Avant-garde, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, experimental improvised music

Susan Alcorn talks Pedal Steel

Alcorn (2)Lately I have attended a number of music workshops. Although not a musician I gain a lot. They offer fascinating insights into the artists creative process and if your lucky, insights into a particular instrument. With music, the more you listen, learn, observe and delve, the more you gain. My reason for attending Susan Alcorn’s workshop was probably different from most attendees. The majority were guitarists anxious to glean practical information or wanting to be convinced that this complex instrument was for them. A handful of others sought knowledge for knowledges sake – dipping another toe in the water of sonic learning. Alcorn (1)

I like the warmth of the Pedal Steel guitar and I appreciate its hard won place in the landscape of modern improvised music. Learning something of its history and its quirks from an acknowledged master took me a step closer to the mystique of that quivering sound. Alcorn is very much at home in the world of experimental improvised music, but that was not always the case. After 30 years of playing country in places like Nashville and performing in the more orthodox styles she jumped ship.

She mentioned the influence of later Coltrane as one of the forces pulling her towards unfettered experimentation. She also spoke of a desire to explore composers like Messiaen and this required specialist tunings. She played us some Monk (as well as original compositions). Her take on Monk compositions was that they were architectural. “He starts with a well constructed base and as he builds up from the ground he plays with the form. He moves sideways creating an overhanging room but it is always balanced elsewhere”.

When younger she committed her self to a related instrument, (the Dobro) and eventually to the Pedal Steel – mastering the Pedal Steel did not come easily. There are many pedals and four knee levels to control. then there are the multiple tunings, a variable number of strings and a plethora of picking styles (also complex slide techniques to master). Few beginners get an easy ride and many don’t stay the course. Some tunings (e.g.Hawaiian) do not work for the blues and so double necked instruments are common – thus allowing for style changes from alternate tunings. Adding extra strings (or pedals) while increasing the options, also increases the complexities. It can take two to four years of practice before new tunings become ‘muscle memory’. Once down you have a world of sounds and possibilities at your fingertips.

In the 30’s and 40’s the instrument was universally popular and pedal steel orchestras proliferated across America. At that time Hawaiian music was particularly popular. Soon after the instrument found its was into Western Swing bands and Rockabilly bands (this is when pedals and stands were added – ‘console steels’). It found its way to mainstream Country music a little later, but it is less popular in that genre these days.

She gave us some insights into the origins of the instrument but pointed out that many of the popular theories are verging on the fanciful.

In the 1950’s you could buy the instruments in most US cities. Now only specialists carry them. Many like Alcorn go directly to a luthier for customised versions. Her 12 string tuning is unusual being C D F A C D E G A C E D. Having 7 pedals and knee levers give you more combinations. Unusually her instrument comes from an Australian luthier and is made of indigenous wood. She said that she wanted that deeply resonant bottom string so that she could play Messiaen (improvising musicians often customise their instruments). Here is a cut of her composition ‘Three Rivers’

The Nordic experimental Jazz trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer uses Pedal Steel as a dominant part of his soundscape in’Switch’.

Fact file: In the 50’s a Pedal Steel guitar track hit number one in the Billboard pop charts with ‘Sleep Walk’.

A big thank you to Jeff Henderson and cohorts for their tireless efforts to bring us wonderful experimental music. Sounds we would not otherwise hear. If you want to hear superb and often experimental Pedal Steel guitar you should seek out cuts involving Auckland guitarist Neil Watson. There are some located on this blogAlcorn.jpg

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CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Concerts - visiting Musicians

P J Koopman quartet (with James Wylie)@ CJC

P J Koopman and Thomas Botting joined the ‘music drain’ exodus to Australia two years ago but Auckland still draws them back from time to time.  When they do return they are always booked at the CJC Jazz Club and this invariably draws old friends and new.   PJ Koopman is one of those guitarists who makes it look easy, but like all dedicated musicians he works extremely hard at his craft.  The CJC gig on the 3rd of October featured many of the fast flowing post bop tunes that PJ excels at, but there was something else in the mix.  His repertoire soon expanded to include some country tinged material of the sort Bill Frisell and Bruce Forman exemplify and while there were only two such numbers, it gave the evening a flavour that it would otherwise not have had.  This had the feel of an interesting project in the making.  

