Sonny Rollins: Way out West (Pacific)

Sonny Rollins

Image via Wikipedia

Back in January New Zealand Jazz lovers had been delighted to learn that Sonny Rollins would be in Wellington.   This band was the sole International act performing in the (temporarily truncated) Wellington Jazz Festival.  Sonny’s band is comprised of Bob Cranshaw (eb), Kobe Watkins (d) Sammy Figueroa (perc) Peter Bernstein (g).      As there are very few of the great 50’s tenor players remaining among us, my friends and I knew that we had to fly to Wellington to catch the act and had booked early.    It is lucky we did because the seats for the city’s Michael Fowler Center sold out quickly.    In an already busy Jazz year, the Sonny Rollins concert was a headline event in the New Zealand Jazz Calendar and as Sonny had turned 80 recently this was not an opportunity to be squandered.

When the band came on stage there was an initial cheer and then a slight hush as Sonny emerged – bent over and shuffling painfully.  We collectively held our breath as he shuffled to the microphone and uttered a few words.  Then a deafening roar of approval went up as the 80 year old put the golden saxophone to his lips.    It was as if a miracle had occurred because he appeared to grow in stature and from the very first note he was rejuvenated.    He played with a force and virility that would have been surprising in a 20 year old let alone an 80 year old. This was the Sonny of old.   The Saxophone Colossus of Brooklyn Bridge fame was again defying the gods of music; mocking them for trying silence him with age.

The band launched straight into the first number ‘D.Cherry’ which was hard driving and heavily accented by the powerful rhythm section.   Allowing only a 10 second break for the applause they ripped into the second number and apart from  a short introduction well into the concert there were few song announcements (nor an intermission).  This was the Sonny Rollins who had earned immeasurable respect over a lifetime of performance; powerfully taking the music to the edge of the possible.  Perhaps not always a pretty sound but absolutely typical of his vigorous, relentless improvising.  Sonny goes straight to the heart of a tune and then mines it for every ounce of meaning as he tells his story.  I recall a friend saying that his playing is like a dog gnawing on a bone until every morsel is gone.

The band had quickly hit their stride and were soon playing in lockstep.  What could not be denied though was that Sonny was more than the sum of the bands parts.   The versatile Bob Cranshaw is a well known bass player and he lived up to expectations.   The other musician I knew and rated was guitarist Peter Bernstein.   Peter has recorded as a leader a number of times and he is a regular fixture around the New York scene – especially with organ/guitar/drum trio’s in Manhattan clubs like ‘Smoke‘.  I would have liked Peter brought further forward in the mix, as his driving powerful lines are well worth hearing, but competing against the powerful drummer and the well miked-up percussionist was left to Sonny.    His powerhouse tenor sound rode over the top of the two with apparent ease.   The standout number for me was the ‘Annie get your gun’ (Irving Berlin) show tune ‘They say its wonderful’; which was…. wonderful.  Tiring after two energised hours; Sonny said goodnight and launched into ‘Don’t stop the carnival’, which sometimes quoted from his legendary calypso ‘St Thomas’.  The set list from the two hours plus concert was as follows: D. Cherry, Patanjali, Blue Gardenia, Serenade, Newark News, They Say It’s Wonderful, Tenor Madness and Don’t Stop the Carnival.

Sour note: As grateful as I was to Wellington for hosting Sonny, I am still annoyed at the funders for canceling the fuller Wellington International Jazz Festival this year.   I hope they realise how wonderful the last one was and never make that mistake again.   Rugby should never be allowed to negate such an important music festival – sport and music can co-exist if allowed to.

Wellington concert Sonny Rollins

Sonny in full flight Wellington concert

Random “retweets’ from the jazz planet

Herbie Hancock Quartet at the Round House, Camden

Image via Wikipedia

This post contains a few reminders of concerts and some feeds from ‘Twitter‘ and ‘Facebook‘. Navigating all of the pitfalls when locating well known personalities on Facebook (copy-cat sites) I located the Herbie Hancock facebook page and posted a link on how much I enjoyed his concert. Soon the singer from that concert Kristina Train posted – and along with her comments came photos of the Auckland Skytower. These appeared to excite people from all round the globe who guessed that the tower was in Russia or else Malaysia. Now two weeks later Herbie has posted a comprehensive itinerary, photos and a thanks message; the ‘likes’ and ‘comments’ posts from 30 or 40 countries show that this has been a huge tour for his band. This sort of interaction on ‘Facebook’ and ‘twitter’ connects me to the wider ‘Jazzosphere’ and I like it.

