Dr Tom Botting Rediscovers Aotearoa

Bass player Tom Botting recently returned to Aotearoa and his first Auckland gig was well received. Even as a gangly student he impressed, and the regular attendees at the CJC hold fond memories of those Britomart Jam Sessions where he featured so prominently. Soon after that, he moved overseas, gaining a doctorate at the Sydney Conservatory. Like many of our musical exports, he returning annually, and many of the tunes that we heard last Wednesday were first showcased during those back-home tours. 

His compositions are always memorable and often evocative. Now, he has returned to weather out the pandemic, bringing with him some new tunes, and updated arrangements of older ones. They are no longer isolated in a disparate setlist but are played sequentially and in geographical alignment. While the tunes are not presented as a suite, they nevertheless evoke a strong sense of place. And whether intended it or not, they present a cinematic journey across our landscapes. Here, Botting has achieved what locals often cannot. His yearning from afar for our landscapes and archetypes has led him to create something sublime. 

The tune titles in these sets speak of mountains or the places immediately in their shadow; Mitre Peak, Mt Aspiring, The Remarkables, Hamner Springs, etc. I have posted a YouTube clip titled Hidden Waterfall and it is one of his more recent compositions. It begins with a pedal tone on piano, around which the bass introduces striking motifs, and then, a new line is introduced by the alto. 

The piece is simply captivating and clarity is achieved by ensuring that no instrument gets in the way of another. It’s not easy to strike that fine balance and it’s extremely clever writing. Each segment stands on its merits, and yet, sits comfortably within the arc of the overall composition. It is a good example of less being more or to put it another way, as something complex rendered into ear-grabbing approachability. 

Botting is a superb bass player and he poured everything into his tunes. He was always one to absorb himself in his playing and that has not changed. As he plays you see nothing but hair and fingers, but what you hear is the essence of the man. Beside him was Callum Passells on alto and he pulled out a great performance. An approach at times reminiscent of Shorter, and always with that gorgeous tone.  Partially hidden on the left of the stage was guitarist Michael Howell, and again a good performance from him. His newfound confidence is reaping dividends. To complete the quintet were Kevin Field and Jono Sawyer. Both are consummate professionals and they maintained the standard of playing that we have come to expect of them. Pick up bands of this quality make a visitor happy to return.     

There is a rich tradition of pastoral music in Aotearoa, most notably Douglas Lilburn. There is also the extraordinarily beautiful Ondas Album (ECM) by our premier Jazz Export Mike Nock. It is good to see a body of work of this quality adding to that tradition. Botting had already performed a concert in Wellington prior to reaching Auckland and a recording from that gig may soon be in the offing. The Auckland concert was recorded by RNZ and those unable to make the gigs should watch out for the broadcast. This music will appeal to most Jazz lovers, whatever their preferences. 

Tom Botting (upright bass, compositions), Kevin Field (piano), Michael Howell (guitar), Callum Passells (alto saxophone), Jono Sawyer (drums).  The gig took place at Anthology, K’Road for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, 5 August 2020

Passells/Howell/Deck

This trio has been around for a while, but the musicians are all active with a variety of other projects. They frequently appear as sidemen and they first teamed up during their Auckland University Jazz School years. Passells has been teaching, composing, appearing as an altoist (and a drummer), and adding his skills to some adventurous and diverse projects. Howell is a member of various bands, such as the Jazz Tui nominated Alchemy and the Jazz Tui Award winning GRG67 who launched their second album recently. It was reviewed on this site. Deck is a gifted and versatile drummer and his work as a member of the much lauded Indie Pop group The Beths is as noteworthy as his Jazz offerings.  He is also a member of GRG67.

 As a composer and a performer,  Passells takes a path less followed. He’s a melodicist and often appears in units where the arc is not reliant on chordal harmonies.  This moves the attention to melody, and most of all, it reveals his lovely tone. The alto is an unusual instrument in this regard, as its tonal qualities can alter markedly, depending on who plays it. Perhaps, because it is aligned so closely to the human voice? It has also been suggested that the airway of an alto player can exert a stronger influence than with other horns. While a tenor can also be individualised, it is more inclined to speak on its own terms. Passells alto voice is distinctive,

There was no bass with this unit and without such anchoring, the melody lines seemed to float unencumbered. When the alto was playing the guitar would either play unison lines, lay out or provide timely interjections. The reverse occurred when Howell played. The drums however, were a solid presence and provided continuity and momentum. As a result, the tunes felt conversational and at times, thoughtful. And the ears followed the musical dialogue easily, in spite of the elided grammar. Passells introduced the tunes as he usually does and his trade-mark humour was evident. He has an easy going banter, often self-deprecating, and laden with random references.

The band played in near darkness which provided atmosphere, but made filming a difficult proposition. By the second set, the lighting had improved slightly and I have posted a tune from that set. The tune I posted is interesting, as there are frequent unison lines played, with guitar and alto speaking as one. It is reminiscent of Marsh with Konitz, but the drums pull the music in a different direction. Out of that confluence come interesting tensions. This is ripe territory for a group of this configuration and the seasoned listeners picked up on the various references. 

Callum Passells (alto sax), Michael Howell (guitar), Tristan Deck (drums)

The gig took place at Anthology K’Road, for the CJC, Auckland 22 July, 2020

Eve de Castro-Robinson ~ The Gristle of Knuckles

Eve de Castro-Robinson is Associate Professor of Composition at the University of Auckland. She is well known as a New Zealand classical composer and although widely acknowledged in that field, she is strongly associated with the improvising and experimental music community.  Those who attended the CJC Creative Jazz Club last Wednesday witnessed the scope of her compositional output, with compositions interpreted by a plethora of gifted improvisers. The night was a rare treat.  Last year de Castro-Robinson released an album titled ‘Gristle of Knuckles’ and on Wednesday we experienced a live performance. When introducing it she explained, ‘although I am described as a contemporary classical composer, I am best placed at the ‘arts’ end of that spectrum’. In this space genres, overlap and artificial barriers are torn down. Out of these collisions comes original and vibrant music.

While de Castro Robinson is primarily seen as a composer, she is also an enabler and a canny collaborator; expanding her vision through skilled pedagogy. The above project has her engaging with colleagues from the UoA Jazz school plus a handful of gifted musicians from the diaspora of the avant-garde. The project comes close to being conduction; guiding the improvisers with a feather-light touch, letting them find their truth as her works are re-imagined.  The pieces were composed over a period of years, taking us on a journey from the primal to the avant-garde.       

The first set opened with Roger Manins and Ron Samsom playing ‘Doggerel’. A multi-phonic utterance which set the mood. That was followed by a moving ensemble piece featuring Don McGlashan, Kingsley Melhuish, Keith Price, Kevin Field and Ron Samsom titled ‘The Long Dream of Waking’ (a Len Lye poem). That juxtaposition, duo to quintet, worked well, in fact, most of the compositions were quite unlike those preceding them. These contrasts were an integral part of the ebb and flow and the contrasts worked to the advantage of the whole. There was also another factor in play and it was significant. Between numbers, de Castro-Robinson introduced the pieces, not in the usual way but by telling stories. She has a terrific stage presence and while I shouldn’t be surprised by that, I was. Her talk is peppered with wry humour, that understated self-deprecating Kiwi humour. She quickly had us eating out of her hand and although not playing an instrument, was very much a performer herself. 

Everything was interesting, everything engaged. ‘Twitch’ featuring Kristian Larsen, a piece for piano (but kinetic and expansively sonic),  ‘Passion Flower’ played by Kevin Field, a work inspired by a painting and by ‘The March of Women’ composed by the suffragist Ethyl Smyth. The original is a feminist classic but under Fields fingers de Castro-Robinson’s tune it took on a moody reverential feel. Consciously or unconsciously and deep inside the voicings, it captured the mood of another ‘Passionflower’ the Billy Strayhorn masterpiece; a perfect alignment in my view. ConunDRUMS featured Samsom, Melhuish and Larsen, a delightful percussive exploration, a sculpture. ‘Stumbling Trains’ a fiery piece on cello played by Ashley Brown of NZTrio (and co-composed by him). Check out the embed and above all go to the Rattle site and check out Field’s interpretation of ‘Passion Flower’.

