Anthology, Beyond category, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Guitar

Ruckus @ Anthology

When you look up the term Ruckus in the various dictionaries, the definitions are broad. It is generally defined as a commotion, but it can also describe an argument, the joyful noise emanating from a soccer stadium, loud disputation, the general rowdiness of children and even a fight.  With such an array of options at my disposal, I have selected ‘joyous commotion’. This is the term that most fits the bill when alluding to this band. Ruckus has some history in Auckland and especially along the reaches of Ponsonby Road. While the personnel often come and go, the ethos does not. Kicking up the dust in this current melee were David Ward, Neil Watson, Cam Allen, Eamon Edmundson Wells, and Chris O’Connor. David Ward is a central figure in the group and his compositions featured strongly last Wednesday.  

Again, it was encouraging to see the high turnout at the CJC after a month in the new K’Road Anthology venue. The word is clearly getting about that this is the best place to enjoy Wednesday nights. Once you descend the stairs, winter becomes a distant memory. While clearly pulling in the crowds, the band is hard to pigeon hole. The music hints at a number of descriptors and among them, terms like Zappa-esque, improvised Americana, Fellini-esque and Monkish all come close. At times they veer towards the experimental but no matter the direction, they are always fun.

With the exception of an obscure Monk tune, the tunes last week were originals. These were unique arrangements with a textural richness created by instruments full of contrast. A baritone saxophone with a pedal steel guitar plus Fender offers up an interesting sound palette. With O’Connor and Edmundson Wells, the palette is complete. Both have ‘out’ credentials and O’Connor is as much a percussionist as he is a conventional drummer. Allen moved between baritone and tenor and during his solos, but he never departed too far from the over-arching message. This band stands strongly on its collective strength. Ward featured strongly in the heads of the tunes, establishing unusual rhythmic figures then skilfully pulling them apart.  When both Fenders were playing they acted as if in sync, moving in and out without clashing. With the pedal-steel numbers, Watson was adventurous, often using the instrument in unexpected ways.  He, Ward and O’Conner also made wide use of percussive effects; clicks, squeaks, and muted staccato guitar.

There is mileage to be had in these adventurous offings and I hope that they develop the repertoire further. While it may not be what an audience is anticipating, in this case, they lapped it up. Especially when leavened with calypso.  

Ruckus: David Ward (Fender Guitar), Neil Watson (pedal steel, Fender Guitar), Cam Allen (baritone, tenor saxophone), Eamon Edmundson Wells (upright bass), Chris O’Connor (drums)

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Beyond category, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, experimental improvised music

Kira Kira on tour

Kira KiraThe interesting diversity in the CJC programming was again on display last week with two international acts as different musically as acts could be. Wednesday featured a multinational mostly free-improvised music ensemble Kira Kira and Thursday the Harlem born Jazz/Soul Singer Vivian Sessoms. Both attracted good audiences, once again proving the value of adventurous programming.

Kira Kira features two renowned Japanese avant-garde musicians, Satoko Fujii, composer/pianist, and partner Natsuki Tamura on trumpet. This particular project is a collaboration with the Australian pianist Alister Spence. It is usual for Fujii to challenge herself by performing alongside musicians new to her acquaintance and for the Auckland show, the basic trio added drummer/percussionist Chris O’Connor. This was exactly the right choice. Kira Kira (3)

These are seasoned musicians at the peak of their powers and it showed as they navigated a less travelled musical terrain. Fujii is the best known of the ensemble, having attracted accolades from around the world. She has been called the Ellington of free music. Her early teachers and mentors included Paul Bley, Cecil McBee, and George Russell (all appeared on her debut album).  She has released 80 albums so far and this year, her 60th, she will release an album a month. She is an extraordinary musician who plays as free as a bird; but who never-the-less weaves in a mirage-like momentum. There is a sense of purpose, a pathway leading to deep beauty, but all of the above is elusive. Like all free music, the essence can dissolve if you try too hard to grasp at the form. Kira Kira (5)

Spense came to New Zealand recently, touring with trumpet player Eamon Dilworth. He impressed me deeply then as his tasteful minimalism told bigger stories than a busier player. In Kira Kira, he plays Rhodes, electric piano, preparations, and controls effects. Few people have seen a Rhodes performing topless but it was certainly captivating. As he stroked and tapped under the hood he extracted an array of wonderful sounds and colours. He interacted with the other three musicians in ways that only a deep improviser could; responding to and working with the ever-shifting duo segments.

