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.

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

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)

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

 

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.

 

 

 

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

 

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.

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.

 

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.

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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.

 

 

Jim Langabeer – ‘Sketches of Aotearoa’

Jim Langaber 087 (2)A seasoned New York veteran when asked to comment on the quality of playing by young artists emerging from the Jazz Schools said, “Man they’re such great players. Many of them have chops to burn, but what is lacking is ‘character’. That is not taught in Jazz schools, you gain it inch by inch out of life experience”. To paraphrase Lester Young who put it best, ‘I hear the notes, but what is your story’. The character of a musician (or the lack of it), shows up in the music. Jim Langabeer has ‘character’ to burn. He tells wonderfully human musical stories and they are utterly beguiling.Jim Langaber 090Langabeer is hugely respected on the scene and deservedly so. He has worked with greats like Gary Peacock and Jaco Pastorius and in spite of absorbing the essence of North American Jazz, his ideas and sound possess a Kiwi authenticity. When he plays his tenor there is often a street-raw raspy intonation. The sound is at times reminiscent of Archie Shepp, but the story and flow of ideas are entirely his own. His flute playing is soulful and as soft as silk in the breeze. Because he is so comfortable in his own space he can incorporate everything from the avant-garde to indigenous music without it sounding contrived. These seamless references work beautifully in his hands. We talked of this after the gig and agreed that many of the earliest attempts at blending middle eastern, far eastern or ethnic music were less successful than now. Jim Langaber 089As the boundaries between cultures blur in a globalised world, the mutual respect between improvising traditions grows. I have posted an example of this effortless genre-blending in a clip from the CJC gig titled ‘Ananda’s Midnight Blues’. Those who are familiar with Buddhism will grasp the meaning immediately. Ananda was Gautama Buddha’s childhood friend and later his disciple. Beloved, worldly and yet never afraid to challenge his enlightened teacher. There is a feeling of deep questing spirituality in the piece – reaching beyond mere form.Jim Langaber 088 (1)Whether Langabeer plays flutes or reeds, everything serves the composition. His spare lines (which are devoid of undue ornamentation) establish a theme and then vanish like a will-o-the-wisp, giving a nudge to the imagination and enriching the piece as a whole. There are no wild flurries of notes on the saxophone or flute because the story resides elsewhere. His writing creates an over-arching logic and the ensemble has the freedom to move in and around tonality. In some pieces ostinato patterns create a drone effect, becoming a single note over which to restate the melody. This freedom allows for an organic interaction, free or inside and with a deep gut-felt pulse.Jim Langaber 088When putting a band like this together the choice of musicians is supremely important. Not every musician could handle such freedom. Needless to say, Langabeer chose well. The ensemble was rich in contrasting colour, rich in character. It was our good fortune that Jim Langabeer’s daughter Rosie Langabeer was back in town. I can’t imagine a better-qualified pianist for this role. A leading avant-gardist and experimental musician who crafts compelling filigree and rich beauty into her music. Rosie Langabeer can play outside one minute and the next you hear a deep subtle swing, a rare kind of pulse that you can feel in your bones. A gifted composer and leader in her own right, an extraordinary sides-women when required. Moving from percussive, richly dissonant voicings to heart-stopping arpeggiated runs – somewhat reminiscent of Alice Coltrane’s later piano offerings. Her iconoclastic playing delighted the audience.Jim Langaber 093On alto was Roger Manins. Although the alto is not his main horn he is extraordinarily fluent on the instrument. Langabeer has been focussing on multiphonics and microtonality of late and he and Manins showcased some atmospheric numbers utilising various blowing techniques. Manins has long impressed by playing in a variety of styles with equal facility. On guitar and pedal steel guitar was Neil Watson, bringing his mix of blues, Jazz punk, and avant-garde to the fore. Another iconoclast and one we love hearing. The pedal steel guitar has been in his possession for a year now and his rapid mastery of the instrument is impressive. A difficult beast tamed beautifully. On Bass was Eamon Edmundson-Wells. A versatile young bass player most often found in the company of experimental musicians. His performance on this gig was right on the money.Jim Langaber 091On drums and percussion was Chris O’Connor. Perhaps more than anyone else O’Connor personifies this free-ranging music. Of all the New Zealand drummers, his are the widest-ranging skills. Colourist, minimalist, indie rocker, straight-ahead jazz, avant-garde, experimental percussion and film work. There is nothing he won’t tackle and everything he touches benefits from his musicianship. When a piece titled ‘Tapu’ was played O’Connor stole the show. While Langabeer played the difficult and wonderfully atmospheric Putorino (a traditional Maori flute of the Taonga Puoro family), O’Connor simulated the Tawhirimatea (A traditional whirring instrument dedicated to the god of winds). The effect was eerie and electrical. Later in the piece he blew through the stem of his snare stand – recreating the effects of the Pututara (a conch trumpet). Only O,Conner could have pulled this off so well. Like Langabeer, he has a deep awareness of multicultural issues.Jim Langaber 092The one standard was Strobe Road (Sonny Rollins). A lesser known standard and played with enthusiasm. The remainder was a selection of Langabeer tunes, many referencing Maori of Kiwi themes. His tune Rata Flower was a stunner – it deserves to become a local standard. He has obtained funding from Creative New Zealand for this project and we might see a ‘Sketches of Aotearoa’ album soon. I truly hope this occurs and I will be the first to purchase one.

