Caro Manins – Joni Mitchell’s Mingus Experience

Joni 104The Joni Mitchell/ Charles Mingus project is always ripe for reevaluation and I’m glad that Caro Manins was the one to explore it again. The connection between Joni and Jazz experimentalism runs deep. Rolling Stone Magazine figured it out early on, describing her as a ‘Jazz savvy experimentalist’. While the connection is obvious in her 1979 ‘Mingus’ album the move toward a freer music and towards harmonic and rhythmic complexity began earlier in the mid 70’s. Initially coming up through the American folk tradition, she gradually embraced a different style. She would later say, “Anyone could have written my earlier music, but Hejira (and later albums) could only have come from me”. From the 70’s on, she utilised her own guitar tunings and often incorporated pedal point, chromaticism, and modality in her compositions. If you look at her later musical collaborations, names like Jaco Pastorius, Herbie Hancock, and Wayne Shorter stand out.Joni 099 (3)To her amazement at the time, a dying Charles Mingus asked Joni to call by. He told her that he had written a number of songs for her. Mingus passed before the completion of her project, but he heard all of the tunes except ‘God must be a Bogey Man’. Her ‘Mingus’ album followed soon after.  “It was as if I had been standing by a river – one toe in the water. Charles came along and pushed me in – sink or swim”.

Taking on a project like this is more daunting than it may appear to the casual observer. Understanding that, Caro Manins got busy writing new charts. This is not the sort of gig that you just throw together; this is not a covers band. Joni tunes don’t always behave in expected ways, there is a high degree of abstraction, layers of subtlety, places where the tunes change direction under their own impetus. Doing the Mingus album justice is not for the faint-hearted. The listener tends to associate Joni Mitchel with her biting lyrics and adamantine melodic clarity. In reality, although accessible, her tunes pivot on clever musical devices. The end result here was well worth the effort. A genuine commitment to the project made this happen, imbuing it with the integrity it deserved.Joni 101The project deserved a good lineup and it got one. Caro Manins, Roger Manins, Jonathan Crayford, Cameron McArthur and Ron Samsom. Crayford was especially interesting on this gig. His abstract explorative adventuring replaced by rich traditional voicings – his solos a history lesson; from locked hands chord-work to impressionistic delicacy. All of the musicians were respectful of Joni’s body of work and they understood that the best way to honour her legacy was by interpreting her work honestly and imaginatively. Not every tune came from Joni’s ‘Mingus’ album but all followed the Joni/Mingus/Jazz theme.Joni 102The gig was very well attended (no surprise there) and the audience enthusiastic. This was a CJC (Creative Jazz Club) event and it took place at the Albion Hotel on 29th June 2016. Caro Manins (leader, arranger, vocals), Jonathan Crayford (piano), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Cameron McArthur (Bass), Ron Samsom (drums, percussion).

Wellington Mingus Ensemble visits Auckland


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Mingus was the Rabelais of Jazz.  An eccentric humanist who used his musical vocabulary to portray the realities of life as he knew it.  A world filled with great sorrows, blunt speech and joyous abandon; excessive emotions measured in equal portions. Often troubled, frequently combative, but always inspiring.  He brought something unique to improvised music. An ability to impart that Rabelaisian quality, and this was the genius of the man.  IMG_3664 - Version 2  

When the Wellington Mingus Ensemble came to town the essence of Mingus came with them. In showcasing his music they demonstrated that they understood the most important thing: the spirit underlying his music. The cries of delight when at particular phrases and the shouts of exaltation echoing through the sets, a collective sense of engagement, each exhorting the other on. This unerring wild enthusiasm gave the music a power that took it free of the charts.  Mingus pieces are invariably greater than the sum of their parts.  IMG_3680 - Version 2

The set list took us on a high-octane Mingus fuelled journey, with the familiar politically charged ‘Fables of Faubus’ and ‘The shoes of the fisherman’s wife are some jiveassed slippers’, bookended by his lessor known tunes.  There are no poor compositions in the Charles Mingus’s songbook. The Ensemble (a sixteen piece band) is punchy, ebullient and confident. This sense of shared enterprise fed into the solos, as the support was always there. The bass work was particularly noteworthy as Mingus styled bass lines are quite unlike any others. Big ups to the baritone player as well, for making a unwieldily beast sing so heartily.

