Australia & Pacific gigs, Review

The Foundry 616 Sydney – 2nd Anniversary

Vince 072Sydney means two things to me; family and music. I get there as often as I can. One sultry night about two years ago I was listening to Mike Nock playing the blues (as only Mike can). It was a catchy new tune titled ‘Start up Blues’. I collared him during the break and asked him about it. “I composed it for the Foundry opening” he said. “Do you know about the Foundry 616”?  I didn’t and so he filled in the details. He spoke warmly of it so I determined to visit the next time I was in Sydney.

The Foundry 616 is located in Ultimo on a stretch of Harris road, almost lost between a maze of under and over-passes. It is (or was) the newest addition to Sydney’s Jazz scene. The difficulty in locating it is amply rewarded the minute you step inside. It is spacious, it serves tasty food and the acoustics are surprising good for such a large uneven space. It is also a friendly place, tolerant of visiting Kiwi photographers and reviewers like me. I always feel welcomed.Foundry 616 (2)During my first visit I caught the amazing New York based guitarist Mike Moreno. Attending a gig featuring Moreno had long been on my bucket list and I was not disappointed. He was happy to allow non-flash photography and I had a seat at the front table; perfect. For his Australian tour he employed two gifted local musicians: Ben Vanderwal drums and Alex Boneham bass (both familiar to New Zealand audiences). I have many recordings featuring Moreno, but what really struck me was that his best on recordings, is exactly how he sounds in person. Given the sound control in modern recording studios and given the expanse and quirky shape of the room, this is surprising.Foundry 616 I was later to experience the same clarity at other Foundry 616 gigs. The venue sound technician and the sound system get a big tick. Sound quality matters and especially with artists of this quality. To my thinking Moreno is the most lyrical of modern guitarists. Clean flowing lines, fresh ideas and an astonishing clarity of tone. As moves through the pieces, often at breakneck speed, and even when glissing, his fluidity is unbroken. There is a hint of mournfulness to his tone which is most attractive. I hear many gifted Jazz guitarists, but to date this gig remains the highlight. His set list traversed recent albums as he played a mix of lesser known standards and originals; ‘I have a dream’ (Hancock) being the standout. While his demeanour is quiet, perhaps even a little serious, his playing denotes unalloyed joy and exuberance.Vince 081My second visit was to see premier Australian Jazz vocalist Vince Jones. I have a deep liking for male Jazz singers but sadly there are not that many to choose from these days. Our younger selves do not sound like our older selves and in Vince Jones this sits extremely well. His is a lived in voice, full of rich life experience. An honest voice and above all a true Jazz voice. He can make you smile and cry in turns and his lyrics are like no one else’s. If you listen carefully the realisation comes; Jones is jazz protest singer. He is closer in sentiment to Gil Scott Heron or perhaps Billy Bragg and Bob Dylan than to any torch-song crooner. His recordings while marvellous don’t prepare you for the experience of hearing him in person. He has a compelling stage presence, exuding the vulnerability that Chet radiated. Unlike Chet he also exudes real human warmth and empathy.Foundry 616 (4)As he tells personal stories about his grandparents, his budgerigars, women deserving of respect, his environmental concerns, you feel deeply connected. When he shakes his fist at the ‘big end of town’, calls for kindness towards refugees and gives voice to your innermost feelings, you shake your fist along with him. Since that visit I have transcribed some of his lyrics. I would now add gifted poet to the list of his accomplishments. Jones writes most of his own material (often in collaboration with his accompanists like Matt McMahon or Sam Keevers). Both were present that night as was an old friend, bass player Brett Hirst; James Hauptmann was on drums. Fine musicians and great company. Earlier in the day I caught up with Barney McAll and interviewed him regarding his stunning Mooroolbark album. He was to premier that at the Foundry in a few weeks. I was sorely tempted to delay my departure, but work called me back to New Zealand. McAll was once an accompanist to Jones as well.Foundry 616 (10)My third and most recent visit naturally brought me back to the Foundry. A pianist/singer Rodric White was on the bill. White was unknown to me, but again I enjoyed the gig. He opened with a few tributes and it surprised me to hear him announce a Keith Jarrett number. Even more so when he played an extract from the Koln Concert. That took guts and he did it well. Later he played some of his own compositions, plus Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, the Beatles and several Sting numbers. He was disarmingly dismissive of his vocal abilities but he sang well. Stylistically he is close to the classic Jazz singers. Accompanying him was Hugh Fraser (bass), Steve Ley (drums) with guests Paul Cutlan (tenor & soprano saxophones) and Jenny Marie Lang (guitar & vocals). Paul Cutlan was the only name I knew, a well-respected session saxophonist. During the second half White called for pianist Chris Cody to come to the bandstand.Foundry 616 (3)  I first met Cody in New Zealand and we are now friends. I have a deep respect for him as an artist and as a human being. This rounded out the evening nicely. Cody an internationally recognised artist, is back in Sydney for a while. There is something about his approach and his innate sense of pulse that sets him apart. He understands the importance of leaving space between notes; easily moving inside and out during a solo. He oozes Paris cool. With Cody on piano and White on keys the enjoyment was complete.Foundry 616 (8)There are any number of excellent improvising musicians in Australia and New Zealand and we are lucky that they are so accessible. There are also thousands of people who love improvised music, but here’s the rub. The enthusiasts don’t always make the effort to attend gigs. The consequences of taking the local Jazz scene for granted are too dreadful to contemplate. If we support local Jazz we need to commit. In spite of the many world-class musicians in Australasia the music is more precarious than we think. Running clubs like the ‘Foundry 616’, the ‘505’ or the ‘CJC (Creative Jazz Club)’ is high risk and if the clubs struggle, so does the music. It is quite possible that I’m a fanatic, but I’ve attended more than 250 Jazz gigs in the last four years. If you read this, it’s because you love this music with all its variability. Value what you have people and make a point of supporting your local Jazz clubs and gigs. Some amazing musicians depend on you.