Sketches of Aotearoa: Jim Langabeer (flutes, Taonga Puoro, tenor saxophone, compositions), Rosie Langabeer (piano, keys), Roger Manins (alto saxophone), Neil Watson (Fender guitar, steel guitar), Eamon Edmundson-Wells (bass), Chris O’Connor (drums, percussion). Performed at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Albion Hotel, Auckland, New Zealand – 20th April 2016.Jim Langaber 094

Rob Luft @ ‘Third Way’ – Albion CJC

Luft2 087With the Indian summer lingering, March rolled seamlessly into April, and in Jazz parlance, we got to JAM (Jazz April Month). This is the month when the International Jazz community reaches out and proclaims, listen up ‘world’ we have something to say. The month culminates with UNESCO world Jazz day; last year the main celebration was in Paris, before that Osaka and Istanbul. This year the Thelonius Monk Foundation and UNESCO will hold the WJD main celebration in the White House at the invitation of President Obama.

In the first week of Jazz April, Auckland’s premier Jazz Club the CJC moved to a new temporary location. There are always anxieties when changes occur, but we needn’t have worried. The CJC (Creative Jazz Club) is a powerful brand and the audience moved with them, their enthusiasm unabated. The last Britomart gig ended on a high note, the first Albion gig began likewise. This year has seen a steady stream of important internationals on the bandstand and last week it was Rob Luft. Luft is a rapidly rising figure on the UK Jazz scene and getting him at the club was another coup. Luft is something of a phenomenon and his rise is nothing short of meteoric. As his reach increasingly extends beyond his own shores, international audiences take note: his future is rosy from here out.Luft 093He is a different sort of guitarist and although in his early twenties, he already sounds like a member of that post-millennial cadre of improvising trend setters. As usual, I arrived during the setup and what I heard offered promise. His lines during the warm-up number were fast and furious, but the clarity of tone and of ideas, jaw dropping. As the first set began the band traversed various moods, from the Bop referencing to the reflective. Luft is a formidable technician, his fluency beyond the reach of many practitioners I suspect, but during the slower reflective numbers, we glimpsed subtly and depth.Luft 094

