The Auckland Jazz Orchestra @ CJC 20th June

Steve Sheriff & Callum Passells (Altos)

I love Jazz big bands and couldn’t have been more pleased when Roger engaged the AJO to play on awards night. It is more than possible that I had dropped a hint. Nothing underscores an occasion like a Jazz orchestra and having a 17 piece band in an intimate space is the best of listening experiences. Those surges of raw power always please, but it is something else that I look for. It is their collective agility , the tension and release and the quality of their ensemble playing. This is quickly revealed if the charts are well written, and they were.

People like to compare big bands and as a spectator sport it has some currency. I can’t help wondering however if eggs are always being compared with eggs. There are rehearsal bands like the Village Vanguard Orchestra (Thad Jones Big Band) who meet once a week (but with ever-changing personnel). Less common are the professional or semi professional units who get regular work and whose core personnel are less likely change (The WDR, Mingus Big Band, Roger Fox Big Band). Lastly there are all-star bands which come together for a recording, a gig, a concept or just for fun (Bob Beldens ‘Miles Espanol’ Jazz Orchestra, The Kenny Wheeler Big Band).

The AJO falls mostly into the first group but there is another dimension to what they do: they are a writing band and part of their reason for existence is to write charts and/or to create original arrangements. Quite a few in the band write and that gives the band an Auckland flavour. The compositions tell our city’s story. As a city we need to value them more and ensure that they get the work and the recognition they deserve. The City Council needs to have them on their radar and call on them for appropriate official functions? Knowing Jazz musicians pay packets, the public purse would be left largely intact if they did.

Mike Booth

The AJO is a mix of seasoned players and new talent and this gives them a certain flavour. With their unfamiliar charts they perform a high wire act and because of that there is a hint of risk; to pull this off and at the same time entertain, requires a deftness of touch. The AJO has this as the co-founders Tim Atkinson and Mike Booth manage to inspire and guide without stifling creativity.

During the night we heard tight ensemble playing, a number of nice solos (particularly from Mike Booth, Theo Clearwater, Steve Sherriff, Andrew Hall, Callum Passells, Jono Tan and Matt Steele). Vanessa McGowen was terrific on bass and her presence was felt in just the right way. Andrea Groenewald on guitar demonstrated her soloing and comping skills. The latter added just the right Freddie Green touch to the overall mix. Swinging a big band is not always easy but this band swung.

There were two sets and thirteen numbers – among them were ‘It doesn’t Snow There’ – Atkinson, ‘On the Water’ – Booth, ‘All the things you are‘ – Kern/Hammerstein, ‘Those Nights’ – Hall. I have included a You Tube clip of there AJO performing Tim Atkinson’s composition and arrangement of ‘It Doesn’t Snow There’ – see below.

The AJO’s personnel are: Mike Booth (lead trumpet, arranger, composer, co-founder), Tim Atkinson (conductor, arranger, composer, co-founder)

Tim Atkinson

Altos; Steve Sheriff, Callum Passells – Tenors; Andrew Hall, Teo Clearwater – Baritone; Andrew Baker – Trumpets; Matthew Verrill, Mike Booth, Jo Spiers, Oliver Furneaux – Trombones; Mike Young, Mike Ashton, Jono Tan, Darrell Farley – Guitar; Andrea Groenewald – Piano; Matt Steele – Bass; Vanessa McGowen – Drums; Cameron Sangster

The AJO on awards night

Vanessa McGowan

August gigs: Nock, Hirst, Manins & Samson

retiring at 80 yrs

For those who are easily led by their particular pied-piper there is live music to be had every week.   In the recent past Auckland live Jazz had been harder to find than other genres, but due to a happier alignment of the stars that is no longer a problem.

The big news is that Mike Nock (p) has been booked into the CJC for two nights – August 10th -11th.   I never miss a chance to see Mike when is in town and so I grabbed two of the first tickets on the market as they wont last long.   Seeing Mike in this warm intimate space will be pure magic.   He will be playing with Roger Manins (ts), Brett Hirst (b) Ron Sansom (d). The club is to be congratulated for bringing together such a line up and having such a good piano must have helped to clinch the deal.  For details and ticket prices follow the link from this site to the CJC (local clubs).   I urge you to become GJC members, visit the club or at least subscribe to the CJC gigs update.

As soon as I learned that the AJO (Auckland Jazz Orchestra) was playing at the Masonic in Devonport I notified a few friends.   I would gladly have attended with them having seen this big-band 6 days earlier, but work prevented me.   Here is a report from the Masonic gig (and about Merv Thomas):

Subject: Last night; Hi John, We went down to the Masonic last night and lucked in to Merv’s last performance.   His 80th birthday is today. He performed in a quintet with Bernie Allen and other ‘old’ friends and sang Tea for Two!  A large group of his family were there with several generations. Also a trombone quartet.  Happy birthday was sung, and some speeches.   I can’t imagine that this was his last blow.    A good night.  Those kids in the Jazz Orchestra are very talented.   Cheers Ruth.

