Jazz On Lockdown ~ Hear it Here ~ Exiles

Michal Martyniuk

At the beginning of the pandemic, it all seemed so far away. As of today 1/3 of the world’s population are in lockdown and New Zealand with them. A busy South Pacific Island was suddenly disconnected from the world; adrift except for an undersea fibre-optic cable. As confusion dominated the interim period, aircraft were grounded without warning and among the travellers unable to proceed was a touring musician; an improvising exile. Now, we are all exiles from our former lives and major cities have fallen silent.

I refer above to the Polish Pianist Michal Martyniuk, here on holiday and about to return to Poland. Luckily, he has family here and a reason to feel safe in New Zealand. With East European travel curtailed, he organised a gig at the only place he could find, a showroom. This was the last gig I attended before the curtain of isolation fell and it is therefore special to me. 

The venue was the Lewis Eady piano showroom with space for only a dozen chairs, the audience encompassed by a circle of Steinways. Beautiful instruments all; dark polished lacquer and keys gleaming like fashion-models teeth. We were all beginners at social distancing and a few random hugs occurred. After greeting friends, I approached Martyniuk to ask about the format. 

 ‘Eadys have provided me with their finest Steinway B and the acoustics here are so good that the piano will not be mic’d. Nor will the bass or drums naturally’. 

Although the floors were marble, the soft curtains and the cavalcade of pianos soaked up any liveliness. I was able to record the entire concert (mostly Martyniuk originals plus three standards). When leaving home I had realised that I had no video equipment ready, so I grabbed a Zoom recorder and a high-end Rhode mic. They sat on a wooden chair a metre away from the piano.

Cameron McArthur and Ron Samsom completed the line-up; both players having a long association with Martyniuk, accompanying him at Java Jazz and on an album. A few days ago I uploaded the material, savoured the experience. I might not experience live music for quite some time to come. This recording may be unmixed but it sounds special to me.

Michal Martyniuk Trio (NZ). Michael Martyniuk (piano), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums). recent album Resonance – michalmartyniuk.bandcamp.com

The lockdowns won’t stop jazz! To assist musicians who’ve had performances cancelled, get their music heard around the globe. There Jazz Journalists Association created a Jazz on Lockdown: Hear it Here community blog. for more, click through to https://news.jazzjournalists.org/catagory/jazz-on-lockdown/ 

Griffin / Chisholm / Meehan

Norman Meehan and Hayden Chisholm are always well received when they perform at Aucklands CJC Creative Jazz Club. There have been various iterations of their line ups over recent years and all of them compelling in different ways. The Unwind quartets attract big audiences and rightly so. This particular band was co-led by Chisholm, Meehan and Griffin, with Julien Dyne and Cameron McArthur rounding off the quintet. I was particularly delighted to see Hannah Griffin on the bill, as she occupies a unique and interesting musical space among improvising vocalists. The gig showcased iconic twentieth century New Zealand poets and Griffin’s impressive vocal skills were exactly what was required.   

Jazz lovers of a certain age often categorise vocalists according to how well they enunciate their lines. Whether that is important or not is debatable and it depends very much on context. I am generally more focused on phrasing and time feel and I like to hear a word stretched to fit an interpretation. If it’s a standard, then we know the words and having them messed with is part of the joy. I also listen to a lot of wordless vocal improvisors like Sidsel Endresen. 

When it comes to interpreting poems though, the clarity of the words does matter and Hannah Griffin gave a master class in balancing the many aspects of vocalisation. She does not merely intone a poem, she is part of the band and her melodicism is paramount in the mix. She can enunciate and still pay phrasing its due.

The first thing about this band is the way they respond to each other, sometimes finishing each others musical sentences. This seamless interaction is especially evident between the three leaders. Meehan is a master of understatement and his gentle swing can quickly bring a smile.  His default minimalism always serves the music well but it is on reflection that you realise just how powerful and judiciously placed those chords and sparkling runs are. He doesn’t require a percussive touch to make a big statement. I suspect that most of the arrangements are his as well. 

