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

Auckland Jazz Festival 2015 – part two

AJO picBy the time the second week of the Auckland Jazz Festival arrived, I began to feel my age. I had already experienced a number of late night gigs and a further week of music stretched ahead of me. This was no time to flag, as some interesting and innovative music lay ahead. The festival programme structure provided audiences with variety. The depth and breadth of the improvising scene was on show and I wanted to see everything possible. The week started well with the Meehan/Griffin/Manhire poetry project (see earlier review for this). That gig brought a new audience and I was still AJO pic (1)buzzing come Tuesday.

On Tuesday night the AJO (Auckland Jazz Orchestra) shoehorned into the CJC for the release of their Darkly Dreaming album. The AJO have a growing fan base and this was an eagerly anticipated event. Having earlier witnessed the actual recording session and a pre-taste performance of the suite, I was happily expectant. With charts as demanding as this, a thoroughly rehearsed band is essential and I knew that they would be. It was clear that this would be the definitive live performance so I couldn’t wait to hear that first swell of sound and to get my hands on the album.  AJO @ Festival (5)I had volunteered for door duty that night, turning up early to help. I enjoy the Jazz orchestra set-up process – in this case nineteen musicians and a conductor configuring a behemoth in an impossibly small space. It was like witnessing Nasa scientists beginning the launch sequence. Instruments and gauges checked, tapped and rechecked, cabling run out; each adding a layer to the criss-cross tangle of shoes, stands and chairs.  Soon there were rows of brassy instruments standing in an (almost) orderly line, with the odd human interloper spoiling their symmetry. Random buzzing sounds came from warming up lips; and all punctuated with honks and plucked notes from far-flung corners of the room. this is the counterfactual of the sounds that follow.  AJO @ Festival (7)Band leader Tim Atkinson composed and arranged the suite. He has carefully shaped this ground breaking project as befitting a work of this importance. This is a modern piece of music in the mould of Darcy James Argue. Richly textured, evocative of the title and especially in the warm multi layered dissonance that swells out of the quieter passages. The work has captured a mood and an orchestra going places. This is a moment which benchmarks the growing maturity of the Auckland Jazz scene and I am truly glad to have witnessed it. The overall performance on the night was flawless, but if anyone stood out it was altoist Callum Passels. His solo on ‘The Dark Passenger’ was wonderful. it was a feat of story telling, of mood and it oozed freedom – as if he had somehow escaped the confines of room and orchestra. Importantly, he managed this without once deviating from the logic of the composition. I urge people to purchase this album and I guarantee that you will play it over and again. AJO @ Festival (1)On Wednesday I spent time with the Benny Lackner Trio. A popular USA/German (French) trio who seldom passed up an opportunity to playfully ambush each other and often along the lines of nationality. Their mock combative banter acting as a counterweight to the cohesion they showed on the bandstand. I have seen this trio three times as they have a long association with New Zealand. In my view they are the true successor to Sweden’s lost lamented EST, but there is more to them besides. Their approach is similar but additional elements inform their music. The influence of Lacker’s former teacher Brad Mehldau is discernible but the band is forging a new sound. This is the confident face of post millennium European Jazz. Never compromising, unafraid to appropriate elements from their native culture, and done without a hint of self-consciousness. These guys are heavyweights and we are bound to hear a lot more of them in years to come.  Benny AJF picThe trio’s set list was a mix or originals and some very interesting covers. What was not composed by Lackner or by the drummer Chazarenc, were often unexpected tunes; Brahms, Cold Play, David Bowie, Rodriguez and Jimmy Hendrix. ‘If Six were Nine’ was simply stunning. Warmly familiar to those of us who remembered the rock original. Taking the bones of a 1960’s tune and infusing it with edgy lines and modern harmonic conceptions. I have long-held the view that the new standards will come from material exactly like this. None of the band were alive when this acid blues classic was cut in 1969, but their joy at performing it was evident. Jimi would have loved it. Benny AJF pic (2)The bass player on this trip was Bruno Schorpe. When offered an upright bass he declined – choosing to remain on electric bass throughout. I’m glad that he did because the instrument had the bite to act as counterweight.  Balancing out well the electronics and various effects of Lackner’s keyboards. Then there was drummer Matthieu Chazarenc. He has accompanied Lackner on previous trips and to my ears he is directly out of a great tradition. French Jazz drummers have a sound that is distinct. Like many of his compatriots Chazarenc’s sound is crisp, even dry; utilising dynamics in ways that younger drummers are often incapable of.  A label like ACT must surely pick the trio up sometime soon.  They would be a perfect fit – much as they would for ECM.

