Italy & New Zealand ~ Lockdown Releases

Creativity is essential to human survival. It is the fuel of adaption and as Darwin pointed out, those who fail to adapt fail to thrive. Creatives understand this and none more so than improvising musicians. It is therefore not surprising that musicians increased their outpoint in a variety of ways during lockdown.

In the early weeks, I noticed a feverish burst of activity from improvisers as solo concerts streamed and unreleased albums materialised; appearing as if conjured out of nowhere. Many of these albums landed in my inbox but because I was caught up in an international journalism project I put them aside for a time. As my posts appeared more frequently and in far away places an increase in review copies landed.

It has been my usual practice to confine my posts to New Zealand or to Australian artists and I try to confine offshore posts to artists I’ve heard live. I rarely venture beyond those self-imposed limits, but during the pandemic, I have broken that rule and moved beyond. These albums provide a snapshot of two diverse locations. They portray an interrupted world but also the constancy of improvisers. Their creativity is what keeps us sane. Improvised music illustrates our connectedness as it builds new languages out of old. It is a universal heart beat created from the babel that is life on earth.  

The Gathering’ (The Jac) New Zealand

From the time of their formation, accolades for the ‘The Jac’ have kept coming. They are an eight-piece ensemble with a great sound and underpinning that are experienced players, nice compositions and some tasteful arranging. Although they are essentially a Wellington ensemble they have attracted musicians from all over, this giving them a distinct and cosmopolitan flavour. The talented Jake Baxendale is the front person, but there is also real depth surrounding him. On this latest album the quality of the overall musicianship is particularly evident.

While some long-established groups remain static, ‘The Jac’ keeps reaching for new heights. They are rooted in the now and reflect multi-genre inclusiveness. The future of Jazz demands this, as it is not a dead language.  

The sound clip I have embedded is titled Tui (composed by Jake Baxendale). This delightful tune is nominated in the composition category for this year’s New Zealand Jazz Awards. The powerful contribution of Nick Tipping on bass and Mathew Allison on trombone especially grab the attention.

Tui (Baxendale)

This is the Jac’s third studio album but the release plans have been impacted by the pandemic. They have therefore decided to release part of the album on Bandcamp and to release the rest closer to 2021. Why not download the early release digital tracks now and pre-order the rest? The musicians deserve your support. You really need to hear this.

Jake Baxendale (saxophones, compositions),

Alexis French (trumpet)

Matthew Allison (trombone),

Chris Buckland (saxophones)

Callum Allardice (guitar, compositions),

Daniel Millward (piano, compositions)

Nick Tipping (bass),

Shaun Anderson (drums)

www.jakebaxendale.com

‘Totem’ ( Ferdinando Romano / w Ralph Alessi) Italy

Some albums take a few listenings to get inside, but I fell for this one instantly. With further listening, the attraction increased. Having a modern trumpet stylist like Alessi on board was an inspired choice, but it was also Romano’s engaging compositions that reeled me in. This is a master class in less being more. It is minimalism but it is not stark, perhaps, because it’s from the warmer south. 

The musicians move like dancers. Gliding between the fluid embrace of the ensemble playing and the crystalline melodic solo lines with ease, and also playing with real conviction. This is definitely a European sound and at times reflective, but while the music resonates cerebrally, it can find the heart in an instant. 

Compositions as finely balanced as this could easily be overwhelmed, but the band reacts to every nuance. There is texture, but melody is dominant. There is dissonance, but never overdone. The tone is set from the first number titled ‘Gecko’; opening over the leader’s pedal on bass, Alessi beguiling us with gentle smears and caressing lines. Then, seamlessly, Caputo picks up the thread, Magrini next, then the ensemble and outro. As a composition, it flows beautifully.

It is natural that Alessi grabs our attention as he is a master of his instrument, but in spite of that, the septet sounds like a band of equals. There are no weak links. This is an album I am likely to play often and hopefully, there will be more like this from Romano. 

Ferdinando Romano (bass, compositions)

Ralph Alessi (trumpet)

Tommasso Lacoviello (flugelhorn)

Simone Alessandrini (alto, Soprano sax)

Nazareno Caputo (vibraphone, marimba)

Manuel Magrini (piano)

Giovanni Paolo Liguori (drums)

https://ferdinandoromano.bandcamp.com/album/totem-feat-ralph-alessi

‘Giulia’ (Francesco Cataldo)  Italy

Giulia’ was the second Italian album to come my way during the lockdown period and like the first, it is close to the ECM aesthetic. There is deliberation and a sense of purpose behind each phrase and you can feel this especially in the spaces between. At the centre, the clarity and silken softness of Cataldo’s guitar work. 