Where: The Foundry 616, Harris Street, Ultimo, Sydney

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CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Post Millenium, Review, USA and Beyond

Reuben Bradley’s ‘Cthulhu Rising’ @ CJC

Cthulhu Rising 085H P Lovecraft died under appreciated, but it didn’t curb his output. His imaginings took him to darkly strange and exciting places. Places that few of us dared contemplate. While he reached deeper than writers like Edger Alan Poe and further into the human psyche, his wildest dreams could not have prepared him for Wednesday night. Reuben Bradley, time traveller and keeper of lost grooves has wrestled with the spirits and brought Lovecraft to life again.

If anyone was up to this interesting challenge it was Bradley. An original drummer who moves across the kit with balletic fluidity and whose focus and musicality enhances any undertaking. He possesses superb compositional skills and these are fed by a fertile imagination. There is another quality to Bradley and perhaps this is the key. He has a highly developed sense of the absurd. A good humoured irreverence that is never far from the surface. This time his attributes were given full rein and he has excelled himself. Cthulhu Rising 091This is a truly exceptional album and it is no wonder when you consider the source material and the musicians associated with it. Bradley, Penman and Eigsti are a deadly combination and their interplay is crisply on the mark. Matt Penman is dear to our hearts in New Zealand. One of our finest Jazz exports. An expat from Auckland who conquered the American improvised bass scene in ways that few others manage. His work with James Farm, the San Francisco Jazz Collective, Aaron Parks, Kurt Rosenwinkel and a long list of luminaries is instructive. That he still appears with the best of our local artists and on local recordings is our immense good luck. An imaginative and wonderfully musical bass player who holds the groove and manages to tell interesting stories without distracting us from the overall focus of the piece. Few bass players could do this better than Penman.

Last but least is Taylor Eigsti on piano and keys. The New York based Eigsti is also an original stylist. While his name is often associated with the likes of Eric Harland, Joshua Redman, Ambrose Akinmusire, Julian Lage and Gretchen Parlato he deserves evaluating in his own right as leader. For a number of years now the Jazz community has singled him out as an exceptional talent. His back story and youthful entry onto the world Jazz scene is fascinating, but it is his mature output that continually amazes. He is well recorded, well reviewed and getting better with each passing year. At times you can hear influences but they are not the predominant voice. This is a wholly formed original artist and what he brought to Cthulhu Rising was priceless.Cthulhu Rising 094The judicious use of sampled ‘Lovecraft’ readings in several places adds to the atmospheric feel and doesn’t detract from the overall musical experience. Every note played and every voice-over is well placed. Yet again Rattle Records have excelled themselves here. The secret of ‘Rattle Records’ tasteful Jazz catalogue must surely be seeping into the wider world by now. ‘Rattle’ is the ‘ECM’ of the South Pacific. This album was recorded at the ‘Bunker Studios’ in New York, Engineered by Aaron Nevezie and mixed and mastered by Steve Garden at ‘The Garden Shed’ Auckland.Cthulhu Rising 088There was a change of personnel for the CJC ‘Cthulhu Rising’ release gig and for the Australasian tour to follow. Respected bass player Brett Hirst took Penman’s place and this was a sound choice. Hirst, another expat Kiwi, is well established on the Australian scene and frequently employed by visiting artists. He is a gifted musician and perfect for high end gigs like this.

