Hearing people talk about the Chris Mason-Battley Group reminds me of the Hindu parable – the blind man and the Elephant. “Oh yeah, that guy has a smooth sweet sound’ one said as if that settled the matter. Well yes, he has got a smooth sound when playing a ballad, but anyone who thinks that defines his music has simply not been paying attention. This band has enormous depth; playing anything from a melodic ballad to music that is way off the grid. What we experienced on Wednesday was music with integrity; at times raw and inventive, drawing us into its heart, emotionally engaging and above all satisfying. The first number was ‘Mountain Song’ (by CMB); then they moved to a series of pieces from the CMB John Psathas project ‘Dialogos’ (progressing through excerpts from ‘Song for Simon’ and ‘Demonic Thesis’). As that set progressed we heard a new composition or two and lastly ‘Tahuna Caravan Park’ from his ‘Two Tides’ album. This gave us a broad sweep of his past projects and the Psathas album in particular. Dialogos was widely acclaimed as an exciting and bold step forward for the band – I can highly recommend the album (out on Rattle). Before the band left the stage for a break, Mason-Battley said; “That was the nice half – the second set is nasty half” (quoting from an album titled ‘The Jaberwocky comes to Town’ which had a ‘nice side’ and a ‘nasty side’.) As pleasing as the band were in the first set, they reached much deeper for the second; pulling out an utterly engaging and masterful performance. It began with several of the blacker pieces from ‘Dialogos’, ‘The Calenture Suite’. The drummer Stephen Thomas must be mentioned at this point – His work was integral to the overall performance and it underlined his maturity as a musician. At times subtle, at others incredibly complex – and all made to look easy in his hands. Thomas was extraordinary throughout and although a relative newcomer to this long-established band, his searing flames licked at their underbelly, an indispensible presence. In perfect contrast to the complex drum flurries was Sam Giles on electric bass. Giles is a master of the ostinato – repeated motifs, perfect time feel and the voodoo factor writ large. He is also an influence on the bands direction; favouring Zorn like explorations and paths less trodden. The CMB Group keyboardest is David Lines, an intersting and in my view under-rated musician. On this gig he played a Roland RD-700. What a beautiful piano and Rhodes sound. A machine hardly heard these days, replaced by the Nord Stage or modern Korgs. While the newer keyboards have more bells and whistles, I am unconvinced that their piano sound is an improvement. Perhaps it sounded so good because of Lines touch? He is not a busy pianist and every note counts, in this gig his often voice leading role was perfect for the project (his solos were stunning). I only wish we saw him more often.
As good as the rest were, Mason Battley stood out; especially on soprano and alto. He has a real stage presence and his luminous lines are always well conceived. It is great to hear him reaching ever deeper as time goes by. The number I have posted is a tune of his titled ‘Drum Dance 4 (Psathas)’; a Coltrane-esk exploration that exemplifies a way-point on their interesting journey. On that tune, everything is in perfect balance, Thomas taking a leading role while the others work off that, each bar taking us deeper, highly charged and sparse. The last tune of the evening was free and political. It was titled ‘The Emperor Has No Clothes’; an obvious reference to the greedy authoritarian amoral elites that hold sway in the world; particularly the Trump administration. It was free and it was raw emotion – in the background a loop recited ‘billions and billions’ – then, faintly at first, we heard the strains of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’. The band read the mood of the audience well with that one – people stomped and cheered afterwards as if someone had taken the words right out of their mouths and rendered them into abstract musical form.
CMB Group: Chris Mason-Battley (soprano, alto, tenor saxophones, compositions arrangements, electronics), David Lines (keyboards), Sam Giles (electric bass), Stephen Thomas (drums) @ CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, K’Rd, Auckland, July 26, 2017
By the time the second week of the Auckland Jazz Festival arrived, I began to feel my age. I had already experienced a number of late night gigs and a further week of music stretched ahead of me. This was no time to flag, as some interesting and innovative music lay ahead. The festival programme structure provided audiences with variety. The depth and breadth of the improvising scene was on show and I wanted to see everything possible. The week started well with the Meehan/Griffin/Manhire poetry project (see earlier review for this). That gig brought a new audience and I was still buzzing come Tuesday.