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Charles Mingus occupies a unique place in the Jazz Pantheon and in Mingus bands like this, he has left us with a legacy which thankfully shows no sign of abating. His legacy is an interesting one and different to that of most Jazz musicians. While a Miles or a Bird tribute band will often be at pains to put distance between themselves and the original for fear of comparison, a Mingus tribute band will unashamedly embrace that Mingus feel. There is a rightness about this approach to Mingus, because what at first appears tangible has hidden corners.  There is always a mysterious looseness which leaves you thinking.  I’ve listened to this piece a hundred times before, but it always sounds different.  IMG_3634 - Version 2

This is a great legacy for musicians and fans alike.  He leaves behind so much more than his recorded output; it is as if these Mingus charts are inexhaustible.  The music is full of contradictions; profoundly gospel-referencing passages, dripping with soul are suddenly overtaken by a brassy cacophony on the edge of free.  Anyone who has listened to his Magnum Opus  ‘The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady’ or ‘The complete Town Hall concert’ (with Dolphy, Collette, Mariano, Sims and many others) will get this immediately. For Mingus-loving musicians, the desire to grab a piece of this quirky magic is overwhelming.  The Wellington Mingus Ensemble has achieved that in spades.


What: The Wellington Mingus Ensemble

Saxes: Bryn van Vliet, Eilish Wilson, Jake Baxendale, Garam Jung, Oscar Laven Trumpets: Ben Hunt, Michael Costeloe, James Wisnesky, Daniel Windsor  Trombones: Kaito Walley, Cameron Kidby, Julian Kirgan, Patrick Di Somma        Piano: Ayrton Foote,  Double Bass: Adrian Laird,  Drums: Jacob Randall

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand 26th November 2014


‘Troubles’ hit the CJC

John Rae exhorting everyone; call & response

It has always been said that troubles arrive in pairs.   In this case the old adage was woefully awry as ‘The Troubles’ arrived in nonet form.  Their arrival may have ‘Rattled’ us somewhat, but we are built of stern stuff in Auckland.   We fortified our ourselves with strong liquor and pep talks, adjusted our parental lockout settings to allow for some serious swearing and settled in for the realpolitik of John Rae’s and Lucien Johnson’s crazy-happy Jazz.     ‘Oh Yeah’, we told ourselves, ‘We are ready to handle anything a Wellington band can throw our way’.

The Troubles-  call & response

There are bands that I like, bands that I respect and bands which drive me wild with pleasure.   ‘The Troubles’ are of the latter kind.   I’m besotted with this band and their deliberately ragged, madly political, quasi-serious satire.    This band digs deep into the well-springs of life and what bubbles up is a joyous lake of barely controlled madness.   The anarchic overtones are deliberate, but there is a scream-in-your-face humour that overshadows all else.   This is about chiaroscuro; a bunch of opposites vying with each other for attention.

This band is about plunging us without warning into the troubled spots of the world and then showing us humour where we thought none existed.  The overt political messages were a joy to me as I have never quite understood why this space is not filled more often.   The history of Jazz is intensely political and to describe ‘The Troubles’ music as a continuation of the work done by Carla Bley, Charlie Haden and especially Charles Mingus (even Benny Goodman) is not too far-fetched.    This band is a talented group of clowns shaking us by the scruff and saying; laugh or cry but for god’s sake look at the world about you.   There is no solace for Lehman Bros, Merrill Lynch, Barclay’s or John Key here.  For Jazz lovers with big ears there is joy aplenty.

