Purbayan Chatterjee + Takadimi

Chattergee (1)Again, the CJC Creative Jazz Club has made good on its promise to deliver diverse and interesting projects.  Last week saw a collaboration between the Bengali born sitar maestro Purbayan Chatterjee and the Auckland based World-Jazz fusion group Takadimi.  What at first glance may appear to be an improbable collaboration – a famous Indian classical master and a Jazz fusion group was, in fact, a perfect alignment.  Having Alan Brown on keys with Cam McArthur on bass and with the nimble, talented Daniel Waterson on drum kit, plus leader Manjit Singh on tabla – we expected and heard excellent music.

These two great improvising traditions, one ancient, the other emerging just over 100 years ago, are able to comprehend each other’s basic forms. Both traditions produce talented and versatile musicians who are thoroughly trained in song cycles, scales, and rhythms. A perfect illustration of this occurred last Wednesday when Maestro Chatterjee and Takadimi decided to create a spontaneous improvisation. With nothing prearranged, it began with an audience member asking about an ancient Greek scale called the Lydian Mode. All of the musicians were familiar with this mode and Maestro Chatterjee said that it was practically identical to the fundamentals of a particular Raga mode. He fingered the scale briefly on his sitar and then asked Alan Brown to form a motif using that scale. Thus began a cross-discipline, cross-cultural musical conversation like few I have heard. 

Purbayan Chatterjee is a Bengali born musician residing in Mumbai. He has an international reputation and has performed in concert halls all over the world. The recipient of prestigious awards including the President of India award and with a discography which includes best selling albums. He was trained from a young age in the Northern or Hindustani School of Indian classical music. Like the famous tabla player Ustad Zakir Hussain (who he has performed with), he has frequently ventured into the Jazz/World fusion space. Auckland’s Takadimi, under the able leadership of the highly respected tabla player Manjit Singh, has for some years been exploring that same fusion space. Putting Maestro Chatterjee together with Takadimi was inspired. Together, they brought transcendent joy to our club and in a troubled world, this is a precious commodity.

The tone of the evening was set by the first offering which was a beautiful meditative raga performed in a classical style on sitar and tabla. I have been listening to Indian classical music since age 14, but I am certainly no authority. To the best of my knowledge, the basics are as follows. There are two main branches, the northern Hindustani and the southern or Carnatic branch. These, in turn, have many sub-genres and sub-styles, especially in the North. Both schools use the raga (usually a 7 note scale) performed over a drone. The structure begins with the Alap (in 3 sections) which is performed without the tabla and is a preparation or gradual development towards a climax. In this first phase, melodic ornaments and shapes are formed.  The second major segment is the Gat (and Dhrupad) which is where the tabla joins in. The tabla introduces the complex meters that characterise Indian classical music and these are called tala (a cycle of weak and strong beats). Improvisation and interplay occur mainly in this second stage. Although the music is referred to as classical it does not refer to a fixed point in time. It is a constantly evolving music and new styles are still being developed within the classical framework.

I have posted an excerpt from the raga and also the spontaneous improvisation piece. This intensely beautiful music brought fitting closure to our tenure at Backbeat. We will miss the staff and the small club vibe, but it’s time to move to our new home, Anthology. The audiences have followed the club to new venues 5 times over the last 11 years. With such great music on offer, I am sure that this will continue. Purbayan Chatterjee summed up the vibe perfectly when he praised the audience. He plays in the worlds great concert halls but he told us that intimate clubs like this, with engaged cheerful audiences, are the best of places. His gift of the raga – perhaps an evening raga, felt like it was performed just for such an occasion. Thank you musicians – see you at Anthology for the All-Star, 3 Saxophone opening night. Click through to the CJC Creative Jazz Club web site.

Tales of the Diaspora – Mark Donlon

DonlonThe UK born Mark Donlon is an internationally renowned musician who joined the New Zealand School of Music as a senior lecturer in Jazz Piano in 2013. He has previously appeared at Auckland’s CJC, but never with a quintet. The small ensemble format is clearly a forte as it revealed his many skills. After hearing his recent recording and attending the CJC gig it was evident to me that this particular project hit a sweet spot. What we heard on Wednesday was something special.  An evocative programme built around stories of displaced peoples.

There is no separating a good musician from their musical origins and Donlon wears his origins on his compositional sleeve. I am not referring to nationality but to something more ethereal. That wellspring of melodic and harmonic invention that bubbles from the musical homeland and feeds sonic identity. If I didn’t pick it up before I certainly did this time, an unmistakable sound.  A sound manifest in John Taylor, John Surman and expat Canadian, Kenny Wheeler – perhaps it is strongest in Guildhall musicians. Wheeler was referenced several times and early into the first set the quintet played a superb version of his ‘Kind Folk’.  Donlon’s original compositions, the rest, also capturing that very English and often wistful vibe. That and the slick head arrangements setting the tone – perfect vehicles for the tales he told.  