During extended periods of improvisation, he would intensify his focus; you could see it on his face as he hunched into the guitar as if merging with the instrument, mining themes until they were reborn. Occasionally I would hear the hint of a phrase or an arpeggiated effect in the upper register that made me smile. I had only heard that sort clarity and cleverly modulated sound from one other guitarist, Mike Moreno. Later when we spoke I told him that. Luft said that he was glad I picked up on that and in fact he once stayed with Moreno, undertaking a week of intense lessons. Luft’s full, clean, and cleverly modulated tone lends itself to such high-end comparisons.Luft 088The first set brought us the trio formation, and the set list ranged from the near avant-garde to ‘world Jazz’. I really enjoyed the material chosen as there were quirky originals, and material ranging from the familiar (Gismonti) to the unfamiliar – tunes by Portuguese or Brazilian composers including a delightfully outrageous rendering of a tune called ‘The bickering of the crazy musicians’. That one brought the house down. I was also delighted with his tribute to the adventurous guitarist Derick Bayley; a tune titles ‘Derick’. Again this showcased the breadth of his influences. Whether the reflective or quirky, handled with the supreme confidence that only a musician at one with his instrument can attain. Accompanying him was Tim Robertson, an expat with a long string of impressive credits to his name in the UK. Robertson and Luft were a tightly focussed team, enhanced by the addition of Chris O’Connor for the Auckland gig.  O’Connor is endlessly versatile and ever popular about the country – from Indie Rock or straight ahead Jazz through to experimental music. He adds enormous value to any bandstand, any genre, and the choice could not have been better.Luft2 088On the second set, the trio added local saxophonist Roger Manins and the tunes although standards took in a wide spectrum. Opening with a ‘groove take’ on Victor Young’s ‘Delilah’ and then in contrast diving headlong into a marvelous Ornette Colman piece. ‘Humpty Dumpty’ from Ornette’s ‘This is our Music’ was undoubtedly my favourite of the night. Everything these musicians played worked well, but this tune just bounced off the walls and had everyone whooping in delight. Next was a crazy little known Monk tune titled ‘Unidentified Monk Solo’ and lastly ‘Ray’s Idea’ by Ray Brown. From deep listening enjoyment to wild and free in one gig.Luft 095Two nights later I was watching the Sky Arts channel when a programme on guitarists came up. Then I saw him, a younger Rob Luft performing at Ronny Scotts, solo guitar, receiving praise from George Benson, recording at Abbey Road studios and winning the Jazz section of a prestigious UK guitar competition.  We sure lucked out getting this band for a Jazz April opener. The clip below is from a Ronnie Scotts gig – Rob Luft with ZiroBop – The clip  tells you everything you need to know about him as a guitarist.

Rob Luft (guitar), Tim Robertson (upright bass), Chris O’Connor (drums) and guest Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Performing at the Albion Hotel, April 6th, 2016

Auckland Jazz Festival 2015 – part one

AJO @ Festival logo This is the second Auckland Jazz Festival and what incredibly tasty offerings there are in the programme. The event runs as a fringe festival and this is absolutely the right approach; no corporates making stupid unhelpful suggestions, an intense focus on the best of Kiwi improvised music and international acts with an established connection to New Zealand. The ‘best kept secret’ ethos is a good model for this music and it’s true. In a nutshell the festival tells an all but hidden story; the story of a vibrant diverse Jazz scene, with more than enough talent to wow discriminating audiences. The biggest downside of fringe festivals is that they run on air. Good attendance can mitigate this. With no significant up-front advertising budget, the role of the sponsoring clubs, bars, galleries and local record labels is vital. Those venues and the labels (Rattle in this case) need our support and appreciation. While Auckland has an unfortunate track record of failing to support the arts, the winds of change are in the air. The gigs on offer are diverse and interesting and Auckland will increasingly want a piece of this magic. 12080125_10154517770924815_4684211624996739413_oThe festival opened on the 14th with a duo of respected Australian musicians, ‘The Prodigal Sons’. P J Koopman (guitar) and Steve Barry (piano) are expats who left New Zealand long ago to work in Australia. Both are fondly remembered by Kiwi audiences and both are now firmly established in Sydney; polished musicians speaking each others language. The years of hard work and performance in diverse situations giving them particular insights. Barry has been widely acknowledged for recent albums and although widely engaged in academic pursuits recently, it is good to see him on the road again. These guys can really swing their lines and do it while spinning out fresh ideas. No tempo deters them, but it was the medium and slow tempos that showed us their best. The two original compositions which particularly impressed me were by Koopman; ‘Working Title’ and ‘Major Minor’. On these tunes the exchanges between the two were breathtaking. They engaged two fine local musicians for the gig and with the talented Cameron McArthur on bass and Andrew Keegan on drums the gig was superb. McArthur and Keegan were there every step of the way and as pleasing as the headliners.

