Anthony Donaldson

Devils Gate Outfit

Devils Gate Outfit was recorded live at Wellington’s Meow two months ago. The album is bursting with restless spirits, and I am not surprised that such a powerful genie was let out of the bottle so quickly. There are multitudes of spirits hovering over the recording, fragmentary echoes of Ornette and Miles, but the predominant voices are those which haunt the ragged windy Wellington coastline. All are paid their due, but the album is unconfined by the many streams that feed it. It is above all a succinct commentary on the breadth of improvised music that is thriving in Aotearoa right now. 

The album is out on Kiwi Jahzz, a natural home for adventurous and original free music. And it captures a particular night at Meow where the band holds a residency. The playing is great, and so is the overarching vibe. Delivering great performances without defaulting to any ‘look at me’ moments. It is a band uncoupled from tired old formulas and thus able to move as freely as it desires. Sometimes this results in tantalisingly fleeting glimpses of the past, then just as suddenly you are plunged into the forward-looking improvised groove music favoured by younger audiences.  

The album is loosely programmatic but does not follow a linear storyline. It establishes a theme, then drops kaleidoscopic images. letting the music paint evocative sound pictures. There is a wealth of musicianship evident here as well. I am familiar with most of the players (apart from Steve Roche and David Donaldson). Although new to me, I am delighted to hear both for the first time. It was also good to hear Cory Champion expanding his percussion role to Vibes.

I am picking that drummer/composer Anthony Donaldson is the nominal leader in this outfit and around him are a truly formidable crew. The interactions between them are impressive as they navigate that fine line between spontaneity and cohesion. The slow-burning bluesy Wood Drift is the closest thing to straight ahead and it is a delightfully spacious piece of music – it could (and should) find cut-through with any Jazz taste. And I can never hear enough of Blair Latham’s playing. On Wood Drift, his woody sonority and captivating lines caress the melody against a gentle background of Daniel Beban’s understated guitar and Callwood’s bass, setting up Champion, Roache and Beban for solos, such a languid and appealing groove tune. 

Contrasting nicely, The Portal to Red Rocks is a burner and a showcase for Latham on saxophone and the very capable Roche. Here the bass and drums provide propulsive energy as they navigate the shifting rhythms and washes of electronic effects. If I had to pick a tune that best exemplifies the album it would be the opener Storm of the Century. Anthony Donaldson owns this track and it is his pulse that sets the others free. I will be surprised if this isn’t a contender for Tui Jazz Album of the year.

The Devils Gate Outfit: Anthony Donaldson (drums), Tom Callwood (double bass), Steve Roche (cornet, baritone horn, Cassio), Blair Latham (saxophones, bass clarinet, David Donaldson (bass banjo, percussion), Daniel Beban (guitar, electronics), Cory Champion (vibes, percussion, synthesizer) It was released 19 October 2021, on Kiwi Jahzz and is available digitally on Bandcamp: kiwijahzz.bandcamp.com 

School of Hard Nocks ~ by Village of The Idiots

This amazing recording is extracted from a number of live shows organised by the visionary drummer Anthony Donaldson. Among the shows referenced are ‘Seven Samurai’ ‘Oils of Ulan’ Po Face’ and others. The overarching implied theme is the Samurai film genre. This is an album where open conversations occur between two art forms. It belongs to an interesting subgenre of improvised music and in my view an avenue worthy of continued exploration. You encounter it convincing in Zorn’s Filmworks. These were reimagined soundtracks, or more accurately, soundtracks to reimagined movies. Music aligned to the essence and untethered from any strict narrative form. Auckland/Canadian guitarist Keith Price did just this with his reimagined The Good the Bad and the Ugly score. Jazz has always been associated with the cinema, but extending the brief and pushing into clearer air is where the gold lies.   

The album is painted on a vast canvas and has a cast that must rival that of a Spaghetti Western (or Carla Bley/Paul Haines Escalator Over the Hill). Thirty-one musicians are credited here and a significant number of them are high profile improvisers. Throughout, they come and go, as larger and smaller ensembles change places, with some artists like Jonathan Crayford appearing on a single track. The mood can shift at lightning speed, as a tune ends abruptly and a fresh exploration emerges. Another aspect that can’t be overlooked is the underlying humour. Music like this is not pitched at the serious-faced, dinner suit/ball gown-clad denizens of dress circles (although I’d love to see that attempted). It is anarchic and plays with imagery. The open-eared will quickly grasp this point and every piece of mind-fuckery will bring them joy. 

