Audio Foundation, Beyond category, Small ensemble

Noveltones & Knotted Throats @ AF

Noveltones (7)There is a world of interesting music happening at the Audio Foundation and this three-set gig exemplified the foundations imaginative ahead of the game programming. The evening featured a cross-section of music from the fully arranged to the unconstrained and free. From the open dialogue of the Knotted Throats to the carefully crafted texturally rich four-piece voicings of a jazz ensemble. Then, and perhaps this is the essence of the programming, the two groups merged and out of that came a declaration. Sound exists without boundaries. The borders and demarcation lines as we organise or sculpt sound are only human constructs and beyond these artificial barriers, the various languages merge. When that occurs music is the richer for it. Improvised music is always on the move and just as post-bop moved seamlessly between free, fusion, hard bop, bop and groove, so the journey continues. Noveltones (3)

The Noveltones are an assembly of gifted equals, collectively shaping sound while expressing individual voices. Soprano saxophonist Jasmine Lovell-Smith, who studied in the USA is at present working toward a doctorate in composition at the NZSM. Bass clarinettist Blair Latham who spent years in Mexico is fluent with many horns. Bass player Tom Callwood (mostly playing arco), who we saw recently with the Melancholy Stinging Babes (a formidable figure on the avant-garde scene), and Tristan Carter, a violinist who rounds off the ensemble sound beautifully. The music initially reminded me of Gunter Schuller’s third stream pieces, but this ensemble is in no way time locked. The principal composer for the first set was Lovell-Smith and her compositional experience was especially evident in the harmonic concepts. There were also compositions by Latham. The pieces often balanced a spiky beauty with voice-led passages. There was also an appealing textural quality. The current ensemble hasn’t yet recorded, but I hope that they do. I have put up a Noveltones sound-clip from the gig.

The second set was another aural feast as it featured Jeff Henderson, Hermione Johnson and Tom Callwood. Henderson (on baritone saxophone) is the heavyweight of the New Zealand avant-garde scene and he never disappoints. There are few musicians who can muster such authority or draw you in as deeply. He taps into the primal essence of sound itself. Johnson is a renowned experimental musician, the foremost voyager with prepared piano, a noted composer and an organist. She is particularly known for her bold originality. Callwood, who we heard earlier, is exactly the bass player you would want in this situation. His gift for adventurous arco and extended technique was put to good use. What we heard were essentially reflective pieces; pieces tailor-made for deep listening and wonderfully mesmerising. As the motifs repeated a brooding presence hung over the room, the voice of unquiet spirits released from constraint. Happily, this is a zone located well beyond the reach of the music police. I found this set profoundly engaging and I count myself lucky to have caught it.

The last set brought both ensembles together and this time with the addition of the gifted drummer and percussionist Chris O’Connor. A great evening of music.

Noveltones (6)

For those keen to hear more of Henderson’s explorations, they can’t go wrong by accessing an album he recorded with Clayton Thomas (bass) and Darren Moore (drums). It is titled, ‘For a Clean Cut – Sharpen the Blade’. This gem was recorded in the basement of an old Auckland Church and it is a cause for rejoicing. If ‘free’ music scares you then this may not be your bag; but if it does, why? Sculpting sound is what musicians do. 

The album is on Bandcamp at iiiirecords.bandcamp.com 

The gig artists were Jasmine Lovell-Smith (soprano saxophone), Blair Latham (bass clarinet), Tom Callwood (upright bass), Tristan Carter (violin), Jeff Henderson (baritone saxophone), Hermione Johnson (prepared piano), Chris O’Connor (percussion) IMG_1256

10th October 2019 Audio Foundation, Auckland Central.

Anthology, Avant-garde, Beyond category, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs

Elsen Price (Aust)

Elsen Price (5)Two bass, two drummer gigs while not unknown usually occur in service of a chordal instrument or of a horn line, and when a solo bass concert occurs, an audience is frequently shown ‘cleverness’. On this occasion, the bass of Elsen Price freed the instrument from the narrow confines of the standard rhythm section or the conventional solo bass repartee; instead, exposing the beautiful resonances and the reach of the instrument. This was sublime music and complete unto itself. It celebrated a gifted musician and a wonderful instrument but without displays of egocentricity. The feat was achieved by inviting us inside the music, and into a sonic cornucopia. We listened and we were captivated.

Life is full of unexpected sonorities and if we believe ourselves to be familiar with them all we are deluded. It is a paradox of modern life that popular music, while prolific, is cursed by formula-driven compositions. On Wednesday, Price and his ensemble teased the new from the familiar. Each instrument adding colour-tones and texture. Hands, fingers, ‘broom’ sticks, standard sticks, mallets, all deployed to good effect. Clicks, taps, scrapes on parchment, rim shots, gongs, bells and balloons under cymbals. And Price leading the way; a conduction answered by each musician and often in unison; acts of collective intuition. 

It is rare to hear Jazz arco bass played so well, it filled the room and swelled, but during the pizzicato passages Price was equally stunning. He is clearly a master technician but this was not about chops. He oversaw the ensemble as a true democrat, giving space and responding to the others. The first set was solo bass. Here Price showed us the breadth of his vision. He employed a looper peddle and would set up a drone or a motif. He would play counterpoint, either arco or plucked, sometimes creating a second loop over the first. He did not rely overly on the live samples, but harnessed them for discrete passages and always under his precise control. 

What we experienced in the second set were energised permanences by Price and his ensemble. Each revealing in their own way what lay deep within the music. That particular set ran a full hour and without interruption. It was a composition for improvisation but with no music on display and as far as I’m aware, no prior rehearsal. Price guided them with gestures or by changing pace. For these types of gigs to work well, the combined energies must feed a room. Music like this leans heavily on interplay, an intuitive reading of cues and deep listening by the musicians. Such high wire acts can easily falter, but this didn’t. That the terrain was navigated so effectively is because the right people were in place on the bandstand. 

Besides Price, on the second bass, was Eamon Edmundson Wells. Although the youngest member of the ensemble he is well versed in playing avant-garde situations. He would be among the first you go to for anything adventurous and he always delivers. On drum kit was Ron Samsom and it was pleasing to have him on this gig. Nothing daunts him and he has few stylistic limitations. He clearly relished the opportunity to play in the ensemble and to interact with another drummer. As he initiated cymbal scrapes, tapped with mallets and scuffed the ‘broom’ sticks the textures richened. This was colourist drumming of the best kind; extending the kit beyond the role of mere timekeeping. On hand drums and percussion was Chris O’Connor; the drummer most often seen in line ups like this. His ability to move seamlessly between genres is legendary; in these situations, he adds inestimable value. With O’Connor you get an ‘Art Ensemble of Chicago’ experience; all the tiny bells and gongs and with each one appearing exactly where it should for best effect.

Gigs like this can sometimes be difficult for audiences, especially those unfamiliar with a freer type of music. In this case, the audience showed enthusiasm, obviously enjoying the experience.

Elsen Price (upright bass, looper), Eamon Edmundson Wells (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums), Chris O’Connor (drums, percussion) @ Anthology, CJC Creative Jazz Club, Auckland 14 August 2019

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)

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.