Thursday brought us ‘The JAC‘ from Wellington. A delightful octet shortlisted in the 2015 New Zealand Jazz awards for their ‘Nerve’ album. This project is clearly one that will remain with us for some time and if any band deserves to become an institution it is this one. A brassy octet with an orchestral yet airy sound and one which I am particularly enthusiastic about. This was the release gig for their newest album.

AJO pic (2)‘The Green Room(out on Rattle.) Rattle has an uncanny Knack of locating the best of new Zealand music and presenting it in ways that even the big labels seldom manage. The album is beautifully recorded and live the JAC simply sparkle as they weave texture and into their shape shifting grooves. In many ways it is a band of equals as almost everyone stands out at some point. While there is an incredible tightness to their performance, they manage to loosen up enough to create rub and textural complexity. Jac pic (3)It is almost overkill to single out soloists with a cohesive group like this as every one is notable in some way or another. Altoist Jake Baxendale is their nominal leader and three of the compositions on the album are attributed to him (including the title track). If any number captures the essence of the group it is this. The solo on his tune Andalucia also captures a strong sense of place. I know Andalucia well and this is a convincing testimony.

Jac pic (2)It is hard to know where to start with Callum Allardice; he grows as a musician every time I hear him. His compositions are stunning and his guitar work so fluid and exciting that it defies belief. These are performances that stop you in your tracks and few New Zealand guitarists capture that particular sound. Lex French is another spectacular performer and we would hardly expect otherwise. He is now the leading local voice on that horn. Perhaps the most experienced player is Nick tipping who never puts a foot wrong. On the new album we hear him at his best.  Jac pic (4)Convincing contributions by the likes of Chris Buckland, Matthew Alison and Shaun Anderson reinforce the view that this is an all-star band. Lastly there is pianist Daniel Milward. He has recently moved to Melbourne and his voice is particularly strong on the recording; more so than on the first album. Not a showy pianist but an extremely tasteful one who gets it just right. I have put up a sound clip of the Allardice Composition ‘The Heist’, as I have loved it since first hearing it (probably at the Tauranga Jazz Festival).AJO pic (3)