Chisholm always takes your breath away and from the first note, the emotional content in his playing is quite unmistakable. This is the sort of gorgeous alto playing seldom heard and you dwell on each note and phrase, marvelling at the purity of tone and the compelling story telling. His ability to deploy his multi-phonic technique, simply jaw dropping.

The other thing which grabs you is the sheer beauty of the bands sound. By that, I do not mean just pretty for it goes well beyond that. All of the emotions are engaged and the effect on a room is noticeable. Dyne is a popular local drummer who works across genres and who is sought after  around town. He has played with Meehan and Chisholm previously. Griffen has appeared predominantly with Meehan and in gigs similar to this. McArthur was the new-comer to this particular lineup but you wouldn’t think so. His reading abilities and his intuitive grasp of the music maintaining his usual high standard.   

At the previous Griffin, Chisholm, Meehan gig the band had Bill Manhire on stage, and as icing on the cake he introduced the poems. Gigs like that are hard acts to follow, but fast forward to 2020 and the band more than pulled it off. By extending the range of poets and poems our interest was engaged in new ways. My greatest pleasure was hearing more poems by the much lamented Dave Mitchell. More gigs like that please. You can purchase albums featuring these artists from Rattle Records at rattle-records.bandcomp.com

JazzLocal32.com was rated as one of the 50 best Jazz blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association. 

Talbot/Dunbar-Wilcox @ CJC

Emerging Artists (Wellington) Talbot-Dunbar (1)

As Wednesday nights at the new Anthology venue move into high gear, a tried and trusted CJC programming philosophy remains constant. To provide a quality venue for local and international musicians to showcase their original projects, and to provide a performance space that up and comers can aspire to. As before, two or three gig slots are kept for emerging artists, and this year those slots have expanded to include Wellingtonian and Christchurch improvisers. Performing on Wednesday were Wellington musicians Frank Talbot and Ella Dunbar-Wilcox. Both sets had the same rhythm section; pianist Kevin Field, Bassist Cam McArthur, and drummer Adam Tobeck.

First up was Frank Talbot. A tall tenor player with a clean tone and nimble articulation. Talbot is a recent graduate of the New Zealand School of Music and he is currently completing his honours degree. New Zealand produces many good tenor players and judging by Talbot’s confident performance on Wednesday, he will go from strength to strength. He is certainly making all of the right moves and testing himself in varied situations, so he will certainly be one to watch.  On his setlist, there were all originals and I have posted his interesting tune ‘Inquisition’. I also liked ‘Intervalic’ and a moving tune (which I heard as) ‘Steak and kidney pies, no goodbyes’. The latter was dedicated to his mother who is going through very tough times health wise. A nice heart-felt tribute. Talbot-Dunbar

The second set featured Ella Dunbar-Wilcox. A vocalist in her third year of studies (also at the New Zealand School of Music). Her performance showed considerable maturity as she tackled some challenging arrangements and tunes. Not many emerging vocalists would tackle the more upbeat Coltrane tunes or a tricky stop-start McLorin Salvant arrangement. She navigated these charts with ease. I also liked the balance in her set list which provided us with pleasing contrasts. The cheerful, upbeat (and rarely heard) Bobby Timmons number ‘That There’. This followed her own ballad ‘Lonely Eyes’.  Then there was ‘Night Hawks’, a reference to the Edward Hopper painting and capturing perfectly that sense of isolation and ennui.  I have put up her interpretation of ‘I didn’t know what time it was’.

Engaging a quality local rhythm section for both sets was a sensible move. Field, McArthur, and Tobeck are adept accompanists and used to working with unfamiliar musicians. And more importantly, all have worked extensively with vocalists. This draws upon very different skills and in this regard especially, Field is superb.