When Natsuki Tamura played, his trumpet cut through the air like a swooping hawk. Sometimes Percussive and confronting, at other moments gentle, cajoling. At times he reminded me of Wadado Leo Smith. His lines could be supportive or squalling and contradictory and he was the perfect foil to the chordal expansiveness of the piano.

Lastly the newcomer to the group, New Zealand drummer Chris O’Connor. If anyone could add value to an already fulsome sound it was him. He reacted and contributed with such sensitivity that it became impossible to imagine the group without him. I have uploaded part two of the Kira Kira suite to YouTube and posted it (part one was marred by fridge noise and the other two movements were too long). I invite you to listen and then listen again. This is music that rewards deep listening. This was freedom.

Kira Kira was performed by Satoko Fujii, Natsuki Tamora, Alister Spence and Chris O’Connor at the Backbeat Bar, for the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) November 21, 2018

 

Backbeat Bar, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Post Millenium

Watson meets Ward @ Backbeat Bar

Watson & WardIt is not often that you attend a gig where a set list covers such a range of styles but still pays due respect to each. If anyone could pull off such a gig; traversing the heights of Monk, Murray McNabb, Frantz Casseus, Bill Frisell and Ornette Colman it was these two. In lesser hands, the trajectory would have faltered, the items come across as disembodied. Here, the connecting threads, however improbable, made perfect sense. The centre held and the arc of the journey was a joyous adventure. Watson & Ward (1)

Neil Watson is a musician who musicians flock to hear. He breaks rules and strikes out in directions where few dare to follow. Everyone from Sharrock to Montgomery is referenced in his sound; with a generous pinch of Ribot thrown in for good measure. He sometimes hides in pit bands backing dancing fools, tours with famous country stars, opens for people like Marc Ribot, but whatever he does, he does convincingly. In recent years he purchased a pedal steel guitar and that is now an essential part of his repertoire. He exudes real warmth on stage, both as a storyteller and a musician.

I have only seen David Ward play on the odd occasion but it is always a treat. Like Watson, he is a master of diverse styles and he is particularly noted for his award-winning theatre compositions. He has toured extensively and gained a formidable reputation over the years. In Jazz and alternative music circles, it is the improvising band RUKUS that we mostly associate him with. RUKUS has featured a who’s who of adventurous improvisers such as Chris O’Connor, John Bell, Jeff Henderson, Eamon Edmundson-Wells, Cameron Allen, Finn Scholes & Rui Inaba. Watson & Ward (2)

The pairing of Watson and Ward guaranteed that creative sparks would fly.  It was always on the cards that they would perform together but until now the opportunity had not presented itself. I am certain that this project will develop from here –  logic tells me it has to. The quality of their musicianship was very much on display at the Backbeat Bar. On the three Monk tunes, they either ran unison lines or interwove an intricate counterpoint, and miraculously, the jagged phrases often created a fat Monkish dissonance; each guitarist deliberately landing on different voicings- creating a piano cluster chord effect. This was a quality band as Watson & Ward were backed by Cameron Allen (tenor and Baritone saxophones) Cameron McArthur (upright bass) and Chris O’Connor (drums). Understanding exactly what was required here the three left the lion’s share of the limelight to the guitarists. O’Connor displayed his usual eclectic virtuosity as the drum styles required were many and varied. Watson & Ward (3)

At one point Watson played solo, a composition by Frantz Casseus (a folksy classical guitarist who has influenced the likes of Marc Ribot). Out of his Fender came a delicate classical guitar sound – a moment of whispering clarity and magic. The pair also showcased their own compositions and again these contrasted in a good way. Ward’s ‘Mango’, ‘Shebop’ and ‘Hip replacement’ – Watson’s ‘Trash talkin’ (a Western Swing) and his extraordinarily ‘Murray’ – an apt tribute to the lost lamented and much-loved Jazz musician Murray McNabb. Among the tunes, we heard some heartfelt Americana (rare in New Zealand Jazz clubs and it is especially rare to hear Western two-beat Swing).