From my son in SF: ‘Can’t wait for the Jazz hall to be completed and of course the Fillmore which is legendary! How had I not realized that it is here?
We stumbled upon the historic area today once famous for being the home of the Beat generation; much of what Kerouac writes about in the Dharma Bums is centered here. It’s maintained some of its original flavor—much like Haight-Ashbury has with the Hippy movement—though more as a shrine. I’m with Hunter S. Thompson on this one:

“… and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back”.

From Twitter: Passion 4 Jazz – “singing#Jazz is chiefly a matter of developing a stoical disregard for decent food, decent lodgings & a decent home” Barry Ulanov

From Twitter feed; MusicLtdRu – “Marty Paich – Jazz West Coast 1959 – recent issue – twitter link j.mp/kvltb3.”      The joy of a fresh Marty Paich album – bless Twitter (jonjaz)

Remember tomorrow (Friday 27th) it is the Devonport Gig – Tom, Joe, Larry & Bruce (see earlier post)     Next week on the 1st at the Bruce Mason centre – Alan Broadbent – Roger Fox band.

San Francisco and Kiwi connections

My son and daughter in law have just moved to San Francisco and the goodbyes have been hard.    I watched them go through the departure gate with very mixed emotions – pride at what they had achieved and the inevitable sadness of a loving parent waving goodbye (my son is the CTO and co-founder of an IT company expanding into America).     He reminded me that Darien and I would have two good excuses to visit them as often as we could – family reunification and world-class Jazz.

He is right because San Francisco is one of the worlds great Jazz cities.   The city is at present building one of the worlds biggest dedicated Jazz centres.    It will be the first such centre in America totally dedicated to Jazz performance and education and it is expected to become a world-wide tourist attraction.    San Francisco is the home of the SF Jazz Collective and this amazing group is formed around Jazz Festival time each year.  They feature the compositions of one artist each year and to augment the already stellar lineup they invite a few top rated Jazz musicians to fill the guest spots.   This year they feature the music of Stevie Wonder – whose music is increasingly attaining Jazz standard status.   The bass player is Aucklander Matt Penman; who went through the Auckland School of music a few years earlier than my son.   Matt now plays at the top levels of Jazz and he tours America (and the world) with Jazz super-groups.   He is a core member of the SF Jazz Collective.    I have posted a link for this years San Francisco Jazz Festival which starts this week.    I would certainly pay good money to see the Eliane Elias quartet and that is on tomorrow night.    There are a number of free concerts and many headline acts (seeing hip-chic Ricky Lee Jones would be cool – remember her – married to Tom Waits once).     The big item will inevitably be the SF Jazz Collective though.    I will post a link to their site – so that you listen to a SFJC clip – Stevie Wonders ‘suspicion’.

This city is the home of the famous ‘Yoshi’s’ Jazz club and the Fillmore East (Miles and our own Mike Nock entertained huge audiences of hippies there).    There is a great Festival in mid summer which is in the Bay area – the ‘Fillmore Jazz Festival’.  This is a free festival dedicated to jazz and food and it occurs around the weekend of the 4th July.     I hope to keep you posted on these events as I will be attending vicariously – I have just appointed my son as a forward scout – ‘our man in SF’.