Frank Talbot (tenor saxophone)

Ella Dunbar-Wilcox (vocals)

Rhythm Section: Kevin Field (piano), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Adam Tobeck (drums) The gig was for the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) @ Anthology, K’Road, Auckland, 3 July 2019 

TTTenor on tour in New Zealand

TTT (1)Andy Sugg’s collaborative album ‘TTTenor’ was cut in Melbourne back in 2006 and rightly, it has garnered praise. In a land of significant horn-players, the tenor triumvirate of Sugg, Oehlers, and Wilson was a standout. Three gifted saxophonists who capitalised on the imaginative charts to showcase their formidable skills. Completing the original sextet was an immaculate rhythm section – Paul Grabowsky (piano), Gary Costello (bass) and Andrew Gander (drums). Since then, Sugg has recorded other albums like ‘The John Coltrane Project’ ‘The Berlin Session’ ‘Brunswick Nights’ ‘Wednesday at M’s’ and ‘Tenorness’.  He has also been involved in numerous International projects (including writing and lecturing). He was an adviser during the making of the John Coltrane feature-length documentary film ‘Chasing Trane’. All of the above have brought him critical acclaim.       

In spite of Sugg’s busy schedule, the ‘TTTenor’ project was never retired. Last week he teamed up with Auckland’s Roger Manins and Canberra’s John Mackey to present a new and exciting iteration of the TTTenor group. To complete the sextet were, Mark Lockett on drums, Kevin Field on piano and Cameron McArthur on upright bass.  This was not a reprise of the older material as new compositions and interesting charts had been created.  This time, the different stylistic approaches from the three tenor players gave added contrast during solos and a rich texture was noticeable during the head arrangements. Three-tenor-gigs are not commonplace and I suspect that writing for three instruments occupying the same total range presents challenges.  Throughout the head arrangements, the skillful voicing was evident. Dense beautiful harmonies which set the mood for the solos which followed. Inviting the soloists to mark out their points of difference in that space.  

Sugg is a versatile artist and on many of his albums, the influence of Coltrane is unmistakable. It is there in spades on soprano offerings but on tenor, there is an added something that perhaps draws on earlier influences. He is a muscular player and the phrases which flow from his horn seem so right that it is hard to imagine any other possible note choices. This fluidity when storytelling is perhaps his greatest gift. Manins while also a muscular player takes a different path. He is a disciplined reader in an ensemble situation and it, therefore, amazes those unfamiliar with his playing when he dives into his solos, urgently seeking that piece of clear sky ahead and reaching for joyous crazy. While there is considerable weight to his sound, he frequently defies gravity when the excitement of his solos bursts free of the expected.  John Mackey was previously unknown to me, but I found him compelling. His approach to solos was thoughtful, leaving lots of space as he backed into a piece. His storytelling developed methodically, taking you with him as he probed the possibilities. His skillful use of dynamics, a softer tone early in his solos and during ballads. His solo destinations were often heart-stopping in their intensity. This Contrasted with the other tenor solos and gave the project added depth.   

The pianist Grabowsky is a very hard act to follow but Field managed to carve his own space with ease. His signature harmonies and rhythms giving the others much to work with. His own solos a thoughtful reprise from the front line horns. Cameron McArthur is a first choice Auckland bassist and he lived up to his reputation on this gig.

Mark Lockett is an original drummer and perfect for the gig as he has worked with Sugg before. He certainly pleased the audience last week, accenting phrases and pushing them to greater heights. Near the end, he gave an extraordinary solo, not a fireworks display but a master class of melodic and rhythmic invention, aided by gentle and occasional interjections from Field and McArthur. 

This was the first gig at the new venue. The attendance was good and everyone appeared wowed by what was on offer. This gig sets the bar high and why not. Australasian Jazz produces some amazing talents. I have put up a clip ‘TTTenor’ playing John Coltrane’s ‘Naima’ – the sound quality is less than perfect as the bass drops right out once the tenors begin – I am working on that – spacious new venues can definitely be a challenge, sound wise.

‘TTTenor’ was: Andy Sugg (tenor saxophone), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), John Mackey (tenor saxophone), Kevin Field (piano), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Mark Lockett (drums).   5 June 2019, Anthology K’Road – CJC Creative Jazz Club

Purbayan Chatterjee + Takadimi

Chattergee (1)Again, the CJC Creative Jazz Club has made good on its promise to deliver diverse and interesting projects.  Last week saw a collaboration between the Bengali born sitar maestro Purbayan Chatterjee and the Auckland based World-Jazz fusion group Takadimi.  What at first glance may appear to be an improbable collaboration – a famous Indian classical master and a Jazz fusion group was, in fact, a perfect alignment.  Having Alan Brown on keys with Cam McArthur on bass and with the nimble, talented Daniel Waterson on drum kit, plus leader Manjit Singh on tabla – we expected and heard excellent music.