There are so many good performances and so many great musicians here that it is beyond my scope to enumerate them all. When you see names like Anthony Donaldson, Jeff Henderson, Bridget Kelly, Daniel Beban, John Bell, Patrick Bleakley, Lucien Johnson, Jonathan Crayford, Chris O’Connor, Steve Cournane, Riki Gooch, Richard Nunns and Tom Callwod on a setlist, you check it out immediately. The way the units are configured creates a unique set of textures and there can be no doubt that this is a drummers band.  Donaldson’s drumming leaves a powerful impression, but he leaves plenty of space for other percussionists. A  glance at the lineup tells that story best, as I counted seventeen drummers and percussionists on the album. As they come and go, they never get in each other’s way and this is a tribute to the arranging. Some of course are doubling on percussion instruments (e.g. Noel Clayton plays guitar, bass banjo and punching bag, while Maree Thom plays electric bass, upright bass, bass drum and accordion). And to complete the illusion of filmic authenticity, Donaldson adds foley to his drum/percussion roles.   

For a full listing of the musicians involved check out Donaldson’s site. Better yet buy immediately. The album was digitally released on Bandcamp in early November 2021 and it can be located at anthonydonaldson.bandcamp.com   

JazzLocal32.com is rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association, poet & writer. Some of these posts appear on related sites

Recent Releases ~ February 2021

            Recent Releases ~ Feb 2021

The pandemic hasn’t stopped the music, and while it is true that the clubs, bars and concert halls are placed out of reach for many, music has the qualities of water. It will flow through the cracks until it has found its own level. The recent Kiwi lockdown was mercifully short, and in random and serendipitous ways new music found me. As always, I was happy when it did. Below are three very different albums – check them out.

Early Risers ~ John Scurry’s Reverse Swing

During our recent lockdown I received an album in the post from Lionsharecords. The album, ‘Early Risers’ is John Scurry’s Reverse Swing ensemble, his second such release.  Scurry’s earlier Reverse Swing album ‘Post Matinee’ was showered with praise, with one American reviewer describing it as ‘Ellingtonian’. The 2020 album has 19 original tunes spread over two CD’s and we are invited to view each volume as distinct but complementary.  

Having recently travelled to New Orleans, I detected those influences in this band immediately. When you spend any time in NOLA, you realise that that city’s influences are very broad indeed. Everything from swing to soulful gator-funk, from Sun Ra to the various free jazz offshoots. It is a living, breathing up to the minute music and one with its own flavour. So it is with ‘Early Risers’, and with this album there are also a multiplicity of rich local influences.

I loved the album for its warmth and approachability. It is instantly engaging, but this is not a nostalgic romp. There is real depth here and many treasures are revealed to the deep listener. The interplay between the musicians is simply stunning and their time feel beyond caveat. Track one on the first album is my favourite and while comparisons can be odious, this gave me the same feeling as I had when first hearing the Cy Touff Octet & Quintet album. Perhaps there is even a hint of ‘West Coast’ as well – Sheldon ?

There are many moods and whether a gentle ballad or a hotter number, all contribute uniquely to the whole. Underpinning each number are the quiet urgings of leader John Scurry’s guitar. We hear swing style guitar infrequently these days and more’s the pity. The tunes here were all penned by Scurry and he is also the co-arranger and producer. He has been a popular feature of the Australian scene for many years and I wonder what took him so long to launch this particular project.  to listen go to Early Risers Lionsharecords

The other arranger (and horn arranger) is trumpeter Eugene Ball.  Ball is another veteran of the Melbourne scene and a Bell award winner. I associate him with the moderism of Andrea Keller. Here you are overwhelmed by the richness of his sound. His tone production is often reminiscent of the latter-day swing trumpeters like Harry Sweets’ Edison and Henry ‘Red’ Alan. 