This type of composition is sometimes characterised as sad (or dark), but I hear more than that in Donlon (or Wheeler). I prefer the word melancholy in its Shakespearian sense. “A melancholy of mine own, compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects, and indeed the sundry contemplation of my travels, which by rumination, wraps me in the most humorous sadness”.   Shakespeare knew that emotion is seldom one dimensional. 

The music also speaks of human dignity in the face of oppression, the titles traversing the sweep of history – of personal loss. There’s ‘Aleppo’, a lovely tune about a tragic city, trampled under the boots of sectarian and superpower violence – this, aptly told by juxtaposing dissonance and sweetness. There’s ‘Windrush’, the story of the Jamaican immigrants and their history of mistreatment – more recently at the hands of Brexiteer Amber Rudd. Then there’s ‘Zanj’, the old word for an African slave.  While the topic may be grim, the musical treatment is not devoid of hope. Good composers do not resile from such difficult topics; they aim to touch our hearts, offer up hope, and this did. Donlon (1)

That the album is so good is not surprising, given the New York heavyweights on board; Alex Sipiagin and Seamus Blake for starters.  Appearing at the CJC was a Wellington lineup; Mark Donlon (piano), Louisa Williamson (saxophone), Luca Sturney (guitar), Lance Philip (drums) and Seth Boy (bass).  It’s been a while since I heard Louisa Williamson and these days, she is everything that she is hyped to be. A stunning performer with a silky tone and a plethora of coherent ideas flowing from her horn. Her use of dynamics is minimal, but this is not a deficit.  She conveys her message through skillful phrasing and the delivery of imaginative lines.  I had not seen Luca Sturney before but his musical abilities are unmistakeable (what a nice sound and what solid solos). The same with Seth Boy.  Lastly, there is Lance Philip, who along with Donlon, is the veteran in the lineup. An incredibly able drummer who covers all styles and who lifts any performance. Donlon was obviously thrilled to have him on the tour, and no wonder.

The track I have posted on YouTube is from the CJC gig and titled ‘Zanj’ – ‘The NY album is available from fuzzymoonrecords.co.uk or from Mark Donlon, New Zealand School of Music, Victoria University Wellington – he has a facebook page – The gig took place at Backbeat, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, Auckland, 8 May 2019.

Album: Mark Donlon (piano, compositions), Alex Sipiagin (trumpet, flugelhorn), Seamus Blake(saxophone), Boris Kozlov (Bass), Donald Edwards (drums).

Auckland gig: Mark Donlon (piano), Louisa Williamson (saxophone), Luca Sturney (guitar), Seth Boy (bass), Lance Philip (drums)

Eamon Dilworth – Mayday Auckland 2019

Dilworth (1)

Eamon Dilworth is a frequent visitor to New Zealand and we hope that continues. His projects draw on many sources and he is unafraid to change direction completely. His last visit saw the release of his beautiful Viata album. An album that would sit comfortably in the ECM catalogue with its unhurried atmospheric Euro Free ethos. The haunting deliberations leaving crystalline arcs trailing behind each note. The time before he came with ‘Tiny Hearts’ and before that with ‘The Dilworth’s’. All of these projects were enthusiastically received and the albums that resulted were popular on both sides of the Tasman. 

His most recent project, the Crawfish Po ‘Boys’ is yet another step change. It is rooted in the sounds of the southern USA. Although a take on the contemporary New Orleans sound, it also harks back to the vibe of Louis Armstrong and Big T.  Unlike Viata or its predecessors, the latest album is an EP (around 20 mins long). As I listened to it, two things stood out. The focus on vocals and the choice of musicians. The vocals are led by Dilworth with a number of backing vocalists adding heft. With respected musicians like Stu Hunter (organ), Julien Wilson (saxophone), Chris Vizard (trombone) and Paul Derricott (drums) it could hardly be less than engaging.  

The first gig took place at the Auckland Jazz & Blues club and it focussed on traditional fare. At the CJC the following night Dilworth gave us contrasting sets, and unlike recent visits where Australian musicians like Alistair Spence joined him, he worked with a local lineup.  Roger Manins was on tenor sax, Andy Keegan on drums and from Wellington, Daniel Hayles on the organ.  He opened with some tunes from Viata, but they were given a different treatment this time.  The biggest point of difference was the inclusion of Daniel Hayles, a groove inclined keyboardist who quickly found his place and pushed the tunes in a different direction.  This was achieved without resorting to showy bravura runs and by creating an underlying chordal pulse. It was particularly evident during Toran where he played ostinato; using subtle variations to enhance the performance of the melodic lines from saxophone and trumpet.

