This is great news Auckland. The inaugural Auckland Jazz Festival opens on the 17th October, followed by 9 days of gigs across town. Put together by Ben McNicoll and the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) team, which guarantees the excellence and diversity in programming. A number of bars have enthusiastically come onboard and Jazz lovers should reward their commitment. Because there are smaller venues or bars in the mix there will be some gigs with no cover charge, while others will charge a modest entry fee. For pricing, bookings and programming visit the Auckland Jazz Festival website (below). The headline gigs will be held at the CJC with the Mike Nock Trio (Australia) appearing on Tuesday 21st October, followed by the Benny Lackner Trio (Germany/USA) 22nd October and Francisco Torres/Roger Fox (USA/New Zealand) on the 23rd.
It would be crazy to miss any of these three gigs, in fact hire a babysitter or cat minder and cancel anything that gets in the way. I know that I will endeavour to catch as many gigs as I can. If this is well supported it will likely become a feature of the Auckland City arts calendar. The gigs vary in style with each unique in some way. Opening the festival at the ‘Portland Public House’ Kingsland is Wellington’s, fabulously wild anarchic band ‘The Troubles” (who I can’t wait to see again). There are also offerings from the early swing era, groove funk, experimental improv and more besides.
An Auckland Jazz Festival of this sort is long overdue and sensibly it’s run along the lines of a fringe festival. There are no big sponsors calling the shots, which means that the choice of artists is in the hands of the organisers. In the absence of any taint of commercialism you can expect edge, cool and excellence. Think of it as a crowd sourced festival in which you have a vital part to play. I have attended Jazz festivals run along these lines before and I prefer them, as they offer intimacy and a listening experience which you just can’t find in the larger venues. The Montreal ‘L’Off’ festival immediately comes to mind. It is important that we show our support by attending as many gigs as we can and don’t forget to visit the web site and ‘like’ the various gigs on offer (you know the drill, it is an important indicator of support). The organisers and venue’s have put time and money into this and all we need to do is attend and enjoy ourselves. Let’s show them that we appreciate it and put to bed the tired old myth that Auckland never gets behind the arts – see you all there.
One of the strengths of the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) is its varied program. Sixty years ago improvised music meant only one thing to the western world. Mainstream Jazz. From the late fifties onwards the music drew from an ever-widening array of influences, experiments with unusual and exotic instruments occurred, not always successful as the attempts were often self-conscious. At worst they felt like a size twelve-foot being jammed into a size six shoe, at best they tantalised, leaving us wanting more. Among the best of these explorations were Jimmy Giuffre’s. A Texas tenor man with open ears and an innate ability to double on reeds and winds. By the sixties his folk tinged Jazz with Jim Hall and Bill Crow (Train and the River) was considered mainstream. By then Giuffre had moved on to explore open skies atonal explorations with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow and to dabble in the ‘third stream’. The third stream referenced modern classical music as it sought to make a hybrid of the two forms. Attempts to bring in the exotic sounds of the Mediterranean, in spite of Django, were slower coming. The exotic of the sixties was more likely Cuban influenced Jazz or the music of Tom Jobim. Both wonderful, but unmistakably music rooted in the Americas, in spite of their ancient African influences.
Post millennium, there are interesting and innovative Jazz Projects proliferating across the globe. ECM in particular has long been adept at broadening Jazz tastes and over the last two decades it is repeatedly voted as the best-loved Jazz Label. Not once has it compromised its mission. Not once has it tried to travel down the populist route. It survives in a space where the iconic Jazz labels disappear, engulfed by amoral corporate machines or buried in an increasingly harsh market place. One ECM album in particular comes to mind, a wonderful collaboration between premier Italian Jazz trumpeter Paulo Fresu and a traditional Corsican mens choir, ‘Mystico Mediterraneo’. This acapella song form is combined with improvisation much like Caroline’s and Tui’s projects. Improvising around ancient forms and bringing back deeply evocative all but forgotten songs. This feels natural in 2014 and this brings me to the original point. Jazz now coexists comfortably around a variety of genres, from deep Americana (Bill Frisell), to Middle Eastern music (Dhafer Youssef). The self-consciousness is gone and the younger audiences in particular are more open. This feels right in a globalised world and from an ethnomusicological view-point, it helps catalogue musics that are fast fading from thecollective memory.
The ‘Acapollination’ project illustrates the above points perfectly. This acapella group, four women (two established Jazz vocalists), explore the harmonies and rhythms of Bulgarian folk music. I knew little of Bulgarian music but was keen to learn. What I now know is that there is an ancient tradition of folk singing and that the style is quite distinct. Differing markedly from other European or Slavonic music. When Bulgaria became communist the authorities appropriated these folk songs and under their guiding hand they morphed in propaganda tools. Complex meters became the norm, no longer left in the sole hands of peasants who had preserved them by oral tradition. In some cases purged of unwelcome minority ethnic influences. It is to the credit of Ron Samsom and the Auckland University Jazz School that this project was accepted. There are many improvising traditions in the world, some new, some ancient. When they meet new horizons open before us.