Alan Broadbent & Roger Fox; Bruce Mason Theatre

It has just been announced that NZ  born pianist Alan Broadbent is coming back to perform in Auckland with the Roger Fox Big Band.   The concert is billed as a Jazz Gala – Concert for Christchurch: 8 p m – June 1st  2011.   That is good news for Auckland’s Jazz community because Alan’s mix of perfectly executed standards and his story-telling between numbers makes for a great listening experience (who knew of the rivalry between Vernon Duke and Stravinsky?).   Last year in the Auckland Town Hall, Alan entranced the audience with his anecdotes and his playing and I am hoping that this easy going interactive style will still be evident this time around.   He is headlined to play with the Roger Fox Big Band and several LA based musician’s.   These are Charley Davis on Trumpet and Denise Perrier vocalist.   The event is being billed as a ‘Concert for Christchurch’ and the net proceeds will be donated to Christchurch.   At $44.40 per head and less for some tickets I would hope they get a good audience.   No mention of Joe La Barbera, Larry Koonse or Tom Worrington at this concert.

What could work against the timing however is the fact that the long awaited Sonny Rollins Concert is being held in Wellington 10 days later and that may lure some Jazz loving locals away (or leave them too out of pocket to go to both concerts).

The distribution problems with Alan’s newest CD ‘LIve at Giannelli Square ‘ do not appear to have resolved themselves.    I just received my third email from Amazon telling me that the item is still unavailable and what did I want them to do?.     I have cancelled the order in the hope that Alan will bring some copies with him.

Herbie Hancock: Chameleon, Headhunter, visionary?

Even before septuagenarian Herbie Hancock rolled into town he had been sought out by most of the mainstream media.    This man fascinates people beyond the Jazz world and I suspect that everyone would give a different reason why.   Herbie is simply larger than life and terminal cool is his brand.   When asked by Lynne Freeman of Radio New Zealand whether he was going to spend the rest of his days fine tuning his impressive musical legacy he surprised her by replying, “Music is what I do but it is not who I am.  I am a human being and I want to work on real issues that effect ordinary people”.   A long time devout Buddhist (as is his close friend and long time collaborator Wayne Shorter) he exudes calm and speaks with commonsense.   Herbie does not buy into his star status; but to others he is never-the-less a living legend.
We could feel the excitement mounting as we waited for the show to begin and then right on 8 pm the lights dimmed and drummer Trevor Lawrence strode onto the stage   He laid down a solid mesmerizing beat until James Genus appeared, who then added to the groove on his electric bass.   Suddenly Herbie was on stage; grinning and bowing to the audience and the fun began.    He looked fit and ready to get-down to it.   The group swiftly ripped into an upbeat, spirited avante guard tinged piece (Actual Proof) that was more Ornette than Empyrean Isles.  I suspect that would have taken many out of their comfort zone and this was clearly the intention.   The mood was well set and throughout the concert Herbie skillfully used tension and release in enumerable ways.   As this amazingly high energy group moved through the varied repertoire you could see the joy on their faces.   James genus seldom took his eyes of Herbie and they played as a single entity.   We got spirited renditions of Hancock classics followed by highly atmospheric tunes (such as Joni Mitchell’s ‘court and spark’ from the Grammy winning ‘River’ album with Wayne Shorter).    ‘Court and spark’ and other songs were sung by the fourth band member, vocalist and violinist Kristina Train.  Her voice was smokey and appealing and the crowd loved her.   We heard a jazz version of Bob Dylan’s ‘the times they are a changing’ and Bob Marley’s ‘Exodus’ accompanied by pre-recorded Sudanese musicians.   ‘It’s 2011’ said Herbie as he pointed to the hard drive at the heart of his system. Herbie Hancock is the undisputed master of electronic keyboards and effects, but on Tuesday he reminded us that he still owned the acoustic piano chair as well.
This was the history of post 50’s Jazz and it was the perfect ethnomusicology lesson.    We heard Irish, African, folk music and classic delta blues but the master’s stamp was on all of it.   This edgy musical journey was still unmistakably Jazz.   In the middle portion of the concert however Herbie played solo piano, taking us on an impressionistic reflective journey through his Maiden Voyage albums.   The band came back to accompany him on ‘Cantaloupe Island’ in what was to end a half hour piano medley, which held every one in awe.  Even ‘Round about Midnight’ got an airing.  Not a sniffle , not a cough, even Keith would have been impressed.   The stuff that I loved best was his Headhunter funk and he swung and grooved that like crazy – deep down grooves played with boundless joyous energy.    At the end of the concert he brought on a visiting group of blues rockers; slide guitarist Derrick Trucks and his wife Susan Tedeschi (a loud singer who sounds a lot like Janis Joplin).      This was pure enjoyment from start to finish and if anyone thought that Jazz was in decline they should have seen the age-range of those present.   The faces of the audience as they came out told the whole story.