The high points were many, but I will put up two clips; The first is a Bill Frisell number ‘I am not a farmer’ from his moody atmospheric album ‘Disfamer’. The second up is a short clip where Watson plays a Frantz Casseus tune ‘Improvisations’ solo on Fender.

The gig took place at the Backbeat Bar, K’Road Auckland for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, 15 August 2018.

 

 

 

Review, Small ensemble, Straight ahead

Lucien Johnson + 5

a2788670674_16.jpgThe eponymously titled album ‘Lucian Johnson+5’ was first released in 2016 and has recently been re-released in Japan on vinal. I have only encountered Johnson performing once or twice as he has spent a lot of time outside of New Zealand. He was born in Wellington, but led an interesting life elsewhere, travelling the world with various innovative bands and living for long periods in Paris. I first encountered him when he toured with ‘The Troubles; a delightfully anarchic folksy ensemble he co-founded along with Scottish Jazz drummer John Rae. After hearing Lucien Johnson+5, I will be paying close attention to his futures offerings.

I became aware of the album’s existence soon after its release, but carelessly lost the Bandcamp access code when I changed computers. I finally regained access, listened and was immediately impressed. This is a mature piece of work with real depth. Given the diversity of experience, the musicians bring to the project that is hardly surprising.  Johnson’s musicianship and compositional abilities are well known – pare him with these five musicians and you get something special. Any project involving Crayford, French, O’Connor, Van Dijk and Callwood is going to grab the attention.

There is a certain mood emanating from this album, a palpable sense of the Iberian Peninsula. It is more than just the track names – it cuts far deeper than that. You will not hear overt Jazz Flamenco or Moorish tunes. You will hear reflective ballads, Latin, hard swing and all with fine arrangements (arrangements which evoke the hay-day of the classic Jazz ensemble). The album warmly invites us to engage, and the deeper we engage the greater the reward. The musicians were clearly onboard with the project and each of them gets a chance to shine. There are many wonderful solos, none that are too long and each solo harnessing to the spirit of the collective. Brilliant musicians all, but with no egos on display.

‘Light Shaft’ has a dancy Latin feel with French and Johnson reacting to Crayford’s rhythmic accenting; Crayford later tying it all together with a masterful solo. ‘El Cid’ is another great tune, again with a Latin American flavour, this time Afro Cuban. The clave aside, it evokes the Reconquista hero perfectly. El Cid’s is a tale well worth the re-telling; especially since modern scholars discovered that his antecedents were actually Moors, the very people he fought with such evangelistic fervour – a modern parable. ‘Zapata’ is another delightful tune and with plenty of meat on the bone.  It opens with O’Connor beating out a Krupa like rhythm on the toms, the ensemble comes in next, navigating a skillfully arranged head with nimble ease. Van Dijk and Crawford follow with stunning solos, but everyone is superb. This is a great piece of ensemble playing and above all it is fun. Here is Zapata:

My favourite from the album is ‘Asturias’. This track has a thoughtful quality and as many layers as a ripe onion. In spite of being a sextet, the ensemble sounds like a nonet at times – capturing the vibe of 50’s Gil Evans. This lies mainly in the skillful writing, as space and texture are maximised. The rich voicings of the horn line are also of importance, as they somehow manage to convey substance and airiness at the same time. Nick Van Dijk in particular, utilising the opportunity to shine through. Crayford and Callwood also have essential roles – Crayford creating a strumming effect, as Callwood did in the opening bars. Asturias is a region of northwestern Spain and also a Flamenco guitar style (a style often adapted to other instruments). Albeniz wrote in this style in the 19th century,  The melody over a strummed pedal chord (the thumb playing the melody line).