 

The second set opened with ‘Countercurrents’ a solo piece played by alto saxophonist Callum Passells. It began in a stairwell and moved among us, resonating beautifully as the figures and melodies filled the room progressively. ‘Small Blue’ had Field, Melhuish, Price and Samsom paired (a Tuba taking up a bass line), ‘Hau’ featured Mere Boynton on voice and crystal and Melhuish on Taonga Puora. This particular piece was a standout. An ancient-to-modern story of the passing of the spirit and told in a way that evokes New Zealand’s pre-colonial past. I defy anyone to listen to this and not experience a shiver run down the spine.  ‘Trouble Trouble Mind’ brought McGlashan back to the stage with Boynton, Price and Samsom. With two guitars a backing vocal and a raw bluesy feel, this was prime McGlashan territory. The vibe here hinted at a Dunedin punk sound. Rattle records Steve Garden also took to the stage with an array of vocal sounds on ‘The Gild’ (we often spot him launching a Rattle album but we forget that he is a drummer. His percussive vocalisations added quirky additions to the interactions between Samsom and Larsen).

On the face of it, the gig was a collection of interesting compositions, but it also felt a lot like theatre. However you describe it, it was great performance art and the audience loved it. The album can be purchased from Rattle at Bandcamp (as hard copies or high-quality downloads). The musicians were; Eve de Castro-Robinson (compositions and narration), Don McGlashan (guitar and voice), Kevin Field (piano), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Ron Samsom (drums and percussion),  Kingsley Melhuish (conches, tuba, Tango Puora, tenor horn), Kristian Larsen (piano, live sound, gilded cello), Kieth Price (guitar), Mere Boynton (voice, crystal glass), Steve Garden (sounds), Callum Passells (alto saxophone), Ashley Brown (cello).  The gig took place at Anthology, K’Road, CJC Creative Jazz Club, 28 August 2019.

Leda’s Dream 2018 – Chelsea Prastiti

Prastiti (1)Chelsea Prastiti was not long back from Cyprus when her band Leda’s Dream appeared at the Backbeat Bar. Prastiti is well known in the Auckland improvised music scene and especially so at the avant-garde end of town. She’s a compelling vocalist and composer who approaches her craft as a free spirit, unfettered by others expectations. When she sings she dives deep and puts herself out there fearlessly but her risk-taking is not a mere academic exercise; it cuts to the very heart of what it means to be a thinking, feeling human. Her compositions are therefore always interesting and out of that a raw beauty and an honesty arise.  Prastiti (2)Although the ensemble played material that we have heard before, they sounded incredibly fresh – even different. Crystal Choi confined herself to accompanying vocals (no keys), Michael Howell stepped further into a measured chordal role and Callum Passells on alto and voice effects was the archetypal minimalist (saying a lot more with less). This felt very right and the re-configuration gave the ensemble a lot more freedom. They stretched out as the spirit took them and the first two tunes filled the entire first set. The voices, in particular, were liberated by the change and this gave wings to the melodic lines and mood. The harmonies were there in spades but that was not what drew you in. It was ‘mood’ and the pictures that those moods created.  PrastitiPrastiti’s is a brave path and I would expect no less from her. This is a musical space that is sparsely populated and more’s the pity. Think Sera Serpa (duos or trios), Think Norma Winstone (Azimuth 85) or perhaps the brilliant Nordic vocalist Sidsel Endresen (Endresen live with Jan Bang). In this ensemble, she has the musicians to give her the freedom she deserves. Passells, who is unafraid of soft trailing notes or of minimalism, Howell who can follow a vamp to eternity and make it sing, Choi who instinctively makes the right moves, and Eamon Edmundson-Wells and Tristen Deck who know when to lay out and when to add colour or texture. The music drew from free improvisation, standard Jazz and deep Folkloric wells. It did so without undue introspection. The band brought the audience along with them and the bouts of enthusiastic applause proved it. For some reason, and it was partly their attire, the gig felt like a postmodern version of a Pre-Raphaelite tableau. Oh yes indeed, that always works for me.

Leda’s Dream: Chelsea Prastiti (vocals, compositions), Crystal Choi (vocals), Michael Howell (guitar), Callum Passells (alto sax, sound effects), Eamon Edmundson-Wells (upright bass), Tristan Deck (drums), Backbeat Bar, 8 August 2018

Callum Passells – Flightless Birds

Birds (1)This is the second appearance of Flightless Birds at the CJC Creative Jazz Club and the audience flocked to hear them. The band is a history lesson to the initiated and an initiation to those unversed in Jazz history.  They presented a programme that was both clever and accessible and therein lay its charm.  The band specialises in contrafacts and especially those of the bebop and swing era. The inside joke is that many of those tunes were once contrafacts themselves; new and often frenetic tunes written over the changes of familiar ‘songbook’ standards. In the bebop era tunes like ‘Cherokee’ (Noble) became Ko-Ko (Parker), ‘I Got Rhythm’ (Gershwin) became ‘Dizzie Atmosphere’ (Gillespie).  Musicians like Charles Mingus took things a step further by introducing a wry political humour into titles, exemplified in his contrafact ‘All the things you could be by now if Sigmond Freud’s mother was your wife’ was ‘All the things you are’ (Kern). A throwaway favourite of mine is ‘Byas a Drink’ (Don Byas) which is ‘Stompin at the Savoy’ (Sampson). Birds (2)

The above examples are more than a play on words, they are fiendishly clever compositions and sometimes as famous than the tunes they arose from. This was not cleverness for cleverness sake but a bold in your face statement arising from the ongoing struggle of African American Jazz musicians who were tired of being sidelined for jobs, or sent to the back door of the hotel. Especially at a time when many of the inferior white bands cashed in doing the same material, often rising to superstardom. It was also about having fun and mocking the incredulity of the music press. They did it because they could and they were extraordinary musicians who used their intellect to brand a new music. This band is a modern antipodean successor, DNA intact.

The Flightless Birds took this concept a logical step further and not only created contrafacts out of contrafacts but they hinted at or altered the embedded ‘quotes’ and references. It was done with a smile but it was also done with a certain reverence. The times that these tunes arose from were acknowledged, but the joy and eternal spirit of Dizzy et al shone through. Here are a few of the gig tunes and their origins: ‘Stephen Thomas’ (Tom Dennison) is over the changes of ‘St Thomas’ (Sonny Rollins). There is a world of referencing right there (posted as a YouTube Clip). Stephen Thomas is, of course, the gifted Auckland drummer. ‘Buy a Car’ (Passells) utilised the changes of ‘Take the A Train’ (Strayhorn), ‘J Y Lee’ (Passells) was naturally ‘Donna Lee’ (Parker), ‘The Punisher’ (Sinclair) was a great new arrangement based on the changes of ‘In a Mellow Tone’ (Ellington) and so on.  This was a fun night. Passells announcements were entertaining (as they always are) and above all the band looked as if they were enjoying themselves. We were also. Birds (3)

Flightless Birds: Callum Passells (alto saxophone, Compositions), Ben Sinclair (tenor saxophone, compositions) Tom Dennison (bass, compositions), Adam Tobeck (drums). The gig was at the Backbeat bar, K’Road, Auckland, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club on April 25, 2018.