The second half was shorter and some of those tunes came closer to his Crawfish Po’Boys material. His version of Iko Iko was fun. Dilworth, Keegan, Manins, and Hayles obviously enjoy playing together but I’d like to hear them tackle the raunchy old New Orleans tunes someday. Pushing deeper into the bluesy heartland of Jack Teagarden – the time is ripe for such a re-appraisal.  

Eamon Dilworth (trumpet, compositions), Daniel Hayles (Hammond organ), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Andy Keegan (drums). Backbeat, CJC Creative Jazz Club, Auckland, Mayday 2019

Kate Wadey @ CJC Auckland

Wadey

Australia produces some fine vocal talents and Kate Wadey certainly fits that category.  Her relative youth is contrasted by a stylistic maturity and when she sings you are transported. She has a way of engaging an audience and of personalising a story. It is a communicated sincerity, a something of herself that hangs in the air as the notes fall. She makes it look easy, but I doubt that mere happenstance lies behind her skilled delivery. It was the little things that caught my attention; the flashed smile during a lyrical punch line as if inviting you to share in a hidden aside. The way she moved from coy to world-weary in an instant – changing the pronunciation of certain vowels or consonants to good effect – and occasionally leaning back on a word.  Holding it just long enough for its import to hit home.

Many vocalists sing ‘The Great American Songbook’ but with such universally loved and familiar tunes, choices must be made with care.  Picking a few favourites and belting them out will only set you among the pack. To add distinction a fresh interpretation is needed. These days that means a reharmonisation or taking an angular approach to the tune. There is another way, however. Make the tunes your own while still approaching them in a traditional way. This is where superior storytelling skills and subtle vocal mannerisms come into play. The ability to inject freshness while referencing the best of what has gone before. She did this, not by mimicking the greats but by communicating the essence of what made those versions timeless. 

As if to underscore this I found myself thinking of Anita O’Day and June Christy. It’s not that Wadey sounded like either, but there they were, living inside her delivery.  That flash of vulnerability in a sideways glance, the vibrato-less hard hitting clean tone, The sass, the time feel, the supreme confidence – it is hard to put into words but it was all there without being overt.  

The other strength was the way the setlist was put together.  Both sets were opened with guitarist Peter Koopman playing instrumental originals. A good warm-up for what was to follow, Wadey launching into a spirited ‘East of the Sun, (and West of the Moon)’ or the lesser known standard, ‘There’s a Lull in my Life’, which was lush and beautiful. After that a composition of her own ‘The Moon Song’ – followed by a stunning rendition of ‘The Song is You’.  It could be risky to perch such beautiful standards on each side of an original but the standards were as much enhanced by ‘The Moon Song’ as the converse.  The last song in the first set, while from the ‘Songbook’, is seldom sung. What a great tune it is; ‘Nobody Else But Me’ (Kern/Hammerstein), and how clever to eliminate verses from the original. In doing this the song was modernised and brought into line with modern sensibilities without needing to change a word.  She also achieved this in the second set with ‘Sweet Loraine’ – singing it woman to woman – earlier referencing the belated passing of the same-sex marriage legislation in her country.  

On tour with her, was expat New Zealander Peter Koopman and it was good to see him in this role. Koopman is popular here and although we have seen him in many guises, never as vocal accompanist. With a musician as accomplished as this, it is a good test to see how they perform in a supportive role. Koopman was superb – never once making it about him and giving the vocalist exactly what she needed – pushing when required of him and fitting gorgeous chords neatly beneath the lyrics.  On bass was Sydney musician Samuel Dobson, alternating between standard playing and arco to good effect, a long time musical associate of Wadey’s.  Local musician Stephen Thomas was on drums and as superb as always. A duo number featured Wadey and Thomas doing ‘Goody, Goody’ (Maineck/Mercer) was a treat.  I will put that up on YouTube shortly – I have posted a cut of ‘Nobody Else But Me’ with this post.  There are a number of very good YouTube clips of Wadey but I highly recommend that you purchase her albums.  ‘Moon Songs’ & ‘A Hundred Years From Today’. 

