CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Concerts - visiting Musicians

Sean Coffin (AUS)@ CJC

On Wednesday the 24th October we had an overseas visitor playing at the club, tenor saxophonist Sean Coffin.   This has been a great year for the Auckland Jazz scene and especially for the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) as a number of interesting local bands, out-of -towner’s, and overseas acts have appeared.  It’s the clubs imperative to offer genuine diversity, and this has caused the CJC to extend its reach.   Because Roger Manins has such a well established Australasian reputation and because the CJC is increasingly seen as a great club to play in, the net is ever-widening.   We are on the Oceania Jazz circuit fair and square.  

Sean Coffin is known in his native Australia for his stellar educational work, but it is his high level tenor playing that draws people to him.  He is among the best that Australia has to offer.   For many years he has been accompanied by his brother Greg (piano) and the work of this formidable pair is well recorded.   Sean studied at the Berklee School of Music and later as a postgraduate at the Manhattan  School of Music.  Among his many teachers I would single out George Garzone, as this world leading tenor player appears to have created a cadre of exceptional students in Australasia.  

At the CJC Sean showcased his most recent compositions and they were mostly themed around his children.  This proved a good source of inspiration as the numbers ranged from heart-felt ballads to some faster paced offerings (one referenced children at play).   These lovingly drawn compositions were well crafted and executed and no one had difficulty relating to them.   It is arguably risky to focus exclusively on family material, but the gamble paid off because the improvisations were tender without once descending into introspective noodling.   The integrity of the compositions as Jazz vehicles was always evident.  A lovely ballad to ‘Garz’ (dedicated to George Garzone) rounded things off nicely.

A local rhythm section was put together for this gig and in due deference to the visitor he was given the best.  Ron Sampsom (drums) and Oli Holland (upright bass).  With Kevin Field overseas, Dr Stephen Small took the piano chair.  No one needs to puzzle over my views on Ron Sampson and Oli Holland as my support for their work has been constant over time.  These two go way beyond the merely competent; they are solid, reliable musicians and they are also gutsy enough to handle new challenges without flinching.   Listening to them live or in a recorded situation will tell you everything you need to know.

Seeing Stephen Small again was an unexpected pleasure, as the patch he normally patrols is on the periphery of the Jazz world.  Because he teaches classical piano at Auckland University it would be easy to overlook the fact that he has other strings to his bow.   He is a madman on keyboards and I have seen him cut loose on banks of synthesisers during a Jazz fusion gig.   To say that his fusion performance was riveting would be an understatement.  He created textural layers of sound which swirled and soared alternatively.  Put him together with a fusion versed guitarist like Nick Granville or Dixon Nacey and he will take your ears apart in the best possible way.  Stephen is also a highly talented, straight-ahead, post-bop pianist and judging by the whoops of delight as he negotiated his solo’s he needs to get down to the CJC more often.   I am casting my vote for one of his Jazz fusion gigs.

Sean worked hard all evening and at the end he invited Roger Manins to the bandstand.   There was obvious respect between the two men but that didn’t stop them from going hard out.  When the best tenor players occupy the same bandstand, it generally ends up being a joyful celebration rather than a cutting contest.   This was respectful but no quarter was given.

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Avant-garde, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, New Zealand Jazz Gigs

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)

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs

Trudy Lile Quartet @ CJC

Jazz Flute is sometimes relegated to a place of lessor importance in the scheme of things and a few say that the instrument lacks the expression of the more ubiquitous reeds.   As with all things in Jazz it depends entirely on who is playing the instrument and how they apply themselves to the task.  If such naysayers had witnessed Trudy Lile on Wednesday the 10th of October 2012 at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) they’d have swallowed their words.   This was expressive and extremely lively flute playing and no one with half a brain could doubt Lile’s supremacy on the instrument.  She is a master of extended flute technique but the effects are always applied tastefully.  