Leda’s Dream

Chelsea‘Leda’s Dream’ has been around for some time, but this is the ensemble’s first appearance at the CJC. When vocalist Chelsea Prastiti first conceived of the project, she saw it as a vehicle for unfettered collective improvisation. Her writing cleverly expands on that concept, encompassing real places, the past, abstract ideas, and opening the listener to endless possibility. There is a structure to her vision, but to grasp it you must let go of what you think you know. The pieces are mirage-like; if you look too closely they will disappear.  As you listen, fragments of the familiar appear, then dissolve. These are seamless journeys; cleverly fusing reality with dreamscapes. Leda’s Dream is to be experienced and enjoyed, not pigeonholed.Chelsea (1)

This is avant-garde music, perhaps the bravest we have heard at the CJC this year. The traditional Jazz references were there, but the freedom to expand or contract themes characterised the tunes. During ‘Faster down ice’ I heard echoes of Mingus; driving, pulsating rhythms over which freedom was explored. Tristan Deck and Eamon Edmundson-Wells at the heart of this pulse (on drums and bass respectively). With a human voice in the mix, the ideas became multi-dimensional. The human voice is the oldest of instruments and when it moves beyond words, the forms which anchor it – a rawer emotion is exposed. Sometimes it is pretty or melodic, at other times a primal scream. Listening to this music is to experience sound on its own terms.Chelsea (5)Prastiti’s ‘Time Lapse Photography’ was filmic. Revealing the essence of unfolding plants – magical realism – biology expressed as music. In a similar vein was her piece,’Rain Flood’. As she sang, you experienced the droplets of water – falling slowly at first, then faster until they became a deluge. Communicating in this way is a gift few possess, the images seeming to emerge from nature or from experience, not from the musical form. I immediately thought of my favourite Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray and his mystical Monsoon scene from ‘Pather Panchali’. The effect created by Ray there, also swept us to the heart of a poignant interaction between man & nature (musically assisted in that case by Ravi Shankar and Mingus alumni Charlie Mariano).Chelsea (3)The Leda’s Dream ensemble are alumni from the UoA Jazz School. A lot of talent emerged during the years they attended and during this particular gig it coalesced. It was a pleasant surprise to see Crystal Choi playing this innovative abstract music. Choi is a musician who is fast evolving and growing in interesting ways. At Jazz school she stayed closer to traditional forms, or those referencing the folk infused ECM albums. Later I saw her giving a concert on solo piano, Jarrett like in its scope and quite wonderful. On Wednesday she embraced freedom. She was innovative, interactive and confident.

Callum Passells was the lead-horn on alto saxophone. Beside him in the front line for part of the gig was Liz Stokes on trumpet.  Passells is especially comfortable in this space. Playing sparingly and never playing a note for the sake of it, each note meaning something. Michael Howel came on stage for the second set as the full Leda’s Dream experience emerged. First as a quintet then sextet and finally as a septet.

Leda’s Dream: Chelsea Prsatiti (voice, compositions), Chrystal Choi (piano, voice), Callum Passells (alto saxophone, voice), Liz Stokes (trumpet), Michael Howell (guitar), Eamon Edmudson-Wells (upright bass), Tristan Deck (drums), 16th May 2017, CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, K’Rd Auckland.

Emerging Artists gig – Exploding Rainbow Orchestra – Equitable Grooves

Emerging A (2).jpgI always look forward to emerging artists nights at the CJC.  They don’t happen often but when they do, they’re fun, full of surprise and most importantly they are hopeful events. It is usual for emerging artists to salt the mine with seasoned players. Both of the bands did well in that regard. The first band up was Misha Kourkov’s ‘Equitable Grooves’, a six-piece unit playing multi-genre Jazz focused music. The material was well written and at times ambitious. Aiming high on the bandstand is good because that is where real learning occurs. If you wish to extend your reach, then having Alan Brown on the piano is exactly what you need. With that sort of experience and groove behind you, you have a fail-safe mechanism. The set opened a little tentatively, but they quickly found their groove; the last two numbers were especially enjoyable.Emerging A.jpg

Misha Kourkov is a strong tenor player. I like his playing in Oli Hollands ‘Jazz Attack’ and as a leader, he has real potential. Most younger players have discernible influences and with Kourkov it is Roger Manins. As he grows as a musician he is increasingly finding his own voice. The track that particularly took my fancy was ‘Friday night at the Cadillac Club’. Early rock and roll stole licks from Jazz. Now the tide has turned. On that number, the group mined the Happy Days vibe while sneaking in snaking bebop lines. The pairing of tenor and soprano worked well, suiting the material they played; the guitar completing the front line by adding a bluesy feel, nice solos, and textural richness. The soprano player, in particular, is one to watch, nice bass and drums also. A popular practice among emerging players is to create cryptic and often unpronounceable tune titles – if that was their aim, then both groups succeeded. Emerging A (5).jpgThe second set featured the ‘Exploding Rainbow Orchestra‘. This was a very different type of ensemble. Freer ranging, a bigger sound palette and an electric bass with the heavyweight punch of Bona. The bass player Joshua Worthington-Church who led the ensemble is accurately described as a maverick. His set list contained genuinely diverse material; gripping vamp-driven originals plus tunes from ‘Radiohead’ and ‘The Mint Chicks’. Under the leader’s guidance, the band took the material to a place close to my heart; a fusion of Jazz and psychedelia. I am happy to see this done, as the genre is all but forgotten. During the mid-seventies, that style of music was sacrificed on the altar of Jazz purism, a pompous battleground that tried to stifle genre exploration. Emerging A (6).jpg

I have always loved the Belgium Jazz guitarist Philip Catherine. Today he is regarded as an elder statesman; admired for his work with Chet Baker, Mingus, Carla Bley, Dexter Gordon, Lagrene etc. His work with the psychedelic Jazz Fusion group ‘Focus’, or the amazingly tripped out violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, overlooked completely. This material is worthy of re-evaluation. With the Exploding Rainbows Orchestra, we moved closer to that. The band worked well as a unit but there was no doubt where the greatest strengths lay; Callum Passells and Chelsea Prastiti. A pair combining musical maturity with an inbuilt urge to push boundaries.

Music that lays down a vamp, has a locked-in drum groove, can free up the rest of the band. When there is less rigidity in the harmonic structure, and if the musicians are brave enough, they interact organically: that’s what this ensemble took advantage of.  Passells on alto is a wonderful musician and he knows how to use space. When paired with Prastiti on vocals, otherworldly magic happens. In the background, almost hidden from sight, Crystal Choi layered moody fills and passages on a compact keyboard. The guitarist Michael Gianan took few risks, but his comping and his unison lines added another rich textural layer. I hope that this project continues – there are a few sound balance wrinkles to iron out, but hey, it really was a buzz.

Equitable Grooves: Misha Kourkov (leader, tenor saxophone) Alan Brown (piano), Nathan James (Guitar), Edwin Dolbel (bass), Daniel Reshtan (soprano ), Daniel Waterson (drums).

Exploding Rainbow Orchestra: Joshua Worthington-Church (Leader, electric bass), Callum Passells (alto saxophone), Sean Martin-Buss (tenor saxophone), Chelsea Prastiti (vocals), Crystal Choi (keyboards), Michael Gianan (guitar), David Harris (drums),

The event was at the CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, 03 May 2017

Flightless Birds – Callum Passells

Passells 254Callum Passells’ newest project was an exploration which took us to the outer edges of Bebop. The title ‘Flightless Birds’ a wordplay; a pebble tossed into the pond, suggesting many possibilities. The obvious Jazz reference is a comparison  between flightless New Zealand birds and Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker – his musical descendants especially. A cohort that tried and often failed to catch his musical coattails. For a time after his death, alto saxophones were laid aside in favour of the tenor; only a brave few risked comparison with the troubled prodigy. As his legend grew he seemed unassailable. Attempts to demystify, to separate the legend from his musical  legacy came later. In the post millennium era few such sensitivities remain. Parker is deeply admired for his genius, then deconstructed unselfconsciously. The gifted altoist Rudresh Mahanthappa immediately comes to mind.