Wadey (vocals, compositions), Peter Koopman (guitar), Samuel Dobson (bass), Stephen Thomas (drums). The gig was at Backbeat for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, 24 April 2019Kate Wadey

‘Shuffle’ on Tour

Shuffle (6).jpgI reviewed the ‘Shuffle’ album in January and the band is now on the road, sharing its groove throughout the North Island.  As they passed through Auckland I attended the second gig, but this presented me with a problem as a reviewer. When you’ve already done a review, you don’t want traverse ground you’ve covered, and in addition, reaching for superlatives has its limits. During the live performance, the answer presented itself via my friend Stuart.  He and I have had this album playing constantly; in our cars and on our HiFi’s. In my case, I’ve sampled tracks on trains and while waiting in a supermarket queue.  It is that sort of album; addictive to a fault and quickly becoming an indispensable friend in times of need.  Last Wednesday we listened to the first number and as the set progressed, Stuart nudged me and whispered. ‘These are standards to us’ and he was right. 

We knew the head arrangements off by heart in the way you do for Stella or Autumn Leaves; everything internalised and ready for triggering before a single note was played. We knew the track order, we knew the rhythms – the tunes and arrangements. There were no official standards on the album but that was immaterial. The Shuffle tunes are memorable, danceable, filled with melodic hooks, and our minds raced ahead of the lines in anticipation; delighting at each newly improvised line; mentally comparing them to the album forms.

This is what happens with Jazz standards. We love the originals but we never want to hear a band slavishly repeating the material note for note. The crazier the interpretation the better. Performing mental gymnastics during an intro and gasping in delight as a key phrase or line hints at the destination.  That Roger Manins, Ron Samsom, Michel Benebig, Carl Lockett and stand in-guitarist Neil Watson achieved this with an album of originals was remarkable. Naturally, such a singularity is not a lucky accident but the result of good compositional skills and fine musicianship. In a troubled month, we have all needed good-hearted friends to lean on and what better friend than a Shuffle. Lockett is temporarily lost again as he wisely has no engagement with social media. Having Watson step in was inspired, as he brought the core Shufflers a new perspective. Crisp drums, deep organ grooves, stinging blues, and crazy horn lines. Shuffle is a wonderful band and I have no doubt that they will bring pleasure for years to come. An assembly of ’emerging standards’ winging their way across the land and demanding acceptance for what they are.  

The January Shuffle Album review is on this blog site or located at https://jazzlocal32.com/2018/12/18/shuffle-manins-samsom/

Definition of a Jazz Standard: Part of the repertoire of a Jazz musician, compositions widely known, recognised by listeners and played often by Jazz musicians.  Maybe Stu and I are not alone here.  These tunes will be performed often and when others recognise them as we do – they will become standards.

Roger Manins (Tenor saxophone, compositions), Ron Samsom (drums, compositions), Michel Benebig (Hammond Organ, compositions), Neil Watson (guitar) @ Backbeat, CJC Creative Jazz Club, 17 April 2019

Steve Barry – ‘Blueprints’ Trio @ CJC

Barry S (1)Steve Barry left these shores many years ago and these days Australians count him as their own. It is hardly surprising that they do because since his departure he has raked in the accolades, won numerous awards and completed a Doctorate. Given the above, we can hardly begrudge his move. Music is like water it will always find its level, no matter where the wellspring. Everyone on the New Zealand Jazz scene looks forward to Barry’s yearly trips home as he never rests on his laurels. He brings us new and diverse projects and above all he showcases innovation. 

The ‘Blueprints’ Trio is a good example as it was formed primarily as a vehicle for his doctrinal compositions. For any student of pianism, these works are compelling as they combine strong elements of modern classical composition balanced against Jazz innovation. That Barry achieves this with such clarity, while never completely abandoning the history of jazz speaks strongly of his vision. Very few can achieve this without the music sounding contrived or lopsided. Barry’s compositions, although often challenging, are neither. Audiences listen and above all they smile as the music unfolds. Picking the references and enjoying the journey beyond. Those with a sense of history will hear Monk and Strayhorn; others will hear new music and neither is wrong.

The YouTube clip that I have posted illustrates this clearly as there are distinct Monkish references. When you listen closely though, you realise, that this is a twenty-first-century version and a Monk who has absorbed a whole lot of very contemporary ideas. The angular leap into ultra-modernity is abetted by his Australian bandmates; both completely at home in this adventurous new world.