The second set was Carolina Moons Mother Tongue. This project has been around for a few years and has travelled extensively. There have been a few changes to the original line-up but the core performers remain. Wherever the Mother Tongue project has appeared it’s received to wide acclaim. Once again this is an ancient music, a hybrid form emerging from multiple sources in medieval Sephardic Spain. Not only are the melodies of the Jewish Diaspora heard, but the songs of the Moors and the other races surrounding them. This truly exotic and rich music just begs for modern interpretation and Carolina Moon has achieved that exceptionally well. Her voice is wonderful and her arrangements perfect. I have heard this group many times, but at each listening I gain new insights, fresh enjoyments. They are evolving with time and different facets emerge or fade as they progress. Nigel Gavin is always extraordinary but Roger Manins intense short modal improvisations on Bass Clarinet, Flute or Soprano saxophone make this special. Carolina Moon, Roger Manins, Kevin Field, Ron Samsom and Nigel Gavin are the original members. Cameron McArthur is a newer addition. This is a cohesive working group and long may they remain so.
On Wednesday the 21st of August ‘Rattle’ records launched Nick Granville’s ‘Refractions’ album. Nick Granville needs no introduction to Wellington audiences, being a professional musician who works extensively throughout that city. While he is not as well-known in Auckland, that is rapidly changing, as he has played a number of well received gigs here over the last year. CJC audiences now look forward to his return.
He is increasingly featured in the award-winning Roger Fox Wellington Jazz Orchestra and his recorded output as leader and sideman is growing by the year. This latest album is definitely his best to date and there is every expectation that this upwards career trajectory will continue. With this album his guitar chops are very much on display but it is the engaging warmth and unmistakable integrity that draws you into the project. All of the numbers on the album are originals and all are either blues based or have a distinct blues feel. Nick attributes this to the strong Scofield influence that has shaped his progress over the years.
There were mostly numbers from the current album featured at the CJC launch, but we also heard a few updated older compositions. As I am familiar with that material it gave some interesting points of comparison. The stand out tune from that earlier period was ‘Somewhere You’ve Been’ which is a well crafted reharmonisation of the standard ‘Footsteps’.
This album has a lot of strong points and compositionally it is a tour de force. It pays a subtle but heart-felt homage to John Scofield without being slavishly imitative or needing to play Sco tunes. Strong material like this just begs to played by the best musicians available and Nick has pulled this off. Much of the material was composed while completing his Masters at the Auckland University Jazz School, and this enabled him to utilise faculty members for the album. The three who joined him on the album are Roger Manins (tenor sax), Oli Holland (bass) and Ron Samson (drums). You would be hard put to find better musicians anywhere and they had obviously warmed to the task in hand.
A really good album is one that manages to sound familiar, yet original and Nick Granville has achieved this rare feat.
Roger Manins has a busy schedule teaching, co-managing the CJC and gigging around New Zealand and Australia. There is nothing that he can’t tackle as he is a very strong reader and a fearless improviser. His storytelling ability and improvisational inventiveness mark him out. Whether delivering a breathy ballad, where each gentle rasp of air counts, or a fast burner where the furies rain down, he’s a phenomena.
Oli Holland had barely returned from a holiday in Germany, but he showed no sign of jet lag on the band stand. He and Nick go back a way and so it was not surprising that he is on the album. Oli is one of the strongest bass players in New Zealand. At times he surprised as he delivered the sort of raunchy biting grooves that you would expect of an electric bass. Mostly though we heard his deeply resonant fluid lines weaving skilfully throughout the mix.
I always enjoy Ron Samsom’s drumming but he really stands out on this album. When you listen to ‘Gloves off’ in particular you will hear what a multi faceted Jazz drummer can do. This hard-driving funky tune is my personal favourite. It has a punch to rival Jack Johnson’s and an edgy groove that delights. It is one of the tracks that I return to again and again. Throughout this album Ron Samsom is marvellous.
The other strength is the quality of the recording and this is largely down to ‘Rattle’s’ Steve Garden. Every detail from the cover art to the sound quality is meticulously attended to. When it comes to mixing and mastering Steve has a special touch and the results here attest to that.
Nick Granville has pulled one out of the bag here and I strongly advise people to grab a copy.
What: Nick Granville Band. Nick Granville (guitar, leader, compositions), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone). Oli Holland (bass), Ron Samson (drums). Released by Rattle.