On the 24th I attended another Rattle Jazz album release. This time at the Auckland University Jazz School in the Kenneth Meyers Centre. The Chris Mason Battley Group were performing the album DIALOGOS; this arising from the music of celebrated New Zealand composer John Psathas. The project is exciting and while very much in the moment, a careful crafting is evident. If that sounds like a contradiction it is not. Improvised music is forever reaching beyond imposed structural limitations; the boundaries of convention. Without that restless outreach the music would wither on the vine. This is an example of the new music that you might find on ECM (or Rattle), it is minimalist and references the ethos of John Cage or perhaps even Zorn; it reaches the outer limits of the known.  AJF CMB pic (2) In Psathas words, “it is not arranging or adapting…(rather) a continuing of the composing process”. There are works or arrangements which re-imagine and examine a work from an outside perspective. That is not the case here. This is part of a developing story and the Psathas vision remains at its heart. I recently read a trilogy by a famous and highly respected author. He had intended to write a fourth volume but died before he could proceed. A year later another author picked up where the original author left off and achieved something extremely rare. He added to the body of work seamlessly; continuing the narrative in ways that were his own and entirely consistent with the original. Although a more serious work, DIAGOLOS was an unmitigated triumph. AJF CMB pic (1)Mason-Battley is a thoughtful gifted musician, but we don’t see him perform about town very often. Any new project gets his undivided attention and that was the case here. Counter intuitively, it is his careful preparation which affords him the extraordinary freedom he demonstrates on the bandstand. During this performance he took us right to the edge; you gained the sense listening that he was pushing himself a little further with each phrase. It is at times like this that great music emerges. While adventurous with electronics, he evokes a classic Coltrane sound on his Soprano. There are a number of local musicians who double on soprano but few (if any) sound like Battley. AJF CMB picThe Chris Mason-Battley Group has been around for some time and the original group set New Zealand records for the number of downloads and albums purchased. For this project core members David Lines, Sam Giles and Mason-Battley remain with the addition of drummer Stephen Thomas. Unlike earlier configurations, there is no guitar. Bringing Thomas into the mix has worked extremely well. The drummer of choice for many gigs and a gifted percussionist in the fullest sense. Psathas music calls for sensitive drum work and Thomas has exactly the right approach. His understanding of subtle dynamics, time awareness and overall sensitivity to the project were very much on display. I also appreciated David Lines piano. Lines early classical training was evident in places and again this made him a very good choice for the project. The work required a pianist with a particular chordal approach. At times he was minimalist and with a particular approach to voice leading. Lines like the other four were indispensable to the project. Lastly there was Sam Giles – an electric bass player I wish I heard more often. Giles often leans towards the avant-garde and innovative projects. That is where he shines. AJF CMB pic (5)The Last Auckland Jazz Festival gig I attended was the Alan Brown/Kingsley Melhuish Alargo project at the Golden Dawn. The Golden Dawn is the perfect place to wind down and a very good place to hear laid back grooves and experience deliciously exotic ambient adventures. This music creates a world we wished we lived in. A world of exotic grooves and shifting realities. Seeing and hearing is believing with Alargo, their sound as wide as the ocean and as deep (a little songbook reference there). What Brown and Melhuish are crafting is terrific. Sound shaped, altered, looped and all guiding you inexorably toward that fantasy world of improvised/groove Jazz/electronica. As wonderful as it is to watch, it is essentially a place in which to abandon yourself. As you dive in you feel the buffeting of warm grooves all about you, as the tiredness of a busy fortnight evaporates. I thought that I was an early discoverer of improvised ambient music but Brown was way ahead of me. We have often discussed this genre and we see it as a local space worth claiming. Melhuish was always going to end up beside Brown on this project; trumpet, pedals, programming, percussion and shells swimming around the keyboards. An otherworldly magic evoked by Browns deft fingers. I like to think that I gave this music a slight nudge along the way.  AJF CMB pic (4)This has been an interesting Jazz Festival and although it is cliched, there was something for everyone. From manouche through to the avant-garde. I loved that it retained the feeling of local and of intimacy – even when showcasing offshore bands. The CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Rattle Records, 1885 Britomart, Auckland University, Golden Dawn, Portland Public House, Hallertau, Ostro, Lot 23, One2One, Hotel DeBrett, Lewis Eady, The Refreshment Room, the Vic, The Wine Cellar and other venues deserve our heartfelt thanks. Above all its Ben McNicoll who we must acknowledge as he lost sleep and carried the heaviest load. We are also in the debt of Caro and Roger Manins for the part they played. The vision belongs to these innovators and what ever happens along the way, I hope that the Auckland Jazz Festival continues as the fine fringe festival they envisioned.

Auckland Jazz FestivalCJC (Auckland Jazz Club)Rattle Records (go to Rattle to purchase the albums listed – the exception is Darkly Dreaming at the AJO website)

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Australia & Pacific gigs, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, New Zealand Jazz Gigs, Review

Jazz stories that need retelling (2014)

“What often distinguishes a poetic list from a practical one is only the intention with which we contemplate it’ – Umberto Ecco (The Infinity of Lists).

At this time of year Jazz Journalists post their ‘best of’ lists.  By tradition, this provides a platform for the writers to focus on something that took their fancy (or not). It is seldom an exhaustive analyses of the years musical offerings, but a time to indulge in a few well-honed prejudices with impunity. I make no apology for the antipodean bias.

A look back at some pianists who impressed in 2014:

There has been a lot of ink spilt in analysing Jazz piano over the years and the task is always daunting. In recent years all too many masters of the keyboard have passed on such as the inimitable Hank Jones.  He encompassed a vast era of jazz, ever fresh and endlessly tasteful; bringing with him something of stride, bebop and hardbop and above all the blues.  At the passing of Jones and other acknowledged masters, there is an increased awareness of other great pianists still with us (a good example is the belated and welcome attention being given to George Cables).  Many of these artists have been hiding in plain view and paying them due attention is increasingly important.  As musical tastes mature, and new directions emerge, the field ever broadens.