With him in Auckland were the other members of the current Blueprints trio, Jacques Emery on Bass and Alex Inman-Hislop on drums. With Emery often playing arco bass and Inman Hislop splashing bold colour strokes, the distinctive vibe was complete. While this was very much Barry’s show, no one was in the background. For a copy of the latest Blueprints Trio album ‘Hatch’ go Rattle Records or to view his complete discography go to stevebarrymusic.bandcamp.com/

The Steve Barry ‘Blueprints’ Trio appeared at Backbeat, 100 K’Road, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club on 10 April 2019  

Neutrino Funk Experience / Music Soup & the ​healing vibe

Neutrinos (2)March fifteenth began as good days should, with sunshine, a cool breeze off the ocean, and a message from a Jazz Journalist colleague in Australia. ‘Would I like to meet some award-winning Greek Jazz musicians’? I had stuff planned, but the plans were easily shelved and I drove from my leafy hilltop retreat into the city. The musicians had flown into Auckland to join a passing cruise ship and were only in town for eight hours. Ahead of them lay four months of playing standards, original material (if lucky), and the inevitable but often regrettable requests. We met up in a central city cafe. ‘John’, they yelled as I walked around the corner. For the briefest second, I wondered how they had recognised me, ascribing it to a Jazz sixth sense, then remembering my tee shirt was emblazoned with the words Prahu Jazz. We introduced ourselves, and headed for the waterfront at my suggestion, chatting as if we’d known each other for years. That’s the way in the Jazz community. You travel to a place you’ve never been before and someone will message you with the contact details of ‘cats’ to hang with. Such hangs generally follow a well-trodden path. ‘Do you know this or that cat – killing?’ Always followed by outrageous road stories and laughter.     

Evgenia Karlafti is a B3 organist, pianist, and vocalist. Her husband Nester Dimopoulos is a guitarist. They were joined on the cruise by Argentinean bass player Julia Subatin and Mexican drummer Gerardo Lopez. Everyone spoke English which is lucky because I have no Greek or Spanish. After hours of discussing music, the topic took a political turn. Earlier the musicians had made a point of referencing the peaceful laid back Auckland vibe. I recall boasting that our geographical isolation, independent foreign policy, and nuclear-free legislation protected our Island from many of the problems besetting other parts of the world. “We are an independent social democracy very like Norway,” I said, little realising how strong the synergies were. I pointed towards the Pacific ocean at our doorstep, adding, “trouble is inclined to lose its way long before it reaches our shores”. We discussed the Greek political situation and I asked how the Syrian refugee situation had impacted on everyday life. We discussed compassion and the problem of compassion fatigue. We discussed Turkey and the unhelpful belligerence of President Recep Erdogan. Neutrinos (3)

Evgenia and Nestor promised me a physical copy of their latest album titled ‘Cut to the chase’, messaged me a link and we agreed to meet up again when the ship was in port next. After we had parted I grabbed my phone and listened to a track from their album titled ‘Senior Citizen’. Perfect. As I drove home I recall thinking that this was a day among days and then I turned on the car radio. The news spoke of an attack on a Muslim community. I am used to hearing such reports. Tragedies which occur elsewhere – reported on by Christiane Amanpour or Lyse Doucet. In this case, I heard a tearful Kiwi voice. Had one of our foreign correspondents been caught up in a terror attack in London or Paris? The word Christchurch soon dispelled that notion and numbness set in as more facts emerged. A massacre of fifty innocents was happening on our soil and perpetrated by an Australian Neo-Nazi white supremacist. The carnage had started at around the exact time I was boasting about our immunity from such horrors. I don’t remember driving the rest of the way home.

Our amazing Prime Minister set the tone for what followed while we glued ourselves to the TV sets silently grieving. Why here we all asked and the Prime Minister gave us the answer we needed.  For those of you who are watching at home tonight, and questioning how this could have happened here, we, New Zealand, we were not a target because we are a safe harbour for those who hate. We were not chosen for this act of violence because we condone racism, or because we are an enclave for extremism. We were chosen for the very fact that we are none of those things. Because we represent diversity, kindness, compassion. A home for those who share our values. Refuge for those who need it. And those values will not and cannot be shaken by this attack”. Norway and New Zealand were now linked in more ways than I had ever imagined. 

The next day New Zealand fell silently numb as people watched TV or visited the local mosque with flowers and cards. The Prime Minister’s words “They are us” rang out as we donated millions of dollars to the survivors and their families. Biker gangs offered themselves as bodyguards and our sadness grew as we contemplated the fifty innocents slain in our midst. Powerful images flashed across our screens. Jewish Rabbis, Imams, Anglicans, Catholics, Buddhists, Hindus and Coptic Christians arm in arm outside the Mosques. For the first time, our police carried weapons in public as our terror alert went from low to high. It had never been anything else but low. The unusual spectre of armed police, softened by the policewomen wearing headscarfs and clutching roses to their weapons. An entire nation heard the muezzin call the Adhan when the Islamic prayer rang from our Parliament the next day and from our public broadcast outlets. Surely, one of the most beautiful and evocative pieces of music ever conceived. For a day, following the lead of the Prime Minister, secular and Christian woman donned the hijab out of respect.  