The Auckland Jazz gigs during Jazz April have been high quality (see last four posts). Above all they have encompassed the breadth of improvised music. Song FWAA from Australia was therefore a perfect choice to round off a smorgasbord of tasty events. They (Song FWAA) are quite possibly the illegitimate love children of ‘Sun Ra‘ and while no DNA evidence has validated that theory the lineage is manifest in their music.
As a scene matures listening ears get tweaked through exposure to new sounds. The demand for a wider range of musical experiences follows that. This doesn’t happen by accident. It begins with musicians stepping into uncharted territory and ends with the listener reacting. The mere mention of ‘adventurous music’ can cause cold sweats from venue management and all the more so if an ‘out’ gig is proposed. Happily for us Roger Manins of the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) takes some risks and as the club audiences continue to grow that policy is vindicated. It is the job of artists to confront or challenge and listeners should welcome this. Settling for bland entertainment leads to musical confection, not jazz, not art. Some people are perfectly happy leading the lush life in some small piano bar, but that is not where the music develops. Improvised music is as much about audience engagement as about performing and without the feedback loop a musical project would become an unheard conversation between band members. Those who heard Song FWAA, heard edge, originality and musical humour so cunning that no weasel could better it.
The band has garnered rave revues around Australia and their 2011 album ‘Ligeti’s Goat’ is highly recommended. If you listen to the album you feel that you are listening to a much bigger unit. At first this seems attributable to the rhythm instrument, which is of the guitar family but quite different in timbre. This is a specially made 8 string ‘Frame’ played by David Reaston. The voicings, pickups and pedals used (i.e Moog pedal) give it distinct and very different sound. Not loud but other-worldly; a strangely subtle sound that can impart real richness.
Martin Kay plays alto saxophone and although this is a standard instrument he also manages to coax a range of different sounds from it. Martins multi-phonics and extended techniques give depth to the performance, just as drummer Jamie Cameron’s colourist approach and extended drum technique added depth. At the end of the evening I felt that the musicianship more than the instrumentation created this special groove.
The gig (and the album) was replete with compositional parables about animals and their epic adventures. Martin is adept at telling these tales; which have a ‘Hunter S Thompson’ quality about them. ‘Ligeti’s Goat‘ the title track for instance explores the eating-cycle of a goat. “Tonight” said Martin, “we will only be playing the second section – ‘digesting carrots’ “. Another number was a moving tribute to a peripatetic Polar Bear. To quote from the liner notes regarding the tune ‘Olefeig’ (AKA that which should not be shot): ‘Documents the transformation of scenery through the eyes of a Polar Bear, drifting on a shard of ice from Greenland to Iceland, where his destiny finds a bullet’.
A number titled ‘Mugwump‘ was most enjoyable. The gist of the introduction by Martin was that Aliens had come to earth to seek Moroccan desert fuel and somehow this referenced William Burroughs and the Dogon people of neighbouring Mali. He had me hooked as soon as he mentioned Morocco and Burroughs.
Song FWAA’s music is at times ‘free’ and at other times working long ostinato grooves. This moving ‘outside’ one minute and then playing ‘inside’ or following a melodic hook to its conclusion works. The group has something to say and they say it with genuine originality. I hope that they come back soon and share more animal sagas with us.
Their promo material describes them as the ‘wrong band for the right people’. I love that descriptor, but the one sour note struck was their failure to paint their faces ‘Art Ensemble of Chicago Style’ for the gig. This is how their webpage profile shows them and we are mature enough in NZ to handle that. As Roger Manins says, ‘truth in advertising is at the heart of jazz’. I have no idea what that means but we do love face paint.
What & Who: ‘Song FWAA‘ – Martin Kay (alto sax), David Reaston (frame guitar), Jamie Cameron (drums). Buy the album from www.songfwaa.com
After the success of ‘Poets Embrace’ it is hardly surprising that Nathan Haines new album ‘Vermillion Skies’ has climbed so high in the charts. The album was the fifth best selling New Zealand album the last time I looked and this happened within days of its release by Warners. For a modern Jazz album anywhere to achieve this success is unprecedented. This has followed hot on the heals of ‘Poets Embrace’ winning the Tui Awards ‘Best Jazz Album of 2012’.
Anyone who knows Nathan will hardly be surprised to learn of his obsessive commitment to the last two projects. His approach has been Ghandalf like, as it involved a long period of woodshedding, an epic journey in search of analogue equipment and a reconciliation with the gods of past times. While Poets Embrace plumbed the depths of Coltrane’s vocabulary, Vermillion Skies has opened up the perspective and tapped into the wider ethos of 1950’s Jazz. What Vermillion Skies is not however is a cosy journey down memory lane.