When we listen to evocative music, we bring our imagination to the experience. Whether intended by Johnson or not, this album took me back to Spain. I have travelled extensively in Andalucia and rekindling those memories through this music was a pleasure. The artwork is also superb and that is credited to George Johnson. The best place to source this album is on Bandcamp or via the Lucien Johnson website. lucienjohnson5.bandcamp.com

 

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Straight ahead

Nick Hempton @ Thirsty Dog

NickMusic listeners split into two main camps; active and passive listeners. Those who listen to improvised music incline towards active, deep-listening. We know that the brains of improvising musicians light up in unusual ways when playing. Much the same applies to listening Jazz audiences. On Wednesday night a saxophone trio played at the Thirsty Dog; no chordal instruments, no lingering over familiar melody lines, a trio which worked within a broader musical architecture, following the changes where ever they led.  Nick Hempton is an interesting player and the right person to take us on this journey.Nick (2)This sort of gig works well with listening audiences because it invites active participation. On Wednesday, each piece began with a few lines from a familiar standard, often just implied; then, a few bars in, the lines evolved into new melodies based on the changes. As the trio responded the horn led the others to various way-points: places where the music changed course. Fragments of new standards were discovered, unravelled, abandoned. The human brain is hard-wired for pattern recognition, but we love the puzzles that arise from the search. Settling for the familiar is not how we evolved. We evolved by following the risk takers, marvelling at their daring. Following this musical risk-taker, was our delight.Nick (1)The point was not so much the standards themselves but the opportunities they presented. Appearing and disappearing in medley form was; ‘Night in Tunisia’, ‘Body and Soul’ A Sony Rollins waltz, ‘Exactly Like You’ and ‘Rhythm a Ning’ – these and more were examined. Standing alone was the lovely ballad ‘When I Grow too old to Dream’ (Romberg) and in Hempton’s hands, it was beautifully realised. There was also a great rendition of ‘Just Squeeze Me (don’t tease me)’ (Ellington) – I have posted that. The last trio piece was ‘Poor Butterfly (Hubbell [Puccini])’; followed by Roger Manins joining the trio for two last two numbers. As is often the case when two tenors appear on the same stage, a delightfully upbeat and riotous vibe emerges. Friendly sparring matches like this always go down well.Nick Rog2

Hempton is a fixture on the New York scene and regularly performs at the popular Smalls Jazz Club in the Village. His pick up band in Auckland was Cameron McArthur (bass) and Chris O’Connor (drums).  I was delighted to see McArthur back after his extended time overseas. O’Connor is always a good choice when imaginative drumming is required. The trio did not rehearse – Hampton sent them a list of possible tunes before the gig and nothing more.  This allowed for spontaneity and unconstrained exploration. Ever striking out for new ground, Hempton released his recent ‘Catch & Release’ album incrementally – one track at a time. It is available from nickhemptonband.com

Nick Hempton (tenor saxophone), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Chris O’Connor (drums) – guest Roger Manins (tenor saxophone). CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, K’Road, Auckland, 4 October 2017.

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Post Millenium, Straight ahead

Jasmine Lovell Smith – ‘Yellow Red Blue’

Jasmine 258After years traveling the wider Jazz world,  Jasmine Lovell-Smith came home; launching her latest album ‘Yellow Red Blue’ at the CJC last Wednesday. The Album features a quintet ‘Towering Poppies’; a group she formed in New York over five years ago. Her New Zealand gig featured locals Roger Manins, Kevin Field, Eamon Edmundson-Wells and Chris O’Connor. After her New York release she garnered a number of favourable reviews and no wonder. This is a lovely album, her compositions and arrangements outstanding, the recording immaculate.