This was an outrage hard to talk about; it was so new to us and so raw. We let the images guide us through our grief and as if urged by an unspoken force, started to debate our colonist past. The evils of racism and wrongs yet to be righted. Some days later I was back in our local Jazz club and the place was packed. There was no mention of the horror but it hung in the air. We had come there to be transported and to heal. Albert Ayler put it well when he said, ‘Music is the healing force of the universe’. On offer was Ron Samsom’s much-loved band ‘The Neutrino Funk Experience’. The band, understanding the vibe went absolutely wild as they sent their crazy danceable tunes heavenward. They turned happy into crazy happy and the barman, moved by it all, turned on the rock-effect strobe lighting. Each funk ridden note healed our bruised souls. We didn’t need overly complex or sad tunes; we just needed this.

Ted Gioia recently tweeted a finding by scientists, indicating that music may possess mass. A day later I read a piece by a prominent scientist reminding us of the absolute interconnectedness of life forms. It is likely then, that music is the glue; music that most ancient of languages. In my world, improvised music is super glue and the balm for all life’s ills.  I have played both the Neutrino Funk Experience album and the Music Soup album endlessly during the last few weeks and with each hearing, my belief in humankind restores.  

Dedicated to the victims of the Christchurch Massacre and to the musicians who heal us.  

With thanks to Rom Samsom, Roger Manins, Grant Winterburn and Cam McArthur of The Neutrino Funk Experience & to Evgenia Karlafti and Nestor Dimopoulos of Music Soup.

Lou’ana (Whitney) @ CJC Auckland

Lou'ana (2)Lou’ana is a vocalist on route to wider recognition. During the last few years she has been performing at festivals throughout the country and she is billed to appear at the Waiheke Jazz Festival this month.  He vocal style has general appeal as it blends elements of Jazz, Soul, and Funk. Her smokey nasal intonation and back on the beat phrasing carry echoes of Amy Winehouse.  Out of this brew comes a sound that is recognisably her own and it is refreshing to see how comfortable she is with that. At the CJC gig, an opener for her tour, she had wisely chosen the material which favoured her preferred register, rather than trying to dazzle with pointless pyrotechnics. In her case, vocal-gymnastics would be quite superfluous as her well-chosen phrasing and smouldering delivery give her plenty to tell a story with.   

The first set was mostly her favourite standards; often songs that she had heard as a child when her musical family played them for her (e.g. ’Just Squeeze Me’). Her approach to Autumn leaves was particularly interesting as she sang it in Samoan – the challenge being, that there is no Samoan word for Autumn. Her linguistic translation flowed beautifully and the essence of the tune transcended all mere words.  I know that her biggest audience lies elsewhere, but I hope that she will keep working on these Jazz tunes. A smokey voice and a Jazz standard belong together. During the first set, she was accompanied on piano by special guest Kevin Field (and for the last number of that set joined by her regular guitarist Jason Herbert).  Field is arguably New Zealand’s premier Jazz piano accompanist and I could detect his arranging skills in at least one piece.

The second set contrasted the first as it featured a funkier, rockier selection. These are the tunes that undoubtedly please her wider audience. In spite of that, they also pleased her Jazz audience. Who can resist a Hendrix number done well? Especially when the vocalist slams out the opening bars on guitar before giving us a Janis Joplin like rendering of the tune. Who can resist a homespun ‘viper’ song with its Waller like lyrics or a soulful funk number accompanied by soaring guitar, organ and gut-punchy bass lines?  Her bass player was the ever popular Cam McArthur, who switched from upright to electric bass for the second set. Both sets featured drummer Cam Sangster – a versatile drummer, equally at home in the popular funk, Indie rock, and Jazz worlds.

Her first set was great but she visibly relaxed into the music during her second set. Perhaps because of the familiar material and because she had her regular keyboards player and guitarist with her.  These two players, along with Sangster have been alongside her for much of the journey. On keyboards and organ was Dillon Rhodes and with more than a hint of the rock god, Jason Herbert on guitar. Together they had a great sound and one that I suspect will endure over time. The audience however never took their eyes off Lou’ana. She has an allure, and her charm on stage will serve her well as she gains wider recognition.