Jazz fans who live outside of the USA generally have a reasonable awareness of pan-American, European, Scandinavian and (perhaps) Antipodean Jazz musicians.  If you live at the hub of the wheel, the USA, it will probably be less likely.  Pianism is not about how many notes you play, where you come from or the 0000210166_36cleverness your ideas. It is about integrity.  Musical integrity is rare but universally available.

There is a ‘sound’ that belongs to certain locations, perhaps to great cities; where an assimilation of environment occurs unwittingly, coalescing within an artist. This is not planned, as self-conscious cleverness is the road to perdition. The mindless recycling of others cleverness a greater anathema.  Mary Lou Williams once said (to slightly paraphrase): “Once a pianist comes to grips  with the instrument and can master its capabilities, stop taking formal lessons.  Risk taking explorations should occur next”.

Pianists like Mike Nock, Barney McAll and Jonathan Crayford all have a unique quality, one that reflects where they come from.  They are musicians of the world having honed their craft on the road, but distinctly Australasian for all that. No English, Italian, Scandinavian or Australian pianist is going to sound like Randy Weston and nor should they.  Musicians of integrity will bring something of themselves to the mix and a select few will bring a sense of place. The three pianists I have mentioned have lived and worked in the USA (often extensively) but not at the expense of their roots voice.   Each found a groove that only they could unlock. There are 88 notes on the standard piano keyboard, but in the spaces between the notes and in the choices made, there are subliminal messages. That is where the real magic lies.

The Mike Nock Trio. (Aust) Gig at the ‘2014 Auckland Jazz Festival’, CJC (Creative Jazz Club). Mike Nock is one of New Zealand’s favourite musical sons and perhaps the improvising musician we most admire.  Although he has not lived here for many years, he often visits from Australia.  Many will know him from his ‘Fourth Way’ band, his recordings as sideman with people like Yusef Lateef or his long years as a celebrated member of the New York scene.  That said, his post USA work needs better examination and it is in Australia that people can gain a fuller sense of his body of work.  Nock is a truly gifted artist and he goes from strength to strength. “Nock’s ringing iconoclasm pervades all his music, taps a deep well of melody that transcends jazz and informs and ignites his every encounter.” – Fred Bouchard, Downbeat (USA). His live trio gigs are humour-filled and quirky, focussing on an eclectic mix of originals, standards turned upside down and almost forgotten tunes (i.e. Sweet Pumpkin).  The joy that Nock breathes into his gigs is infectious and it Mike Nock SIMA07_01makes you glad that you’re alive. Touring New Zealand with Nock were James ‘Pug’ Waples (drums) and Brett Hirst (bass)’.  These musicians while deeply attuned to each other were always full of surprises.  5 stars. *****

Barney McAll (USA) gigs in Auckland & Wellington NZ – Trio and Solo piano at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) and ‘The Wellington Jazz Festival 2014’.  McAll (an Australian) has lived in Brooklyn New York for many years, but he has never been forgotten in his home country Australia.  His visit to New Zealand won him many new fans.  There is an expansiveness and yet a completeness about McAll compositions. He sounds like no one else and as he digs into those earthy blues filled tunes, you hear the unmistakable echoes of real antipodean soul.  5 stars. *****

Jonathan Crayford, ‘Dark Light’ Trio (USA). It was Auckland’s good luck that the album release gig for Crayford’s ‘Dark Light’ Trio took place at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club).  A few weeks prior to that a local version of his ‘Biggish Band’ featured at the same venue (and at the Golden Dawn). I attended all three gigs. Jonathan Crayford is a peripatetic wonderer and a troubadour of immense talent.  His endless travels in music often bring him home to New Zealand and the lucky get to hear his imaginative projects.  4 stars ****

