In 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.It 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.I 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).The 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”
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.
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.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.Cory 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
It 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.I 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.Thanks 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.Ashton 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 themJohnny 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