Lou’ana (vocals, compositions), Kevin Field (piano), Cam McArthur (electric & upright bass), Cam Sangster (drums), Dillon Rhodes (keys & organ), Jason Herbert (guitars),  The gig was at the CJC Creative Jazz Club, Backbeat, Auckland, 27 March 2019

The Turtlenecks @ CJC Backbeat

Garden (1)In the late 1950s and early ’60s, anyone with an ounce of cool wore a coarse-knit black polo neck jersey. While they sat there feeling cool their necks would start to itch and angry red rashes would creep up to their chins. Chins made all the itchier by the regulation chinstrap beards or ‘hip’ goatees.  Then in act of blatant cultural appropriation, Playboy invited the middle class to co-opt some of that hipness. Along the way, ‘Hef’ sensibly revised the polo neck jersey requirement, which morphed into a white cotton turtleneck and slim white jeans. Anyone who has seen David Hemmings in Antonioni’s arthouse movie ‘Blowup’ (one of the best films ever made), will quickly realise that sleazy old ‘Hef’ got it right. The Beatniks, on the other hand, got it woefully wrong. The better option had us wearing scratch free cotton turtlenecks and ‘Hef’s’ crowd wearing the itchy coarse knit jerseys (they never kept them on for long anyhow). So, when I saw that a band called the Turtlenecks was appearing in a Jazz joint and in cotton, I yelled Hallelujah. At last a serious wrong turn is being corrected.

The band was formed by saxophonist Jimmy Garden, a musician who obtained his wings in Auckland, then flew away to join the Australian scene for a number of years. Upon his return he formed the ‘Turtlenecks’, aided and abetted by musicians from his cohort.  I recall his departure well, as a lot of gifted musicians left around then. Thomas Botting, Peter J Koopman, and Steve Barry to name a few. This cohort, be they ‘leavers’ or ‘remainers’, were a hothouse of improvisational experimentation and it is always good to see them back among us. A few of those friends joined him on the bandstand Wednesday night.  

The compositions, all by leader Garden, are catchy and with more than a nod to groove.  There is also a pinch of humour evident and this informed last weeks performance. Although they are competent musicians, they never tried to overwhelm with cleverness.  What was more evident was their joy of playing together and that bonhomie overshadowed all else. They did what (cotton clad) Turtlenecks should. They played without a hint of itchiness.

The band has a number of drum, bass and guitar personnel it can call upon, while the two horns remain constant.  The personnel at the CJC gig were leader Jimmy Garden – tenor saxophone (tasteful), J Y Lee – alto saxophone (always a pleasure to hear), Michael Howell – (a popular local guitarist), Cam McArthur (one of our finest NZ bass players), and Adam Tobeck (a versatile drummer, well-known about NZ). The gig was at Backbeat K’Road, CJC Creative Jazz Club, 20 March 2019

Reinier Baas & Ben van Gelder

Van Gelder BaasFrom a young age, I chose improvised music as my soundtrack. The harmonies, in particular, intrigued as they sounded like real life. Full of rich contrasts and polyrhythms. By comparison, the endless radio replays of popular songs offered diminishing returns. The miracle of improvised music is that it promises depth, and if done well it reveals more with each listening. This sets a high bar for innovation, so when I hear musicians described as compelling and original, I check them out. Ben van Gelder and Reinier Baas are so described and after attending their gig I agree without reservation. 

While theirs is essentially a European sound, it is also original. The compositions draw inspiration from identifiable sources but they also reach beyond the predictable. The music falling fresh to the ears and without a hint of over-reach. When musicians like this hit the road, a buzz proceeds them. Insightful reviews appear because the critics have something novel to pour over, and more importantly,  respected musicians put the word about; ’don’t miss these guys, they’re heading your way and they’re astonishing’.  Baas and van Gelder are a commanding stage presence, beguiling sound, musicality and something new to communicate. 

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In New Zealand, Baas & van Gelder appeared as a duo – the guitarist and alto saxophonist bathed in defused coloured light; their physical presence diminutive against the tower of amps looming behind. Calmly they adjusted their microphones, then Baas began. What followed caused jaws to drop, his voicing quite unlike anything we had heard before. A gently percussive and often discordant string of utterances which filled the room – winning us not by force but by persuasion. Then van Gelder began to play his alto – an altogether sweeter sound and contrasting perfectly with the guitar. When experienced as a whole the effect was quite extraordinary. It felt like a brand new dialect and one that was accessible, strangely beautiful also. Rarely, Baas would apply a pedal, but this music did not require electronic effects.  As hard I try I can’t bring to mind any duo quite like this.  The Jazz club was packed and many younger musicians sat upfront, eyes sparkling in delight as they took in every aspect of this exciting music. 

Their recent album ‘Smash Hits’ is a must purchase for those who love innovation and fine writing. The tongue in cheek title, a good clue to what follows. If you gained the impression that the music might be confronting then I will disabuse you. An intense melodicism and raw beauty inform all that they do. ‘Smash Hits’ has them fronting the renowned Metropole Orkest – the Grammy-winning premier Jazz orchestra of the Netherlands (a big band and a classical orchestra combined). I couldn’t count the number of instruments in the YouTube clips but they are many and varied.  Sometimes a large ensemble can muddy a composition, but not here. These charts are masterworks – the palette is clean and rich in texture – the pieces feeling incredibly modern. Yes, there are distant echoes of Gil Evans but these orchestrations stand strongly on their own feet.