Other pianists of note: Kevin Field (NZ).  Field on piano or keys is a musical force to reckoned with. His taste is impeccable.  This year saw him record an album in New York with expat New Zealand bassist Matt Penman, drummer Obed Calvaire  and guitarist Nir Felder.  The album will probably be released sometime during 2015 and is eagerly anticipated.  Dark LightJan07_02Whether as accompanist or soloist, Field shines.  His work in 2014 on ‘Dog’, with Caitlin Smith and with the Australian saxophonist  Jamie Oehlers stand out as high points.  Adam Ponting (Aust) (Hip Flask ‘1’ & ’11’).  Ponting is an unusual but compelling pianist.  An original stylist who appears to approach tunes from an oblique angle, at first impressionistic, but leading you into a world of funky satisfying grooves.  This guy is definitely someone I would like to hear again.   It was also great to hear more of Alan Brown (NZ) on piano during 2014. He has some interesting piano and keys projects underway and we will hear more of those soon.   Steve Barry (Aust). Barry is an ex pat Auckland pianist now based in Australia.  He visited New Zealand twice during 2014.  His visits and albums are always received enthusiastically.  Barry is a musician who works hard and produces the goods.  His new album ‘Puzzles’ with Dave Jackson (alto), Alex Boneham (bass) and Tim Firth, lifts the bar for up and coming local musicians.  We had a number of visitors in 2014 and to bring us a European perspective was the Benny Lackner Trio (Germany/USA).  The pianist Benny Lackner has visited New Zealand on several previous occasions and the aesthetic he brings is finely honed. The band has a similar feel to EST.  There is the occasional use of electronics and they quickly find tasty grooves that could only emanate from a European Band.

Alan Broadbent (USA) has had a truly amazing year with the release of a solo album ‘Heart to Heart’ and his NDR Big band album ‘America The Beautiful’. Multiple Grammy 7kofphkhadu-htw5jpjp_zmxkdevwd478h5dat8o4ms winner Broadbent is our best known improvising export and he has spent the last year touring Europe and America to great acclaim.  The solo album was given a rare 5 star rating by downbeat and ‘America The Beautiful’ was recently voted one of the 10th best albums of 2014.

Miscellaneous Gigs and projects:  

Mike Moreno trio (USA) – for sheer guitar artistry and taste, Moreno is hard to beat.  His beautiful (often mournful) sound, compelling lines and clarity of vision left the Sydney audience in awe.  His Australian trio were Alex Boneham (bass) and Ben Vanderwal (drums).  the choice of sidemen was solid, as they complimented and responded to every nuance of Moreno’s playing.  This was a class act all round.  The Troubles (Wellington, NZ), Portland Public House, ‘Auckland Jazz Festival’.  This Wellington ensemble is a machine of wondrous invention.  Its anarchic dissing of powerful institutions, cheerful irreverence and inappropriate humour, carves it out a special place in the hearts of rebellious souls.  Iconoclast drummer and composer John Rae (ex-Edinburgh) had added the heavy weight presence of saxophonist Roger Manins (Auckland) to the mix for recent gigs. That was an inspired choice.  Jeff Henderson’s ‘Dreamville’ project (Auckland, NZ) CJC (Creative Jazz Cub). This avant-garde gig, billed as superconscious Jazzmares, was a triumph by any measure.  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. This gig won many to Henderson’s cause.

Notable local Albums of 2014: (in no particular order)

‘Dog’ (Rattle Jazz) Recorded in the now defunct and much-loved York Street studios Auckland.  This album is the realisation of a project by Manins, Field, Holland &  photo - Version 2 Samsom.  It sizzles, swings and while hinting at the vibe of a bygone era, it still sounds fresh & modern (and very Kiwi).  ‘Dark Light’ (Rattle Jazz) This excellent album is one of two that Jonathan Crayford released in 2014 – Recorded at ‘Systems Two Studio’ NY with Crayford (piano), Ben Street (bass), Dan Weiss (drums).  Don’t expect repetition from Crayford. This master musician takes us on many journey’s, each unlike the last and all brilliant.  Hip Flask 2 (Rattle Jazz)  A funk unit led by Australasian saxophone giant Roger Manins.  Accompanied by Adam Ponting (piano), Stu Hunter (organ), Brendan Clarke (bass) and Toby Hall (drums).  A thoroughly appealing album and a welcome follow-up to Hip Flask 1 (Hip Flask 1 included with the album).

Best Jazz Writing

The Parker Biography (part one): Stanley Crouch’s ‘Kansas City Lightning’ is a great read and a possible game changer.  It has sometimes been observed that Jazz  Parker Imagebiography is the weakest link in Jazz Writing. If that is true then the mould has truly been broken with this work.  Crouch has placed the story of Parker’s early life into a fuller historical context.  In learning things about the times, we learn a lot about the man.  This is a book that could be appreciated by anyone interested in the history of African-American life in the Mid-West.  I suspect that its significance will grow as time passes.  Above all the book is beautifully written and for me that counts.