It is about examining the epiphanies and sounds of the 50’s era and interpreting them with modern sensibilities. With the exception of one number, these are fresh compositions; a happy synthesis between past and present. Deliberately retro though is the analogue recording methodology. A one-take take approach and sound augmented by the use of reverb (not using a plate).
I followed the Vermillion Skies project from its inception and because I was in contact with the musicians via Face Book it was not difficult to keep abreast of progress. Alain Koetsier was returning from China, Nathan was returning from the UK and to use ‘GCSB speak’ there was a heightened level of ‘chatter’ about town.
Their fist gig was at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) and at this point the tunes had never been aired before. Some tunes were in embryonic form and they had only been rehearsed briefly. We were a focus group Nathan informed us; musical crash test dummies. The audience loved the gig but they knew that even better was to come.
A month later the musicians and veteran London Producer Mike Patto headed into the York Street studios to cut the tracks. The album was recorded in around two days of mostly live takes. To obtain an authentic reverb sound Nathan used the studio car-park, which is a huge cavernous brick building, resembling a stripped out Victorian cathedral. The neighbours in the posh Edwardian apartments next to the studio lacked the cool to appreciate this innovation. The reverberating horns made one of them complain (in tears) as the fulsome brassy sounds echoed across Parnell rise.
A few weeks after the recording Nathan contacted me and asked if I would interview him at York Street for the promotional video. I turned up a few hours before the appointed time and asked Jeremy (who runs the studio) if I could hear the masters. Hearing the material in its final form and in that space was a revelation. I quizzed Jeremy and Nathan about aspects of recording. I learned that the piano was isolated in a booth, but the drums and horn section were in the larger space with the saxophone. When it came to the vocals the band went home; those tracks were recorded without onlookers.
Nathan has sung on a previous album but he readily admits that it is not his comfort zone. It interested me that he didn’t have the same degree of confidence in his singing abilities as his voice is simply superb. In my view it compares favourably with Mark Murphy’s. The charts are well written and the hooks in ‘Navareno Street’ are so powerful that I am still hearing them in my head weeks later.
Interviewing Nathan Haines is a pleasure as he is knowledgeable, articulate and expansive when prompted. Because he is across his topic he can talk at length about the minutia of the project, but what was surprising was they way he allowed me to discuss his vulnerabilities. His warmth and often self-effacing commentary gave the interview an added depth.
On April 9th the official launch occurred at the ‘Q’ Theatre in Queen Street Auckland. The tickets sold out quickly. The theatre is well suited for such a performance as it has the space, sight-lines and well padded surfaces. This enabled good sound control. Unlike the CJC gig, there were twelve musicians appearing (not quite the full album line-up which had a 15 piece band on one track). The first half featured the basic quartet with a few guest artists such as brother Joel Haines on guitar and two others. Joel can channel the rock god thing while fitting perfectly into a Jazz ensemble. His sound is modern but his lines are Jazz. Also on stage was John Bell the multi talented vibist. John Bell’s contribution added texture and depth. He does not rely on heavy vibrato, favouring a more minimalist approach. I reflected that I had last seen him in a decidedly avant-garde setting. This was far from Albert Ayler but as always his musicianship impressed. Mike Booth (lead trumpet in the horn section) also appeared in the first half. Mike Booth has a clean tone on trumpet and flugal and is the go to guy for anything involving horn sections or Jazz orchestras. His sight-reading skills are as impressive as his performance skills.
by John Chapman
In the second set, a six piece horn section joined in and the arranger Wayne Senior conducted the ten piece band. Wayne Senior is part of the history of New Zealand Jazz and he is especially renowned for his work with TV and Radio orchestras. His ensemble arranging is legendary. The six piece horn-section was two French horns, Two trumpet/flugal horns, a trombone and a bass trombone.
I love nonets and tentets as they have a big sound while leaving room for a band to breathe. The textural qualities of this tentet and the rich voicings were particularly noteworthy. ‘Frontier West’ (by Nathan Haines) left the audience gasping in delight as the ‘Birth of the Cool’ vibe in modern clothing gave us a rare treat. Such wonders are seldom heard in this country. The last item (and the only tune not written by Nathan) was the aching beautiful ballad ‘Lament’ by J. J. Johnson. The best known version of this is on the ‘Miles Ahead’ album. That Gil Evans arrangement involves a 20 piece orchestra. Wayne Senior re-arranged this for tentet and the results are amazing. Nathan caught every nuance of the tune as he built his improvisation around the rich voicings. I am in no doubt that the ‘Lament’ on ‘Vermillion Skies’ compares favourably with the best historic versions (Miles, JJ Johnson, Rahsaan Roland Kirk).