This band is about call & response; not just between instrumentalists, but by the band vocally responding to John Rae’s trade mark exhortations.  Although he leads from the drum kit, that doesn’t prevent him standing up and shouting at the band (or the audience) to elicit stronger reactions.  During one of the middle Eastern sounding numbers (which appeared to lay the Wests hypocrisy bare), he shouted in what I can only assume was faux Arabic.  A flow of equally Arabic sounding responses flowed back .   It was the string section verbally responding as they wove their melodies around the theme.

On another occasion John Rae announced that we would be celebrating an often ignored trouble spot.   “I will now express solidarity with the North Americans”, he announced.  “The Sioux, Cherokee, Iroquois, Apache, Mohave etc”.   He began with a corny war dance drum beat which quickly morphed into a tune from ‘Annie Get Your Gun’.   As the melodic structure unwound into free-Jazz chaos we all understood the history lesson and laughed at the outrageousness of the portrayal.

Another Tango melody written by Lucien gradually reached a joyous fever pitch.  During the out-chorus the instruments dropped out one by one and as each instrument stopped playing the musicians raised a closed fist in a revolutionary salute.   Although it was quite dark in the club we had all picked up the cues.  This was a musical night beyond glib definition.

Like life, the music gave us lighter and then more thoughtful moments.  Musically it was amazing fun and after a difficult week I was suddenly glad I was alive.

Mission accomplished I think John and Lucien – keep shaking us up please.

John Rae (drums, co-leader, co-writer, co-arranger).  Lucien Johnson (sax, co-leader, co-arranger, co-writer).  Patrick Bleakley (double bass).  Daniel Yeabsley (Clarinet). Jake Baxendale (saxes). Hanna Fraser (violin). Charley Davenport (cello), Tristan Carter (violin). Andrew Filmer (viola).   Buy a copy of ‘The Troubles’ today at Rattle Records Ltd.  Venue – CJC Jazz Club Auckland.

‘The Troubles’ – Review

This is part one of two posts on ‘The Troubles’; An interview with John Rae and Lucien Johnson to follow in a day.

When I received a brief email from Steve at Rattle Records informing me that he was sending me two very interesting disks I sensed that he was excited about what was on offer.  When the tightly wrapped package arrived I wrestled ‘The Troubles’ from its box.  Putting it straight on, I was stunned by what I heard and I played it through twice, letting the sound wash over me.  Steve was right; this was special.

Jazz is supposed to be fresh and to convey the ‘sound of surprise’ and this was bloody surprising.  It immediately put me in mind of ‘The Liberation Music Orchestra’ or even Charles Mingus in the various incarnations of those bands.  Having said that this is very much a New Zealand sound.

The Troubles is performed by a Nonet with the instrumentation hinting at the albums context.  Adding a texture to the music; its wild but perfectly placed brush strokes marking it apart.

There is a string section of violin, cello and viola (Tristan Carter, Andrew Filmer, Charley Davenport) which contrasts nicely with the winds and reeds.  Lucien Johnson plays tenor sax, soprano and flute – Nick Van Dijk doubles on trumpet and trombone while Daniel Yeabsley plays alto, baritone and clarinet.   Add to the above the insistent drumming and shouts of John Rae, the bass of Patrick Bleakley and especially the percussion of Anthony Donaldson and you have a band that is capable of much.

The band had been playing at ‘Happy’ (a Wellington Bar renowned for experimental music) for some time and for a number of reasons this proved to be serendipitous.  What came together during those months is perfectly captured here.  This was recorded on one particular night and due to the exceptional musicianship of the band, the skillful writing and connectedness of everyone involved (including the loyal audience) we have a very special album.

Against the odds New Zealand Jazz is rapidly becoming identifiable as a separate and interesting entity.  Perhaps a subset of the Australasian-Pacific Jazz sound.  On the best Kiwi albums and in the clubs I hear this certain something and I want to confront the musical establishment and say, “Are you freakin deaf…can’t you hear this”?    This thing is ours, it can be wonderful and it is certainly worthy of proper attention.  New Zealand music is very diverse and this is a healthy thing.   Original and exciting bands are continually being formed, but in order for this vibrancy and originality to flourish the music must be better supported.     Here is an album that exemplifies this diversity and it says something unique about us and our place in a sometimes troubled world .