 Best Jazz DVD

Charles Lloyd’s ‘Arrows to Infinity’ is a beautiful and informative document. It is packed with important music and astute observations.  The filming is tasteful and painterly and Dorothy Darr (artist and long time partner of Lloyd) has been the obvious guiding force (assisted Jeffery Morse).  Lloyd the musician is beyond caveat, but Lloyd the narrator also holds us in rapt attention.  The reborn, Big Sur Lloyd, communicates his deep calm with ease and his spiritual approach to music and life is compelling.  As he reflects honestly on the momentous times he lived through, we feel enriched by sharing the experience.  He sums up his approach to improvising and the duty of sharing his music as follows; “The winds of grace are always blowing, so set the sails high”.

Most anticipated events for the coming months.

Glen Wagstaff & the Symposium Orchestra Project. (NZ) 2015 album release (subject to sufficient funding levels being reached on kick starter).  This young guitarist references the writing of Kenny Wheeler and Brian Blade.  There is a deep melancholic beauty in his charts and the material soars.  The album features many gifted New Zealand musicians.  Christchurch, like Auckland & Wellington, has a deep reservoir of Jazz talent.

The Auckland Jazz Orchestra (NZ) – ‘Darkly Dreaming Suite’ by AJO conductor Tim Atkinson.  I witnessed the recording of this suite and what I heard sounds amazing. While there is a dark brooding quality of the music it is also strangely warm; like a glass of claret held up to stained glass window at dusk.  The album is due out in 2015 and the work marks step-up for the orchestra.

Maria Schneider conducts the Jazz Mothership Orchestra (USA/Aust) Our highly respected saxophonist Roger Manins is to feature with the JMO under Schneider’s batten. I don’t have all of the information yet, but the JMO will certainly be touring Australia.

CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 2015 events. The club had a great 2014 year in spite of the odds and difficulties. This is in large part due to JJA Jazz-Hero Roger Manins role as musical director (aided and abetted by Caro Manins and Ben McNicoll).  The task of keeping a not-for-profit Jazz Club float in a relatively small city is challenging, but Manins has managed to secure a solid programme and he did so while juggling his demanding teaching gig at the Auckland University Jazz School and his numerous live gigs and recording gigs around the pacific rim.   Having a brand new Auckland Jazz Festival (organised by Ben McNicoll) rounded the years events out perfectly.

Biggest Regrets of 2014 – missing the John Zorn gig in Adelaide – The passing of Kenny Wheeler whose music has given me so much pleasure over the years.

Video clips of Mike Nock & Barney McAll – filmed for this blog at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 2014.

http://youtu.be/zBd2yZZdvL4?list=UUvm6sdXjGJULG9k2nYZ9udA

http://youtu.be/m_oA8iLshNg?list=UUvm6sdXjGJULG9k2nYZ9udA 

 

Auckland Jazz Festival, New Zealand Jazz Gigs, USA and Beyond

Auckland Jazz Festival 2014 in retrospect

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The 2014 Auckland Jazz festival is over and it is time to reflect on ten days of warm vibes, edgy grooves, good company and above all truly exceptional music.  Auckland is a difficult beast when it comes to festivals.  It is like a smaller version of Los Angeles; a spread out town centre and an urban area sprawling over 600 Square Kilometres.  This contrasts with the smaller Wellington, where the suitable music venues are in close proximity.  While getting festivals off the ground has always been a challenge in Auckland, there are willing audiences out there.  The trick is getting them to pay attention.  It was an ‘underground’ festival and apart from a handful of flyers, some posters in the participating venues and student radio, the publicity machine was Facebook, a hastily created website and word of mouth.  In spite of that people turned up and everyone enjoyed the gigs.  Town halls and large commercial venues are utterly without soul and the decision to stick to smaller venues made good sense.  Because of that festival goers got to experience live music up close and personal.  A woman at the Mike Nock gig expressed delight that she could sit less than a metre away from the band.  Close enough to catch every nuance and smile; to connect with the joy.  To be so close to one of the worlds great pianists is an experience never forgotten.  This sort of intimacy is gold.  This is a solid foundation to build upon and potential sponsors will hopefully see that and come onboard next year.