Thomas may not have put on any physical weight but he has certainly beefed up his compositional credentials .   After a week of listening to Americana just prior to returning to New Zealand, he has composed a tune, which I will now include as a You Tube clip.   This is a great composition and one which they executed well.   The tune called ‘Wylie Coyote’  had been written to honour alto saxophonist James Wylie, who joined the band for this one gig.   James is an ex-pat Kiwi who lives in Thessaloniki Greece and was due to return there within hours of the gig finishing.   James is well-known for his oblique takes on country tunes and so this title was appropriate on so many levels.   His out of left field rendition of Wichita Lineman is a perennial favourite.  

P J Koopman was exactly the right guitarist to tackle this tune and I’m certain Thomas had that firmly in mind when he composed it.  I had not heard PJ do this type of material before, but the fact that he did it so well is scarcely surprising.   He has open ears, good mentors, great chops and above all taste.   His Frisell like slurred chords portrayed the roots of the genre (and perhaps his other influences); but without sacrificing his originality.  The other country tune was the gorgeous ‘Tennessee Waltz’ and the first few chords took me back to a film I saw in the 70’s.  Antonioni’s movie Zubritzki Point was a portrayal of the youth counterculture and its soundtrack has outlived the popularity of the movie.  The soundtrack featured Pink Floyd (‘Heart Beat Pig Meat’ – who could forget the exploding food in slow motion), The Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia solo (playing etherial improvised licks while the actors writhed in a strange love-making frenzy which stirred up lots of desert dust).  best of all was the version of Tennessee Waltz which twanged out sweetly while tumbleweeds blew past a silent desert bar.    This track conjured up all that happy madness again and this is the power of good music.  

The drummer on the gig was Andrew Keegan, who has recently moved up from Christchurch to Auckland .   Andrew is an invaluable asset to the Auckland scene.   ‘Wylie Coyote’ was in 4/4 time but the feel was different because of the way the beats were accented.   Andrew handled his traps like he had been playing with these cats for months.   Nice work all round.

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Concerts - visiting Musicians, Post Bop

Jamie Oehlers NZ quartet@CJC

There are good gigs, bad gigs, predictable gigs and everything in between. Mostly we appreciate what is before us but just occasionally, we attend a gig that is every kind of wonderful. This was it.

Jamie Oehlers has the sort of reputation that scares aspiring tenor players and creates life-long fans. This man is a monster on the tenor saxophone and no amount of scrambling for adjectives on my part is ever going to capture the intensity of his performance. Luckily I filmed much of the gig and so I will put up a number of cuts on You Tube over the coming weeks. This gig won’t be forgotten as it fizzed and washed over us like a blissful tsunami of sound.

Typical of many Australasian musicians Jamie Oehlers is self-effacing, and quietly humorous, but his down to earth persona remains intact only until he puts the horn in his mouth. Then we see confidence, elegance, fire-breathing and effortless virtuosity of a sort that almost defies belief. He is one of those musicians who reaches beyond the known, bringing the rhythm section and the audience along with him. His solos have an almost mystical coherence; as if guided by a universal logic that he is able to share with the audience.

Those who saw the performance at the CJC on the 19th September 2012 will understand exactly what I am saying.

As marvellous as Jamie was, his local rhythm section was there for him every inch of the way. Not for the first time I marvelled as Kevin Field (piano) responded to every challenge, managing to inject a sense of originality and invention into a number of almost unassailable standards. Kevin stands out as a pianist as he understands perfectly which chords to accent, when to lay out and when to work harder behind the soloist. He is exactly the right pianist to play behind a talented visitor.

Oli Holland was so good during this gig that I embarrassed him with a bear hug afterwards. He could have been Reggie Garrison at one point as the urgent stabbing notes from his bass propelled the others on. Listen to the first clip below and particularly where Kevin is soloing. This unit was never less than in perfect lockstep.

Frank Gibson on drums was equally marvellous. You never know how drummers will respond to high-octane material like this but he responded by reaching deep within and capturing every nuance of the set. I have never heard him perform better.

The first set began with the standard ‘On a Clear Day’ (Lane), ‘Alina’ AKA ‘Variation 11 from Suspended Night’ (Tomasz Stanko) [one of my favourite tunes], ‘Aisha’ (John Coltrane), ‘Take the Coltrane'( Ellington-Coltrane) , Portrait in Black and White ( Jobim) and more.