Support the band, buy the album but above all relax and enjoy it.  I defy anyone to dislike this roller-coaster ride through the worlds troubled spots.  It is a journey undertaken with deep humanity but also with a liberal helping of humour throughout.   A warm echo derived from the cacophony about us and filtered through an anarchic but sharply focussed Kiwi lens.

Purchase from Marbecks, JB HiFi, Real Groovy, or leading record stores – otherwise purchase directly from Rattle Records.

‘Zen Dogs’ unleashed by Neil Watson

There are any number of moods that a band can capture when fronting a Jazz gig and all are valid in their way.   Where this band is concerned fun is the most obvious descriptor because Neil Watson’s ‘Zen Dogs’ were clearly there to enjoy themselves.   Everyone was soon drawn in and the enjoyment was palpable throughout the club.

The band had a loose feel and that is not to say that they were casual in their approach to the music because they nailed every tune and then some.  I am sure that the Zen Dogs name is tongue-in-cheek, but that in-the-moment relaxed approach brought the music home in a very Zen-like way; ‘stop trying so hard and suddenly you are there’.

From the onset Neil bantered with the audience and band in that good-natured way that jazz audiences love.   After the second number he told the audience “We are the Zen Dogs and we wear small emblazoned gold rings with secret symbols inset.  We form a circle and touch these together before playing, in order to charge each other with Zen power’.    To that the saxophonist Lewis McCallum asked nervously, “What did you say we had to touch together”?

The first tune up was ‘Booga Gee‘ (Watson) which communicated that Lou Donaldson Boogaloo feel.   The jive walking pace and accented beats set the night up perfectly.    Next was ‘Lime House Blues‘ which took us back further to the earliest days of two-beat Jazz.  That tune was written in 1922 (Furber/Braham) and had a famous 1930’s film was named after it.   Many have showcased this popular Jazz standard; Louis Armstrong, Sydney Bechet, Ella Fitzjerald, Les Paul (the latter with Chet Atkins).    While it is possible that the tune has been played before on a (Mexican) Fender Telecaster, I am unaware of it.   What is certain is that we heard a fresh and spirited interpretation on Wednesday.    This version was true to the original, but riotous and filled with the joyous abandon – a ‘mad and bad’ blues as the lyrics state.

Also among the offerings was a tribute to Wes Montgomery called ‘Wes de Money‘ (Watson), an astonishing evocation of Charles Mingus on ‘Meters to Go‘ and a Jelly Roll Morton tribute titled ‘Jelly Roll‘.    Throw in Monk’s ‘I Mean You‘ and a few more originals and you have the set list.   To play such an eclectic mix of tunes was a bold move (drawing as they did from the entire Jazz spectrum).  In the hands of this band the choices knitted together and not every band could have pulled this off so convincingly.    The key to attaining such cohesion was three-fold; they communicated their enjoyment of the material, their musicianship was superb and they held the audience from start to finish.

The band were Neil Watson (guitar, leader),   Louis McCallum (alto sax, clarinet & electronic effects), Olivier Holland (bass), Ron Samsom (drums).

Neil handled his slim necked Fender as if it was an extension of his own limbs.    This effortless skill has been gained from his many years working as a professional musician (both here and overseas).   There is the hint of rock-god in his act but it is delivered with a cheeky grin.   This guy does not take himself too seriously but he does invest everything into the music.   A friend of mine recalls seeing him play at the Tauranga Jazz festival when Neil was barely a teenager and he was impressed back then.