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Over the ten days I managed to attend five gigs, including the three headline acts.  Like any music lover I wanted to attend more.  Actually there were over thirty gigs on offer for those with time on their hands and that is impressive.  The opening gig was at the Portland Public House in Kingsland which is an intimate entertainment space with a delightfully shabby-sheik decor and great bar food.   ‘The Troubles’ were the perfect act to launch the festival, as their rollicking, anarchic, good time vibe engaged the large and enthusiastic crowd from the first note.  I am a huge fan of this group which is a collective led by Wellington drummer John Rae.  This time, and it was an inspired move, they had included Auckland’s Roger Manins in the lineup.  This transformed a wonderful boisterous freedom loving band into a full-scale riot.   The five piece string section were the perfect foil and they shone.  Neither Manins nor Rae gave any quarter as they hungrily fed off all challenges like musical Pacmen.   The Troubles music bubbles out of a deep well of musicality and exuberance.  It references the sounds of protest, eastern European music, the vibrancy of street life and above all joy.  As the chants, cries, shouts, dissonance and snatches of sweet melody catch your ear, you realise that this is ancient and future music.  It is honest and often deeply swinging.  It is everything from Mingus to now.

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On Monday I got an email.  ‘If I was free, would I be able to pick up Mike Nock and his trio from the airport’.  I truly like him as a human being as there is an irreverence and a sense of fun about him.  Hanging with him is a positive experience and it was also a good opportunity to gain a few insights into the gig.  He has a Zen approach to life and to music; living in the moment and cutting through the bullshit.  He is funny and a great storyteller, but surprisingly humble about his own impressive accomplishments.   Anyone who has studied the history of New Zealand music (and arguably Australian) will inevitably say at some point, “Oh yeah, Mike Nock; this is THE guy”.  At the airport I ran into another returning Jazz Pianist Steve Barry, so we all crammed into my hatchback.   Musicians, personal luggage and cymbals.  “What will you play tonight” I asked on the way into town?  Mike gave a typical Mike reply, “Man I don’t always know until my fingers are on the piano keys”.  When I repeated this to bass player Brett Hirst he laughed, “Yes and I age a year every-time he does it” he said.   “These days whether a standard or an original, all I want to do is reach deep inside until I find the poetry”, added Nock.

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It is this last statement that epitomises his approach.  You watch him seated quietly at the keyboard, calmly flexing his arms and then suddenly he is playing; the melody stated as if in passing, feeling his way to the essence of a tune.  It is always a masterclass for the careful listener.  All of the dross and excess baggage of a tune is dispensed with as the smiling Nock shares his joy with those present.  As he plays he sings quietly or exclaims joyously.  Sometimes pausing momentarily, dropping his hands from the keys, acknowledging a special moment.   In a club like the CJC you get an immediacy like no other venue and being part of a Mike Nock experience is very special.   Nock played a variety of tunes, some well-loved standards, some almost forgotten older tunes and an original or two.   IMG_3208 - Version 2When he played Irving Berlin’s lovely ‘How Deep is the Ocean’ he prefixed it with a long intro, pulling you deep into the mood of the piece and then suddenly swinging madly, the melody dancing with him.  It was as if we were hearing it for the first time.  Next was ‘Solar’ (Miles Davis), which in lessor hands could be viewed as a surprising choice.  The tune was given no quarter.  Nock, Brett Hirst and James Waples (drums) immediately peeled the layers away to reveal an energised core which burned like a super nova.   Life is good when the Mike Nock trio is in town.

The next night featured the Benny Lackner Trio from Germany.  Lackner has played at the CJC twice previously, but this was the first time that he had brought his European trio with him.  He is an interesting artist and his music is very different from that of the Mike Nock Trio.   This music is firmly rooted in the European aesthetic and less rooted in the bluesy traditions of America.  What he offers is something wholly modern and closer to the oeuvre of artists like Esbjorn Swennson and Tigran Hamasyan .   It was a rare chance to hear a type improvised music that I have long followed with enthusiasm but get few chances to hear being so far away from Europe.  Rather than drawing on the blues it seems to appropriate folk music and near eastern song forms.   The tunes though are all originals and they are often lovely to the ear.  The trio uses electronics in the way that EST did, but there is more edge these compositions.  There are complex cross rhythms and pulsing bass lines on the upbeat numbers; probing filigree explorations around the beautiful melodic lines on the ballads.  On upright and electric bass was Paul Kleber and on drums the interesting Matthieu Chazarenc.  This was music to savoured and thought about long afterwards.  Offering complimentary but contrasting artists is at the heart of good festival programming.

