Anthony Donaldson

Devils Gate Outfit

Devils Gate Outfit was recorded live at Wellington’s Meow two months ago. The album is bursting with restless spirits, and I am not surprised that such a powerful genie was let out of the bottle so quickly. There are multitudes of spirits hovering over the recording, fragmentary echoes of Ornette and Miles, but the predominant voices are those which haunt the ragged windy Wellington coastline. All are paid their due, but the album is unconfined by the many streams that feed it. It is above all a succinct commentary on the breadth of improvised music that is thriving in Aotearoa right now. 

The album is out on Kiwi Jahzz, a natural home for adventurous and original free music. And it captures a particular night at Meow where the band holds a residency. The playing is great, and so is the overarching vibe. Delivering great performances without defaulting to any ‘look at me’ moments. It is a band uncoupled from tired old formulas and thus able to move as freely as it desires. Sometimes this results in tantalisingly fleeting glimpses of the past, then just as suddenly you are plunged into the forward-looking improvised groove music favoured by younger audiences.  

The album is loosely programmatic but does not follow a linear storyline. It establishes a theme, then drops kaleidoscopic images. letting the music paint evocative sound pictures. There is a wealth of musicianship evident here as well. I am familiar with most of the players (apart from Steve Roche and David Donaldson). Although new to me, I am delighted to hear both for the first time. It was also good to hear Cory Champion expanding his percussion role to Vibes.

I am picking that drummer/composer Anthony Donaldson is the nominal leader in this outfit and around him are a truly formidable crew. The interactions between them are impressive as they navigate that fine line between spontaneity and cohesion. The slow-burning bluesy Wood Drift is the closest thing to straight ahead and it is a delightfully spacious piece of music – it could (and should) find cut-through with any Jazz taste. And I can never hear enough of Blair Latham’s playing. On Wood Drift, his woody sonority and captivating lines caress the melody against a gentle background of Daniel Beban’s understated guitar and Callwood’s bass, setting up Champion, Roache and Beban for solos, such a languid and appealing groove tune. 

Contrasting nicely, The Portal to Red Rocks is a burner and a showcase for Latham on saxophone and the very capable Roche. Here the bass and drums provide propulsive energy as they navigate the shifting rhythms and washes of electronic effects. If I had to pick a tune that best exemplifies the album it would be the opener Storm of the Century. Anthony Donaldson owns this track and it is his pulse that sets the others free. I will be surprised if this isn’t a contender for Tui Jazz Album of the year.

The Devils Gate Outfit: Anthony Donaldson (drums), Tom Callwood (double bass), Steve Roche (cornet, baritone horn, Cassio), Blair Latham (saxophones, bass clarinet, David Donaldson (bass banjo, percussion), Daniel Beban (guitar, electronics), Cory Champion (vibes, percussion, synthesizer) It was released 19 October 2021, on Kiwi Jahzz and is available digitally on Bandcamp: kiwijahzz.bandcamp.com 

School of Hard Nocks ~ by Village of The Idiots

This amazing recording is extracted from a number of live shows organised by the visionary drummer Anthony Donaldson. Among the shows referenced are ‘Seven Samurai’ ‘Oils of Ulan’ Po Face’ and others. The overarching implied theme is the Samurai film genre. This is an album where open conversations occur between two art forms. It belongs to an interesting subgenre of improvised music and in my view an avenue worthy of continued exploration. You encounter it convincing in Zorn’s Filmworks. These were reimagined soundtracks, or more accurately, soundtracks to reimagined movies. Music aligned to the essence and untethered from any strict narrative form. Auckland/Canadian guitarist Keith Price did just this with his reimagined The Good the Bad and the Ugly score. Jazz has always been associated with the cinema, but extending the brief and pushing into clearer air is where the gold lies.   

The album is painted on a vast canvas and has a cast that must rival that of a Spaghetti Western (or Carla Bley/Paul Haines Escalator Over the Hill). Thirty-one musicians are credited here and a significant number of them are high profile improvisers. Throughout, they come and go, as larger and smaller ensembles change places, with some artists like Jonathan Crayford appearing on a single track. The mood can shift at lightning speed, as a tune ends abruptly and a fresh exploration emerges. Another aspect that can’t be overlooked is the underlying humour. Music like this is not pitched at the serious-faced, dinner suit/ball gown-clad denizens of dress circles (although I’d love to see that attempted). It is anarchic and plays with imagery. The open-eared will quickly grasp this point and every piece of mind-fuckery will bring them joy. 