I have also encountered James McCauley, and again I associate him with Keller. He is perfect in these very different rolls. The band members here are John Scurry (guitar, arrangements), Eugene Ball (trumpet, arrangements), Brennan Hamilton-Smith (clarinet),  Stephen Grant (alto sax), Matt Boden (piano) Howard Cairns (bass), Danny Fischer (drums), + Sam Keevers (piano). The textures, tunes and uncanny interplay render this a terrific album. It may have its roots in traditional swing, but I defy anyone, whatever their taste in jazz, not to love this. It is released on Julien Wilson’s lionsharecords.com and on bandcamp. All art-work by John Scurry.

Wax///Wane ~ Lucien Johnson

Wax///Wane was released over summer and I’ve just caught up with it. I am always keen to check out gigs or albums featuring Lucien Johnson, so I downloaded it on Bandcamp. There was no information about the band or the recording on the album page, but my ears began to fill in the gaps. John Bell had to be the vibes player, surely it was him (an online search confirmed that)? Few south of the equator punch out modal grooves quite as convincingly as Bell. Of the remaining four musicians, two were known to me and two not. Michelle Velvin was on harp, Tom Callwood on upright bass, Cory Champion on drums and Riki Piripi on percussion (listed under the undividual tks).  

The album features six compositions and each of these has an evanescent quality. They hint at places we think we might know, but can’t quite remember. Blue Rain, Forest Rendezvous, and Rubicon appear as if in a dream and as with the missing liner notes, we are encouraged to fill in the gaps with our imagination. 

Blue Rain

Johnson has chosen his bandmates well. Bell and Callwood are genre defying and have open-ears, and as with Johnson are well immersed in the freer regions of improvised music. I have seen Cory Champion several times, but never heard him in this context; very impressive. Adding a harp player and percussionist added texture in finely hued layers, and this gave the album that delightful Alice Coltrane feel. It’s great to see the harp revived as an improvisers instrument and especially with the vibes. They could get in each others way, but in skilled hands this is avoided and a shimmering pulse arises to good effect.

Johnson is a musician we most often associate with the Wellington scene, but these days he is perhaps better termed an international musician. Like all modern saxophonists, there is a foundation of Coltrane in his sound. There is also an airy freedom. Here, he has curated a groove fest. The sort of grooves that Bobby Hutcherson, Alice and John Coltrane, Julian Priester and others explored. It is what might be loosely termed spiritual Jazz. Music defying the mundane, an invitation to a better place where gravity is abandoned. In times like this we need music, and actually, we need more music like this. Music that stimulates the imagination and doesn’t preach.  The playing here is superb but don’t over think the experience, sink into it and enjoy the trip.  The cover-art is by Julien Dyne. Available on Bandcamp Lucienjohnson.bandcamp.com

Alan Broadbent/Georgia Mancio  ~ ‘Quiet is the Star’

Alan Broadbent has an unerring ear for melody and this is in part, why he makes such a sensitive accompanist. While his albums can really swing, they also take direct aim at the heart. An astonishing technical mastery is evident but it is never allowed to obscure the essence of a tune. To put it more simply, he connects us to real emotions and to human life with its manifest joys and frailties. There are innumerable facets to his long and formidable career and none should be overlooked. 

Most recently, he released ‘Trio in Motion’ his second album with bassist Harvie S and drummer Billie Mintz. And if you haven’t done so before now, check out his discography, a body of work that astounds; critically acclaimed albums, two Grammys and so it goes. The man is a legend. 

‘Quiet is the Star’ is the second album from the Broadbent/Mancio duo. Their last album’ Songbook’ aired in 2017 and it was pure delight; this new release is a welcome follow up. Georgia Mancio is a London-based award-winning vocalist and lyricist and the pairing has reaped dividends.  They have performed together since 2013 and toured Europe and elsewhere to acclaim. 

Mancio has a lovely voice and she uses it to great effect, her emphasis though is on breathing life into her lyrics. The stories she reveals are intimate and she invites the listener to share in these experiences. While all good duos are conversational, here we are invited in on the conversation and it is a privilege.   Released by Roomspin Records 27 March. Cover artwork Simon Manfield.

JazzLocal32.com was rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association. some of these posts also appear in other music sites. When purchasing, please support the Bandcamp platform whenever possible. Respect musicians rights.  