During solos the shared experience and friendship of guitarist and pianist spoke loudest. I always look for humanity in music and it was most evident during these personal exchanges. On ballads and in particular on standards, Steve Barry has few peers. I like his more complex compositions and enjoyed those, but like many younger musicians he plays few standards. When he does he chooses well and pays them deep respect. On Wednesday they played ‘Isfahan’ (Strayhorn/Ellington) and ‘Skylark’ (Carmichael/Mercer). The latter in particular communicated that wonderful Strayhorn magic. A burst of particularly loud applause followed that number and rightly so. An excellent beginning to the Jazz festival. JoCray electric (5)On Thursday the Jonathan Crayford Electric Trio featured. It is no secret that I rate Crayford highly and I would go to see him perform anywhere. Arguably one of our top Jazz exports to the world and undoubtedly one of the more innovative musicians on the scene today. No Crayford project is a half-hearted affair, as this musician lives music in the fullest sense. His musical outpourings are sublime but it goes deeper than his excellent musicianship. Crayford’s vantage point on the creative life is unusual and deeply focussed: few others share his perception.

When he returns from New York or Berlin he brings the road life with him; a teeming wealth of fresh experience populated by people, places and planets; pouring from his consciousness and into his deep improvisations. Every project has total commitment and every project draws you deeper. Gifted communicators allow us to glimpse what they see and Crayford has that power, especially if you pay proper attention. He has one foot in the everyday world and one in the realms beyond our imaginings. JoCray electric (15)Powering the gig were legendary analogue machines, the sort that live on in spite of themselves. A Rhodes and a Hohner Clavinet D6 fed through an array of pedals, a talk box and other electronic marvels. In Crayford’s hands these spoke afresh, as the listener travelled backwards and forwards in time – simultaneously. whether playing solo piano or music like this, it is always about the groove. He has an un-hurried and methodical way of diving ever deeper into grooves. Unpicking them until you realise that an infinity of corridors yield to his probing. There is nothing of the technocrat here, just deep and uncompromising sonic vista of immense beauty. JoCray electric (8)The third gig I attended was the Norman Meehan/Hannah Griffin/Bill Manhire/Colin Hemmingsen night, ‘Small holes in the Silence’. I was particularly delighted with this offering as I had not yet seen them perform together. Their collaborations are marvellous creations; ever seeping deeper into the consciousness of art-music and poetry lovers. This gig had special written all over it. Meehan is a gifted composer, academic, pianist and author. Everyone on the Australasian Jazz Scene has marvelled at his scholarship when capturing the essence of Bley or Nock in print. He was clearly the right person to shepherd this project, as his touch and pianist lines have the cadences of a poet. He understands the value of space, modulation and sparse voicing. Often allowing a feather light touch to communicate the loudest of truths. Above all he communicates without undue ornamentation. These are the poets attributes and the Jazz musicians attributes. Finding a new way to tell a story, pushing at the edges of grammar and understanding what to jettison in order to find the clear air. AJO @ Festival Meehan (6)Hannah Griffin has an astonishingly purity to her voice, bell-like, adamantine. She evokes the history of the song form. It is as easy to imagine her singing a bards lines in a medieval castle as in a modern setting. She brings the sensibilities of vocalists like Joni Mitchell and like them she serves the words and the music. She interprets but in subtle ways. This is truly an art music ensemble and the words and mood are at their very heart. With each notes passing the essence of the words remained and this is a tribute to the arranging. The other ensemble member is Colin Hemmingsen, a former NZSO principal and Jazz musician. Hemmingsen is a saxophonist who doubles on winds. His bass clarinet playing is fabulous, conjuring the warm woodiness in that especially resonant instrument. The choice of instruments, and voicings was of vital importance here. The conversations needed to convey conviviality. After each reading the ensemble gave their interpretation of a Manhire poem, voices blending, not competing, the words left as pure residue for contemplation.