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The third headline act was a double trombone lineup.  From the USA was Francisco Torres who is best known for his stellar work with Poncho Sanchez or the award-winning Gordon Goodwin Big Phat Band.   His credits are considerable and everyone from Terrance Blanchard to Natalie Cole has benefitted from his strong playing.   The other trombonist was Wellington’s Rodger Fox who like Torres has an impressive list of credits to his name.  Fox wears many hats, promoter, educator, composer and trombonist.  Neither Torres nor Fox had played at the CJC before and it was appropriate that they were given a quality rhythm section.   On piano was Kevin Field, Bass Oli Holland and drums Ron Samsom.  The gig was therefore titled ‘two bones and a dog’.  The dog reference was about the ‘Dog’ band which features Field, Holland and Samsom.  Perhaps because it was the third headline gig in a row the numbers were down and that was a shame because they played like there was no tomorrow; mostly standards and particularly those with strong trombone associations.   It was nice to hear a tune by the ill-fated master of the west-coast trombone, Frank Rosolino.  I am always overwhelmed by the warmth of the instrument.  In the semi darkness a glow of burnished gold radiated from the horns, reflecting the warmth of the music perfectly.  There were a number of trombonists in the audience, grinning from ear to ear.   Another great festival night.

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The final gig that I attended was at the Golden Dawn.  Recently voted the best bar in town, it is a welcoming place; a venue begging to become your local, no matter how far away you live.  The management have the happy knack of engaging the quirkier bands, showcasing an edge that can only emerge from underground music.  The lighting is particularly appealing, something between a vaudeville dressing room and a prohibition era speak-easy.  The multi hued lighting seeps through dark-toned wood grain and bounces off the bottles behind the bar, losing its intensity on the journey.   Sunday night is jazz night and what better place to finish up a festival.  When I arrived the Alex Ward trio had just set up and they played a short opening set.  We heard Tigran Hamasyan’s ‘leaving Paris’, a Brad Mehldau tune (from his Easy Rider album) and a standard or two.  The number that I most enjoyed was Wards own composition ‘Litmus Test’, which strongly references and builds upon the vibe of 60’s McCoy Tyner.  IMG_3332 - Version 2

The closing set was ‘Harry Himself’ and this under-the-radar band is truly amazing.  It is a hybrid music with enormous appeal, similar to the Jazz from the Nordic countries.  Unusual combinations of instruments, some electronics, loops and an endless supply of deep grooves.   All of the musicians were of the highest calibre and perhaps this is the bands ace in the hole.  When doing something brave and unusual, do it really well.   Leading the band was Kingsley Melhuish on tuba, trumpet, trombone, flugal and vocals (and pedals).  On pedal steel guitar and Fender was Neil Watson, a much admired musician who can subvert and then create afresh like few others.  Sam Giles was pumping out-deep groove electric bass lines and it was good to see him on the band stand again.  At the rear and barely visible, but clearly audible, was Ron Samson, a drummer as respected as he is versatile.  Carried on the pulses of blue light were shimmering outlines, accompanied by mesmerising waves of sound; intensely textural grooves, layer building upon layer.

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At times Melhuish would set up a loop on tuba, tweak the sound and then play wonderful figures over it on trumpet or flugal.  In behind, bending notes on fender or adding fills on the pedal steel guitar was Watson.  This unusual combination of instruments works so well that it should definitely be repeated.  It begs further explorations.  With Samsom and Giles in the mix a pulsing original sound scape unfolded; perhaps best described as a Second Line gumbo meeting psychedelic Americana.  The festival finished up with a Jam session at the same venue.

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Those who attended the various festival gigs were very pleased with what was on offer and those who found out too late cursed their ill luck.   I understand that the notification period will be longer for next years festival, so watch out for it next Spring.

What: The Auckland Jazz Festival  17th to 26th October 2014

Who: The Troubles (septet), The Mike Nock Trio, The Benny Lackner Trio, Francisco Torres/Roger Fox (quintet), Alex Ward Trio, Harry Himself (quartet).

Where: The CJC (Creative Jazz Club), The Portland Public House, The Golden Dawn.

Note: I will add a Torres/Fox video shortly