Throughout the New Zealand leg of their tour they were enthusiastically acclaimed and no wonder. The project is well conceived and well realised. In spite of the incredible strengths of his band mates, this is still very much Bradley’s album. We are seeing more drummer led albums lately and the sheer exuberance and depth of this one is proof that the New Zealand improvised music scene just gets better and better.

Cthulhu Rising: Reuben Bradley, Taylor Eigsti, Matt Penman – on tour Brett Hirst – purchase the album from Rattle records or in stores

Live Gig: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand

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Australian and Oceania based bands, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Concerts - visiting Musicians, Straight ahead

Mike Nock’s Australian Trio @ CJC 2013

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A lot’s been written about Mike Nock and he is well recorded.   In spite of this there is so much more to say and the unfolding story has come to define Australasian Jazz.  It would be accurate to describe him as one of the greatest musicians New Zealand has produced, but Mike Nock deserves evaluation on a much wider stage than Oceania.  As lucky as we feel owning him, he is a citizen of the world, highly ranked among the best that global Jazz has to offer.  IMG_8361 - Version 2

This was summed up by one of the audience; an American who has been following the international Jazz Scene for many years.  He shook his head in amazement and said “That was the best performance I have heard in ages”.  He asked about Mike’s history and I gave him a potted version.   “Oh yeah” he said.  “Well all of those years in America have given him that deep blues feel that only top players realise”.

I caught up with Mike before the gig and he was his usual friendly self.   Over dinner there were jokes and numerous war stories.  Because I have attended too many loud gigs my hearing is not quite as good as it was.  At one point the drummer James Waples said something to me which I missed entirely.  I apologised, explaining that my eyesight and hearing were failing me.   Mike leapt on the comment as quick as lightning, saying, “Man don’t worry.  That’s exactly what we like in a critic”.

There was the briefest of discussions between the band members about the set list, which ended in Mike saying, “We’ll figure it out as we go and you’ll know when you hear me start to play”.  While this is not unusual among Jazz musicians, it was evident that Mike would be digging into some obscure and unrehearsed standards during the evening.

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The spirit of Bernie McGann hung over us as he had passed the previous evening.  Mike spoke movingly of him and then he played one of Bernie’s compositions followed by ‘Bernie’s Tune’ (Bernie Miller) and the lovely old standard ‘No Moon at All’ (David Mann).  ‘No Moon at all’ is hardly ever played these days but it was once very popular.  It was famously recorded by Julie London, Nat Cole, Mel Torme and Anita O’Day.  There are more recent versions by Karrin Alyson and Brad Mehldau.  In Mike Nock’s hands this jaunty mid-tempo classic took on a deep bluesy feel and as it unfolded he achieved something that only the Jazz greats can manage.

The tune turned into something else; it was somehow transformed into ‘every tune’.  From the first few bars everyone smiled and many whispered in the dark, “Oh I must know this but I can’t recall the name”.  Like many probing improvisers Mike hummed and sang as he played.  As the piece unfolded something extraordinary happened.  People started quietly humming along with the trio; a deep connection  was made and it was primal.  I’m certain that many in the audience had never heard the tune before, but they thought that they had.   Keith Jarrett has often invoked this state of grace, finding a hidden place deep within the music.  So has Mike Nock.  Several musicians later commented that he had moved in and out of the song form and that the bluesy overlay had been utterly effective.  Another delightful old tune that the trio played was ‘Sweet Pumpkin’ (Ronnell Bright).

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On Drums was James Waples and he certainly lives up to his reputation.   He has featured on several of Mike’s albums and goes back a long way with Mike.   There is a subtlety to his drumming that is hard to put into words.  He is a powerful presence whether executing the softest brushwork or a driving upbeat tempo.  He has a great ear and knows when to push the others or hold back.  He is perfect for a multi faceted piano trio like this and I would go out of my way to hear him again.

Many Kiwi’s have forgotten (and many Australians will deliberately overlook the fact), but Brett Hirst is an expat New Zealander.   He is highly regarded on the Australian scene and like James he has had a long association with Mike.  When these three are in lockstep it is extraordinary.  Like the others Brett is a deep listener and clearly at ease in this open-ended format.  At one point in the program Mike stopped and said, “What shall we play now, something unexpected?”.   Then he added, “Oh I know, I will try this”.   Brett asked hopefully, “Can we know?”  The number had started before an answer could be given and he was immediately there.  Brett was up to handling any curve balls thrown and clearly relished them.

During the second set the trio were ready to take things further out and we sensed that they were in a zone where the communication is telepathic.  It is during these explorations that we see another side of their music.  Every interplay however subtle conveys layers of meaning and the spaces between the notes communicates a profundity.   This is art-music at its very best but for all that it is never far from its blues roots.   I have listened to Jazz across the globe and you would never, never hear better than this.