As well as being a premier Jazz flutist, Trudy Lile is also a composer and vocalist .  These three skills were all evident at the CJC gig as she showcased many of her own compositions.   The numbers were engaging and tended toward the melodic (as you would expect of flute compositions).

I have selected one of these compositions as a typical example (see You Tube clip).   Her ‘Kingston 787’ has a well-arranged head, which as it develops, becomes the perfect springboard for extended improvisation. With the vague promise of summer in the offing I was in the mood for this type of number.  Swinging and soaring like a skylark – a tune that pleased the ear and invited you along for the journey without losing you before the end.

‘Kingston 787’ is a great composition, referring to the famous South Island steam engine of that name.  There is ample precedent in Jazz for writing charts about steam trains and two of the most notable examples are Gerry Mulligan’s ‘The Age of Steam’ (who could forget ‘K-9 Pacific) and Oscar Peterson’s memorable ‘Night Train’.   Trains and jazz have always been linked as musicians rushed between gigs; writing charts to the clickity-clack.  

While there were a few numbers by other people there were seven Trudy Lile originals.   First up was a feisty tune named ‘Flute Salad’ (Lile), followed by ‘Winter Wind’ (Parlato), ‘Night Bird’ (Enrico Pieranunzi), ‘Emily’ (Lile), ‘If I Fell’ (Lennon/McCartney), ‘Kingston 787’ (Lile), ‘Hammond Sandwich’ (Lile), ‘The Laughing Song’ (Lile), ‘Smile Like That’ (E.Spaulding), ‘Frodo’s Mojo’ (Lile), ‘Gone By Lunchtime’ (Lile).  The choice of lessor known tunes by well-known musicians worked well as a contrast.  It offered comparisons and her own compositions stood up well against the likes of Pieranunzi.  For ‘If I Fell’ Trudy played piano and sang, accompanied only by a first year student Sam Swindells on guitar.  

Her regular band is Mark Baynes (piano), Jo Shum (upright bass) and Jason Orme (drums).   This unit has been together for some time and it shows.   I have caught Jo and Jason many times at gigs but this was the first time that I had heard Mark.   It proved a good introduction to his playing and the musical rapport between he and Trudy worked well.  Mark’s touch and voicings are different from the pianists we see regularly at the club and it is encouraging to see such stylistic diversity in our city.   Mark is a keen student of Brad Mehldau and this focus has undoubtedly shaped his approach to the instrument.

Jo gets better and better every time I see her as she has the ability to provide a solid cushion beneath the piano and flute – freeing up both as she holds the centre.  By contrast her soloing was highly melodic and perhaps it is this which makes her so right for working with Trudy.  When her amp failed mid number her loss from the mix was noticeable although the rest of the band played on without faltering.

Jason Orme is the other regular and he and Trudy go back a long way.   Jason is a versatile drummer who knows exactly what his job is.   For this gig he shared the drum duties with first year student Michael Harray.  Michael played drums for one number and percussion for several more.   On ‘Kingston 787’ we heard both drums and percussion.   They worked extremely well together – I like gigs with a percussionist and a drummer and Michael was superb.

Another student Joel Griffin played alto on one number and a jazz choir joined Trudy on another.   None of these students let Trudy down.

There is a significant thing to appreciate about Trudy Lile and that is her role as an enabler.   She teaches Jazz studies at the NZSM Massey Campus and is on a perpetual quest to promote, challenge and push her students into playing in situations like this.  Sharing your prized gigs with beginning students has its risks but the rewards are far greater.   It is only through being tested against more experienced players that they learn.

Trudy gives a lot to the Jazz scene but I’m not sure that it is always acknowledged.  When it comes to the academic world such dedication is all too often overlooked.  I have pondered this and wonder if old fashioned misogyny is at play.

The leading Jazz flute players in the world are now predominately women (Nicole Mitchell and Jamie Baum just won the Down Beat critics poll).   The students understand this issue perfectly as many have voiced it to me.   Progression in teaching or on the bandstand must be merit based and gender blind.

The CJC and especially Roger Manins set a very good example in this regard.