Near the end of the second set the band decided to play John Coltrane’s ‘Resolution’ from ‘A Love Supreme’ (1962). ‘A Love Supreme’ is hardly ever played and more is the pity. This avoidance relates to the holy grail status of ‘A Love Supreme’ among post Coltrane saxophonists. My view is that we should honour it and especially in this week. John Coltrane was born on September 23rd. It is a shame not to have all four movements performed together though; ‘Resolution’ is after all only a part of a mystical four piece puzzle which makes perfect sense when heard in its entirety.

Jamie stated the theme over and again, but each time working in subtle re-harmonisations and embarking upon brief angular explorations. We knew intuitively that we would end up in a place of almost unbearable intensity and we were on the edges of our seats in expectation. This was not a gate to be rushed and although we understood that, the anticipation was palpable. Tension and release is at the very essence of Jazz and Jamie achieve this end by stalking his prey in measured steps like a confident hunter.

‘Resolution’ is an Everest of a tune utilising Coltrane’s new-found ideas which were somewhere between hard bop and free. Jamie interpreted intelligently without trying to out do Coltrane. He made it his ‘Resolution’ as well. Kevin field was the same, as he took a more oblique approach than McCoy Tyner. This was a perfect homage without being a slavish imitation.

At the end of the gig we received an additional treat when Jamie asked Roger Manins to play. The best moment was when they played ‘On Green Dolphin Street‘ (Washington). With these two masters working the changes and probing every hidden corner of the melody, it reminded us that standards interpreted with integrity can sound as fresh as at first hearing.

Jamie Oehlers lives in Australia where he runs a Jazz School. He has so many awards that storage must be problem (including being judged winner of the ‘World Saxophone Competition’ in Montreux by Charles Lloyd and Bruce Lundvall of Blue Note). He has put out 10 albums as leader as well as being sideman for the whose who of the Jazz world.

I ran into Jazz guitarist Dixon Nacey as I was leaving and he summed it up nicely. “Man I have just received a series of Jazz upper-cuts”.

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, New Zealand Jazz Gigs

Connor McAneny Trio – Matt Steele Trio@CJC

Connor@CJC

This gig was signalled by CJC Jazz club some months ago and as I am a real fan of piano trio’s I had looked forward to it.  It was hinted that this would be a duel, but both trio’s approached the gig from quite different perspectives and this makes comparisons a little redundant.   It was perhaps surprising as these are Auckland University Jazz Studies students and you would not expect to find such interesting stylistic diversity in young pianists.

While the gig was a tribute to Connor and Matt (and their sidemen), it was also a tribute to Kevin Field their teacher.   A gifted pianist who obviously encourages students to find their own voice.

The first up was the Connor McAneny trio.   Connor (piano), Cameron McArthur (bass) and Chris Wratt (drums).   The set began with the famous medium tempo hard bop classic ‘Inner Urge’ (by tenor man Joe Henderson).  There were also a number of interesting originals played with intriguing titles (e.g. Black Monday, Underwear) but my pick was the fabulous Lennie Tristano tune ‘317 East 32nd Street’.  I love Tristano tunes with their long probing lines and relentless forward propulsion.  When Lennie was around his drummers had to keep a subdued metronome-like beat, but that approach has gradually faded into the mists of time.   This is a tune that begs interpretation and interplay between piano, bass and drums is now a part of that exploration.  The constant however is the rhythmic momentum of the piano.  This is not an easy tune to play, but Connor executed it extremely well.  Chris Wratt met the challenge interestingly, as he kept the pulse while working hard against the bass lines.

Cameron McArthur has been noticeably stepping up this year and that he played in both trios while dealing effortlessly with the differing approaches is an indication of his growth as a musician.  Only a fortnight has passed since he played with the AJO at the Bennie Maupin, Dick Oatts concert where he acquitted himself well (Matt Steele also played with the AJO on that gig).  Cameron’s solo on ‘317 East 32nd Street’ was memorable.

Matt Steele is a pianist that I have been watching for some time and I have made no secret of my enthusiasm for his rapid progress as a musician.  With each passing month he navigates increasingly difficult territory and being challenged in a variety of gig situations is working for him.  There is a hint of the European Jazz pianists like Marcin Wasilewski in his playing, but there is also a boldness and clarity that is not often heard in a student.  It is partly the way he approaches a piece (allowing compositions room to breathe) and it his clean melodic touch.  He is a particularly animated player (making him hard to photograph) but the movement appears to give his tunes a strong sense of swing.   It was therefore no surprise when the first tune in his set was ‘Little One’ (Tomasz Stanko).   It originated from ‘Suspended Night – Variation v1’ but this version is a later incarnation.    That is why I was sure that knew it well, but could not place the title.  Matt also played some compositions of his own and these showed promise.