Who: Mike Nock (piano), Brett Hirst (bass), James Waples (drums).  www.mikenock.com

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Brittomart basement 1885 building, Auckland, New Zealand.

When: 18th September 2013

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

Reuben Bradley trio @ CJC + Mantis Album

Reuben Mantis

After the success of ‘Mantis’ and ‘Resonator’, Auckland audiences were keen to see a Reuben Bradley band perform again.   Reuben is one of those musical drummers that Wellington seems to specialise in and he clearly has an eye for an epic project.  For ‘Mantis’ he engaged some real heavyweights.  Roger Manins (tenor), Matt Penman (bass), James Illingworth (piano), John Psathas (arrangements) and the New Zealand String Quartet.  The tunes were all Drew Menzies originals, with arrangements by Reuben Bradley and John Psathas.

Mantis is a celebration of the works of Drew Menzies, a highly respected bass player in both the Jazz and Classical spheres and whose compositions had never been recorded before.  What is well communicated during this project is the connection that the musicians have with the material and what also comes across is Reuben’s obvious affection for his departed friend.  Reuben’s liner notes give us a fascinating account how the pieces came back to life, drawing us into a kaleidoscope of quirky lead sheets and a musicians world.  In some cases the tunes re-evolved from embryonic beginnings, coaxed by Reuben’s pen.   I urge everyone to buy the album.  The tunes are fresh but at the same time strangely familiar and this quality anoints them as being timeless, potential local standards.

While no added incentives are needed to purchase ‘Mantis’, it is worth pointing out that the proceeds of the sale go to the Drew Menzies Memorial Scholarship for young New Zealand bass players.  ‘Mantis’ was featured as a key event at the recent Wellington Jazz festival and this week it was a highlight of the Nelson Jazz Festival.  Credit to Creative New Zealand for funding such an important project and to Rattle Records for the album.  It is hardly surprising that musicians of this quality delivered so royally, but a nod to John Psathas and the New Zealand String Quartet is appropriate here.  No matter how experienced a classical string quartet, there is always a challenge when playing Jazz compositions.   The quartet’s unmistakeable chops and John Psathas airy charts took this exactly where it needed to go.

Having Matt Penman aboard was a huge coup.  This expat Kiwi bass player is now one of the real heavyweights of the North American scene.  His work with the San Francisco Jazz Collective, James Farm, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Kenny Werner, Joe Lovano, Fred Hersch, plus his own ground breaking albums, mark him out as one New Zealand’s greatest Jazz exports.  His Bass playing on this album is simply wonderful and no superlatives can do it justice.   Drew would have been extremely pleased.

Reuben won the Tui Best Jazz Album of the Year with his ‘Resonator’ album in 2010.   Roger Manins was also on that album and these two musicians work together whenever possible.  Both of the above albums are adventurous and in their different ways lay down benchmarks for what’s good and original about New Zealand Jazz.

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When Reuben came to the CJC on the 31st July, the working unit was pared back to drums, tenor sax and bass.   On Sax was Roger Manins who has shown time and again that he can give of his best in any configuration.  This sort of trio is wide open for possibilities and the lack of any chordal underpinning leaves the musicians open to risk, but completely free to explore melody and form.  None of the trio were strangers to this format.

I have often watched Roger stepping free of the boundaries, like an anarchic motorist on some long empty highway who has just realised that the normal road rules will not apply there.  I was also delighted to see Roger using his Radio Model, Cigar Cutter Selmer for the first time.  A sleek silvery goddess of bygone years which oozes charm.  In Rogers hands it purrs dangerously like an ancient vixen, brought back to life to seduce us all.

Brett Hirst is a popular Australian bassist and a list his former band mates would read like the who’s who of Aussie Jazz.  He has a big sound and an instinctive rhythmic feel which lent itself perfectly to this gig.  In their usual fashion Australia has claimed him as their own but he is originally from New Zealand like so many artists doing well across the Tasman.

Reuben, Roger and Brett work extremely well together and so it was fitting that they should tackle the work of Drew Menzies from a fresh angle.   While there was a tune or so from ‘Resonator’ in the set list, the bulk of the material played was from ‘Mantis’.  It is Reuben’s hope that these tunes will become mainstays in the Kiwi Jazz repertoire and I hope that this comes to pass.  I have heard at least one rendition of ‘Ladies Man’ played recently at a gig and so the trend may gather steam.

Who: Reuben Bradley Trio – Reuben Bradley (drums) (arrangements), Roger Manins (tenor sax), Brett Hirst (bass).

What: ‘Mantis’ (and ‘Resonator’) both available from Rattle.

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club) Brittomart 1885 Building downtown Auckland