The above clip ranks among the most beautiful pieces of arranged music that I have heard.  Reinier Baas (guitar, arrangements, compositions), Ben van Gelder (alto saxophone, arrangements, compositions) – Backbeat, CJC Creative Jazz Club, Auckland, 13 March 2018 

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David Berkman – 2019 Auckland

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When David Berkman sits at a piano, any piano, he looks to be at one with the world.  In the parlance of Piano Jazz, the guy is a ‘beast’ and his mastery of the instrument is astonishing. Like all pianists of repute he is accustomed to high-end pianos but when he is confronted with an upright, he still makes it sing.  The last time he visited Auckland, the CJC Jazz club was located in the basement of the 1885 building. At that point, there was a Yamaha Grand on offer. Three moves on from then, the club is now in the ‘Backbeat’, a warm amenable performance space in Karangahape Road. The piano there is a Kawai upright. ‘Uprights are fine’, he said, ‘You just play more percussively’. I’m convinced that he could make a thumb piano sing or swing – and so it was on this night. 

The setlist was a mix of his own tunes and a few well-placed standards. Berkman’s tunes are strong vehicles for improvisation, always melodic and by default, they tend to swing like crazy. With one exception, the standards were Berkman arrangements, and while recognisable they came across as freshly minted masterpieces. Paring the flesh away from ‘All the things’ and giving those old bones a youthful lease on life; finishing wonderfully, gently, with the tag. His Cherokee while closer to the original was also a treat, a real burner. Who dares play that these days (more’s the pity)? Only a killer pianist is who, and contained therein was history, innovation and pure joy. With him were three local musicians who he fondly referred to as his regular New Zealand band. Roger Manins on tenor, Oli Holland on Bass and Ron Samsom on drums.

As I watched him throughout the night, I pondered where he fitted in the stylistic spectrum. Of course, he can range across many styles, but the name Cedar Walton sprang to mind. Later I ran into a musician who said unprompted, ‘This guy and his approach remind me of Cedar Walton’. A musician singled out his comping for high praise. “His comping goes beyond the usual, it is elevated to a high art form. Not just supportive but shepherding you into new territory, bringing out things in your own performance that surprise you”. So all of the above and more applies to him. A drummers pianist, a great comping pianist, a hard swinger. It is therefore not surprising that he shares the bandstand with Brian Blade, Joe Lovano, Billy Hart, Jane Monheit etc. He is also a well-respected educator. Anyone who follows the New York scene will already be a fan as he’s a regular performer around the New York Clubs. For the alert, he can sometimes be caught on the Australian and New Zealand Jazz circuit. If you snooze you lose down-under. Missing gigs like this would be categorised under high crimes and misdemeanors.

He records on Palmetto and his albums are readily available. Recommended is his latest: Old Friends and New Friends – also, Self Portraits or Live at Smoke. For more information go to davidberkman.com. The gig was at Backbeat, CJC Creative Jazz Club, March 2019 – last photograph by Barry Young

Simona Minns, Auckland 2019

Simona (1)This was New York artist, Simona Minns second visit to the CJC, her appearances occurring one year apart to the day. Her 2018 show ‘The Hunger Games’ referenced a Kafka short story. This tour was billed ‘My Urban Spells’, expanding her ever-evolving themes of universality and free-spirited improvisation.  Minns musical education and life, have gifted her with many powerful themes to draw upon and out of these, she has crafted a powerful synthesis. Her initial training as a classical Lithuanian Zither player is never far from what she does, but neither are the Jazz and Rock worlds she discovered when she emigrated to America.

Minns is a compelling performer and this underpins her shows. There is always an engaging theatrical element to her stage presence; something akin to an off-Broadway show. When you factor in her vocal chops, fine compositions, and originality you get an enjoyable whole. It is more than a mere cobbled eclecticism, it is well-judged performance art. Simona

Like last time, she was accompanied by Alan Brown on Keyboards, Cameron McArthur bass and Stephen Thomas on drums. Because this was the bands second time around (and because they can), they stretched out more and Minns let them, confident in their abilities.  Brown in particular is accustomed to reaching into new musical spaces. His beyond Jazz explorations into ambient and ethnic music equipping him perfectly.  Some of the tunes were standards reinterpreted, others were Jazz/Rock mash-ups with electric guitar (Minns). It was though, when she sang her own compositions in her own mother tongue that she shone brightest.  Her ethnically fused Jazz, enormously appealing.

Simona Minns (vocals, compositions, guitar, zither), Alan Brown (keyboards), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Stephen Thomas (drums) – Backbeat, CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 20 February 2019.