Mike Booth the founder of the AJO has given me some forward dates for the bands gigs.   He said:  “We will be trying Thursdays [once a month at the Masonic Devonport] – There will be a cover charge and we will try this until the end of the year.  Starts Thursday 11 August.”

Lastly I will be going to see the Alex Churchill – Andrea Lisa band on the 3rd of August.    Andrea Groenewald (g) is someone to watch.  She and Alex Churchill have recently graduated from the Massey School of music (Albany campus).

Mike Nock trio

Mikes recent album

A Big Auckland Sound – CJC-AJO

Andrea on the bandstand

during a break
Resting AJO Brass  @CJC 

I may have become addicted to Jazz big-bands and so when the opportunity presented itself recently to sit in the fourth row at the Roger Fox – Alan Broadbent concert, I took it.   I survived that proximity with surprising ease and it was inevitable that I would need a bigger dose next time.    The sonic blast had not even wiped the smile from my face.

Now a month later I was attending a gig where the (AJO) ‘Auckland Jazz Orchestra‘ was playing and so I decided to test my limits.    Knowing that I could tolerate the maximum levels of exposure I sat in the front row.  So close in fact that the bell of  Andrew Hall’s Tenor Saxophone was only half a meter away.   This proved to be an excellent concert and to be that close was to feel part of the band by proxy.

The ‘Auckland Jazz Orchestra‘ is a collective; drawing on local talent who meet monthly to explore the Jazz big- band sound.   While clearly in the tradition of the great rehearsal bands like the Thad Jones band, they also appear to have striven to create an authentic Auckland vibe.    If this was their aim, then they have certainly succeeded.

Founding member Mike Booth (trumpet) is a Jazz veteran.  He has recently returned from overseas and his presence is strongly felt.  The other guiding presence is current conductor Tim Atkinson.   Both have written and arranged charts (as have other members of the band).   The ethos of this band is in fact to put a local stamp on the music and that excites me.  The territory bands of the pre-60’s American scene were legendary and they grew in stature by creating unique geographical identities.   Basie was identifiably KC, Goodman a Chicagoan etc.    This territorial competition acted as a real stimulus to the bands.  Originality and greatness grew directly out of that as they scrambled to make their mark .

The other vital factor was the schooling that the newer band members got from playing with the more experienced musicians.   Bill Crow, famous bassist, tells of being gently chided (or alternately encouraged) between numbers and this hot-house learning on-the-hoof communicated what his band mates expected of him.   He also recalls being schooled by members of the band between gigs.   Amazingly he had only just picked up the bass months before.  He soon attained iconic status and the big bands he worked in were part of his university.    This on-the-road education system for Jazz musicians has been an essential part of the mix in developing good reading and tight ensemble playing skills.   When the players solo, there is a cushion of warm sound embracing them and smaller groups seldom give that opportunity.

The band is: Alto saxes – Steve Sherriff, Theo Clearwater,  Tenor saxes – Jimmy Garden , Andrew Hall;  Bari Alex Churchill;  Trombones – Merv Thomas, Mike Ashton, Mike Young, Steve Taylor; Trumpets – Mike Booth,  Rowan Bolley, Jo Spiers, Pete Barwick; Drums – Cameron Sangster;  Bass – Thomas Botting;  Guitar – Andrea Groenewald;  Piano – Adam Fuhr.

The opening number ‘Green Dolphin Street‘ was brilliantly arranged by conductor Tim Atkinson.   The band quickly coalesced into a smooth unit as they moved into this and showed the skill of the band as a whole.   The other tune that leapt out and grabbed me was ‘All things in 5 & 3’ (composed & arranged by Mike Booth).    This was a wonderful number and it became evident that it had been written around the changes of ‘All the things you are’ – but in 5/4 & 3/4.   With Auckland-referencing tunes like ‘Rangitoto‘ and ‘On the water‘ (Mike Booth – part of the Auckland Harbour suite) a picture was being painted note by note.  Among the original tunes was the swinging bossa sounding ‘Lucky charms‘ (Tim Atkinson) and ‘Reservations‘ Andrew Hall.   We heard great solos by (new friend) Andrea Groeneveld (g), Steve Sherriff (as), Mike Booth(t) and Andrew Hall (ts).    It was also good to see the well-known Merv Thomas(tb) in the band among these considerably younger musicians.

The ‘Creative Jazz Club‘ is an intimate space and having a 17 piece band in that room made it all the more so.    A famous precedent would be the even smaller ‘Village Vanguard‘ in NY, which hosts the Thad Jones rehearsal band each Monday night.     The club was full and in Tardis fashion every new comer was able to find a space.   More of that please; my tolerance is far from reaching its limit.