There are so many good performances and so many great musicians here that it is beyond my scope to enumerate them all. When you see names like Anthony Donaldson, Jeff Henderson, Bridget Kelly, Daniel Beban, John Bell, Patrick Bleakley, Lucien Johnson, Jonathan Crayford, Chris O’Connor, Steve Cournane, Riki Gooch, Richard Nunns and Tom Callwod on a setlist, you check it out immediately. The way the units are configured creates a unique set of textures and there can be no doubt that this is a drummers band.  Donaldson’s drumming leaves a powerful impression, but he leaves plenty of space for other percussionists. A  glance at the lineup tells that story best, as I counted seventeen drummers and percussionists on the album. As they come and go, they never get in each other’s way and this is a tribute to the arranging. Some of course are doubling on percussion instruments (e.g. Noel Clayton plays guitar, bass banjo and punching bag, while Maree Thom plays electric bass, upright bass, bass drum and accordion). And to complete the illusion of filmic authenticity, Donaldson adds foley to his drum/percussion roles.   

For a full listing of the musicians involved check out Donaldson’s site. Better yet buy immediately. The album was digitally released on Bandcamp in early November 2021 and it can be located at anthonydonaldson.bandcamp.com   

JazzLocal32.com is rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association, poet & writer. Some of these posts appear on related sites

Sanctuary ~ Lovell-Smith/Baxendale

If you follow the New Zealand improvised music scene, you need to check out  ‘Sanctuary’, a collaborative album released by the Wellington-based saxophonists’ Jasmine Lovell-Smith and Jake Baxendale. And although the release date was only a month ago, it is already receiving significant attention, including from outside these shores. When you listen to Baxendale’s Walt Whitman referencing ‘Leaves of Grass’ Suite or Lovell-Smiths gorgeous ‘Sanctuary’ suite you will understand why.

The album is replete with imaginative writing. Of tastefully painted brush strokes from an unusually rich colour palette, and this enabled by the configuration of the eleven-piece ensemble. It is saying something important but never at the expense of approachability, for example, Baxendale’s suite, the opener, brings Mingus to mind. Mingus in a Felliniesque wonderland.  

The album is getting cut through because it is superbly realised and above all because it speaks convincingly of our times. In Lovell-Smith’s case, there is a distinct pastoral quality to her work and it invites us to reflect. This is similar to the approach that Maria Schneider takes, drawing attention to what is often passed over in haste and clothing the political in a softer raiment. 

Check it out here JasmineLovellSmith.bandcamp.com

Because of the writing and the quality of the musicianship, this is an especially cohesive ensemble; but nevertheless, the voices of the individual musicians shine through strongly. First and foremost among the soloists are the co-leaders, Baxendale on alto saxophone and Lovell-Smith on soprano saxophone, each featuring strongly on the album. Both give stunning performances. They have assembled a formidable line up here and no one falls short. Among the fine performances, Blair Lathem on bass clarinet and baritone, Ben Hunt on trumpet, Louisa Williamson on tenor, Hikurangi Schaverien Kaa on drums, Aleister Campbell on guitar and Anita Schwabe on piano (with her innate sense of swing). 

Baxendale is acknowledged as an important New Zealand composer and he has frequently been nominated (and has won) Jazz Tui awards. He is the spokesperson for the award-winning group The Jac (the winner of this year’s Tui with ‘A Gathering). He has travelled the world with his music and is associated with a number of New Zealand’s finest jazz units. Also a noted composer is Lovell-Smith who has resided, taught and performed in a number of countries, especially the USA and Mexico. Her return to New Zealand has enriched the scene here as she brings valuable insights and experience with her. Her innovative group the Noveltones is well worth catching.    

The subject matter for the two suites, and for the additional pieces are perfectly pitched. Whitman the beloved poet and humanist who spoke his truth in unforgiving times. His love of nature and his common cause with open-minded souls. And Sanctuary, that loaded word that evokes both safety and confinement. The album was recorded after our borders with the world had closed. And while the album evokes a sense of our enforced isolation, it also speaks to our interconnectedness; of human beings existing in a complex ecosystem, and hopefully realising that this is a rare window of opportunity. Music like this helps illuminate our way.    

To purchase or download the album visit jasminelovellsmith.bandcamp.com – Tell friends about it and support New Zealand music.  

Rachel Eastwood (flute), Ben Hunt (trumpet), Jasmine Lovell-Smith (soprano saxophone), Jake Baxendale (alto saxophone, bass clarinet), Louisa Williamson (tenor saxophone), Kaito Walley (trombone), Blair Latham (baritone saxophone, bass clarinet), Aleistair James Campbell (guitar), Anita Schwabe (piano), Chris Beernink (bass), Hikurangi Schaverein Kaa (drums) 

JazzLocal32.com is rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association, poet & writer. Some of these posts appear on related sites

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.

Noveltones (6)

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.

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