The performances on the album and at the various gigs have all been different. This is because it is Jazz where ‘you never play anything the same way once’ and because there have been personnel changes along the way. As leader and player, Nathan Haines always seems to squeeze that bit extra out of each performance. His intense focus on the tenor of late has been good for him and good for us as his approach to this material while fluid, never looses its edge. He is arriving at that enviable place where people will say after one bar, “oh….that has to be Nathan Haines”.
Kevin Field and Nathan go back a long way and their chemistry is evident. Kevin is the pianist of choice for many local and visiting bands. As an accompanist he never looses sight of what an accompanist is there for. He can shine during the piano solos, but his fills, deftly placed chords and subtle comping speak to his other strengths. It was often necessary for him to keep out-of-the-way of the other instruments (such as the horn section which occupied a register that he would normally utilise). Drummer Alain Koetsier returned to New Zealand for the recording and his drum chops and musicality had not subsided during his sabbatical away from Jazz performance. He is a fine musician and sorely missed on the Auckland scene now that he resides in China. The bass player Ben Turua is also rock solid on the recording. I have heard him play often but never better than here. Sadly he has since departed for Sydney, where he will no doubt flourish as do many Kiwi Jazz expats.
The departure of Alain Koetsier and Ben Turua left a gap and so the original recording lineup was amended for the gigs to include Stephen Thomas on drums and Cameron MacArthur on bass. I cannot speak highly enough of Stephen Thomas. He has been on the scene for a few years and if anyone was going to fill Alain’s shoes it would be him. He is a hard-working young drummer who demonstrates his passion and skill every time he sits at the kit. The other replacement was Cameron McArthur who is still a student at Auckland university. This was a big step up for him and he took it with ease. His bass solo at the ‘Q’ Theatre brought a huge applause and like Stephen Thomas we can expect great things of him.
This album marks another high watermark in New Zealand Jazz as it is brave enough to confront the past without being captured by it. Nathan Haines is heading back to London in a few weeks and we can’t begrudge him that. His ascendency offshore is our gain and we should never forget that these two great albums have been recorded in Auckland, New Zealand and with Kiwi musicians.
Who: The Nathan Haines Band. Album – Nathan Haines (tenor sax, vocals, leader, composer). Kevin Field (piano), Ben Turua (bass) , Alain Koetsier (drums), Joel Haines (guitar – 2,5), Leon Stenning (guitars -5), Mickey Utugawa (Drums – 5), Mike Booth (lead trumpet, flugal), Paul Norman (trumpet, flugal), David Kay (French horn), Simon Williams (French horn), Haydn Godfrey (trombone), John Gluyas (bass trombone), John Bell (vibraphone 2-5), ‘Big’ Cody Wilkington (steel guitar, vocals, percussion – 5), Wayne senior (arranger, session/launch gig conductor). ‘Q’ Theatre and later gigs replace Koetsier with Stephen Thomas (drums), replace Ben Turua with Cameron McArthur (bass).
The first ‘Jazz April‘ gig was at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) featuring the ‘Samsom/Nacey/Haines’ band. I can’t think of a better way to kick off Jazz April 2013 than by hearing seasoned musicians having fun, while at the same time stretching themselves as players and composers. The group formed in 2008 with the idea of providing a vehicle for new compositions. The outcome of these collaborations was an album named ‘Open to Suggestions‘ and later the 2010 ‘Oxide‘ album was released (with guests Kevin Field, Chris Melville, Neville Grenfell and Roger Manins). The albums have all been extremely well received with ‘Open to Suggestions‘ ending up as a finalist in the Tui Music Awards and ‘Oxide‘ (Rattle Records 2010) receiving critical acclaim from far & wide. The name ‘Oxide‘ arose from John Ruskin’s writings on crystals (artist, author, patron of the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood and proto-socialist philosopher). This album is still available in record shops or from Rattle Records and I highly recommend it.
It is hardly surprising that there was an expectation of a third album. The new release titled ‘Cross Now’ has no guest artists appearing. Left to bounce off each others ideas and in an uncluttered musical space, the three musicians made the most of the situation. This spirit of collaboration was particularly evident at the gig as they joked and constantly acknowledged each others skills while downplaying their own input. That is a very Kiwi thing and audiences take it as good form. No one would dare do this if they were uncomfortable with their performance. It is a matter of reading the cultural codes. When they were improvising, the interaction between players was both cerebral and intuitive. There were moments when they appeared as one entity.
As soon as the first set kicked off a sense of joy and playfulness emanated from the bandstand. Some the best music arises from joy and good humour; musicians tapping into an unconscious wellspring of creative goodwill and being at one with the world.