These two great improvising traditions, one ancient, the other emerging just over 100 years ago, are able to comprehend each other’s basic forms. Both traditions produce talented and versatile musicians who are thoroughly trained in song cycles, scales, and rhythms. A perfect illustration of this occurred last Wednesday when Maestro Chatterjee and Takadimi decided to create a spontaneous improvisation. With nothing prearranged, it began with an audience member asking about an ancient Greek scale called the Lydian Mode. All of the musicians were familiar with this mode and Maestro Chatterjee said that it was practically identical to the fundamentals of a particular Raga mode. He fingered the scale briefly on his sitar and then asked Alan Brown to form a motif using that scale. Thus began a cross-discipline, cross-cultural musical conversation like few I have heard. 

Purbayan Chatterjee is a Bengali born musician residing in Mumbai. He has an international reputation and has performed in concert halls all over the world. The recipient of prestigious awards including the President of India award and with a discography which includes best selling albums. He was trained from a young age in the Northern or Hindustani School of Indian classical music. Like the famous tabla player Ustad Zakir Hussain (who he has performed with), he has frequently ventured into the Jazz/World fusion space. Auckland’s Takadimi, under the able leadership of the highly respected tabla player Manjit Singh, has for some years been exploring that same fusion space. Putting Maestro Chatterjee together with Takadimi was inspired. Together, they brought transcendent joy to our club and in a troubled world, this is a precious commodity.

The tone of the evening was set by the first offering which was a beautiful meditative raga performed in a classical style on sitar and tabla. I have been listening to Indian classical music since age 14, but I am certainly no authority. To the best of my knowledge, the basics are as follows. There are two main branches, the northern Hindustani and the southern or Carnatic branch. These, in turn, have many sub-genres and sub-styles, especially in the North. Both schools use the raga (usually a 7 note scale) performed over a drone. The structure begins with the Alap (in 3 sections) which is performed without the tabla and is a preparation or gradual development towards a climax. In this first phase, melodic ornaments and shapes are formed.  The second major segment is the Gat (and Dhrupad) which is where the tabla joins in. The tabla introduces the complex meters that characterise Indian classical music and these are called tala (a cycle of weak and strong beats). Improvisation and interplay occur mainly in this second stage. Although the music is referred to as classical it does not refer to a fixed point in time. It is a constantly evolving music and new styles are still being developed within the classical framework.

I have posted an excerpt from the raga and also the spontaneous improvisation piece. This intensely beautiful music brought fitting closure to our tenure at Backbeat. We will miss the staff and the small club vibe, but it’s time to move to our new home, Anthology. The audiences have followed the club to new venues 5 times over the last 11 years. With such great music on offer, I am sure that this will continue. Purbayan Chatterjee summed up the vibe perfectly when he praised the audience. He plays in the worlds great concert halls but he told us that intimate clubs like this, with engaged cheerful audiences, are the best of places. His gift of the raga – perhaps an evening raga, felt like it was performed just for such an occasion. Thank you musicians – see you at Anthology for the All-Star, 3 Saxophone opening night. Click through to the CJC Creative Jazz Club web site.

Neutrino Funk Experience / Music Soup & the ​healing vibe

Neutrinos (2)March fifteenth began as good days should, with sunshine, a cool breeze off the ocean, and a message from a Jazz Journalist colleague in Australia. ‘Would I like to meet some award-winning Greek Jazz musicians’? I had stuff planned, but the plans were easily shelved and I drove from my leafy hilltop retreat into the city. The musicians had flown into Auckland to join a passing cruise ship and were only in town for eight hours. Ahead of them lay four months of playing standards, original material (if lucky), and the inevitable but often regrettable requests. We met up in a central city cafe. ‘John’, they yelled as I walked around the corner. For the briefest second, I wondered how they had recognised me, ascribing it to a Jazz sixth sense, then remembering my tee shirt was emblazoned with the words Prahu Jazz. We introduced ourselves, and headed for the waterfront at my suggestion, chatting as if we’d known each other for years. That’s the way in the Jazz community. You travel to a place you’ve never been before and someone will message you with the contact details of ‘cats’ to hang with. Such hangs generally follow a well-trodden path. ‘Do you know this or that cat – killing?’ Always followed by outrageous road stories and laughter.     