As the Wednesday CJC gig progressed the flightless birds theme was teased out with self-deprecating humour and clever asides. If the aim was to challenge us to view Bebop in fresh ways, while stripping away some of the worshipful churchy reverence, then it succeeded. Passells is able to strike that rare balance between irreverence and devotion, and all the while delighting his audience. He makes the outlying and complex accessible and this is his gift. His music makes us think, it makes us laugh, but never at the expense of enjoyment.Passells 256The two things that draw me to Passells are his tone and his communication of ideas. For a musician who leans toward the avant-garde he has a remarkably clean tone. This works well for him when he heads into uncharted choppy waters, cutting though the turbulent air incisively. There is obvious precedent for this in Albert Ayler (who strove to sound like Desmond or Konitz while tearing at the very fabric of harmony and form).Passells 254 (1)

The quartet had no chordal instrument and adding one would have subtracted from, not enhanced the performance. Accompanying Passells were tenor player Ben Sinclair, Bassist Tom Dennison and drummer Adam Tobeck. As tempting as it is to compare this to the Marsh/Konitz quartets, or even the piano-less Mulligan quartets would be superficial. This project was firmly grounded in the Bebop tradition and interpreted in an honest Kiwi way. Sinclair was the ideal foil for Passells, also possessing a clean tone and delivering pleasing and inventive solos. The warm harmonies struck between the two horns and the bass were at times spine tingling – more bebop than cool and often bookended by edgy heart stopping unison lines.  It’s been ages since I’ve seen Dennison on the bandstand and that was a treat in itself. He gets such a fat warm sound from his instrument and his time feel is great. This is the second week in a row that drummer Tobeck has played a CJC gig. He had different duties to perform on Wednesday and he obviously warmed to the challenge.Passells 255The tunes were all ‘contrafacts’ and cleverly constructed. I am crap at working out the mother tunes – a job best suited to musicians fed a rich diet of standards’ changes. The pieces had titles like “The Punisher” (Sinclair), or ‘Buy a Car’ (Passells).  The Punisher was written over the changes of ‘In a Mellow Tone’ (Ellington) and ‘Buy a Car’ over ‘Take the A Train’ (Strayhorn). After each tune the original was announced, then people got it immediately, cursing themselves for not getting the connection quicker. The tunes were close enough to hint at familiarity, but far enough away from the original to cause some head scratching. One tune needed no guesswork. “I’ve got it bad and so I’m obliged to notify all previous sexual partners” (Passells) – no prize for attributing that one.

My favourite contrafact of the night hands down, was ‘Parkers Dead'(Passells). This title was a double word play – referencing ‘Parkers Mood’ and the graffiti that arose in and around North American cities immediately after Bird’s death; ‘Bird Lives’. This tune was the purest Bebop, with a powerful unison line and hooks so strong they could snag a Great White. Because of a passing superficial similarity, I initially thought it to be based on Parkers ‘Bloomdido’ (my bad).  As is always the case with Passells gigs, I came away musically satisfied and challenged to dive deeper into the music I thought I knew.Passells 257

Flightless Birds: Callum Passells (alto saxophone, compositions), Ben Sinclair (tenor saxophone, compositions), Tom Dennison (upright bass, compositions), Adam Tobeck (drums). CJC (Creative Jazz Club) – Thirsty Dog, 08 March 2017

 

Mark Lockett Quartet @ CJC

Mark Lockett #1 2015 086Mark Lockett is a New York based drummer who visits Australasia once a year. Each time he returns he brings with him a piece of his adopted city. He is an original  drummer comfortable in diverse situations; a benign but strong presence in any lineup. His artistic approach under-pinned by an easy confidence and this enables him to interact well and to read every nuance. His wide open ears, communicating the pulse and possibilities of the life he lives as a working musician in a big metropolis. There is also a humour he radiates, which peppers his comments and drumming like aromatic seasoning. A Mark Lockett gig is always original and always enjoyable.

It is less than a month since Ornette Coleman’s passing and if ever there was an appropriate night to celebrate his life, this was it. While not an exclusively Ornette Coleman night, his compositions were well represented; every number played had Ornette’s fingerprints on it. The band came together at short notice and as is often the case in improvised music, happenstance served us well. Roger Manins, Callum Passells and Mostyn Cole are no strangers to the freer musical styles. With Locket propelling them they soared. We heard tunes by Coleman, Ellington, Monk, Foster & Lockett.Mark Lockett 2015 087 The music of Ornette Coleman while not without constraints frees the artists from many of the hard-wired rules. It doesn’t sound at all out-of-place now but I can remember the storm that surrounded its arrival. A treat for me was the groups rendition of ‘Congeniality’ from the seminal ‘The Shape of Jazz to Come’ album. The controversy surrounding this material is long behind us and every improvising musician has a little of Ornette in them whether they acknowledge it or not.Mark Lockett 2015 088Lockett often forms trios or ensembles that have no chordal instruments. While the musicians played ‘inside’ and ‘out’ they also attempted something we seldom hear in New Zealand. The opening number of the first set was Shiny Stockings (Frank Foster) and they played this in the style of the Mulligan piano-less quartets. Bass, Alto and Tenor in counterpoint and working within the changes. This was nice hear. I have an appetite for more of this.

The band was great and they reacted to each other as if they had been playing as an entity for many years. There was a lot of Charlie Haden in Mostyn Cole’s bass lines and in his warm fat sound. He is an engaging bass player and perfectly fitted for this freer approach. Rogers Manins and Callum Passells are always in lockstep and above all they are open to adventurous explorations. Both are superbly intelligent free-players. Watching Lockett I was again drawn to his precision. I have discussed this with him before and his control of the sticks is especially fascinating. After the gig I teased this theme out further, his hand positions and the intense locomotive propulsion that he generates. At times musical and at times like a freight train rolling over you.Mark Lockett 2015 089“Playing like that (fast and furious) is meat and potatoes in New York”, he said. He was once told that he could get better control if he held his sticks further down than usual. Because of that and because of his melodic approach, he is very interesting to watch. Somehow the sound is cleaner and with musical drumming like this who needs a chordal instrument. I can’t wait until his next visit.

Mark Locket CJC Quartet: Mark Locket (drums, leader), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Callum Passells (alto saxophone), Mostyn Cole (upright bass).

CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland,  New Zealand, 16th July 2015.

Rebecca Melrose to Montreux @ CJC

Rebecca Melrose 085The last time I saw Rebecca Melrose perform was at a CJC gig, not long after her graduation from the UoA Jazz School. That was well over a year ago. Since then she has made her way as a vocalist, exploring several musical genres and recording an EP (yet to be released). This gig was straight ahead Jazz; her interpretations of various Jazz standards. I remember being impressed by Melrose the last time I heard her as there is a rich quality to her voice and she knows how to play with lyrics. At the last gig she took risks with her choice of material and it paid off. This time the sets were more mainstream but she exuded an easy-going confidence; the sort that comes with time in front of audiences.Rebecca Melrose 092Accompanying her were three graduates from the UoA Jazz Programme. Crystal Choi on piano, Eamon Edmunson-Wells on bass and Jared Devaux de Marigny, drums. CJC audiences have seen a lot of Edmunson-Wells over recent years and increasingly we are seeing Choi. Desvaux de Marigny is not seen as often. These are all fine musicians. Additional to the core lineup were guest artists Callum Passells (alto) and Liz Stokes (trumpet).Rebecca Melrose 087

The rhythm section worked well as accompanists and stood out during the brief solo spots (when they functioned as a trio). In this space Choi stood out in particular, her piano work showing edge and maturity. For a recent graduate she shows enormous promise and her own gig (to follow this) will be one to catch. I have put up the clip ‘Afro Blue’ (Mongo Santamaria) as it has a modernist feel about it. Her take being closer to the Robert Glasper/Erykah Badu version than the original.Rebecca Melrose 086Melrose has been selected as a semi-finalist in the prestigious Shure Vocal Competition (the only Australasian/Pacific finalist). She will fly to Montreux shortly to compete in the finals at the 2015 ‘Montreux Jazz Festival on Lac Lemon. This gig and other events are to help her get there. I wish her well.Rebecca Melrose 093

Rebecca Melrose 090Quartet: Rebecca Melrose (leader, vocals), Crystal Choi (piano), Eamon Edmunsen-Wells (bass), Jared Desvaux de Marigny (drums).

CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, 17th June 2015

Nathan Haines sings & plays – The Little Big Band

Nathan LBB 092Nathan Haines is a master of the melodic and the model and he has a beautiful and distinctive sound on all his horns (and winds). He has a strong following around the world and it is no wonder when he turns on gigs like this. His following crosses genres, attracting younger and older audiences equally. He also cuts through media blind spots in a way that few other New Zealand improvising musicians do. It is good to have him on home soil for a while and good that he is focussing on fresh local projects. What he does is always exciting and this gig was no exception.Nathan LBB 097The talented and hard-working, Haines always thinks through his projects. Hot on the heals of his successful award-winning Jazz albums ‘Poets Embrace’ and ‘Vermillion Skies’ he has again teamed up with arrangers Wayne Senior and Mike Booth. The decision to include more Jazz vocals is a welcome development. There’s a paucity of male jazz singers in the modern world and they’re a rarity in New Zealand. The set list was an interesting mix of Haines originals and a few Jazz standards seldom heard live. Like his recent Jazz projects, these tunes evoked and reinterpreted the classic era of the 50’s. Consequently they oozed cool. Nathan LBB 094With Michal Martyniuk on piano, Kevin Haines on bass and Ron Samsom on drums he was already on solid ground. This is also where Haines excels. He is a bandleader who choses his musicians well. Martyniuk made his presence felt and soloed beautifully while never over playing. It was exactly what these charts required. Kevin Haines is a highly-respected, tasteful bass player with an impeccable CV. During the sets smiles and friendly banter flowed between father and son; further enhancing the mood. The highly experienced Samsom was on drums throughout. He is new to Haines lineups. His approach to the kit springs from a confident inner logic; more organic than Haines usual drummers. It was interesting to watch their interactions as they sparked off each other. Samsom giving Haines a different platform to work from.

The first few numbers were quartet only and the gorgeous and evocative ‘The Night Air’ opened the set. This is a lovely composition by Haines, with the warmth and vibe of a classic Impulse vinyl album (see clip). His tone is unique and especially evident when doing this material. It Nathan LBB 100immediately took me back to hearing Pharoah Sanders for the first time. When Haines plays these modal pieces, there’s a spiritual joy that comes across. This is a strong suit for him and for those of us who love that era a balm.

As the set progressed the ensemble doubled to include a four piece horn section. There were distinct tonal and textural qualities to this ‘Little Big Band’; differing from his ‘Vermillion Skies’ horn section as that had French horns. The line up of trombone, tenor Saxophone, Alto saxophone and trumpet/flugal worked well. From ‘Vermillion Skies’ we heard J. J. Johnson’s ballad ‘lament’ and the vocal ‘Navarino Street’. Wayne Senior and Mike Booth had worked on the arrangements and few in New Zealand can match their arranging skills. Perhaps the greatest pleasure was hearing an arrangement of ‘Boplicity’ from the 1949 MilesNathan LBB 089 Davis album ‘Birth of Cool’. Few bands tackle this and more’s the pity. The octet horn section were Mike Booth, Roger Manins, Callum Passells and Hayden Godfrey.

It’s always good to hear Haines singing and I think we will hear more of that in future. That said, as long as Haines puts a tenor saxophone to his lips he will draw audiences because his tenor playing infects us with joyousness. There’s a real warmth to his playing and if you have listened to Jazz for as long as I have, your memories will quickly conjure the days of Coltrane, Lateef or Sanders. On nights like this you feel the best of your yesteryear listening captured, then gifted back to you. As I filmed I noticed the famous artist Billy Apple sitting beside me. He leaned forward smiling and said, “This is wonderful, the vibe is just like a New York Jazz club of the 50’s or 60’s”. He is right.

Who: Nathan Haines Quartet & Octet – Nathan Haines (tenor, saxophone, vocals, compositions)- Michal Martyniuk (piano), Kevin Haines (bass), Ron Samsom (drums), Mike Booth (trumpet, flugel, arrangements), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Callum Passells (alto saxophone), Hayden Godfrey (trombone), – conductor arranger Wayne Senior.

Where:(CJC Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, 27th May 2015

Chelsea Prastiti 2014

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Chelsea Prastiti could be said to represent an intergenerational change in the direction Jazz Vocals are headed.  I have watched her grow in confidence since her time at the Auckland University Jazz School and she is always ready to try brave new experiments.   Because her default is the use of wordless vocal lines, she has better been able to explore the relationship between voice and the other instruments.   This integrated approach is possible for two main reasons.  Her keen awareness of what is happening around her and above all her compositional skills.

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Chelsea Prastiti is writing good material.  At times it feels brave and edgy, but it is always interesting.  Perhaps another factor is the musical familiarity with her band mates.   Her bands generally feature Matt Steele (piano), Callum Passells (alto saxophone), Liz Stokes (trumpet), Eamon Edmunson-Wells (bass) and Tristam deck (drums).   Because they were students together and because she has played with them often, I have gained the impression that she may even write material with them in mind.   One of her best recent performances was as guest artist on Callum Passells last CJC gig.   These two always work well together, but hearing them moving in lockstep as they traversed standards and amazingly innovative free numbers was a joy.

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There were a few newer compositions and some re-arranged takes on earlier compositions.  Everything in the sets was composed by Prastiti.   I like ‘Bells’ which begins with a simple peal of bells, but quickly evolves into an altogether more complex piece.  Steele was standout on this, never over-playing but making every note count.   His comping was at times minimalist but he conveyed a certain strength.  The rhythmic feel that he laid down was further enhanced by Deck and Edmunson-Wells.   This allowed Passells and Prastiti to explore the tune in a methodical manner.  Steles solo is worth a particular mention on ‘Bells’, as it underscores his growing maturity as a pianist.

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Prastiti is involved in a number of local projects including an ethnically influenced a capella group.  It is however her ability to edge toward the avant-garde that always interests me the most.

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What: Chelsea Prastiti (vocals, compositions), Matt Steele (piano), Cameron Passells (alto saxophone), Eamon Edmuson-Wells (bass), Tristan Deck (drums) – Guests; Liz Stokes (trumpet),   Cristal Choi (vocals)

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand.  9th July 2014. http://www.creativejazzclub.co.nz

 

Sam Blakelock @ CJC

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Sam Blakelock is a guitarist open to the various streams and influences around him and he is clearly going places.  Formerly from Christchurch where he completed the Christchurch University Jazz Studies course, he found himself attracting wider attention.  A best guitarist award and the Jack Urlwin scholarship were to follow.  After a stint on luxury cruse ships he settled in New York where he is about to embark upon a Masters at NYU.

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Like a number of Jazz guitarists these days Sam Blakelock plays a Fender.   With Fender playing Bill Frisell cleaning up the ‘best of’ Jazz guitar polls year after year, the instruments emergence in mainstream Jazz is unsurprising.  It is hard to imagine Marc Ribot ripping up the rulebook on a classic hollow-body.   These warhorse guitars can be coaxed gently or smote with force and in the hands of a Jazz trained guitarist the sound palate is open-ended.  Blakelock’s approach is more to coax the instrument and the clip I am posting illustrates that approach.  While the quality of an instrument matters, it is the inventiveness and the ability to communicate interesting musical ideas that matters more.  The compositions were all original, many composed for this New Zealand farewell tour.   They felt like markers laid down at a waypoint in the journey.   A point to delineate his hometown success from the success that is surely to follow.