Lovell-Smith spent the last seven years in the United States and Mexico. Along the way she studied with the experimentalist, saxophonist and composer Anthony Braxton. When you first listen to ‘Yellow Red Blue’, the wild raspy joyous alto of Braxton is not the first thing that comes to mind. Good musicians, and Lovell-Smith is one, learn from their teachers while transforming the information into something all their own. Lovell-Smith has clearly assimilated a multiplicity of interesting influences. Her beautifully crafted  compositions teeming with ideas.Jasmine 257 Her soprano sound  is warm and enveloping, the cleaner tone of her straight horn nicely counterbalancing with the woody earthiness of the bass clarinet, the well constructed charts coming into their own when these delightful interactions occur. The rich textures are never overwhelming, even when strings enter the mix. This is chamber Jazz at it’s best, engaging the listener without resorting to cliché.

The compositions also travelled well. Wednesday’s gig had a different lineup from the album. Replacing bass clarinet was a tenor saxophone (Manins) and in place of the piano was a Rhodes (Field). Manins is incredibly intuitive in these roles and a hint of that wild (Braxton-like) unconstrained joy was evident. On the head arrangements they were captivating, on the solo’s explorative. Field and Manins are so in tune after years of interaction, that they can push each other to greater heights effortlessly. In spite of such familiarity the two avoided falling into familiar groves, stimulated by the charts and aided by Eamon Edmundson-Wells intuitive bass lines. Edmundson-Wells is a multifaceted bassist and often seen with avant-gardests.Jasmine 256

As a special treat we had the amazing Chris O’Connor on drums. I can never get enough of this guy. He can do anything on traps including hyper subtlety. On the last number of the first set he turned in a solo which was so coherent, so perfect, that the world moved into his orbit. This faster-paced tune ‘A nest to fly’, was from an earlier Lovell-Smith album.

The tunes were all by Lovell-Smith with the exception of Joni Mitchell’s ‘I had a king’. Her arrangement on that teased out fresh ideas. One particular version of that tune always sticks in my mind, the one from ‘The Joni Letters’ (with Shorter & Hancock). This version pleased me for its raw beauty and quiet intensity. The sound-clips posted here are ‘Moving mountains’ from the album and ‘A nest to fly’ from the live gig.

The title track ‘Yellow Red Blue’ is reflective and abstract. It is written in reaction to the Mark Rothko painting of the same name. I have recently been on a modernist painting viewing binge in Europe and America. The bold eerie magnetism of Rothko is still fixed in my mind’s eye, greatly refreshed after this homage. The title ‘Red Yellow Blue’ and the Rothko reference feels appropriate. Neither invite pigeon holing, both draw you deep into a borderless world.IMG_0263.jpg

Lowell-Smith is back in New Zealand to pursue a Doctorate in composition with John Psathas. Her albums are available from www.jasminelovellsmith.com

Towering Poppies: Jasmine Lovel-Smith (soprano, compositions, arrangements), Josh Sinton (bass clarinet), Cat Toren (piano), Adam Hopkins (bass), Kate Gentle (drums). A string quartet features on 3,5 & 7)

Towering Poppies live NZ: Jasmine Lovell-Smith (soprano), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Kevin Field (Rhodes, piano), Eamon Edmundson-Wells, Chris O’Connor (drums). March 15, 2017, CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Thirsty Dog, Auckland.

 

Beyond category, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, experimental improvised music

