Jones unit.   They got down to business and showed us that they did not need the extra instruments to create a big sound.   Murray had thrown a curve ball at Stephen by writing parts for two saxophones (to be played simultaneously) and Stephen in true Roland Kirk fashion had risen to the challenge.  I asked him after the gig if it had been daunting to play two saxophones at the same time and he admitted that he had needed to work hard in order to get there.   The fingering on a soprano and on an alto is the same, but a fourth apart.   This unison playing worked well and at times Stephen also used one of the instruments as a drone.   He joked afterwards that the biggest challenge would be playing counterpoint to himself.   Maybe that wasn’t a joke.

Many of the tunes played were not from the album and the first tune Scarborough Fair (trad) was a knockout.    This had been reworked into a near modal form and the rich voicings and nice ballad groove gave the band a freedom which they used to advantage.  Another tune that appealed was ‘Turkish Like’.    I intend to follow the McNabb band more closely in future but I will not be expecting more of the same as they tend not to do that.