Evgenia Karlafti is a B3 organist, pianist, and vocalist. Her husband Nester Dimopoulos is a guitarist. They were joined on the cruise by Argentinean bass player Julia Subatin and Mexican drummer Gerardo Lopez. Everyone spoke English which is lucky because I have no Greek or Spanish. After hours of discussing music, the topic took a political turn. Earlier the musicians had made a point of referencing the peaceful laid back Auckland vibe. I recall boasting that our geographical isolation, independent foreign policy, and nuclear-free legislation protected our Island from many of the problems besetting other parts of the world. “We are an independent social democracy very like Norway,” I said, little realising how strong the synergies were. I pointed towards the Pacific ocean at our doorstep, adding, “trouble is inclined to lose its way long before it reaches our shores”. We discussed the Greek political situation and I asked how the Syrian refugee situation had impacted on everyday life. We discussed compassion and the problem of compassion fatigue. We discussed Turkey and the unhelpful belligerence of President Recep Erdogan. Neutrinos (3)

Evgenia and Nestor promised me a physical copy of their latest album titled ‘Cut to the chase’, messaged me a link and we agreed to meet up again when the ship was in port next. After we had parted I grabbed my phone and listened to a track from their album titled ‘Senior Citizen’. Perfect. As I drove home I recall thinking that this was a day among days and then I turned on the car radio. The news spoke of an attack on a Muslim community. I am used to hearing such reports. Tragedies which occur elsewhere – reported on by Christiane Amanpour or Lyse Doucet. In this case, I heard a tearful Kiwi voice. Had one of our foreign correspondents been caught up in a terror attack in London or Paris? The word Christchurch soon dispelled that notion and numbness set in as more facts emerged. A massacre of fifty innocents was happening on our soil and perpetrated by an Australian Neo-Nazi white supremacist. The carnage had started at around the exact time I was boasting about our immunity from such horrors. I don’t remember driving the rest of the way home.

Our amazing Prime Minister set the tone for what followed while we glued ourselves to the TV sets silently grieving. Why here we all asked and the Prime Minister gave us the answer we needed.  For those of you who are watching at home tonight, and questioning how this could have happened here, we, New Zealand, we were not a target because we are a safe harbour for those who hate. We were not chosen for this act of violence because we condone racism, or because we are an enclave for extremism. We were chosen for the very fact that we are none of those things. Because we represent diversity, kindness, compassion. A home for those who share our values. Refuge for those who need it. And those values will not and cannot be shaken by this attack”. Norway and New Zealand were now linked in more ways than I had ever imagined. 

The next day New Zealand fell silently numb as people watched TV or visited the local mosque with flowers and cards. The Prime Minister’s words “They are us” rang out as we donated millions of dollars to the survivors and their families. Biker gangs offered themselves as bodyguards and our sadness grew as we contemplated the fifty innocents slain in our midst. Powerful images flashed across our screens. Jewish Rabbis, Imams, Anglicans, Catholics, Buddhists, Hindus and Coptic Christians arm in arm outside the Mosques. For the first time, our police carried weapons in public as our terror alert went from low to high. It had never been anything else but low. The unusual spectre of armed police, softened by the policewomen wearing headscarfs and clutching roses to their weapons. An entire nation heard the muezzin call the Adhan when the Islamic prayer rang from our Parliament the next day and from our public broadcast outlets. Surely, one of the most beautiful and evocative pieces of music ever conceived. For a day, following the lead of the Prime Minister, secular and Christian woman donned the hijab out of respect.  

