Audio Foundation, Beyond category, Small ensemble

Noveltones & Knotted Throats @ AF

Noveltones (7)There is a world of interesting music happening at the Audio Foundation and this three-set gig exemplified the foundations imaginative ahead of the game programming. The evening featured a cross-section of music from the fully arranged to the unconstrained and free. From the open dialogue of the Knotted Throats to the carefully crafted texturally rich four-piece voicings of a jazz ensemble. Then, and perhaps this is the essence of the programming, the two groups merged and out of that came a declaration. Sound exists without boundaries. The borders and demarcation lines as we organise or sculpt sound are only human constructs and beyond these artificial barriers, the various languages merge. When that occurs music is the richer for it. Improvised music is always on the move and just as post-bop moved seamlessly between free, fusion, hard bop, bop and groove, so the journey continues. Noveltones (3)

The Noveltones are an assembly of gifted equals, collectively shaping sound while expressing individual voices. Soprano saxophonist Jasmine Lovell-Smith, who studied in the USA is at present working toward a doctorate in composition at the NZSM. Bass clarinettist Blair Latham who spent years in Mexico is fluent with many horns. Bass player Tom Callwood (mostly playing arco), who we saw recently with the Melancholy Stinging Babes (a formidable figure on the avant-garde scene), and Tristan Carter, a violinist who rounds off the ensemble sound beautifully. The music initially reminded me of Gunter Schuller’s third stream pieces, but this ensemble is in no way time locked. The principal composer for the first set was Lovell-Smith and her compositional experience was especially evident in the harmonic concepts. There were also compositions by Latham. The pieces often balanced a spiky beauty with voice-led passages. There was also an appealing textural quality. The current ensemble hasn’t yet recorded, but I hope that they do. I have put up a Noveltones sound-clip from the gig.

The second set was another aural feast as it featured Jeff Henderson, Hermione Johnson and Tom Callwood. Henderson (on baritone saxophone) is the heavyweight of the New Zealand avant-garde scene and he never disappoints. There are few musicians who can muster such authority or draw you in as deeply. He taps into the primal essence of sound itself. Johnson is a renowned experimental musician, the foremost voyager with prepared piano, a noted composer and an organist. She is particularly known for her bold originality. Callwood, who we heard earlier, is exactly the bass player you would want in this situation. His gift for adventurous arco and extended technique was put to good use. What we heard were essentially reflective pieces; pieces tailor-made for deep listening and wonderfully mesmerising. As the motifs repeated a brooding presence hung over the room, the voice of unquiet spirits released from constraint. Happily, this is a zone located well beyond the reach of the music police. I found this set profoundly engaging and I count myself lucky to have caught it.

The last set brought both ensembles together and this time with the addition of the gifted drummer and percussionist Chris O’Connor. A great evening of music.

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For those keen to hear more of Henderson’s explorations, they can’t go wrong by accessing an album he recorded with Clayton Thomas (bass) and Darren Moore (drums). It is titled, ‘For a Clean Cut – Sharpen the Blade’. This gem was recorded in the basement of an old Auckland Church and it is a cause for rejoicing. If ‘free’ music scares you then this may not be your bag; but if it does, why? Sculpting sound is what musicians do. 

The album is on Bandcamp at iiiirecords.bandcamp.com 

The gig artists were Jasmine Lovell-Smith (soprano saxophone), Blair Latham (bass clarinet), Tom Callwood (upright bass), Tristan Carter (violin), Jeff Henderson (baritone saxophone), Hermione Johnson (prepared piano), Chris O’Connor (percussion) IMG_1256

10th October 2019 Audio Foundation, Auckland Central.

Avant-garde, Beyond category, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Fusion & World

Blair Latham trio @ CJC

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There are musicians who have the ability to create vibrant pictures out of sound, deftly carving shapes, daubing them with colour, texture, leaving images suspended in the air, as tantalising spectres. Blair Latham is one of these.  He brings to the bandstand a tropical exoticism, redolent of the central Americas, but somehow still Kiwi.