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For bandmates he chose two ex-pat Christchurch musicians, Richie Pickard (bass) and Andy Keegan (drums).  Completing the quartet was popular local alto player Callum Passells.   Having an alto in the mix gave him a very specific palate; giving the arranged heads a distinctive sound.  A certain freedom in voicing made possible.  Blakelock’s upper register lines blended perfectly with the clean toned melodic alto; playing in unison or subtly accenting solos with minimalist comping.  Keegan and Pickard anchored the quartet.  IMG_0600 - Version 2

At one point Blakelock played a riveting solo piece and on another he stole the limelight with a slow blues that burned like a torch song and sang like an exotic bird.  It is when he is in complete charge or playing alone that we see him at his best.  It will be interesting to see him in a few years time, when New York has further polished his already considerable skills.   When he has a moment I hope he passes this way again.

What: The Sam Blakelock Quartet Farewell Tour.  Sam Blakelock (guitar, compositions), Callum Passells (alto sax), Richie Pickard (upright and electric basses), Andy Keegan (drums).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, 7th May 2014.  www.creativejazzclub.co.nz   samblakelock.com

Callum Passells Quartet @ CJC

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I like the inventiveness of Callum Passells both as an alto player and a composer.  There is something of the risk taker about him and his instincts seldom fail him when reaching for fresh ideas.  His quartet was bristling with edge last week, a band without a chordal instrument and utilising the talented Chelsea Prastiti as vocalist.  Chelsea is always up for these types of sonic explorations and perfectly able to handle the challenge.  This was a gig crafted around a particular range of sounds, but more importantly it appeared to have particular musicians in mind.  On bass was Cameron McArthur and on drums Adam Tobeck.  The bass player and drummer handled the challenges confronting them perfectly, creating texture, nuance, colour and anchor points appropriate to the diverse range of music.  I often praise Cameron McArthur and in this situation his skilful bass lines were crucial.  I was pleasantly surprised by Adam Tobeck’s versatility, as I had only seen him in straight ahead gigs.  He is a tight focussed drummer, but in this situation he showed just how broad his skills base is.

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The set list was skilfully constructed, offering endless contrasts and explorations into a number of Jazz related subdivisions.  During the first set Chelsea sang the ballad ‘My Ideal’ (Robin/Chase/Whiting).  The intro was just vocals and bass, but when the alto and drums came in they took a minimalist approach.  The interesting thing is that the arrangement had a fulsome quality to it, almost orchestral.   This is a tribute to Chelsea and definitely to the arrangement.  IMG_9746 - Version 2

At the other end of the spectrum was a free piece titled ‘N+/-1’.  This was an extraordinary piece of music with all of the excitement and theatrics that you could wish for.  Callum had warned the audience that they were about to hear a free number and suggested that those who were queasy about such offerings could move to the bar area at the side.  I am unsure if anyone took him up on that, but in reality ‘N+/-1’ had the opposite effect.  Drawing people into the bands orbit; all of them smiling and whooping in delight.  While the piece followed its own internal chaotic logic it never-the-less communicated a strangely cohesive and exciting narrative.  There were distinct parts to the piece and each more marvellous than the last.  Voice, bass and drums weaving ever deeper, as if sucked into an alternate reality by the brilliance of the alto.  People watched transfixed, marvelling at the cascade of sounds and the flow of musical ideas.  This number was a tour de force for the group but there was no mistaking Callum’s influence.  Even though he gave the others plenty of space, his presence was always felt, guiding, cajoling and demanding that bit more.  As I watched and listened completely engaged I cursed that I did not have a movie camera on hand to record the moment.

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With a few exceptions Chelsea sang wordlessly and this style is definitely a forte for her.   She can sing a unison horn line so convincingly that you do a double take, scanning the bandstand to see if there is an instrument you have missed.  Her range, timbre and musicality enriched the group.  This was particularly evident on ‘Lennies Pennies’ (Tristano).  I love all Tristano compositions but especially this one.  As they negotiated the exciting fast paced, measured lines a special synthesis was evident.  This was innovative and original; adding something of value to an already rich Tristano-ite output.  IMG_9773 - Version 2

There were other original tunes such as ‘Tashirojima’, ‘Monte Cecelia’ ‘Sons Multiples’ ‘Indifference’ and a number of standards (‘Yardbird Suite’, ‘Mood Indigo’ and ‘Straight no Chaser’).  They were all captivating in one way or another but one original deserves special comment.   Sometimes there are layers of meaning in titles and ‘Indifference’ certainly qualifies in that regard.  Written by Callum in tribute to his father who is gravely ill.  The power of this composition and the delivery by Callum spoke to me deeply.  It is clearly not about casual indifference.  It felt to me like the struggle to view life in a wider context when faced with mortality.  Perhaps the indifference of the universe to our small world suffering and how to make sense of that.  The sound of the alto cut so deep that for a time nothing else seemed real.  This is what raw emotion sounds like.  The audience were quieter and as I looked up at the light show playing against the wall, I saw a brief skeletal picture flash up on the screen.  One brief frame in the play of an endlessly looped digital sequence.  While this fleeting spectral apparition was pure happenstance, it was strangely apposite.   This piece was so much more than elegiac; it placed a marker of just what it means to be human.

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Who: The Callum Passells Quartet: featuring Callum Passells (alto sax, compositions), Chelsea Prastiti (vocals), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Adam Tobeck (drums).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 1885 Britomart, Auckland – 5th March 2014

Chelsea Prastiti band @ CJC

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Chelsea has only just graduated from the Auckland University Jazz School but she is already somewhat of a veteran performer about town.  I often spot her name in gig notifications and I have seen her in the role of leader at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) at least three times.   Chelsea is popular, original and able to assemble good lineups.

I have avoided using the correct descriptor for her most recent band after Chelsea ran into an unexpected problem with the name. The band is actually called the Chelsea Prastiti sextet, but Facebook abbreviated it to read; Chelsea Prastiti Sex…….   As she later bantered with the audience, “If your here for that go home”.  There is a sense of easy-going effervescence that permeates all Chelsea’s gigs and audiences quickly warm to her.  It is a credit to her that this is so, because her specialty is wordless singing (or a mix of wordless singing and lyrics).   Thus following in the not so well-worn path of Eddie Jefferson, Norma Winstone and others.  This adventurous exploration of vocal sounds is not all that she does, but it is a hallmark of her repertoire.

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Her style of singing moves the focus to the timbre of the human voice.  Using it as another instrument, adding colour, tight unison lines and performing solos much like a guitar or horn would do.   Like other young singers Chelsea often includes numbers from the likes of Sera Serpa, Gretchen Parlato or Esperanza Spalding.   At this last gig those influences were felt in different way, more as reference points.  Most of the material (if not all of it) was Chelsea’s own.  Her composition skills are developing fast as she reveals her own musical stories.  Modern in sound, touching on the history of Jazz singing, but above all communicating the intensely personal.

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As with previous gigs she has drawn upon musicians from her own generation.  Friends from the Auckland University Jazz School and especially those she had been most closely associated with.  Matt Steele (piano),  Callum Passells (alto), Liz Stokes (trumpet & flugal), Eamon Edmunson-Wells (bass).  Newer to the line up was drummer Tristan Deck – this was his first appearance at the CJC and on the basis of his performance this night I’m sure we will see him more often.  Liz Stokes, Matt Steele and Callum Passells were all in good form, each delivering some great audience pleasing solos.  It was also good to see Eamon Edmunson-Wells, who is a bass player we don’t see often enough.  As friends they feed off each others energies and the familiarity works well for them.  The ultimate test will come when they plunge in at the deep end beside highly experienced ultra challenging musicians.

It was particularly nice to hear Chelsea’s composition ‘Bells’ performed once again.   The interwoven melodic lines and the lovely harmonies are deeply compelling.  I like her compositions and the CJC crowd certainly shared that view.

What: Chelsea Prastiti sextet

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 5th June 2013

Who: Chelsea Prastiti (vocals) (leader) (compositions), Matt Steele (piano), Eamon Edmunson-Wells (bass), Tristan Deck (drums), Elizabeth Stokes (trumpet), Callum Passells (alto saxophone).