On Tuesday night the AJO (Auckland Jazz Orchestra) shoehorned into the CJC for the release of their ‘Darkly Dreaming‘ album. The AJO have a growing fan base and this was an eagerly anticipated event. Having earlier witnessed the actual recording session and a pre-taste performance of the suite, I was happily expectant. With charts as demanding as this, a thoroughly rehearsed band is essential and I knew that they would be. It was clear that this would be the definitive live performance so I couldn’t wait to hear that first swell of sound and to get my hands on the album. I had volunteered for door duty that night, turning up early to help. I enjoy the Jazz orchestra set-up process – in this case nineteen musicians and a conductor configuring a behemoth in an impossibly small space. It was like witnessing Nasa scientists beginning the launch sequence. Instruments and gauges checked, tapped and rechecked, cabling run out; each adding a layer to the criss-cross tangle of shoes, stands and chairs. Soon there were rows of brassy instruments standing in an (almost) orderly line, with the odd human interloper spoiling their symmetry. Random buzzing sounds came from warming up lips; and all punctuated with honks and plucked notes from far-flung corners of the room. this is the counterfactual of the sounds that follow. Band leader Tim Atkinson composed and arranged the suite. He has carefully shaped this ground breaking project as befitting a work of this importance. This is a modern piece of music in the mould of Darcy James Argue. Richly textured, evocative of the title and especially in the warm multi layered dissonance that swells out of the quieter passages. The work has captured a mood and an orchestra going places. This is a moment which benchmarks the growing maturity of the Auckland Jazz scene and I am truly glad to have witnessed it. The overall performance on the night was flawless, but if anyone stood out it was altoist Callum Passels. His solo on ‘The Dark Passenger’ was wonderful. it was a feat of story telling, of mood and it oozed freedom – as if he had somehow escaped the confines of room and orchestra. Importantly, he managed this without once deviating from the logic of the composition. I urge people to purchase this album and I guarantee that you will play it over and again. On Wednesday I spent time with the Benny Lackner Trio. A popular USA/German (French) trio who seldom passed up an opportunity to playfully ambush each other and often along the lines of nationality. Their mock combative banter acting as a counterweight to the cohesion they showed on the bandstand. I have seen this trio three times as they have a long association with New Zealand. In my view they are the true successor to Sweden’s lost lamented EST, but there is more to them besides. Their approach is similar but additional elements inform their music. The influence of Lacker’s former teacher Brad Mehldau is discernible but the band is forging a new sound. This is the confident face of post millennium European Jazz. Never compromising, unafraid to appropriate elements from their native culture, and done without a hint of self-consciousness. These guys are heavyweights and we are bound to hear a lot more of them in years to come. The trio’s set list was a mix or originals and some very interesting covers. What was not composed by Lackner or by the drummer Chazarenc, were often unexpected tunes; Brahms, Cold Play, David Bowie, Rodriguez and Jimmy Hendrix. ‘If Six were Nine’ was simply stunning. Warmly familiar to those of us who remembered the rock original. Taking the bones of a 1960’s tune and infusing it with edgy lines and modern harmonic conceptions. I have long-held the view that the new standards will come from material exactly like this. None of the band were alive when this acid blues classic was cut in 1969, but their joy at performing it was evident. Jimi would have loved it. The bass player on this trip was Bruno Schorpe. When offered an upright bass he declined – choosing to remain on electric bass throughout. I’m glad that he did because the instrument had the bite to act as counterweight. Balancing out well the electronics and various effects of Lackner’s keyboards. Then there was drummer Matthieu Chazarenc. He has accompanied Lackner on previous trips and to my ears he is directly out of a great tradition. French Jazz drummers have a sound that is distinct. Like many of his compatriots Chazarenc’s sound is crisp, even dry; utilising dynamics in ways that younger drummers are often incapable of. A label like ACT must surely pick the trio up sometime soon. They would be a perfect fit – much as they would for ECM.
Thursday brought us ‘The JAC‘ from Wellington. A delightful octet shortlisted in the 2015 New Zealand Jazz awards for their ‘Nerve’ album. This project is clearly one that will remain with us for some time and if any band deserves to become an institution it is this one. A brassy octet with an orchestral yet airy sound and one which I am particularly enthusiastic about. This was the release gig for their newest album.
‘The Green Room‘ (out on Rattle.) Rattle has an uncanny Knack of locating the best of new Zealand music and presenting it in ways that even the big labels seldom manage. The album is beautifully recorded and live the JAC simply sparkle as they weave texture and into their shape shifting grooves. In many ways it is a band of equals as almost everyone stands out at some point. While there is an incredible tightness to their performance, they manage to loosen up enough to create rub and textural complexity. It is almost overkill to single out soloists with a cohesive group like this as every one is notable in some way or another. Altoist Jake Baxendale is their nominal leader and three of the compositions on the album are attributed to him (including the title track). If any number captures the essence of the group it is this. The solo on his tune Andalucia also captures a strong sense of place. I know Andalucia well and this is a convincing testimony.
It is hard to know where to start with Callum Allardice; he grows as a musician every time I hear him. His compositions are stunning and his guitar work so fluid and exciting that it defies belief. These are performances that stop you in your tracks and few New Zealand guitarists capture that particular sound. Lex French is another spectacular performer and we would hardly expect otherwise. He is now the leading local voice on that horn. Perhaps the most experienced player is Nick tipping who never puts a foot wrong. On the new album we hear him at his best. Convincing contributions by the likes of Chris Buckland, Matthew Alison and Shaun Anderson reinforce the view that this is an all-star band. Lastly there is pianist Daniel Milward. He has recently moved to Melbourne and his voice is particularly strong on the recording; more so than on the first album. Not a showy pianist but an extremely tasteful one who gets it just right. I have put up a sound clip of the Allardice Composition ‘The Heist’, as I have loved it since first hearing it (probably at the Tauranga Jazz Festival).