The material on ‘Cross Now’ is new and like ‘Oxide’ some tunes were only finished days before recording them (or even polished in the studio car park). This is Dixon Nacey’s forte; to write brilliant tunes in the eleventh hour. Someone told me that his ‘The Lion” was written on the way to the ‘Oxide‘ recording sessions. Kevin Haines informed us that Dixon’s moving tribute to the recently diseased and much-loved drummer Tony Hopkins, was likewise written days before the recording. The compositions represent the styles of the originators and even though the compositions are jointly attributed, it is possible to detect just whose hand has had the greatest influence over each number.
So often the back stories behind tunes can enrich a listening experience, but I am not sure how many musicians appreciate this fact. While it is true up to a point that the music should speak for itself, that liner notes or background stories are an added superfluity, that received wisdom obscures a deeper story. To many of us music is an experience extending way beyond the auditory senses. We pick up cues from the musicians movements, we absorb colours from the lights glancing off the instruments and we gain insights from the stories. To me improvised music is like a good film and a well shot film is like improvised music. A place to occupy empathetically for that one hyper-sensitised moment in time. No sensory input should therefore be denied.
Kevin Haines wrote ‘…With Eyes Averted…’ (which began with a poem about relationships) and this added a perspective to the tune that would not otherwise have been evident (I have posted a video of this which features Matt Bray on 2nd guitar) . His tune ‘Cross Now’ was about a particularly irritating crossing signal outside of a Tokyo hotel. In Kevin Haines hands the annoying beeps became a polyrhythmic pulse to build a tune upon. He also contributed ‘Broken Tones’.
Drummer Ron Samsom’s, ‘Happy Dance’ (a fast samba) was fabulous. Written about his dog, we could feel the exuberant bounding energy as the tune progressed. Ron Samsom had begun with the tongue in cheek announcement, “yes drummers write tunes too”. After ‘Happy Dance’ we heard ‘Seiko (in 13/8 time) and a ballad ‘Qua’. I heard someone murmur that drummers needed to write more tunes and in Ron’s case I agree (See You Tube Clip by Jen Sol).
Dixon’s contributions were ‘Song for Xavier’ (written for his son) and ‘Conversations with Mr Small’ which he explained as arising from, ” Well perhaps this won’t be such an interesting reason for title…ah…it is about my musical theory conversations with Dr Stephen Small”. In comedy and music, timing is everything and these guys had it down pat. The tune that we will never forget is Dixon Nacey’s moving tribute to the beloved and much lamented Jazz drummer Tony Hopkins. I found myself glancing at the places where Tony had sat and imagined him at the kit; knitting the band together in that particular way of his. This is the power of Jazz. The musicians interpret while we see, feel and hear a story unfold. The tune was, ‘The Remarkable Mr Hopkins’ and by the end a few of us were tearing up. From the bottom of my heart, thanks Dix.
The new album will be in the record outlets shortly, but your best bet is to contact Rattle online and order a copy.
On Wednesday 27th March several visitors arrived in town from Melbourne Australia. Visitors but not strangers, because saxophone player Paul Van Ross has played in New Zealand four or five times previously and drummer Mark Lockett is an expat New Zealander, originally from Wellington.
These are very friendly guys. Actually I find most Jazz musicians unfailingly cheerful and friendly. It is unlikely that this good humour arises from job security or because they have just managed to upgrade the Porsche . I stick cameras in their faces, ask searching questions during set breaks and pin them down for set lists when they are suffering from jet lag. Instead being told to clear off they indulge me. This goodwill must be pumped through the air conditioning unit of the CJC (Creative Jazz Club). It is a place like ‘Cheers’ where everyone has a smile and ‘everybody knows your name’.
One of those who indulges me is Steve Garden of Rattle records. A few weeks ago I received a tidy package of CD’s from him and among them was ‘The Buck Stops Here‘ led by Paul Van Ross. I had a lot of material to write-up at the time and I was working on the ‘Jazz Month’ program with the Jazz Journalists Association. I played my way slowly through the pile of releases as time allowed. It was not until I had received the CJC newsletter that I realised that Paul Van Ross would be doing an album release there in three days. I sorted through the CD’s and put it out to listen to but it was not until the day before the gig that it finally reached my Hi Fi. It was a really great album and I played it through three times.
How had a missed this I thought. This should have been one of the first things that I put on. Apart from a John Zorn obsession, I also suffer from an excessive liking for B3 combos. This album featured B3, guitar, drums and saxophone. I listened over and again while the textures and compositions reeled me further in. This is a very good example of the ‘new sound’ in organ/guitar/saxophone/drums.