The Meehan/Griffin/Manhire projects have been well recorded by Rattle Records NZ and these are all available from the Rattle site (see below). This was the launch of ‘Small Holes in the Silence’ – the tile referencing the poem by ‘Hone Tuwhare’AJO @ Festival Meehan (10)Bill Manhire is one of New Zealand’s favourite poets and experiencing him reading in a subterranean jazz club is a unique experience. A reading augmented by fine musicians lifts the experience to the sublime. Manhire is a towering figure in New Zealand literature. A much-loved poet laureate, anthologist and literary standard-bearer. Showcasing to the world the essence of who we are, speaking in that deliciously self-effacing Kiwi voice that we value so much. His poems telling our stories as much as they tell his own. He is us in ways that we wish we could express. He is the poet we aspire to. His poem ‘The Hawk’ moved me deeply. Speaking of vast landscapes and human interactions from a poets vantage point. I also loved his ode to the great Cornish poet Charles Causley, a sly humorous and deftly crafted piece that conveyed deep affection. Above all it captured the ballad form and I could not help thinking of Housman. Two poems however caught me unawares and they were by a dear friend long departed, Dave Mitchell. Mitchell has all but faded from memory and it delighted me to hear him paid his dues. In his younger years a sweet-natured friendly man, in latter years troubled and ill. The reading from ‘Pipe Dreams in Ponsonby’ is what I will take away and hold close – the gentle flames of our lost poet rekindled by a master orator. AJO @ Festival Meehan (8)  Capturing Manhire in musical form required sensitivity; without that the nuances of breath would be lost in the complexities of a sonic landscape. The sets reminded us that poetry and music are natural collaborators. A lyric is a poem accompanied by a lyre. From the Gilgamesh onwards it has been so, the appearance of separation an illusion, the connection archetypal. It is good therefore to see them coupled in this way and by these people.

This blog is syndicated on the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) website and supports the Auckland Jazz Festival and Rattle Records

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Dreamville @ CJC

 

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The Dreamville gig was aptly named for a number of reasons but not least because there were no defined sets, no breaks between numbers.  Like a dream the gig moved forward under its own internal momentum.  Surreal themes constantly dissolving until exhausted, forms shifting without seeming to.  What made this journey so evanescent, but so compelling, was that certain motifs remained deep in our consciousness throughout; totems of sound embedding themselves.  Like the images in a dreamscape the music stroked the chords of memory; familiar yet ungraspable.  As each new realty claimed the preceding one, you realised that a musical osmosis was at work.  A band filtering its own ideas until only the essence remained.  This was especially evident with the recurring melodic themes.  It was best to let these themes be, to let them wash over you without over analysing.

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For nearly 2 hours we sat transfixed, subsumed by a musical force quite unlike any other.   At times the sounds were primal, even brutal, then as sweet as a summer breeze.  I have put up a clip which encompasses two segments from the gig.  In the clip a theme developed by Henderson on C Melody Saxophone (the instrument and the melodic theme takes us straight back to Ellington, perhaps even further back to Trumbaur who played with Bix Biederbeck).   The C melody Saxophone, a none transposing instrument, is a rare beast and in the right hands it quickly reveals its earthy warm tones.  The vibraphone and guitar lay down simple repeating patterns, while the saxophone weaves its melodic way through the soundscape, expressing a deep soulful longing.  Even here all is not what it seems.  A surreal quality still pervades this section, a sixth sense as you edge towards the chaos that is to follow.  There is a Mingus ensemble like quality at first, then the bass solo unravels the theme, drawing you into a less certain world; you are suddenly in Zorn territory.  IMG_2972 - Version 2e

At this point Henderson moved into the light, his C Melody horn put aside, a throaty baritone in its place.   Tah-tah ta ta, tah-tah ta ta, tah-tah ta ta–taa taa states the baritone and the volume and the intensity was swiftly increased.  The music had turned on a dime and everyone reeled back, momentarily overpowered by the mood shift.  Henderson sensing this, advanced toward the audience honking and squealing, carving up the room, not letting the moment pass.   This was musical theatre at its best and it served the purpose well.  One thing I have learned over the years; avant-garde music is always best experienced live.