Louis McCallum played straight alto sax, clarinet and at times his alto sound was electronically altered by a small Korg analogue box.   Rather than choosing a modern synthesized saxophone he had purchased a $3 mini microphone and strapped it below the mouthpiece.    This simple approach produced interesting effects, but unlike the synthesized sax the effects can be turned off and on at will.    Using his clarinet in juxtaposition to Neil’s Fender gave ‘Lime House Blues’ the feel of being ultra modern while remaining respectful of a trusty old war-horse.  Louis also demonstrated an ability to deliver the BeBop and Post-Bop lines that some of the tunes called for.

Oli Holland is a fine bass player and he performed extremely well in this line-up.  He is certainly no mere journeyman as he showed amply during the night.   At times he would feed lines back to Neil and his performance on the Charles Mingus number is something I won’t easily forget.  Only an artist deeply versed in the history of Jazz could have captured the Mingus bass lines in the way that he did.   He also told the Mingus story in fresh way.  The Mingus oeuvre is interesting, as it sits slightly outside of the mainstream.   Hints of the anarchic and loose nature of that music were communicated well and I wish more bands would do this material.   Perhaps it is just too hard?

The remaining band member was drummer Ron Samsom.   If a band wanted to explore a wide spectrum of music and still retain a modern feel then he would be the drummer of first choice.   That is because he is freer, looser in style and more open than many drummers.   Because he has the ears of a seasoned professional he is able to respond well in any given situation.   To hear him play on ‘Lime House Blues‘ and ‘Jelly Roll‘ was to hear a modern stylist demonstrating that he could channel the two-beat style of a Baby Dodds or Poppa Joe Jones.   On the Mingus number he ‘dropped bombs’ and sat on the ride cymbal.   Ron never sounds complacent on the kit and perhaps that’s what sets him apart.    To have Ron and Oli together in a band is to add an x-factor.

The night had been billed as psychedelic jazz swinging by the early days of the music.   That is a fair description as it indicates the entire Jazz spectrum traversed.     The oft used phrase serious-fun is all that I can add to that.   The band have been recording this material and will lay down additional tracks early in the New Year – the album when it is completed will certainly be on my wish list.

What is in a name?

3. Martin Luther King, Jr., a civil rights act...

Image via Wikipedia

With civil unrest erupting across the middle east and bitter battle lines being drawn in Wisconsin and other Republican dominated states’ over the rights of people to collectivize in order to further a common cause, this title feels relevant.  This blog-site is a place where local opinions about Jazz can be voiced but that is not why I chose the term ‘Jazz Local 32′.    A ‘Local‘ is the term unions in America use when they refer to their branches.   These musicians union ‘locals’ are an integral part Jazz history and they have often been at the forefront of civil rights actions.  Jazz has been deeply concerned with social justice struggles since its inception and especially in the bitter battles to overcome racism.  These struggles are often reflected in the music.   Billy Holiday witnessed the lynching and burning of fellow African-Americans as she toured the deep south and later at the Cafe Society Club she sang ‘Strange Fruit‘ in order to bring home these unspeakable horrors.    This heart wrenching song once heard will never be forgotten, because the strange fruit are the charred rotting bodies twisting in the wind.    John Coltrane marched with Martin Luther King and later wrote profoundly moving tunes like ‘Alabama’, which touch the depths of the listeners soul.    Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and many more took on the segregationist bigots and their collective struggle is part of Jazz DNA.    A larger than life but somewhat controversial figure in this battle was John Petrillo; a one time trumpet player who eventually became president of  the American Musicians union.

‘Petrillo became president of the Chicago Local 10 of the musician’s union in 1922, and was president of the American Federation of Musicians from 1940 to 1958.  He continued being the prime force in the Union for another decade; in the 1960s he was head of the Union’s “Civil Rights Division”, which saw to the desegregation of the local unions and the venues where musicians played.

Petrillo dominated the union with absolute authority. His most famous actions were banning all commercial recordings by union members from 1942–1944 and again in 1948 to pressure record companies to give better royalty deals to musicians;these were called the Petrillo Bans. (Wikipedia)

Why the number ’32’ ?- That is where I live.