Once again Cameron Arthur was on bass and he dealt with this different material as adeptly as he dealt with Connors.

I had expected Matt to bring his usual Trio, but instead he used Cameron and well-respected Auckland drummer Stephen Thomas.  Stephen’s inclusion was inspired, as he brought a very different feel to the numbers.  While Jared had been adept in subtle colourist drumming, Stephen ramped up the proceedings by throwing constant challenges in the direction of the bass and piano.   That is not to say that his drumming was overly busy, but he did exactly what a drummer on a live gig should do; laid down a perfect improvisational platform while throwing in a few twists and turns of his own.

The trio communicated beautifully and they never lost sight of each other musically. 

I love to see emerging pianists in action and especially when they deliver.   The above trios convinced a seasoned audience that they were both worthy of future attention.

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, New Zealand Jazz Gigs

Paul Nairn’s Phantom Quartet@CJC

When I saw Paul Nairn’s name on the CJC website I wrongly jumped to the conclusion that he was unknown to me.   I had actually met Paul when a friend introduced me several months ago.  Perhaps it was the CJC promotional picture that threw me.    The picture is very clever as it appears to reference one of the giants of the post-war West Coast tenor scene.  Harold Land (‘Harold in the Land of Jazz’ album).  Harold is pictured with a controversial steel sculpture framing the shot; Paul against a large steel electricity pylon.  I am geeky enough about Jazz history and Jazz cover art to love the reference, as the juxtaposition is so tongue in cheek and so Kiwi.    Anyone with knowledge of ‘Land’ or Jazz artwork will have smiled in delight at the sight of it.   I would be amazed if the reference was accidental but who knows.

Paul has a reputation for being somewhat reclusive when it comes to gigging but he is one of the go-to people when it comes to horn maintenance.  He should step into the limelight more often because it was a pleasure to spend an evening with his Phantom Band.  The band delighted the audience with many lessor known standards and in some cases seldom heard arrangements of very familiar standards (such the lovely Naima by John Coltrane).  What works best for me is musicians enjoying the material they are playing and making no apologies for it.  ‘God Save the Weasel’ could work as a Jazz vehicle if musicians committed themselves to the task in hand.  This band enjoyed what they were doing.

The Phantom band are all veterans, with the ever popular Phil Broadhurst on piano, Alberto Santorelli on bass and Frank Gibson Jnr on drums.

They played compositions by John Coltrane, Cedar Walton, Wayne Shorter, Gato Barbieri and an original by Phil Broadhurst.   The Phil Broadhurst composition ‘Tuneless’ was a vehicle for piano and drums interaction.  The bass and sax laid out.  While Phil developed his attractive ostinato lines, Frank Gibson responded with colourist, Paul Motian like filigree.    It worked nicely as a contrast to the standards. 

I was torn between posting a video of Naima (Coltrane) or the Gato Barbieri number ‘Last Tango in Paris‘.   I chose the latter for a number of reasons.  It was played beautifully, it was deeply evocative and it is a tune that is seldom heard these days (to my regret).   ‘Last Tango in Paris’ comes from the famous 1972 movie and while millions would recognise the tune they would have no idea who the Argentinean Barbieri was.   It was one of those rare moments where a Jazz performance passed deep into the heart of popular culture without the public realising it.   If anyone hasn’t seen this extraordinarily well acted and confronting movie starring Marlin Brando and Marie Schneider they should remedy that.  In the hands of Bernardo Bertolucci a plethora of romantic and erotic issues were traversed and the sales of condiments soared.  Barbieri was nominated for a Grammy and Brando was hailed as the greatest actor of all time.  ‘El Gato Barbieri’ (the cat) spent the subsequent years as an A & R man and in pursuing his avant-garde dreams.   Thanks for the memory Paul.  