IMG_4740 - Version 2There is a rawness and a primal quality to it, a strong sense of performance.  Who would prefer a recording of an Arkestra or an Art Ensemble of Chicago performance over a live show?  This was all jazz and all music decoded, not for the cocktail party.  The next day I was watching the 1956 Jean Bach film ‘Great Day in Harlem’ and there was Roy ‘Little Jazz’ Eldridge squealing out high note after high note on his trumpet.   Again and again he pushed out a flurry of wild free multi-phonic sounds.  Even in the swing era this had great effect.

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I am always impressed by John Bell and he was superb in this quintet.  His approach to vibes is percussive and he avoids clichés.  He leaves plenty of space between his lightening runs and the accents and his improvisations have their own compelling logic.  The guitarist was quite a revelation.  I had not heard Phil Dryson before and he impressed me deeply.  Never once did he overplay (a failing of some guitarists), letting his unmistakable chops serve the collective purpose.   Once again the solid body guitar earned its stripes in an improvised music setting.  It felt like he incorporated a fusion era approach with Marc Ribot’s .  Zorn favours edgy, open-eared guitarists like this; he would love this guy.  IMG_2989 - Version 2

On drums was Chris O’Conner (a favourite drummer of mine).  His kit was highly unusual but perfectly suited to the gig.  At times we heard him as percussionist, extending the possibilities, clicks, bell-like sounds and a multitude of edgy beats from the various toms.  Ethnic polyrhythmic effects arose, especially when Henderson beat an oversized bass drum.   The bass player Eamon Edmundson Wells was great.  He fitted into this setting perfectly and it surprising how quickly he has assimilated the vocabulary of diverse musical styles.  In Cameron McArthur’s absence he has stepped up without equivocation.  Hard work and the Auckland University Jazz program have obviously set him up well.  IMG_2955 - Version 2 (1)

This was a sound super-nova created by dangerous visionaries.  There were no leaders identified in the blurb and the band acted as one entity.  All played to the peak of their ability and with unity of purpose  That said the powerhouse presence of Jeff Henderson and John Bell were quite unmistakable.  I could especially feel Henderson’s guiding hand throughout.  This is the space he occupies musically and he is the titan of this realm.  Although my ears rang for days afterwards I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

What: ‘Dreamville’ – Jeff Henderson (Baritone, C Melody, Alto saxophones), John Bell (Metalophone), Phil Dryson (solidbody guitar), Eamon Edmundson Wells (upright bass), Chris O’Connor (traps drums, percussion).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand, 24th September 2014.

Spoilers of Utopia / Ruckus@CJC

The way that music is interpreted by the human brain is understood up to a point, but there are many mysteries remaining. The topic interests neuroscientists, fans and musicians alike. While pattern recognition is one the of the main hooks drawing us deeper into a piece of music, we also become bored if the pattern remains relentlessly familiar. That doesn’t rule out repeated notes or a vamp as the points of variance are incredibly subtle; groove music or John Cage compositions bear this out. Whether subtle or overt, educated Jazz audiences prefer music that challenges, delights, reveals or amazes.

Good Jazz and improvised music does this despite the few fans who slavishly confine themselves to a single era or style. Live gigs will drag you out of your comfort zone and here’s the thing. Music is a language and we learn by hearing the unfamiliar and comparing it with what we know. Learning language is an innate skill possessed by all humans. As we listen to what we are unsure of, our tastes grow proportionally. These days Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Carla Bley and Zorn have a solid foothold in our consciousness; just as Jackson Pollack makes overwhelming sense when seen on a gallery wall. Jazz listeners should always want more than sonic wallpaper.

In keeping with Roger Manins enlightened approach as program director of the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), he had booked two very interesting groups to play on the 17th October 2012. First up was ‘Ruckus’, a quartet that was anything but run of the mill. The second was the out-brass ensemble (+ four), ‘Spoilers of Utopia’. What we got was joyful, challenging and outrageously humorous music. Music that was fiendishly clever without once resorting to introspective navel gazing.

‘Ruckus’ led by David Ward, a fine guitarist who has assimilated a dozen guitar styles and then stepped free of them. He composed the tunes Ruckus played and they were a metaphor for the inventiveness and vibrancy of the New Zealand Jazz scene. The set list was interesting and the group showed real guts in their interpretations. No one cruised through this material and consequently the collective pulse was quickly amped to a point of high intensity. Some of this material was reminiscent of a Fellini soundtrack, while still managing to evoke real-time global references. It was modern in the best possible way while hinting at its musical origins. I like musical surprises and this music surprised me.