Miles: Jack Johnson and Jack DeJohnette

Last night the ‘Dark Magus’ was among us again and what a joyful experience it was.   The DeJohnette band performed the often overlooked ‘Jack Johnson’ music, complete with the famous Jack Johnson film as back drop. The original Miles Davis album had been cut in 1970; not long after the more abstract ‘Bitches Brew’ and just before his free flowing ‘Fillmore’ excursions.   A very different sound was emerging and it is only now being properly evaluated.   Miles wanted to carve a pathway right into the hearts of the younger rock audiences and he achieved that without jettisoning all of his loyal Jazz audience.    At the time of its first release ‘Jack Johnson” alternately shocked or thrilled Miles fans.    The music was most definitely not rock music and if anything it was an edgier avante guard type of Jazz.     The brilliance of its execution and the raw electric energy created new fans to replace the older ones who stopped listing.   The  ‘Jack Johnson’ story-line is fundamentally about the issues of race and achievement against the odds, but there is a thread of good natured humour in this celebration of a likable man.    ‘Jack Johnson’ the soundtrack was pure Miles and pure genius.    It is obvious that Miles saw Jack Johnson as a role model.

A large part of Miles genius was in finding the right musicians and giving them the right push.    This resulted in some of the most successful collaborations in Jazz.   The original ‘Jack Johnson’ was actually a pared back version featuring Miles (t),Steve Grossmnan (ss), Herbie Hancock (ky), John McGlaughlin (g) Michael Henderson (b)Billy Cobham (d) and Brock Petters (v).  The first release was soon followed by ‘The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions’ and we saw a much enriched palette with the additional artists -Jack DeJohnette (d), Wayne Shorter(ss), Bennie Maupin (bcl), Chick Corea & Keith Jarrett (ky), Herbie Hancock (org), Sonny Sharrock (g), Ron Cater, Dave Holland, Gene Perla (b), Airto Moreira (perc), Hermeto Pascoal (v, d).

Last night master drummer Jack DeJohnette  presided over a new and updated version of ‘Jack Johnson’.    His guiding hand as a leader was in evidence every step of the way and with a smaller lineup than the original band he achieved the same result.  It was electrifying from start to finish as the soundscape ranged from the hauntingly beautiful (the boxers loneliness after winning the the world heavyweight title only to be ignored in his own country) to the dissonance  accompanying shocking Klu Klux Klan scenes.     The musicians were almost all multi-instrumentalists and their virtuosity on which-ever axe they picked up was evident.   There were two older musicians, Jack DeJohnette and Bass player, Jerome Harris; The rest were younger and all were very talented.   All respect to Byron Wallen for playing Miles so beautifully but the real accolade must go to Jack DeJohnette .   To see him sitting under a large projected image of Miles was to see see a perfect juxtaposition between past and present.

Concerts in the wind.

Quick Concert update:

This Saturday we get to hear the amazing Jack deJohnette – colourist and straight ahead master of the ‘traps’- probably the greatest drummer alive.     Jack’s band is performing an update on the ‘Miles Davis‘ fusion classic ‘Jack Johnson‘.     Next month Herbie Hancock is returning to Auckland (Tuesday 26th March) and his new ‘Imagine Project’ band will include talented Benin Guitarist Lionel Loueke.   I was in touch with old friend Larry Koonse last week (gifted West Coast Jazz guitarist) and he told me that he will likely be here again in a few months with the Roger Fox Big Band.     He may even return with Joe La Barbera like last time.

Lastly saxophone colossus Sonny Rollins is going to be playing in Wellington this winter (July).    As grumpy as I am with Wellington for canceling the International Jazz Festival because of the World Cup I will attend.     Swapping Jazz for rugby is a cardinal sin (or it bloody well should be).