Make no mistake, I love ‘chitlin circuit’ groove Jazz of the sort that Brother Jack, Joey ‘D’, Pat Martino, Wes and Grant Green created. My friend Michel Benebig is a B3 master in this field and he can groove you to the depths of your soul. That music will roll you out of bed and have you dancing like a fool before you gain your sea legs.
There is however another type of B3 sound and that reaches for new horizons. Jamie Saft (Zorn’s Dreamers), Tom Watson (Manu Katche’s new album) and Dr Lonnie Smith (Jungle Soul album), come to mind. The music still has a deep groove but there are no locked in drums and this subtle loosening up of the vibe makes space for a particular type of guitar work and gives a horn some room for exploration. This is a sound that absorbs influences from a diverse Jazz palette while still retaining a solid groove context. The Paul Van Ross Trio (and quartet) are of this latter kind. Their music draws on a wide spectrum of post and pre millennial Jazz; not just tugging at the heart and feet, but engaging the intellect as well.
Paul Van Ross is an exciting tenor player and I can’t help wondering if he studied under George Garzone. There is something different about tenor players who have studied under Garzone and Paul fits that bill. His rapid fire lines and fluidity never obscure the musical ideas that flow from his horn. On ballads he could wring a tear from a walnut and when playing uptempo he navigates the terrain with ease. His compositions are engaging.
The CJC launch gig employed a smaller lineup than on the album. Organist Alan Brown subbed for Kim Kelaart on the New Zealand leg of the tour and he needs no introduction to New Zealand audiences. Alan is another musician who takes the groove genre to new and exciting places. His keyboard skills are legendary. Choosing him was a sensible choice and while his style is a little different to Kelaart’s, it afforded Ross and Lockett opportunities to stretch out in different ways. Mark Lockett is a delight as he imparts humour into everything he does. His drumming is quirky in the best possible way and he is the drummer of choice for many bands. Like Paul Van Ross and Alan Brown he has also recorded as leader.
The first track on the album is the title track ‘The Buck Stops Here”. It was the first number up on the night (all of the material has been written by Ross). On this track in particular Lockett’s contribution was noteworthy. A solid New Orleans beat is laid down while edgy post-bop lines blow over that; the organ under Alan’s hands comps insistently in the background and this gave the tune a great feel. I saw a ‘second line’ parade in San Francisco a few months ago and this particular drum beat tells that kind of story. A story about a beat that bounced between the Americas and Africa until it became pure voodoo. I like everything on this album and so choosing video clips was hard. In the end I have opted for ‘The Buck Stops Here’ (filmed by Jenny Sol). Other standout tunes from the album are ‘Swami in the House’ and the beautiful ballad “Uncle DJ’. A number performed on the night but which is not on the album is ‘Break a Tune’ (filmed by John Fenton)
I must also mention the guitarist Hugh Stuckey who knows when to shine and when to merge into the mix. His lines are clean and impressive, with an approach to melody that is modern. This is the direction that Rosenwinkel and Moreno mapped out and it sits well with this lineup. A guest guitarist Craig Fermanis appears on track one only.
I suspect that Blue Train has a following way beyond the traditional Jazz audiences and I can understand why. Their hard-driving funk laden grooves are impossible to resist and so people tend to flock to any Blue Train gig. Their audience occupies a broad age spectrum. Blue Train mostly plays music that you can dance to and just occasionally the set list includes some Jazz space funk. I’m a huge fan of this type of tripped out Jazz fusion, so if you like this sub-genre then find yourself some Blue Train recordings. There is of course much more to Blue Train than Funk Fusion and their Jazz chops show in everything that they do. Only highly competent Jazz musicians can play like this and only talented experienced musicians can write the material Alan does. This band is an Auckland cultural institution, they are jaw droppingly good and that’s why people love them. The Blue Train gigs are rare these days, as the band members all have other projects on the go. Any whisper of gigs should put an urgent blip across your radar. Tip: they will be at the Waiheke Jazz Festival this year – be there.
The CJC (Creative Jazz Club) filled to capacity on the night and they soon stood three deep at the bar. Blue Train was here again – the word had travelled.
Post millennium Jazz is a broad church and the younger audiences (and a few older ones like me) find this exciting. Blue Train has been around for more than 20 years and in spite of a few attempts to pension the band off, the fans just wont let it die. As a part of New Zealand’s improvised music heritage it deserves our ongoing support and respect. Don’t for a minute expect a mere cover band recycling the glory days. Blue Train are wisely resistant of resting on their laurels and after the ‘head’ of a tune they unravel the material in new and interesting ways. They play older material and new. Alan Brown’s compositions just keep on coming and they get better and better. He is a seasoned performer and his keyboard skills will always astound. As you listen you will hear new ideas being tried and old ideas being turned on their head. He is widely acknowledged as a great keyboardist but his piano skills are also considerable. This was very evident on the 6th of March 2013.