The airy compositions are all the leaders.  For the project, he engaged Marc Copland and Adam Nussbaum, both celebrated American musicians and both perfectly suited to realise his vision. The remaining band member is Pietro Leveratto, an Italian bass player of repute. Together they weave a cohesive storyline and in doing so enter the listener’s consciousness. Before you realise it you are on the journey with them. 

Levante (Cataldo)

I have often visited the Mediterranean and hold a deep love for Sicilia which is Cataldo’s home base. The moods here speak of languid salty air and of the startling blue of the Siracusa seafront. I can think of few places on earth so evocative or beautiful. It is the birth and the death place of Archimedes. When an errant Roman soldier was about to slay him, his last words were ‘do not disturb my circles’. Was this in mind when Cataldo wrote his epilogue piece ‘Circles’? 

The pieces here all evoke strong images. Some of the connections are obvious as with Levante (my favourite piece), while others are illusive. And presiding over all is the haunting cover art. Was there ever a more beautiful image. Giulia, the daughter of Cataldo and the presiding spirit over this beautiful album.

I live on another island deep in the South Pacific Ocean and that is a long way distant from Sicilia. It is physically distant but this music somehow connects the two places and for those who live on Islands, and who love Islands deeply, those connections hold mystical power. 

Francesco Cataldo (guitar, piano, compositions)

Marc Copland (piano)

Pietro Leveratto (bass)

Adam Nussbaum (drums)

AlfaMusic

https://www.francescocataldo.eu/prodotto/giulia-francesco-cataldo/?lang=en

Richard Thai 5 @ CJC

Richard Thai#1Richard Thai was on the first JAC album but by the time I saw the ensemble live he had left New Zealand for America to complete his postgraduate studies. Recently he returned to his hometown of Wellington where he now teaches and leads the Richard Thai 5. While the ensemble is a basic line up of saxophone, piano, guitar, bass and drums it is never the less forward-looking. This is post millennial music.

The set list on Wednesday featured Thai’s compositions. The well constructed tunes had an attractive ebb and flow, but behind the arranged heads and often lingering melody, lay obscured complexity. This is the type of material that can sorely test a band but under his quiet guidance they delivered. There are few hard edges to Thais sound, but he is unafraid to reach deep inside a solo; probing until it yields more. He is above all a confident player and in spite of his very even delivery, he conveys a lot of information. Richard ThaiThe best illustration of this was heard in his second tune, ‘Capricorn’. A marvellous composition. Like much of Thai’s material it has powerful hooks to draw you in. What sounds simple is in truth anything but, as it shifts between major and minor keys with disarming ease. Many tunes do this, but with Capricorn the device is extraordinarily well conceived. The shifts in focus are pleasing, but what sets the tune apart is a sweet over-arching dissonance; diminished chords acting as a bridge to carry you across the major-minor divide. The arranged head is especially tantalising; setting the listener up expectantly for the explorations that promise to follow.Richard Thai (5)Capricorn’s momentum is that of a multi-hued butterfly in a tropical storm; pushing against the cross winds, never losing its way, pulse, or sense of purpose. Thai’s tenor picks at the tune, peeling the layers back, exposing the heart. This contrasts with pianist Matt Steele’s oblique approach. Steele clearly took the difficult route and along the way it yielded gold. You were with him note by note as he undid the knots of the puzzle confronting him. Steele is always an interesting pianist and always one to watch. It is his determination, his preparedness to take risks and his ability to learn on the bandstand that marks him out from many of his peers. He grows as an artist each time I see him. Richard Thai (14)The last to solo on Capricorn was guitarist Callum Allardice. After the long complex solos preceding his, he wisely chose to linger nearer to the melody. His tight elliptical figures rounding out the earlier solos and bringing us gradually back to the outro. His time to shine as soloist came on the last number where his guitar soared as if free of gravity (much to the delight of the audience). Allardice has many fans in Auckland.Richard Thai (6)The remaining two band members Shuan Anderson and Scott Maynard are also established musicians from the Wellington area. Anderson (like Allardice) was also a member of the Tui nominated JAC and he has played at the CJC before. A responsive drummer who interacted well and picked up on the subtle nuances of the material. The bass player Scott Maynard has been a member of various leading Wellington units (e.g. Myele Manzanza, Lex French). He has played at the CJC before and he never disappoints.  His role in giving a heart beat to this often complex material was vital. I look forward to hearing more of this ensemble and above all I would like to some hear more Thai compositions. With a few more years of performance under their belt the unit could achieve even more.