Rosie & The Riveters@CJC

Rosie & the Riveters

Rosie & the Riveters

The name ‘Rosie & The Riveters’ grabbed my attention immediately as I come from an activist family. The derivation goes back to WW2 when women had to work on the production lines while their men were away fighting. When the men returned after the war they were expected to return to obedient domesticity but many resisted and the ‘Rosie’ symbol became a potent feminist statement. Roseann Payne understands this history as she referred to it in her introduction but she also had a more prosaic explanation on offer. “My name is Rosie and I hope we will be riveting”.

Rosie Payne had graduated from the Auckland University Jazz School on the day of the CJC gig and her upbeat mood reflected this achievement. She had assembled her support band mainly from fellow students and alumni: Ben Devery (p), Cameron McArthur (b), Adam Tobeck (d), Callum Passells (alto & baritone sax), Asher Truppman-Lattie (tenor sax) and Elizabeth Stokes (trumpet & flugal). It was a night of celebration and the cheerfulness communicated itself to everyone present. IMG_7072 - Version 2

The set list alluded to the time-honoured influences such as Ella Fitzgerald but mainly it spoke of the forces that are shaping young singers post millennium. The influence of Sera Serpa and Esperanza Spalding were evident in the source material, interpretations and compositions. Along with Gretchen Parlato, these are the new influences on Jazz singing and they bring a vibe that is modern and in some ways quite nuanced. At times there is a hint of Blossom Dearie in this new way of singing and I make no judgement about that (I like Blossom Dearie and her ability to poke subtle digs at the male hegemony while singing in that wispy girlie voice). Jazz singing is as much a journey as jazz instrumental playing and good improvisers should dive into the sounds about them for fresh inspiration. Interpretation and authenticity is everything and while it is important to acknowledge the past it is not necessary to dwell there permanently.

I have put up a You Tube Clip from the night, which is a slightly reharmonised version of ‘Body & Soul’ sung in Spanish (probably influenced by the Spalding version). This interpretation ably illustrates the juxtaposition between past and present. ‘Body & Soul’ (Johnny Green Edward Heyman, Robert Sour) is one of the oldest jazz standards and for a long while it was the most recorded song in the history of music. Standards survive because they have depth and subtle hooks. Just possessing a hummable melody will not cut the mustard as many a pretty tune has fallen by the wayside. There must be an ‘X’ factor and in Jazz the tune needs to be a good springboard for improvisation. It was the great tenor player Colman Hawkins who again elevated it from obscurity and its wide appeal caught him by surprise (1940). “It’s funny how it [body & Soul] has become such a classic” he mused. “It is the first and only Jazz record that all the squares dig as much as the a Jazz people”. Hawkins hadn’t even bothered to listen to it after the recording session and it surprised him to learn that he had such a big hit. His version only briefly toyed with the melody which makes it all the more surprising. The song was written in haste by the relatively unknown Johnny Green; commissioned by Gertrude Lawrence who quickly rejected it. Whiteman, Goodman, Tatum, Hawkins, Holiday and a thousand others are glad it survived (source references Ted Gioia). IMG_7053 - Version 2

Young musicians like Rosie are acknowledging the history while giving us their own perspective and that is as it should be. The band was right for her and as they moved through the sets we heard flashes of brilliance. Callum on Baritone sax really stood out, especially when you consider that this is not his principal horn. Adam Tobeck is a drummer that engages the attention and Cameron McArthur is fast becoming a fixture at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club). New to me was Pianist Ben Devery and tenor player Asher Truppman-Lattie. Both did well by Rosie. Lastly there was Liz Stokes who had also graduated on that day. Her skills gave an added dimension to the line up.IMG_7061 - Version 2 (1)

Rebecca Melrose Super Band @ CJC

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Rebecca Melrose is fairly new to the Auckland scene but she is already gaining a reputation for excellence about town.  Although young she has several recordings under her belt and her career is gaining momentum.  She is a singer/songwriter with an engaging voice and this gives her considerable scope.  It means that her own material gets aired alongside that of Gretchen Parlato and Esperanza Spalding during a gig.  This was her second performance at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club)

Parlato and Spalding are clearly strong influences for her but she can also sing challenging standards from an earlier era.  She not only choses well when adding standards but executes tricky numbers superbly.  Like many emerging singers of the post millennium she has a multi genre appeal and whether she moves into a more ‘soul’ space is a moot point.   On this night she was a primarily a jazz singer and if the enthusiasm of the audience is anything to go by that route will work very well for her.

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Last year she was more tentative during her between number introductions, but that hesitancy has now fallen completely away.   The Rebecca that we saw tonight was sassy, confident and on top of her game.   She played with the audience and tried out various lines of patter.   Not all of the jokey asides worked as intended (some went over very well) but it didn’t matter a damn and her good-natured handling of the audience captivated everyone.   She is on the right track here and I encourage her to keep going in this vein.   Music is a performance art after all and Jazz and banter go together like the reverse sides of a rich tapestry.  IMG_6273

The last time I saw her perform she had Dixon Nacey on guitar and Andrew Keegan on drums.  This time with a much bigger line up she utilised the additional scope that this afforded her .  She performed several times with singer Chelsea Prastiti (once in duo doing the Esperanza Spalding arrangement of the Jobim Tune ‘Inutil Paisagem‘ – which was magical to say the least ).  In other numbers as a quartet, quintet or octet  This set list struck out for higher ground and the risk paid off.

On trumpet and flugal was Liz Stokes, who stepped up with an impressive solo in the second set.  Alex Ward did a great job on piano and especially on ‘Lush Life‘.  I have not seen him play very often and enjoyed his contribution as he tackled numbers that were often demanding.  It was also good to see Jarad Desvaux de Marigny (drums) and Eamon Edmunson-Wells (bass) teamed up again.  This pair work extremely well together and have a more subtle colourist approach which is especially suited to singers and the less percussive of piano players.  On guitar,Manaf Ibrahim and on Tenor Scott Thomas.

In guest spot was Callum Passells who played a couple of numbers which absolutely floored me; especially his masterful alto solo on ‘Lush Life‘.   Every note in that solo was perfectly placed and with the rhythm section meeting the challenge, we were given a rare treat.   I will say more about Lush life later.  IMG_6288 (1)

Rebecca’s own compositions are interesting as are the modern standards she likes, but I have especially singled out the two older standards for praise.  ‘Tea for Two‘ is not terribly challenging as written, but as a singer you immediately fall under the shadow of Ella, Anita and Frankie.   The tune was written in 1930 by Tin Pan Alley song plugger Vincent Youmans,who was unsure if he liked it at first.  The lyricist Irving Caesar later admitted that his lyrics were intended only as a stop-gap. they never were replaced thank goodness.  The song is from the musical ‘No, No, Nanette‘ and it quickly became a runaway success.   Why this song works so well for Jazz is exactly for the reason Youmans worried about it; a simple form.  There is so much an improvising musician can do with it.  Before long Art Tatum had played it (1933), Benny Goodman (1937), Fats Waller (1937),  Django Reinhardt (1937), Dave Brubeck (1949), Bud Powell (1950) and Thelonious Monk 1963.   The singers who performed it were legion but Anita O’Day absolutely tagged it as her own in ‘Jazz on a Summers Day‘.   Rebecca quoted from Anita, took the number at the same fast pace, but wisely interpreted it in her own way.

The other track that I can’t resist posting is Rebecca’s ‘Lush Life‘ by Billy Strayhorn.  This song is the antithesis of  ‘Tea for Two‘ as it didn’t emerge from the Great American Songbook and it is very challenging to perform.   To my sensibilities it is almost the perfect song.  This is one of the great Jazz Standards and apart from Frank Sinatra’s version it has not been sung much outside of Jazz.  Sinatra only performed it once and refused thereafter, which is one of the enigmas of his musical life.  Recently unearthed rehearsal tapes from the recording session with Nelson Riddle provide an answer.  He struggled with it and at one stage blamed fly dirt on the page for making ‘a very hard song harder’ (Google Sinatra, ‘Lush Life’ and you can hear that rehearsal).