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Beyond category, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs

Rebecca Melrose band /New Collective Experiment@CJC

Wednesday 18th July was a double bill and the first up was ‘The New Collective Experiment’ – Adam Larson (alto), Ross Larson (electric bass), Frank Conway (drums).   The band had stated their intention from the first few notes and having marked out their wide open territory they dug deep.   The act was billed as ‘creating music out of the moment’ and that is exactly what they did.   The saxophonist spun out a kaleidoscope of images while the bass and drums responded.  The strength of the Alto brought it to the forefront and while the interplay was a little less even during the longest pieces, the horn held the focus.   There was one number at the end of the first set in which Dixon Nacey was invited onto the bandstand.   Having Dixon on the bandstand will ultra enhance any performance.

The second act on the billing was the Rebecca Melrose band (an octet).   This was her first CJC gig as leader.   Rebecca (vocals, leader) gives Jazz numbers a hint of soul.  What quickly becomes evident though is her preparedness to confront more challenging Jazz material unflinchingly.   Like a number of young singers she can scat with ease and it is during these moments that her inventiveness comes to the fore.  I was intrigued by the choice of material which ranged from the easy-going to the braver forays. A case in point was the wonderful ‘Zhivago’ by Kurt Rosenwinkel.    She had wisely chosen to do this number as a duo with Dixon Nacey.

If you can’t get Kurt Rosenwinkel to fly in then go straight to Dixon.   My god he was wonderful and his fans in the audience were delighted to hear him eating up the changes of this deceptively complex song.  He knew just where to place those chords and when to back off.   Rebecca knew that she had a unique situation on her hands and she responded extremely well.    This is the clip that I have put up (especially after a number of people in the audience emailed me their wish lists).  The sound in the clip is a little guitar heavy but that is the fault of my HD Video equipment.  It was more balanced in reality.  This is a new standard for those with the chops to take it on.  I really liked the lyrics but had never heard them before – I learned that Rebecca had penned them and that all other compositions were hers.

The octet created a nice rounded sound and when they hit the sweet spot it was a joy to listen to them.   I have heard the Bass Player Eamon Edmunson-Wells and the drummer Jared Desvaux de Marigny before and they both impress.   Jared appears capable of fitting into many diverse situations and he managed this one with consummate ease.   Liz Stokes on trumpet is also a frequent performer at the CJC.   The remaining band members were: Ben Devery (piano), Manaf Ibrahim (guitar), Scott Thomas (tenor sax).  The venue was the Creative Jazz Club of Aotearoa (CJC)

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Concerts - visiting Musicians

Mark Lockett Trio – album launch @ CJC

Alex Boneham and Mark Lockett

Drummer led bands have never been commonplace and drummer led trio’s even less so.  Just because the leader is a drummer does not mean any more or less than it would if the leader was a bass player or a saxophonist.  A leader is there to impart a creative vision and this trio rose to the task.

On Wednesday the 4th of July the Rattle Records/ ‘Sneaking Out After Midnight’ launch tour arrived at the CJC in Auckland.   The prior and subsequent tweets or Facebook posts have pointed to the success of the gigs, which have been well received throughout New Zealand.  To read my earlier review see below ‘Mark Lockett – Sneaking Out After Midnight’ from this blog site.

Alex Boneham

The band that toured New Zealand may not have featured New Yorker’s, Joel Frahm (sax) or Orlando Le Fleming (bass) but we did extremely well with their replacements.  Mark had wryly commented that the former were unable to tour ‘for tax reasons’.    The Australian Alex Boneham replaced Orlando Le Fleming and his work is already well-known to the Auckland Jazz community.    Alex has previously toured here with the Steve Barry trio and I doubt that any of us will ever forget the telepathic interplay between Steve Barry (piano), Alex Boneham (bass) and Tim Firth (drums).   This is an in-demand bass player who recently won the ‘Best young Australian musician of the year award’.  He is both attentive and inventive and what you get is skillful interplay and adventurous improvisation.

The third trio member was Australian alto player Julian Wilson, who has worked with Mark Lockett for many years.   He acquitted himself well.

Julien Wilson

What particularly struck me was just how musical Mark’s drumming was and when he and Alex fell into lockstep it was riveting.   To purchase copy of ‘Sneaking Out After Midnight’ contact Rattle Records Ltd  (link).

I have streamed one track from the album titled ‘Mr Pickles’.  Mr Pickles is the story of Mark Lockett’s cat and an unfortunate neighbour – a hapless man who thought that he could outsmart a cat.   Being a great respecter of cats and their place in the Jazz story I could not help but include this.  This is as good a cat story as you will hear.