Richard Thai 5 – Richard Thai (tenor saxophone), Callum Allardice (guitar), Matt Steele (piano), Scott Maynard (bass), Shaun Anderson (drums).

CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland on 9th December 2015

 

Antipodes Tour 2015

AntipodesThe Antipodes project is an innovative one; well conceived and excellent in its realisation. It is a young group but you wouldn’t think so to listen to them. Musical maturity is generally equated with time served on the bandstand, but if the right musicians come together, surprising synergies can occur; artists collectively punching above their weight. Antipodes hits the mark on a number of levels. Firstly the writing is superb. The musicianship is also great but for me it is the communication of a shared vision that lifts them above the ordinary. Given that three members of the band are new to project, that is surprising.  Antipodes (9)At the epicentre of this group are the core members: Jake Baxendale, Luke Sweeting and Callum Allardice. The original lineup featured respected Australian trumpeter Ken Allars. Allars is at present on tour somewhere in a distant corner of the globe – replacing him is Simon Ferenci. It might be supposed that the absence of Allars changed the dynamic, but Ferenci fitted in as if he’d always been there – a trumpet player I had not heard before, but one I will be happy to hear anytime in future. Also new are the bass player Max Alduca and drummer Harry Day. Like Fereci both terrific players and in synch with the over-arching vibe. Without the cushioning bass work and often edgy drum fills the band would be less interesting. Their contributions were on the mark. Antipodes (4)I have long admired Baxendale’s alto playing, featuring as altoist in some of the best New Zealand line-ups (The Jac, Richter City Rebels, Wellington Mingus Ensemble, JB3 etc). Baxendale pulled off some blinding solos in this gig and I have posted a clip which demonstrates his mastery and inherent lyricism. He is a player with depth. I am also glad that Luke Sweeting was touring with the Antipodes again. Sweeting is the sort of pianist who captivates in numerous ways and his solo bravura on a good number can leave audiences open-mouthed. Perhaps more than anyone else in the ensemble he brings out that trademark Aussie-European aesthetic. The first time I heard Antipodes I identified Ken Allars as being the link to a particular Scandinavian sound; his command of extended technique, but moreover his low volume ambient groove-tone. Now I am revising that view as Sweeting has exactly encapsulated that sound, while doing it in a uniquely Australian way. Antipodes (6)The other central figure is guitarist Allardice. Often sitting quietly in the mix as his warm comping lifts the others without ever crowding them out. Then out of nowhere, unexpectedly, those heart stopping solos, souring and as fluid as silk in the breeze. Allardice is a fine composer, as are Sweeting and Baxendale. Antipodes (2)There are shades of meaning to the word ‘Antipodes’. It comes from the Greek ‘to set ones foot upon an opposite place’. If you live in London then the Antipodes Islands of New Zealand are the opposite land mass. For Southern Europe and North Africa it is in Australia. The reverse also applies. Given the musical linkages and especially given the geographical linkages the band is perfectly named (conceived by Australasians living in Germany). This project revives on a regular basis and on current form it stands every chance of becoming an institution. I certainly hope so. Antipodes (5)Antipodes: Jake Baxendale (alto), Luke Sweeting (piano), Callum Allardice (guitar), Simon Ferenci (trumpet), Max Alduca (bass), Harry Day (drums).

At the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart, Auckland 30th September 2015

The JAC @ CJC & Tauranga

JAC 11-3-2014 071I first heard the JAC two years ago and I liked what I heard immediately. Their sound has textural complexity, but the charts are so well written that the band manifests as if it is a single organic entity. As they move through the pieces, rich horn laden voicings appear, shimmer and fade seamlessly into the next phrase. In spite of the heavy punch of the front line, the band can float airily over passages. This affords them choices that are seldom realised by larger ensembles. They have a real nimblenessJAC 11-3-2014 075 and this is surprising considering their large musical footprint. A bigger footprint than the size of the band would suggest. The really good nonets and octets achieve this.