The definitive version for most is probably the Johnny Hartman/John Coltrane Impulse recording (1958).   IMG_6286 (1)My personal favourite is the more recent Fred Hersch /Andy Bey version (from the ‘Passion Flower’ album on Nonsuch) – quietly dedicated to gay Jazz musicians past and present.   Strayhorn was of course an out-gay man at a time when this was almost unheard of.   Ellington revered Strayhorn and regarded him as his chief calibrator (‘my other hand’).   Oddly this tune which written in 1936 remained unperformed until 1948 when Strayhorn performed it in a duet with Kay Davis.   The song was never adopted into the Ellington repertoire and did not become famous until the 50’s.   Its gay innuendoes is probably one reason but its sophisticated complexity is certainly the other.  Well done Rebecca and well done her accompanists’.    Callum Passell’s alto solo was to die for as he breathed the musical history of the song into the solo.   I liked the drums and bass contributions and especially Alex Ward’s sensitive but firm rendition.

Rebecca is a young woman with a big voice.   It will be interesting to see whether she keeps her Jazz chops honed or whether she’s tempted toward singing mostly soul.  Either way the best of luck to her.

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Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 1885 Bar Auckland

When: 27th March 2013

Who: Rebecca Melrose Super Band

The Chelsea Prastiti Septet

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There are a surprising number of good Jazz musicians living in New Zealand and that is why the CJC is able to provide a varied and interesting programme at the club.  With Roger Manins as programme director the quality of the music is consistently high.  I may have come to expect that, but I can still be pleasantly surprised.

Chelsea Prastiti is studying Jazz at the University of Auckland and I have heard her sing once or twice before.   I knew that she was good but what took me by surprise was just how good.   This was not your routine standards programme but fresh and original Jazz singing at the highest level.   It was the sort of programme that a Sheila Jordan or a Norma Winstone might have embarked upon and in spite of the risks it was perfectly executed.

Matt Steele

Matt Steele is a pianist I enjoy greatly and he certainly justified his place in the band on this night.  Matt is in his third year and each time I see him play he gets better and better. His extended solo on ‘Bells’ was extraordinary and I cursed the gods for allowing my HD video tape to run out just before that.

Callum Passells was also in great form and he showed us again why he is so well-regarded as a musician.  His alto needed little coaxing as he worked the changes and the ideas flowed in happy succession.  Any band with Callum in can count itself lucky.

The band members were; Chelsea Prastiti (leader, vocals, arranger, composer), Callum Passells (alto sax), Matt Steele (piano), Elizabeth Stokes (Trumpet, Flugal), Asher Truppman Lattie (tenor sax), Eamon Edmunson-Wells (bass), Jared Desvaux de Marigny (drums).

Chelsea had arranged the numbers in the set and five of the songs were originals composed by her.  I will mention three numbers in particular as the contrast between these illustrates how well thought-out the programme was.  Second in the set was ‘Bells’ ( C Prastiti) and it was mind-blowing.   The band blew like crazy and each band member seemed to urge the others to greater heights.  Chelsea, Matt and Callum excelled themselves .   This is one of Chelsea’s compositions and it had all of the elements of great Jazz contained within its structure.   A tight arrangement, harmonic inventiveness, room for hard blowing and a structure that lent itself to out-improvisation.  I was standing near to Caroline (who teaches her at the University) and after the number we looked at each other in disbelief.   Even in the subdued lighting I could see tears in her eyes.

Callum Passells

The fourth number was a skillful arrangement of Maurice Ravel‘s.  The airy – ‘La Vallee Des Cloches’.   This was a fully arranged piece and with vocalese in the mix it was the perfect counterweight to what had preceded it.   Drums, bass, piano, voice, alto sax, tenor sax and fugal horn in perfect concert.

It was the last tune that had us all wishing that the music would never stop.  The composition was once again by Chelsea and called ‘Santa Muerte’ (the Mexican ‘Saint Death‘).    It  immediately brought to mind the madness and the wild beauty that is Mexico.    A hint of mariachi and a lot of jazz chops were on display.    I have included that as a You Tube Clip.

That a student so perfectly executed such difficult and exciting material is breathtaking – more please Chelsea and soon.

Callum Passells, trio, quartet, quintet

Callum, Cameron & Adam

A few days ago the CJC presented the Callum Passells group.   Callum is a third year student at the Auckland University School of Music (Jazz Studies) and so are his band mates.  If anyone harboured the briefest thought that this group should be cut some slack on account of age or experience, forget it.   What we saw was a slick act, a great programme and the sort of discipline that generally comes with seasoned performers.   This band did the business and they held us in the palm of their hand throughout.

I had only seen Callum perform a few times; once at a house party and once during a jam season.  Those brief encounters had not been enough for me to form a clear view of his abilities and so I arrived with an open mind and no fixed expectations.   I now recall Roger Manins saying that Callum was a terrific saxophonist and that he had the hunger to succeed.  That should have clued me up.

Cameron

Callum is a very nice altoist and his tone is as sweet or as hard-edged as the tune calls for.  Once in a while I could hear a hint of Cannonball Adderley.  Not a copied lick, but more of a bluesy swagger and the stuttering way that he would burst into a phrase.  During one such moment I must have uttered the word ‘Cannonball’ to myself.  The person sitting next to me suddenly said, “yeah, I heard that too”.

The band was well rehearsed and they had paid attention to the smallest of details including how they presented themselves on the bandstand.  Their programme was quite varied and each number fitted into its place and told its own story.   There were piano-less trio numbers, quartet numbers and quintet numbers.   The tunes were all originals and they were well written.

I have to comment on the quintet arrangements which were simply sublime.  Some of the better arrangers like Marty Paich or Kenny Wheeler could arrange tunes in such a way that smaller ensembles sounded as if they were much bigger.   The advantage of this is that it leaves the listener with a feeling of airiness.  A sense of the space around each instrument.   

When I first heard the quintet I was surprised at how big the sound was.  There were only two horns, Cullam Passells (as) and Liz Stokes (t, fh).   This is the illusion created by good arranging.  Liz Stokes was especially fluent in the second set and a Wheeler-esk slur added colour to the performance.

I have seen Cameron play before and he really stepped up a notch with this gig.  I think that he enjoyed it and it was a challenging workout for bass.  The drummer Adam Tobeck was comfortable throughout and he pushed himself harder in the second half.   A blistering solo earned him his stripes with the CJC audience.

The band member I am most familiar with is Matt Steele.   I have liked his playing from the first time I heard it and he was even better at this gig.   He has a mature style but it is different to many of the pianists I hear as his touch is often light and crisp.   His comping is breathtaking as he urges the soloists to greater heights.  While you are always aware of his right hand soaring in chromatic invention during his solos, his left hand weaves its own chordal magic.  If I needed a single word to describe his playing it would have to be melodic.  

The set list was a work of art in itself.  On the page it read like an Imagist poem by Langston Hughes or William Carlos Williams.

The set list was as follows:

Race-car Red Red Race-car, Molasses, What the Fuck is a Persimmon, Money Grubber, I’ve, So This is What it’s Like,  Magnetic North, Wrack, Candied Carrots, Elysium, Greens Waltz, Up Up Down Down Left Left Right Right AB

The band was in order of appearance – Trio:  Callum Passells (leader, arranger, composer, alto saxophone), Cameron MacArthur (double bass), Adam Tobeck (drums).  Quartet add; Matt Steele (piano), Quintet add: Liz Stokes (trumpet flugal horn).

Callum presided over the night with that easy confidence of a born leader. He told very funny stories (especially the WTF is a Persimmon story) and he encouraged his band in a way that ensured they gave their best.   If that is the calibre of students emerging from the city’s Jazz schools then we are in for an exciting future.   Big ups to the band and especially to Callum.