Bebop, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Post Millenium

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

 

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Australia & Pacific gigs, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs

Steve Barry – PJ Koopman Quartet

We had been expecting the official release of Tom Dennisons ‘Zoo’ album but instead we got two musicians from that group in a new and exciting configuration.   While we were saddened that the ‘Zoo’ date was postponed, we could not complain as we were treated to a slice of Jazz heaven under the skillful co-leadership of Steve Barry and P J Koopman.

I make no bones about my enthusiasm for Steve Barry’s piano as I have heard him and reviewed him twice before.    Steve was back in town for two gigs only and the first of them under the leadership of premier Australian drummer Andrew Dickeson, had been a success by any measure.   This time Steve was appearing as co-leader and so many of his own compositions got an airing.  He and the much respected guitarist P J Koopman were also able to stretch out on some well-chosen and seldom heard compositions gleaned from the Jazz song book.

The other two quartet members were Oli Holland (bass) and Ron Samsom (drums).    This dream lineup gave us our moneys worth and a whole lot more.

The first number was the 1935 Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein classic ‘I’ve Told Every Little Star’.   It started with the bones of the melody and swiftly evolved into a swinging medium tempo number.  The composition should perhaps be credited to a small melodic bird, as it came to Kern when he heard a rare finch with a beautiful name singing on his windowsill (Melospiza Melodia).  It was also the last thing Kern sang from his death-bed.   In the hands of this band both bird and composer could not have failed to appreciate the updating.

The next number was a rendition of the moody atmospheric ‘Mantra’ by Kendrick Scott.   This is the perfect vehicle for guitar and piano and its deep penetrating lines were used to advantage by the band.    It is also a number where the drums (with mallets) and bass can be brought right up in the mix and this was certainly not a band to miss such an opportunity.  As they moved through the set list the audience were transfixed.  The guitarist PJ Koopman was at his best that night and it was a joy to see how well he and Steve Barry interacted.    An imperative for piano/guitar configurations is for each to keep out of the others way and they did that instinctively as they have played together over many years.   With a tasteful drummer like Ron Samsom and a skillful bassist like Oli Holland underpinning the chordal instruments, it was never going to be anything but satisfying.

As the set progressed they played two of Steve’s compositions – ‘Untitled 3’ and ‘Unconscious-Lee’.    The latter composition was dedicated to Lee Konitz and his tune ‘Subconscious-Lee’ which he so famously played with Warne Marsh.   It was here that we saw Steve’s writing skills come to the fore and above all experienced the fluidity of P J’s guitar.   I have often been told by guitarists how difficult this Lenny Tristano stuff is to do.   Long unison lines performed to metronome like timing (Tristano hated flashy drummers and famously said that his preference was for a metronome as time-keeper – he would not have minded Ron I’m sure).  There are real subtleties in this music and in lessor hands the message could have been subsumed in the detail.  P J and Steve ran their lines perfectly and when I closed my eyes I could hear an echo of Billy Beaur (g) and Lenny Tristano (p).

The last set begun with ‘Parks’ (Steve Barry) and I have heard him play this before. The tune had stuck fast in my head from the first time I heard it and so I had always wanted to know more about it. It was composed as a tribute to Aaron Parks during a period in which Steve had been listening to a lot of his music (you can find Aaron on the ‘James Farm’ albums along with top rated ex-pat kiwi bassist Matt Penman – sampled on Sound Cloud). Once again Ron Samsom used his mallets to great advantage with Oli Holland’s bass lines weaving skillfully throughout. I will never tire of hearing this complex but satisfying tune.

It was probably the penultimate number of the night which will linger longest in the minds of the audience. A friend commented on how utterly beautiful it was and cursed the fact that her bus was due to leave before the number was finished. The tune was a medley beginning with ‘Iris’ (Wayne Shorter) and segueing into ‘Clusters’ by Steve Barry. It was a good choice on so many levels as it was a more reflective number; allowing the band to showcase their melodic skills, improvisational skills and mastery of the Jazz vocabulary. This was a tune where the subtlety of the exchanges between guitar, piano, drums and bass was paramount. To maintain subtlety while stretching out is always a hard ask but they managed it perfectly. Of note were PJ with his stunningly beautiful chord work and Ron Samsom with his colourist mallet work. Ron is one of our best Kiwi drummers and certainly my favourite. Like all good drummers he understands that less is sometimes more and he is extremely tuneful. I watch his moves closely on gigs and to see him use all parts of the stick or mallet (and even use a beer bottle rolled across the cymbal) is fascinating.

Steve Barry has just been awarded a scholarship and so he will be extremely busy in Sydney over the next three years. What with that and giging his timetable will be full but we hope that he will remember his home town and visit as often as he is able. P J Koopman next returns to NZ to perform at the Tauranga Jazz festival and we look forward to that.

Other tunes performed were ‘P J B’ by Sean Wayland, ‘Cyclic Episode’ by Sam Rivers and ‘Cheryl’ by Charlie Parker.

As our best and brightest move offshore others step up in their place – Sam, Eli (and friend Rachel) gave us a taste of that in the late night Jam session following the gig.

Oli Holland & Ron Samsom (all photography by John Fenton)