Dreamville Jazzmares album

Henderson 099 (2)The alternative music scene in Auckland is surprisingly strong and although at times appearing hermetically sealed against the outside world, it flourishes in discrete self-contained units. There are no neon signs proclaiming ‘underground music found here’. If you visit Karangahape Road on the right night, deploying a seismometer to the footpath outside St Kevin’s Arcade, or to the walls of the Parisian Tie Factory, the readings will red-line. The digital spikes an indication of subterranean life. I love these basement venues and reclaiming them in the right way is an art form. The basements I refer to were once utilitarian storehouses from a bygone era, a monotoned boring past wearing walk shorts – now softened by memory. Now they emit a frisson of mystique and risk – alternative music lives here. A towering presence in this shadowy world is musician Jeff Henderson. Henderson 102The aptly named ‘Dreamville’ project came to my attention when Henderson appeared at the CJC in 2015 it floored me, the concept grounded in a reality we often overlook at our peril. The primal bubbling energy underpinning sound itself. The first time I heard ‘Dreamville Jazzmares’ the lineup was different – a quintet; reeds, vibes, guitar, upright bass and drums. Now, the album features an octet and for the Auckland release, Henderson added an extra horn and electric bass. While it is tempting to reference a Sun Ra band or perhaps Zorn’s Electric Masada, this is overwhelmingly a manifestation of Henderson’s originality. A gifted composer, talented musician and tongue in cheek visionary.Henderson 105While the careful listener may initially find a lot that feels familiar, the familiar is illusionary, snatches of past and future, wearing clothes made of mist. The relationship to other projects is in the end superficial. This is an important original work and there is no mistaking that. When listening to the Auckland release an additional realisation struck me. Rhythm is the dominant force in Henderson’s compositions. His deeply woven rhythms extend way beyond the drums and percussion (there are two drummers – at times three). Here every instrument is rhythmically charged under his guidance. During the live performance in Auckland Henderson often picked up a bright red parade bass drum. As he tapped out rhythms on the side or accented beats behind the complex interwoven traps drummers, a marvelous polyrhythmic effect occurred. An effect heard in Polynesian drumming. The beats, strums, wails and chords often falling in step – primal morse – dot-dash-dah in myriad combinations.Henderson 104

The Dreamsville Wellington recording band is:  Jeff Henderson (alto, baritone, c-melody saxophones, voice, bass drum), Bridget Kelly (tenor saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet), Gerard Crewdson (trumpet, trombone, tuba, voice), Daniel Beban (guitar), Julian Taylor (guitar), Tom Callwood (acoustic, electric bass), Joe McCallum (drums, Percussion), Anthony Donaldson (drums). This is a suite that lends itself to variation and interpretation like few others. Kelly and Crewdson worked well with Henderson, creating a cohesive multi-horn dialogue, rich in texture and fulsome. Having two drummers, two guitars, and a strong doubling bass player, gave the contrast and gut punch required.Henderson 107The Auckland band were; Jeff Henderson (alto, c-melody, baritone saxes, voice, bass drum), Jim Langabeer (alto flute, sopranino, tenor, soprano saxes), Liz Stokes (trumpet, trombone), Tom Rodwell (guitar), Phil Dryson (guitar, voice), Tom Callwood (electric bass), Eamon Edmunson (upright bass), Anthony Donaldson (drums, percussion), Chris O’Connor (drums, percussion). Although different, this was a rich heady brew – the composition loosened, but always guided by Henderson’s astute hand. His method of guiding the composition riveting to onlookers, his signals unusual but effective, call and response signalling a new direction. An entire language developed – a conduction that could lengthen, shorten or guide a musician towards untapped zones.

Henderson 099 (1)

My favourite signal his use of voice – eerie otherworldly high pitched vocal phrases – mimicking instruments, some of which have not yet been invented, strangely beautiful, deeply human. Langabeers alto flute was the counterweight, earthy, sonorous, but his sopranino was freed from gravity (at times he played multiphonics on tenor or played two horns at once). Everyone gave their best – exhausted as they were afterwards.

The album is selling out fast but copies can be obtained or ordered from Henderson in Auckland or in Wellington from Slow Boat Records or Rough Peel. It is also available on Bandcamp at iiiirecords.bandcamp.com. I strongly advise ordering the double CD as it is a thing of beauty, the size of a penguin paperback. The artwork was created by band member Gerard Crewdson, a multi-talented artist, and musician. The images are simply exquisite with a subtle disquiet lurking behind the peaceful overarching beauty. Here I am minded of the engravings of John Buckland Wright (a New Zealand born illustrator and engraver who attained considerable fame in 1930’s London). The live gig took place in the Wine Cellar on the 23rd June 2016.