Backbeat Bar, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Straight ahead

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

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CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Concerts - visiting Musicians

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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CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Piano Jazz, Straight ahead

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

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Concerts - visiting Musicians, experimental improvised music

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.