The solid four-part horn line is the power house of the unit, while guitar and piano balance out the sound. I have to mention Cameron Allardice at this point as he is so integral to the JAC’s sound mix. I have heard them play with and without Allardice and with him is my strong preference. He has grown so much as a performer and soloist over the last year that I hardly know where to start. He is not a loud player but his authoritative solo’s and fills just sing. He gives a soft but penetrating edge to the mix.JAC 11-3-2014 072

I watched him at the Tauranga Jazz festival and he approached his solos like Rosenwinkel. Not so much in phrasing but in energy as he gained momentum during solos; lifting free of the earth as the sound flowed among us, like water over a spillway. And all the while maintaining an absolute clarity of purpose. These high wire acts require courage and confidence and he showed these attributes in spades.  He is also one of the main composers of the group and his charts are stunning.

This is an ensemble of stars and leader, altoist Jake Baxendale is certainly one them.  He can deliver searing heart stopping solos and then drop into the mix in an eye blink.  He is the other contributor of compositions (and arrangements) and his principle guidance that moulds the unit. His ‘Thieves in the Night’ is a masterpiece of composition. Their album ‘Nerve’, recorded early in The JAC’s life has wide appeal. Since its release they have been on the road (or gigging) almost constantly. The time on the road has sharpened them considerably and that must show in the new album; The recording session takes place in a few weeks and judging by the material that we heard at the CJC gig (and at The Tauranga Jazz Festival), an already polished band will jump up another notch.JAC 11-3-2014 076Every player is integral to this project but trumpeter Lex French certainly stands out. He arrived back in New Zealand from Montreal a seasoned performer; his credentials are impeccable. He is a strong ensemble player and during solo’s he pulls off feats of brass bravura that New Zealand audiences seldom hear. He has chops and ideas and the confidence to pull them off. I have at times worried about the meagre numbers of high-quality trumpet players on the local scene. French may well address this as he will certainly inspire others.

Daniel Millward on piano (and keys at Tauranga) gave impressive performances as did Chris Buckland (tenor) and Mathew Alison (trombone). Millward is a fine pianist but for some reason, probably the sound mix, he shone through more on keys at Tauranga. Buckland gave some stunning solos and again the Tauranga performances come to mind. Last but not least are bassist Nick Tipping and drummer Shaun Anderson.  Behind every solid group are musicians like these.  Tipping is the most experienced of the JAC musicians and he instinctively understands how to keep the groove. Linking rich and complex harmonies like these to the rhythmic flow requires just such a musician. Anderson likewise performs strongly.  Working with Tipping and bringing that big band drum feel to the unit. JAC 11-3-2014 074

If you love to hear well written charts played to perfection, referencing everything from fifties jazz up to modern times, purchase the JAC’s albums.  Once again we must acknowledge Rattle here. Without a quality local label like this, such albums would have less chance of being released. The JAC were deservedly nominated as finalists for the Jazz Tui 2015. Expect to see them nominated next year.

Who: The JAC – Jake Baxendale (alto, compositions, flute), Lex French (trumpet), Chris Buckland (tenor), Mathew Allison (trombone), Callum Allardice (guitar, compositions), Daniel Millward (piano, keys), Nick Tipping (bass), Shaun Anderson (drums).

Where: The CJC (Creative Jazz Club) Britomart 1885 Auckland 1st April 2015 and The Tauranga Jazz Festival Easter Weekend 2015.

Additional: Rattle Records  and  Tauranga National Jazz festival

‘The Antipodean 6tet’ Tour @ CJC

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There are a number of factors that make music special to a listener and for most it is the familiar that attracts them.  Improvised music is a different beast and the most valued quality is what Jazz essayist Whitney Balliet termed “the sound of surprise”.  When Jazz listeners are fully engaged it is seldom the melody line or a familiar riff that holds their attention.  While melody, chord voicings or an ostinato groove bring us to the moment, it is the promise of the new that creates a state of joyous anticipation.   So it was with the ‘Antipodean 6tet’ and the rewards were immediately evident.  Mike Nock told me recently that some of the young Australian bands are on a par with the best of what’s on offer in America.  A statement like that from a person of Mike’s undisputed authority causes you to take notice.  Some of the members of this group were among those mentioned by him.