Lex French Quartet @ CJC 2016

French 2016 089In spite of living at the other end of the Island, Lex French is a regular fixture at the CJC. It is hardly surprising since his popularity with Jazz audiences is ever-growing. There are not many trumpeters of French’s stature in New Zealand and it is our good fortune that he remains. He obtained his Masters from McGill University in Montreal, a university with a strong focus on brass. A university which had an ongoing association with the UK-based Canadian trumpeter Kenny Wheeler while he was among us. I mention Wheeler, because as I walked down the stairs to the club to set up my gear, I heard the unmistakable opening phrase from ‘Smatter’ coming out of the darkness. Just the opening phrase and then silence.French 2016 088It was so Wheeler-like, that I assumed someone was setting up a Wheeler album on the club sound system. As my eyes accustomed to the low light I saw French standing alone – repeating the phrase. French is not a one-trick pony; he is as modern as tomorrow, but at other times, old school respectful. He can punch out high notes or swing hard bop like a Blue Note artist back in the day.  This is not a musician to pass up on.

His current working band travelled from Wellington with him, all of them known to Auckland audiences; Matt Steele on piano, Johnny Lawrence on bass and Cory Champion on drums. The set list was mainly French compositions, but in the middle of each set, a standard or two. The standards were well-chosen and contrasted the originals nicely. The best known was Benny Golson’s ‘Stablemates’, a perennial favourite, Kenny Wheeler’s complex tune ‘Smatter’ and ‘Nostalgia’ by Mingus.French 2016 090I particularly liked French’s compositions ‘Kasid’ from the first set. There were many reasons to like this; the musicians innovative explorations of the theme, the evocative middle-eastern mode underpinning it, and the fact that it referenced the wonderful Iraqi poet Abdulkareen Kasid. An achingly beautiful melody tinged through with bittersweet sadness, establishing itself delicately over a quietly incessant bass motif. When Steele came in, his opening chords were Oud like – giving the impression of soft strings jangling sweetly in the night air. I listen to a lot of middle-eastern improvised music and this performance stands beside the best of those. In the background, the drums tap tapped (like stones tumbling in a stream, and every so often swooshes).French 2016 093The poet Abdulkareem Kasid is new to me (and I have a huge collection of poetry). To discover a poet like this is exciting and I thank Lex French for this. What could be better than to experience a night of interesting music, and at the end, find a poet?  I finish this with some words from that poet – listen to the piece as you read the lines – I did.

In my hands / From past and future / I’ll grab two stones / And run with them / Even in the lightest / breeze I’ll fly / Summon a wind, to come / And wipe out every trace / And I’ll sit like an orphan / By the roadside mourning / My two stones”

                                         Abdulkareem Kasid

Lex French Quartet: Lex French (trumpet, compositions), Matt Steele (Piano), Johnny Lawrence (bass), Cory Champion (drums). CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland 23rd March 2016.

Mark Donlon Trio (with Tom Warrington)

Donlon (2) The Mark Donlon trio gig gave us two leaders for the price of one. Accompanying Donlon was the highly rated LA bass player Tom Warrington. Jazz audiences in New Zealand are very familiar with Warrington as he toured here on many occasions. Donlon, originally from the UK is now living in Wellington and working as the Jazz Studies program leader at the New Zealand School of Music.

Donlon is a Post-bop pianist with a grab-bag of familiar standards and a number of original compositions at his fingertips. He is also adept at writing ‘contrafacts’; new tunes written over the changes of existing standards. While such practices are strongly associated with Parker or with innovative Post-bop improvisers, the practice actually dates from to 16th century. Some of the standards were reharmonised while he played others in familiar ways. It was a nice selection; including the song book standards ‘If I were a bell’ (Frank Loesser), ‘Darn that dream’ (Jimmy Van Heusen), ‘How deep is the ocean’ (Irving Berlin), ‘Quiet nights & quiet stars’ ( Tom Jobim) and Jazz standards like ‘Stolen Moments’ (Oliver Nelson) and ‘Nutty’ (Thelonious Monk). When I hear songbook standards by Berlin like’ How deep is the ocean’ or the equally engaging ‘Lets face the music and dance’ I am awe-struck. They are perennial in the fullest sense of the word and I hope that their star never wanes.Donlon (3)I have been a Tom Warrington fan for many years and I have most of the Jazz Compass albums where he features to such great effect. He is a bass player who speaks with incredible forthrightness, but never undermining the others on the date. On ‘Corduroy Road’, a fabulous album that I play often, the ‘others’ I refer to are Larry Koonse and Joe Labarbera. These guys can do no wrong; their version of ‘You Must believe in Spring’ (Bergman/Bergman/Legrand) is a small masterpiece.  We are lucky to have such a strong association with Warrington and Rodger Fox is the one to thank for that. I last saw him during the ‘Cow Bop’ tour, where his band shared the stage with guitarist Bruce Forman (and the Cow boppers). A friendly modest man of enormous talents and good company. When I spoke to him last Wednesday I learned that Larry Koonse (and perhaps Joe Lababera) will be touring New Zealand soon. Koonse has suffered health problems of late but he is evidently recovering well. Warrington’s recording credits are too numerous to mention. Tom is now domiciled in this country which is very good news.DonlonCory Champion although Wellington based is no stranger to the CJC. He was there earlier in the year with Matt Steele’s ‘Master Brewers’. He writes and plays well and it is likely that we will see him in the drum chair often.