It was obvious that the band were thoroughly enjoying themselves and they stretched out as the tunes unfolded. The CJC gig edged closer to its Jazz roots than would have been the case at Deschlers in the 90’s. Those in the line up were mostly veteran band members, but there were some newer additions. Dixon Nacey on guitar has played with Alan for years and he has previously appeared in Blue Train line ups. He does not however go back as far as Jason Orme (drums) or Steve Sherriff (tenor and soprano saxophones). The newer band member is Karika Turua (electric bass).
Having Dixon Nacey in any band is always a treat and I always watch as his eyes fix on the other musicians – exhorting them to challenge him. He listens carefully to what is unfolding and is always ready to back someone up or to step out with new ideas. This is invariably done with a mile-wide grin and the looks of delight when he and Alan lock into an exchange is priceless. As on his three previous gigs, he had his gorgeous Godin Guitar with him and once again I will confirm that this is a match made in heaven.
Many of the Blue Train musicians have contributed compositions over time and Steve Sherriff deserves special mention there. He is well rounded horn player who can fit seamlessly into many situations (big band, straight ahead Jazz or funk). His tenor and soprano work were especially captivating on this gig and when he and Dixon played unison lines it was hard to believe that there was not an additional horn in the line up. Before the gig I ran into my niece and told her that it was nice to see her in the club. She then told me that a former teacher of hers was in the band. Who’s that I asked. “Mr Sherriff” she said. When I saw her later she summed up her impression “Wow who knew he played like that”. He does.
Jason Orme worked the grooves with finesse and enthusiasm and he knew how to play to the room. The same applies to Karika Turua who dug into serious grooves that echoed in your mind for days afterwards.
The sound levels were just right for the club and this is where the bands experience played a part . Some younger (and a few older musicians) forget to adjust their volume to the room and the CJC is lively; especially if the drums and bass are overly loud. Being professionals – Alan and Ben McNicoll (CJC sound and IT) got the job done properly.
What and Who: ‘Blue Train’ – Alan Brown (keys), Steve Sherriff (saxes), Dixon Nacey (guitar), Karika Turua (electric bass), Jason Orme (drums).
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 bookedtwo 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)
Animal lovers, children and Jazzers alike were delighted to learn that the ‘Dr Dog’ Jazz quartet would be performing in the Creative Jazz Club (CJC). This was somewhat of a dream band as it featured ‘I cani popolari‘ from the halls of academia; Roger Manins (tenor), Kevin Field (piano, Rhodes), Oli Holland (Bass) and Ron Samsom (drums).
The band having no clear leaders could follow their noses, but in spite of that they worked as one throughout the evening. In Jazz-dog years they represented around 317.4 years of experience and so their ability to act in a disciplined manner was hardly surprising. They took their lead from each other.
Roger had managed to sniff out the microphone first and so the job of introducing the band members and the numbers fell to him. An endless stream of puns and dog stories followed and at one point some frank observations on the variability of dog intelligence risked causing serious offense to Afghan owners. As none appeared to be present the crises was averted and the dog related compositions flowed in happy succession.
If anyone thought this to be a frivolous exercise, they should be disabused of that notion. This was a band which had ‘chops’ (OK I had to put that in), the ability to delight a crowd and a string of intelligent compositions to shine over.
It is expected that the canine metaphors and jokes will continue to dog this band for some years; peaking around 2014 before eventually subsiding. As a departure from the normal CD prize there was a meat raffle. A cat named Jason took that prize.
The music that we heard was so good that a few of us are going to lay a trail of sausages; leading from the Auckland University School of Music Jazz Programme to the nearest recording studio (Yorkie Street studios or Ratter Records).
In researching this Canine Jazz phenomena I recalled another dog band which had performed at the CJC . Guitarist Neil Watson’s ‘Zen Dogs’ performed at the club about a year ago. When I ran into Neil months later I asked him if ‘Zen Dogs’ would be performing again soon. He answered in that enigmatic way of all Zen masters. “Oh that was a concept band”. “But will they be performing again”, I asked?. “No the band was literally a concept – not an actual band”. Confused and pondering the meaning of this Koan, I could not help wondering. Had I imagined the entire gig?
‘Dr Dog’ on the other hand is a band grounded in realty. A cartoon dog band entirely relevant to our times.
Footnotes: I have used sepia photographs to show respect, as they add a certain gravitas befitting the age and experience of the band. All photos are mine including ‘Dr Dog’ who was caught in Chelsea London and subjected to Photoshop without his permission. You will be pleased to learn that I managed to avoid using the following: barking up the wrong tree, woofers and Roger was a wag.