This was an outrage hard to talk about; it was so new to us and so raw. We let the images guide us through our grief and as if urged by an unspoken force, started to debate our colonist past. The evils of racism and wrongs yet to be righted. Some days later I was back in our local Jazz club and the place was packed. There was no mention of the horror but it hung in the air. We had come there to be transported and to heal. Albert Ayler put it well when he said, ‘Music is the healing force of the universe’. On offer was Ron Samsom’s much-loved band ‘The Neutrino Funk Experience’. The band, understanding the vibe went absolutely wild as they sent their crazy danceable tunes heavenward. They turned happy into crazy happy and the barman, moved by it all, turned on the rock-effect strobe lighting. Each funk ridden note healed our bruised souls. We didn’t need overly complex or sad tunes; we just needed this.

Ted Gioia recently tweeted a finding by scientists, indicating that music may possess mass. A day later I read a piece by a prominent scientist reminding us of the absolute interconnectedness of life forms. It is likely then, that music is the glue; music that most ancient of languages. In my world, improvised music is super glue and the balm for all life’s ills.  I have played both the Neutrino Funk Experience album and the Music Soup album endlessly during the last few weeks and with each hearing, my belief in humankind restores.  

Dedicated to the victims of the Christchurch Massacre and to the musicians who heal us.  

With thanks to Rom Samsom, Roger Manins, Grant Winterburn and Cam McArthur of The Neutrino Funk Experience & to Evgenia Karlafti and Nestor Dimopoulos of Music Soup.

Lou’ana (Whitney) @ CJC Auckland

Lou'ana (2)Lou’ana is a vocalist on route to wider recognition. During the last few years she has been performing at festivals throughout the country and she is billed to appear at the Waiheke Jazz Festival this month.  He vocal style has general appeal as it blends elements of Jazz, Soul, and Funk. Her smokey nasal intonation and back on the beat phrasing carry echoes of Amy Winehouse.  Out of this brew comes a sound that is recognisably her own and it is refreshing to see how comfortable she is with that. At the CJC gig, an opener for her tour, she had wisely chosen the material which favoured her preferred register, rather than trying to dazzle with pointless pyrotechnics. In her case, vocal-gymnastics would be quite superfluous as her well-chosen phrasing and smouldering delivery give her plenty to tell a story with.   

The first set was mostly her favourite standards; often songs that she had heard as a child when her musical family played them for her (e.g. ’Just Squeeze Me’). Her approach to Autumn leaves was particularly interesting as she sang it in Samoan – the challenge being, that there is no Samoan word for Autumn. Her linguistic translation flowed beautifully and the essence of the tune transcended all mere words.  I know that her biggest audience lies elsewhere, but I hope that she will keep working on these Jazz tunes. A smokey voice and a Jazz standard belong together. During the first set, she was accompanied on piano by special guest Kevin Field (and for the last number of that set joined by her regular guitarist Jason Herbert).  Field is arguably New Zealand’s premier Jazz piano accompanist and I could detect his arranging skills in at least one piece.

The second set contrasted the first as it featured a funkier, rockier selection. These are the tunes that undoubtedly please her wider audience. In spite of that, they also pleased her Jazz audience. Who can resist a Hendrix number done well? Especially when the vocalist slams out the opening bars on guitar before giving us a Janis Joplin like rendering of the tune. Who can resist a homespun ‘viper’ song with its Waller like lyrics or a soulful funk number accompanied by soaring guitar, organ and gut-punchy bass lines?  Her bass player was the ever popular Cam McArthur, who switched from upright to electric bass for the second set. Both sets featured drummer Cam Sangster – a versatile drummer, equally at home in the popular funk, Indie rock, and Jazz worlds.

Her first set was great but she visibly relaxed into the music during her second set. Perhaps because of the familiar material and because she had her regular keyboards player and guitarist with her.  These two players, along with Sangster have been alongside her for much of the journey. On keyboards and organ was Dillon Rhodes and with more than a hint of the rock god, Jason Herbert on guitar. Together they had a great sound and one that I suspect will endure over time. The audience however never took their eyes off Lou’ana. She has an allure, and her charm on stage will serve her well as she gains wider recognition.

Lou’ana (vocals, compositions), Kevin Field (piano), Cam McArthur (electric & upright bass), Cam Sangster (drums), Dillon Rhodes (keys & organ), Jason Herbert (guitars),  The gig was at the CJC Creative Jazz Club, Backbeat, Auckland, 27 March 2019