I first saw Latham at the Rogue & Vagabond during the Wellington Jazz Festival.  The project was to re-create the vibe of the Headhunters album and it certainly did.  In the hands of Hayles, Latham and others a wild, hyper-energised brew of sounds radiated among us.  They took the brief to its outer limits and for the audience (who were undoubtedly Hancock enthusiasts), it was an immensely satisfying experience.  As Latham’s tenor wailed, the milling crowd urged him on, each phase wilder than the last.   IMG_2694 - Version 2

The Rogue & Vagabond channeled North American funk grooves, this gig took us a long way south of that, to central Mexico.  A Mexico seen through Kiwi eyes, a musicians eyes, the eyes and ears of a careful observer.  The energies had shifted as well.   A more thoughtful approach was evident.  Latham was telling stories that came from the heart, from experience and reflecting the altered light and filtered sounds of that populous country.

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As the band started playing there were powerful overwhelming images created.  I reached for my note pad and wrote the word Fellini.  This is how I heard it, the sounds of a happy and slightly chaotic Mexican circus, peopled by tumblers, clowns on stilts, parading animals and long lazy hours fuelled by Mezcal.  A rich mesmerising spectacle that took your breath away.  There were no high energy excursions, no roof blasting squalls of sound.  This was a journey of measured steps, full of subtleties.  At times the trio sounded like a bigger unit and as Latham switched between his rich woody bass clarinet and classic Selmer tenor saxophone, the effect amplified.  Each phrase, each line, hung in air long after the breath that created it had subsided.  There were a number of Latham’s compositions and some beautiful, haunting Mexican ballads.  Emotion and sentimentality are bound up in that world.  There is nothing buttoned-up about Mexican music.

Latham is unusual in New Zealand as his principal horns are bass clarinet and tenor saxophone. A handful of musicians double on bass clarinet, few are as proficient as he is.

It often happens that the best laid plans unravel unexpectedly.  The trio was initially advertised as Latham, David Ward & Chris O,Connor.  The trio we saw was Latham (bass clarinet, tenor saxophone, leader), Neil Watson (guitar, lap slide guitar), Stephen Thomas (drums).  I rate both Ward and O’Connor highly but this lineup worked extraordinarily well.  It was hard to believe that these musicians had not played together often.  The challenge of playing this music, reading these often complex charts, brought out the best in Watson and Thomas.   Both gifted musicians. both good readers.  Together they merged perfectly and we could see Latham’s pleasure at this.

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The drum charts called for a colourist approach, an oblique subtle rendering of  rhythms that were as much rooted in Mexican folk music as in avant guard jazz.  Thomas was exceptional as he tapped, scraped or made the kit whisper; even his solos were original and entirely appropriate.  This guy can tackle anything it seems.  Watson is a veteran of the unusual and a superb reader.  It was a joy to see him working counterpoint or even unison lines with Latham.  He is perfect for gigs like this as his unbridled imagination is not tethered to norms.  He moved between lap guitar and Fender solid body, enabling him to move closer to the Frissel like Americana sounds that so clearly influence him.   IMG_2663 - Version 2

The word Mexico brings to mind a jumble of exotic but occasionally troubling images.   For me the source is literature, films, art, photography and music.  The nearest that I got to Mexico was in books like ‘Under the Volcano'(Lowry), ‘On The Road’ (Kerouac) or ‘The Teachings of Don Yuan’ (Castaneda); in films like ‘The Night of the Iguana’, numerous cowboy movies; in crazy photographic images from the ‘night of the dead’ festival of Santa Muerte, in articles about the loathsome human traffickers or murderous drug cartels.  I have travelled extensively in Spain and down the Californian Coast, places where this beguiling country felt almost within reach.  This gig took me one step closer.  IMG_2654 - Version 2

“How’s the mezcal” he said. “Like ten yards of a barbed wire fence.  It nearly took the top of my head off.  I had a Tequila outside with the guitar hombre” – ‘Under the Volcano’ -Malcolm Lowry

Who: Blair Latham (bass clarinet, tenor saxophone), Neil Watson (guitars), Stephen Thomas (drums)

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 1885 Britomart, Auckland, New Zealand, 3rd September 2014   –   www.creativejazzclub.co.nz