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The idea for the ‘Antipodean 6tet’ was conceived in Berlin when Jake Baxendale, Aiden Lowe and Luke Sweeting decided to create a vehicle for their music.  By the time of the Australasian tour they had added Ken Allars, James Haezelwood Dale and Callum Allardice.

Those of us who pay close attention to Australian and New Zealand Jazz knew that we were in for something out of the ordinary.  A heightened sense of anticipation followed the tour announcement.  Earlier this year Rattle records released JAC’s ‘NERVE’ album.  The album featured Wellington musicians Jake Baxendale (alto, compositions) and Callum Allardice (guitar, compositions).  Many saw Jake as he toured with JAC during the launch tour and enjoyed his alto playing.   Callum Allardice was in Germany at the time of the launch, but his compositions and arrangements were also appreciated.   These two musicians form the New Zealand contingent of ‘The Antipodean 6tet’.

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Luke Sweeting is an Australian pianist who conveys more with his light touch than many do by playing percussively.   His playing is thoughtful, airy and interesting.   He has previously composed for sextets and is obviously central to the bands well crafted ensemble sound.  Sweeting, Aiden Lowe (drums), James Heazelwood Dale (bass) and Ken Allars (trumpet) are well established on the Australian scene with the former two having toured Europe extensively.  They have all attracted positive attention around Australia.  All have worked as leaders, but melded into an ensemble the instruments speak in a unified authoritative voice.  IMG_0060 - Version 2 

A Sydney bass player contacted me a few weeks ago saying that I would be mad to miss this innovative band.  He was right in his estimation of their impact, as they appear to bring something fresh and exciting to the scene.  northern European aesthetic with an authentic Australasian feel.

To best illustrate the above I must focus on Ken Allars.   I have been aware of Allars for some years but it was probably his compelling trumpet work on Mike Nock’s critically acclaimed 2011 album, ‘Here and Know’ that first grabbed my attention.  I received a review copy shortly after the 2011 release and was immediately struck by his use of dynamics and strong improvisational abilities.  Later I saw him in the horn-line of the JMO (Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra) when it toured Auckland with Darcey James Argue.  Now seeing him with ‘The Antipodean 6tet’ my positive first impression is reconfirmed.  On the opening number we saw his use of extended technique.  Not so much the usual growls or smears, but a skilful deployment of flutter tonguing and airstream effects.  The whistles, breathy explorations and pops augmented the contributions of Jake Baxendale who wove in quiet upper register ostinato responses (like Evan Parker in the opening few bars of ‘The Lady and the Sea’ – Kenny Wheeler).  So controlled was the sound production that at times Allars sounded like he was playing a flute.  When he did blast out a phrase it was doubly effective as it contrasted with the softer moments.

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I have seen bands who lower the volume for a ballad or a thoughtful meditative piece, but never quite like this.  They skilfully utilised the pianissimo and piano and diminuendo to impart an infinite array of subtleties and within that space communicated a world of information.  Earlier I mentioned the European aesthetic and perhaps I refer more specifically to the Norwegian ECM sound.  I detected a strong influence of this future-facing aspect of modern Jazz in Allars playing.  Later I asked him whether he had listened much to the modern Norwegian trumpeters.  Yes he had checked them out in person.  We then discussed people like Arve Hendriksen, Nils Petter Molvaer, Mathias Eick and others.   While Molvaer and Eick often use electronics and loops there were no such effects used by Allars.  IMG_0099 - Version 2

This band is purely acoustic and the impressive range of sounds and effects at their disposal will have pedal manufacturers smiting their brows in frustration.  Because of the sound balance, the imaginative drum work and the punchy bass lines are as strong in the mix as the other instruments.

They are due to record shortly and I look forward to that.   I urge anyone who can to catch this tour or subsequent outings.  I guarantee that you will not regret it.

What: ‘The Antipodean Sextet’ Luke Sweeting (piano), Jake Baxendale (alto saxophone), Ken Allars (trumpet), James Heazelwood Dale (bass), Aiden Lowe (drums), – in New Zealand – Callum Allardice (guitar).

Where: The CJC (Creative Jazz Club) Britomart 1885 building, Auckland.  26th March 2014