On the 24th I attended another Rattle Jazz album release. This time at the Auckland University Jazz School in the Kenneth Meyers Centre. The Chris Mason Battley Group were performing the album DIALOGOS; this arising from the music of celebrated New Zealand composer John Psathas. The project is exciting and while very much in the moment, a careful crafting is evident. If that sounds like a contradiction it is not. Improvised music is forever reaching beyond imposed structural limitations; the boundaries of convention. Without that restless outreach the music would wither on the vine. This is an example of the new music that you might find on ECM (or Rattle), it is minimalist and references the ethos of John Cage or perhaps even Zorn; it reaches the outer limits of the known. In Psathas words, “it is not arranging or adapting…(rather) a continuing of the composing process”. There are works or arrangements which re-imagine and examine a work from an outside perspective. That is not the case here. This is part of a developing story and the Psathas vision remains at its heart. I recently read a trilogy by a famous and highly respected author. He had intended to write a fourth volume but died before he could proceed. A year later another author picked up where the original author left off and achieved something extremely rare. He added to the body of work seamlessly; continuing the narrative in ways that were his own and entirely consistent with the original. Although a more serious work, DIAGOLOS was an unmitigated triumph. Mason-Battley is a thoughtful gifted musician, but we don’t see him perform about town very often. Any new project gets his undivided attention and that was the case here. Counter intuitively, it is his careful preparation which affords him the extraordinary freedom he demonstrates on the bandstand. During this performance he took us right to the edge; you gained the sense listening that he was pushing himself a little further with each phrase. It is at times like this that great music emerges. While adventurous with electronics, he evokes a classic Coltrane sound on his Soprano. There are a number of local musicians who double on soprano but few (if any) sound like Battley. The Chris Mason-Battley Group has been around for some time and the original group set New Zealand records for the number of downloads and albums purchased. For this project core members David Lines, Sam Giles and Mason-Battley remain with the addition of drummer Stephen Thomas. Unlike earlier configurations, there is no guitar. Bringing Thomas into the mix has worked extremely well. The drummer of choice for many gigs and a gifted percussionist in the fullest sense. Psathas music calls for sensitive drum work and Thomas has exactly the right approach. His understanding of subtle dynamics, time awareness and overall sensitivity to the project were very much on display. I also appreciated David Lines piano. Lines early classical training was evident in places and again this made him a very good choice for the project. The work required a pianist with a particular chordal approach. At times he was minimalist and with a particular approach to voice leading. Lines like the other four were indispensable to the project. Lastly there was Sam Giles – an electric bass player I wish I heard more often. Giles often leans towards the avant-garde and innovative projects. That is where he shines. The Last Auckland Jazz Festival gig I attended was the Alan Brown/Kingsley Melhuish Alargo project at the Golden Dawn. The Golden Dawn is the perfect place to wind down and a very good place to hear laid back grooves and experience deliciously exotic ambient adventures. This music creates a world we wished we lived in. A world of exotic grooves and shifting realities. Seeing and hearing is believing with Alargo, their sound as wide as the ocean and as deep (a little songbook reference there). What Brown and Melhuish are crafting is terrific. Sound shaped, altered, looped and all guiding you inexorably toward that fantasy world of improvised/groove Jazz/electronica. As wonderful as it is to watch, it is essentially a place in which to abandon yourself. As you dive in you feel the buffeting of warm grooves all about you, as the tiredness of a busy fortnight evaporates. I thought that I was an early discoverer of improvised ambient music but Brown was way ahead of me. We have often discussed this genre and we see it as a local space worth claiming. Melhuish was always going to end up beside Brown on this project; trumpet, pedals, programming, percussion and shells swimming around the keyboards. An otherworldly magic evoked by Browns deft fingers. I like to think that I gave this music a slight nudge along the way. This has been an interesting Jazz Festival and although it is cliched, there was something for everyone. From manouche through to the avant-garde. I loved that it retained the feeling of local and of intimacy – even when showcasing offshore bands. The CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Rattle Records, 1885 Britomart, Auckland University, Golden Dawn, Portland Public House, Hallertau, Ostro, Lot 23, One2One, Hotel DeBrett, Lewis Eady, The Refreshment Room, the Vic, The Wine Cellar and other venues deserve our heartfelt thanks. Above all its Ben McNicoll who we must acknowledge as he lost sleep and carried the heaviest load. We are also in the debt of Caro and Roger Manins for the part they played. The vision belongs to these innovators and what ever happens along the way, I hope that the Auckland Jazz Festival continues as the fine fringe festival they envisioned.