The Mark Donlon Trio with Tom Warrington and Cory Champion: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland. 2nd September 2015

Matt Steele ‘Master Brewers’

Matt Steele 2015 087It is always good when proved right and in the case of Matt Steele I certainly was.  This was a superb gig and it confirmed the promise that I saw in Steele as a first year student. The ‘Master Brewers’ musicians are exactly what Steele needed at this stage in his development and he is clearly what they needed. There is a cohesion about this group and it extends beyond the music. This is a band of friends and because they spend a significant amount of time together, they are able to dive deeper into the material on hand. Most of the band is writing and being familiar with each others styles, they contribute compositions that serve the project well. Younger musicians often favour shorter term projects but I hope this unit continues for a while. When I last saw Steele perform it was at his honours recital and he was very much in charge. Now as leader, the reins are subtly loosened and the music benefits from this. With experience, leaders can confidently guide without over playing the role. That only works when the interactions and cues become second nature. In their best moments the ‘Master Brewers’ acted as a single entity; everyone maximising their options while retaining an awareness of the others.Matt Steele 2015 089I immediately noticed that Steele’s voicings were darker. His interesting harmonic approach an outcome of an ever-growing musical maturity. There are certain aspects to Steele’s playing that stand out and during the gig these crystallised in my mind. These attributes are why I follow his career so attentively. He is self-effacing by nature, but that masks a ruthless striving for betterment. Ever reaching further, listening deeply, critically and taking risks. For all that he able to relax into the moment and as he grows musically this is more evident. The most difficult journey for any musician is finding a distinctive style and owning it. Steele is well on the way.Matt Steele 2015 088Thanks to Roger Manins programming, Auckland audiences get to see good Wellington bands every few months. In this case the audience were unfamiliar with the musicians (apart from Steele), but what a treat this gig was. The band won us over quickly and by the time the second set began they were cooking. In spite of the modernistic approach and complex time signatures these guys have a definite pulse. They swing like crazy.Matt Steele 2015 090Ashton Sellars had suffered a mishap with his guitar and he had to borrow one at short notice for the gig. He told me that it felt very different to his own older instrument, but no one would have guessed it by the way he was playing. Under his fingers the instrument sang. He favours longer fluid lines (with a hint of Bauer/Tristano), but his is very much a modern sound. His improvisations are thoughtful and they invite you along. While their music is often complex there is no ballast of needless weighty intellectualism. Piano and guitar keeping nicely apart unless comping in support. Both understanding when to lay out. Once again cohesion and a sense of common purpose drives themMatt Steele 2015 091Johnny Lawrence played upright bass, maintaining the core rhythm duties. While he held the pulse intact, he could also solo very effectively. Like his band mates he fitted into the mix in exactly the right way. Cory Campion was also a strong presence, often giving colour or providing accents. Above all his compositions were strong. There is an increasing trend for drummers to compose and when they write like this it provides an interesting perspective.  Drummers write differently and the ones I hear lately, write very well. Steele and Sellars contributed the most tunes and each wrote in their own distinctive style. Together those charts and this band gave us pure enjoyment.

Master Brewers: Matt Steele (Leader, Piano), Ashston Sellars (guitar), Johnny Lawrence (bass), Cory Champion (drums) CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland 8th July 2015