Club goers recognised two well-known locals in ‘Ruckus’, Chris O’Connor (d) and John Bell (vibes). I do not recall seeing the bass player Rui Inaba before but this unit really did come together. Chris and John had double duties this night as they were not only in ‘Ruckus’ but in the ‘Spoilers of Utopia’ as well.

Chris is a drummer that I am very familiar with as his multifaceted approach to traps and percussion makes him a favourite on a number of scenes. He is one of the most talented, open and interesting drummers in New Zealand and it is always fascinating to watch how other drummers flock to hear him. Chris never rushes to fill any void as he understands how complete an implied or missed beat is. He has such a well honed sense of time that he can push at the fabric of reason without losing momentum . He also knows how to remain relaxed at the kit and how to say more with less. The fact that he is one of the nicest cats on the music scene is an added bonus.

John Bell is an extraordinary vibes player and he generally favours the free over the straight ahead. In Ruckus he showed that he is comfortable moving between both worlds. He can swing like ‘Hamp’ then merge that groove seamlessly into an irregular pulse. The one thing that stands out however is his musical courage. John shows an integrity that few vibists do. While a lovely ringing vibrato is what we most often associate with the vibes (early Gary Burton or Bags), the instrument is capable of more besides. He is recapturing the history of the vibraphone while showing us a possible future path. The vibraphone is a percussion instrument and that can easily be forgotten.

The Spoilers of Utopia (also ‘Tparty Spoilers of Utopia’) are a brass heavy ensemble and they are marching resolutely into new territory. While the charts are initially familiar they are never quite what you think. The genius of this music is its kaleidoscopic quality, as it reflects a thousand fractured images while somehow keeping the whole intact. We feel that we can almost grasp the essence; only to find the familiar deconstructed. A pack of travelling Jesters has skilfully woven a new cloth from the old and what was once orderly descends into a pleasant chaos. We follow the twists and turns and just as we fear we are lost…. a disciplined brass band marches out of the haze. This is a new take on tension and release and it really works for me.

The ‘Spoilers of Utopia’ are usually a nonet and as anyone who knows me will verify, I just love a nonet. They are big enough to create to create the illusion of a larger unit but small enough to leave a sense of airiness. To balance out the five brass instruments there was Vibraphonist (John Bell), guitarist (Neil Watson), bass player(Darren Hannah) and drummer (Chris O’Connor). The Brass section were Kingsley Melhuish, Ben Ziber, Finn Scholes, Owen Melhuish, (Don McGlashan absent that night).

I know Finn Scholes having been wowed by his facility on the trumpet (or flugal horn) before. Neil Watson is also a familiar figure at the CJC and I noted how well his solid-body guitar sound fitted the brass dominant ensemble. I liked his contributions enormously and knowing his quirky offbeat take on life and music, it must have been a no-brainer to include him in the mix. There was also a degree of unison playing and with the unusual instrumental configurations, the timbre of the instruments merged to create a richer sound. George Shearing and Tristano grasped this long ago. Having Piano, vibes and/or guitar playing unison lines changed the sound. Putting vibes and guitar with brass was to produce a wonderful contrast. As the ensemble moved from order to chaos and back again I could feel the guiding spirit of John Bell at work: the demented dance instructor shimmering in darkness.

The track that I have selected from the ‘Spoilers of Utopia’ set is so good that I have watched it over and over. The tune is a hymn beloved of the Salvation Army bands, ‘We’re Marching to Zion’ (Sankey). Someone decided on the spot that a drum solo should occur in the middle. As the band proceeded the overall effect of this anarchic but strangely reverential wizardry brought us to our feet? The audience showed wild enthusiasm (and if you peered into the darkness and listened carefully, I swear you could hear Sankey laughing).

This comes from where Jazz began; brass marching bands and random instruments merging to form a new and riskier sound.

Thank you to Jen Sol for providing the video material (as I stupidly forgot my camera bag on that night)